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Cosmic Log: Nov. 12-18, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Use those 3-D glasses to explore Mars.  Plus: Lord of the Einstein rings, Deja vu spaceship, kids make space contact, Newton renewed, and more.

Nov. 18, 2005 |
3-D delights: NBC is taking one small step for TV technology on Monday by airing a 3-D episode of the spooky series "Medium," in HDTV even. The red-blue glasses required to get the full three-dimensional effect are being distributed in TV Guide as well as through other outlets. (For the record, NBC is a partner in the MSNBC joint venture.)

But once the show is over, what can you do with those geeky cardboard glasses? Quite a bit, actually.

The same technology that gave '50s-era moviegoers headaches is being used by mission managers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to add the third dimension to their stereo images of Mars. If you like Red Planet imagery in color, you'll go ga-ga over the rovers' red-blue 3-D versions of Mars landscapes and close-ups.

You can find still more 3-D views from the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter at Malin Space Science System's Web site, including a red-blue look at a piece of the "Face on Mars." Even the Mars Pathfinder mission provided some 3-D treats back in 1997.

Mars isn't the only interplanetary 3-D target. Just do a search on "NASA" and "anaglyph" (the technical name for these two-in-one 3-D views) and you'll find a bunch, including pictures of Comet Wild 2, the Saturnian moon Hyperion, the surface of Enceladus, and lunar samples from the Apollo era. Speaking of Apollo, astronomer Jim Scotti has put together some additional 3-D views of the moon's surface.

Check out this archived log item, and this addendum, for more about red-blue glasses and where to find them. And if you want to sample a 3-D effect that doesn't rely on the funny-looking spectacles, have a look at "Jiggyvision." But don't look too long: It just might induce motion sickness.

Nov. 18, 2005 |
Second thoughts on Newton: Readers on both sides of the intelligent-design debate drew the connection between the current science/religion split and the two sides of physicist Isaac Newton's career, as outlined in Monday's log item and presented in greater detail during this week's public-TV documentary on "Newton's Dark Secrets." Here's a selection of the e-mail feedback:

Richard D. Trifan, Ringwood, N.J.: "Newton was able to have his beliefs (in God, and in good science) co-exist because even if we believe in a Creator (which I do not) any healthy, self-respecting view of a God should still allow human beings to use their minds to explore and determine how the universe evolved and sustains itself. Forces like gravity, nuclear fusion in stars, and relativity can explain the universe without necessarily explaining the origin of it.  Stephen Hawking is also a supporter of calling the 'pre-universe' condition by the name of God, if this allows the believers in our society to apply and accept the proven science to explain all that has occurred since the Big Bang."Likewise, Newton had just this healthy, self-respecting type of view of what a God would expect or want us to do with our lives. Since he saw no conflict with analyzing the evolving of the universe, the galaxies, the stars, planets and life on them, and positing the existence of a God who would presumably have set this entire process in motion at the start, he opened the 'thinking door' for all believers after him — or should I say, he 'should have' opened this doorway in the minds of believers today.  Were today’s believers as open-minded as Newton about their beliefs, they could, in a co-existing fashion, encourage the teaching of the evolution of life (and making appropriate analogies to the evolution of a galaxy, and the star systems) without offending or jolting the believers' pre-existing belief in an original Creator of the universe (and the comfort that this belief brings). Newton’s example absolutely can teach the Kansas Board of Education a tremendous amount about thought processes!  Pity that they are not listening."Mike Angove, Fairfax, Va.: "I know you don’t want to hear it ... but methodological naturalism is religion. And this religion is how the Eugenie Scotts of the world demand science be done. So yes ... the lesson is, let's not limit our thinking by religious dogma! Agreed!"Rodger Rast, Sacramento, Calif.: "Unfortunately, it is the evolution theorists that are not following good science anymore. They don't like the conclusions that research points to. Intelligent design is clearly indicated by the data. Unfortunately, there are too numerous young-earth creationists who are not scientifically minded and have arcane unsupportable views of a young earth and, often, [a young] universe. The testable creation model by Hugh Ross at Reasons to Believe has it right. Please check it out. I was once an atheist and had never revisited certain long-held beliefs in view of the newer science discoveries — but the only conclusion that fits the data is that a Creator intelligently crafted much of what we see, using natural processes when practical. ..."Gary, Murfreesboro, Tenn.: "I've always felt that the end goal of science was to explain God's creation - not explain God of the equation. ... To find out that Sir Isaac Newton felt the same way is just completely awesome."

Nov. 18, 2005 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
SpaceRef: NASA provides early look at future spaceship

The Economist: Egalitarian search engines

Nov. 17, 2005 |
Lord of the Einstein rings: In one fell swoop, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have added eight new optical "Einstein rings" to our cosmic menagerie.

Einstein rings, which manifest themselves as faint circles of light around giant galaxies, serve as a beautiful illustration of general relativity at work. That's why they're named after the physicist who came up with the theory in the first place.


The rings serve as a special case of "gravitational lensing," in which light from a faraway galaxy is bent around a foreground galaxy, just as a convex lens bends rays of light as they pass through. The result is that the galaxy takes on a distorted, arclike shape, seemingly curling around the foreground galaxy. If the faraway galaxy is lined up just right, the light is bent into a bull's-eye pattern going all the way around the foreground galaxy. That's an Einstein ring.

The first Einstein ring was spotted in radio wavelengths back in 1987, more than 50 years after Albert Einstein predicted that they should be found. For a classic example, plus a graphic that illustrates why the ring looks the way it does, check out this announcement about the discovery of an infrared Einstein ring in 1998. Our "Putting Einstein to the Test" interactive also explains how gravitational lensing works.

Today's announcement from NASA and the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute lays out eight rings that were identified through a project known as the Sloan Lens Survey. The institute says only three such rings had previously been seen in visible light.

The Sloan Lens Survey team scanned data from 200,000 galaxies, 2 billion to 4 billion light-years from Earth, looking for the telltale spectral signs that one galaxy was right in front of another one. Then the astronomers picked 28 candidates to get a closer look from Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys. Nineteen of those galaxies exhibited signs of gravitational lensing, including the eight rings — which makes Hubble the new "lord of the Einstein rings."

The results represent a significant scientific payoff, said Adam Bolton of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, one of the team leaders. "We've succeeded in identifying the one out of every 1,000 galaxies that show these signs of gravitational lensing of another galaxy," he said in a news release.

Close study of the rings and arcs helped the team measure the precise mass of the foreground galaxies. By checking galaxies at different distances, which reflect different time periods, they just might be able to shed more light on dark matter — the mysterious stuff that can be detected only by its gravitational interaction.

"Being able to study these and other gravitational lenses as far back in time as several billion years allows us to see directly whether the distribution of invisible and visible mass changes with cosmic time," another leader of the research team, Leon Koopmans of the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute in the Netherlands, said in a NASA news release.

The initial findings of the survey are to appear in the February 2006 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Nov. 17, 2005 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
New Scientist: Gaming fanatics show hallmarks of drug abuse

Wired: Making the Red Planet green

Nov. 16, 2005 |
Déjà vu spaceship: The latest concept for the commercial space race actually goes back to a 15-year-old spacecraft design that was proposed by NASA but rejected by Congress.

NASA's HL-20 mini-shuttle serves as the inspiration for the new incarnation of California-based SpaceDev's Dream Chaser, a spaceship that could conceivably send paying passengers on suborbital trips — or even orbital odysseys. The company's founder, Jim Benson, hinted at the retooled design during an interview back in August, and today's news release revealed what he had in mind.


The HL-20 emerged from SpaceDev's work with NASA's Ames Research Center to analyze designs for future spaceships. Benson and his team found that the HL-20's outer mold line seemed to work much better than alternate designs.

"Once we fabricate that, we believe we can be flying four passengers suborbitally in less than two years, for less than $20 million," Benson told me.

The suborbital version of the craft would have a SpaceShipOne-style hybrid rocket engine in the back — a configuration with which Benson is familiar, since his company helped develop the engines for SpaceShipOne itself. The development of SpaceShipOne, directed by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites with backing from software billionaire Paul Allen, required three years and upwards of $25 million.

Looking even further ahead, Benson said the orbital version of the Dream Chaser could send six people to orbit, using a four-stage booster system. Those boosters would be scaled-up versions of the vehicles created by American Rocket Co., which was acquired by SpaceDev in 1998.

Back in the 1980s, the HL-20 project was proposed as a way to send astronauts back and forth between Earth and the space station. But according to Encyclopedia Astronautica, Congress killed the "luxury" project in 1990 because of its $2 billion price tag.

This time around, Benson insists that the job can be done incrementally for less, with a smaller, lighter craft that preserves the HL-20 mold line. Nevertheless, money is still a stumbling block. SpaceDev says it can't proceed with the project until it attracts adequate funding, "sources for which have not yet been identified."

Benson hopes that the Dream Chaser will be a winner, not only for the suborbital tourist trade but also for the station resupply services that NASA hopes to purchase from a growing commercial space market. And that's just the first step. This week Benson is heading to Hawaii to announce the results of SpaceDev's study into the requirements for a human servicing mission to the moon. Now that's a real dream-chaser. ...

Nov. 16, 2005 |
Kids make space contact: How do you become an astronaut? How do you stay in touch from space? And what happens when you lose your stuff on the international space station? These are the kinds of wonderings that kids have about life in space, and station commander Bill McArthur provided the answers today during an amateur-radio chat. aired an online simulcast of today's chat between McArthur and students from Hermann Middle School in Hermann, Mo. Click here to listen to highlights from the audio Q&A, or watch the video displayed below.

McArthur told the kids that he didn't always have his heart set on being a spaceman: "I wanted to join the Army when I was in elementary school," he recalled. He started applying to become an astronaut "as a young captain in the Army," McArthur said.

Fortunately, McArthur did well in math and science during his school years — and astronauts uniformly say those are the courses to take if you want to go to outer space. "As you can imagine, they've been very helpful, because being in space is all about math, science and engineering," McArthur said.

One of the students asked whether McArthur, who has done three spacewalks, ever lost any tools in space.

"I haven't lost any tools outside," McArthur answered. "But I have lost things inside the spaceship, because it's so big, and things float away. And so when they're lost inside, I just wait and always keep an eye out, and eventually I have found almost everything."

McArthur said he's had plenty of opportunities to communicate with his family, through weekly computer-based teleconferences as well as daily space-to-Earth telephone calls. Then there's the space station's amateur-radio system itself.

Ham radio serves as an additional unofficial channel for astronauts to communicate with family members and friends — as well as ham-radio enthusiasts hoping to add "NA1SS" to their list of contacts. Today's 10-minute chat was presented by NASA and a volunteer group called Amateur Radio on the International Space Station, or ARISS, which specializes in school-to-orbit contacts.

Over the past five years, has aired the occasional audio chat from the station. For an example, listen to this audio clip in which astronaut Frank Culbertson talks with Manhattan schoolchildren about the 9/11 terror attacks. This time was different, in that we streamed live video from the school as well.

These school chats are volunteer efforts for most of the people involved, and it took a while for the kids to make contact with McArthur. Some of the kids didn't get a chance to ask their questions before McArthur's voice faded back into the static. Nevertheless, it's a tribute to the volunteers that the contact came off as well as it did — and in the end, cheers went up from the classroom.

Next month, amateur-radio fans will have plenty more to cheer about, when the radio-equipped SuitSat is deployed during a spacewalk. Check out September's log item about SuitSat and the station's new slow-scan television system, and don't miss this article about the SuitSat project from ARISS International Chairman Frank Bauer.

Nov. 15, 2005 |
Design Down Under: To American eyes, Kansas and Pennsylvania are the hot spots for the controversy over teaching evolution, but a similar debate is whirling thousands of miles away, in Australia. A representative of the Campus Crusade for Christ tells The Sydney Morning Herald that copies of an intelligent-design DVD titled "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" will be sent to 3,000 public and private schools — a move that some have criticized as a religious marketing ploy. The situation Down Under is even more complicated than it is here in the States because religious schools traditionally receive government funding. It's all making for quite a political football — Australian-rules football, that is.

Nov. 15, 2005 |
Science's makeover: The online home of the journal Science has been redesigned to make more cool stuff more easily available. The redesign extends to an assortment of offerings from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is the publisher of Science as well as a content partner for A daily roundup of science news is now freely available. You can also get to the abstracts of Science articles more easily. And there's an upgraded ScienceCareers site for networkers, employers, job-seekers and students. Check out today's news release for the details behind Science's online makeover.

Nov. 15, 2005 |
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
New Scientist: Polarized light may reveal hidden exoplanets

The Onion: Animal Planet's latest reality-TV show

Nov. 14, 2005 |
Newton renewed: Even the best scientists can believe weird, unorthodox things. For an example, you don't need to go any further than Sir Isaac Newton, who was one of the world's most brilliant scientists as well as an alchemist and closet heretic who believed the world would end in the year 2060.

Both sides of Newton's life are explored in "Newton's Dark Secrets," a docudrama premiering on PBS' "Nova" series on Tuesday. The title may make it sound as if the show is about some sort of "Da Vinci Code" conspiracy — and admittedly, there's something to that. Newton believed that he was privy to secret insights, and he put great stock in arcane scriptural references and anagrams. (One of his favorite Latin anagrams for "Isaacvs Nevtonvs" was "Ieova Sanctvs Vnvs," or "Jehovah's holy one.")

But "Newton's Dark Secrets" is really about how Newton (1642-1727) was able to create the foundations of modern physics in spite of his weird ideas, or even because of those ideas.

"I think that his early optical theories owed a debt to alchemy," said Bill Newman, an Indiana University professor who has spent years studying Newton's alchemical roots.

Alchemy is often thought of as a pseudoscientific quest to turn base metals into gold, or to do other virtually impossible things. But in the 17th century, alchemists were the closest thing to a modern-day chemist. They learned how to break substances down into their constituents, then synthesize those constituents into novel materials. Newman tried to re-create Newton's alchemical experiments, and "despite the negative image of alchemists as being incompetent in the laboratory, most of the experiments we tried worked."

Newman said it's clear that Newton adapted alchemy to his investigations into the nature of light. Just as Newton broke down and built up compounds in his alchemical experiments, he used prisms to separate sunlight into a rainbow spectrum, then recombine those colors to form white light again. "These experiments are recorded side by side in his laboratory notebooks," Newman said.

With the support of other scholars, Newman has put together a Web site titled "The Chymistry of Isaac Newton" that goes into the alchemical connection in much more depth, and he also expands upon the subject in a Q&A on the "Nova" site.

Newton also held strong and unorthodox views about religion — in fact, his anti-trinitarian, crypto-Arian beliefs could have gotten him fired, if not jailed. But he was generally able to separate his scientific theorizing from his religious speculations, Newman said.

It's instructive to note that on at least one occasion when Newton mixed religion and science, he turned out to be dead wrong, at least from the perspective of modern quantum physics. In Query 31 of "Opticks," he wrote:

"All these things being consider'd, it seems probable to me, that God in the Beginning form'd Matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable Particles, of such Sizes and Figures, and with such other Properties, and in such Proportion to Space, as most conduced to the End for which he form'd them; and that these primitive Particles being Solids, are incomparably harder than any porous Bodies compounded of them; even so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary Power being able to divide what God himself made one in the first Creation."

Nowadays, the mainstream view is that matter is made of fuzzy stuff or strings that are by no means "solid, massy, hard, impenetrable." But even in the case cited above, Newman said that the phrase "it seems probable to me" signaled that Newton knew he wasn't on solid scientific ground.

"The entire content of the 'Queries' is usually taken to express Newton's personal point of view, but a point of view that he realized could in no way be taken as a point in fact," Newman said.

You don't need to subscribe to Newton's religious beliefs to appreciate his greatest achievements — his pioneering work on calculus, his discoveries in optics and his groundbreaking theory of gravitation. But at the same time, "Newton's Dark Secrets" demonstrates that you can't understand Newton's scientific career without considering his religious side as well.

"Ironically, that's very anti-Newtonian, because Newton argued that God had to be present," Newton biographer Gale Christianson says during the show. "You couldn't read him out of the universe."

A guy with strong religious beliefs ... who didn't let religion determine how the science was done? Are there any lessons there that could be applied to the debate over evolutionary biology and intelligent design? Feel free to let me know what you think.

Nov. 14, 2005 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Science News: That's the way the spaghetti crumbles

National Geographic: Humans settled India before Europe

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