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Cosmic Log: Jan. 14-20, 2006

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: How a linguist reconstructed a language for "The New World." Plus: Rocket home on the range ... Powered by methane ... Do astronauts and alcohol mix? ... Testing the space hotel ... Rocketplane's pacts ... Pluto's lighter side.
Kalani Queypo portrays Parahunt in "The New World," a movie based on the saga surrounding Pocahontas, Powhatan and Captain John Smith. The native language spoken by the actors was reconstructed by linguist Blair Rudes, based on studies of Algonquian languages.
Kalani Queypo portrays Parahunt in "The New World," a movie based on the saga surrounding Pocahontas, Powhatan and Captain John Smith. The native language spoken by the actors was reconstructed by linguist Blair Rudes, based on studies of Algonquian languages.New Line Cinema

Jan. 21, 2006 |
Found in translation: What would Pocahontas say? That's what was on writer/director Terence Malick's mind when he started to film "The New World," his cinematic retelling of the saga surrounding Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.

Malick thought he could just find some contemporary speakers of the language that was used by Pocahontas and her tribe in pre-colonial Virginia — and he was somewhat surprised to find out that the language had been extinct for more than 200 years.

A less rigorous director might have given up, but Malick instead turned to Blair Rudes, a linguist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who specializes in past and present American Indian languages. Rudes' work to reconstruct and revitalize the Virginia Algonquian language might itself make for a good movie — or at least a History Channel documentary.

It's a rare success story in the linguistic game: Many of the more than 800 languages that were spoken in North America when the Europeans arrived have gone extinct, including all but a handful of the 15 or so East Coast Algonquian dialects.

Rudes started the job in the summer of 2004, after receiving the scripts for two scenes where Malick wanted to use Virginia Algonquian. First, the linguist had to reconceptualize the dialogue in American Indian terms. For example, a member of Powhatan's tribe wouldn't think of the Jamestown settlers as coming from a "land to the east" — since for all they knew, there was only water to the east. So a reference to England was rephrased as the "island on the other side of the water."

Then Rudes had to figure out how the dialogue would be spoken in Virginia Algonquian. The only surviving vocabulary is a list of about 50 words set down by Smith himself, plus a 600-word list set down in 1612 by William Strachey, a secretary for the Jamestown colony. "Neither of them was a linguist or particularly skilled in transcribing foreign languages," Rudes said.

What's more, 600 words or so fell far short of the thousands needed to do justice to the "New World" dialogue. So Rudes assessed every word in the light of better-documented Algonquian languages, including the ancestral Proto-Algonquian that linguists have reconstructed through cross-language comparisons.

Rudes also had to reconstruct the grammar, based on what he knew about Algonquian languages in general. "The sentence structure and word structure differs from English in that it's a much more inflectional language," he said. The language has some similarities to Russian, in that there is no form of the verb "to be," and no articles such as "the" or "a."

When he finished his translation, Rudes spoke the dialogue in his reconstructed Virginia Algonquian, recording it on compact disks so that the actors could learn their lines in a language no one alive ever heard before. Click on the audio link below to listen to a sample clip, or click here for a text transcript.

Once the CDs were recorded, Rudes thought the hardest part of the job was finished — but it had really just begun.

Malick liked Rudes' translations of the two scenes so much that he decided to have all the native dialogue spoken in Virginia Algonquian with English subtitles. "It went from two scenes to somewhere around 48 or 50 scenes at that point," Rudes recalled.

So Rudes had to slave away on more translations for nearly a month in a hotel room in Williamsburg, Va., where Malick was filming. And that's not all. Malick encouraged the actors to improvise while they were on location.

"Ideas would come to Terrence Malick on the spur of the moment, and sometimes that meant changing the dialogue," Rudes said. "I was on the set all the time that scenes were filmed in which the native actors were present, in case there was a change in dialogue."

Rudes and the filmmakers agreed that if his spur-of-the-moment translation turned out to be slightly off, there would be a chance to correct the dialogue later during the editing process. So for two days last September, Rudes went to Hollywood to work with the actors during their voiceover sessions. "Surprisingly little" of the language needed to be changed, Rudes said.

Rudes said the Indians he got to know during the filming "were very pleased with my work," and the descendants of Pocahontas' people will soon be getting a bonus. "When the DVD for the film is released, all of the CDs and scripts that I prepared on the language are being turned over to the tribes," he said.

In addition, Rudes is working with Old Dominion University's Helen Rountree, one of the country's top experts on the Virginia tribes, to help develop a dictionary of Virginia Algonquian. He's also working on other language restoration projects with North Carolina's Catawba tribe and Connecticut's Pequot tribe.

Looking back, Rudes said that if it weren't for Malick's desire to hear Pocahontas' authentic words, it would have been much harder to bring Virginian Algonquian back from the dead.

"It might have been done anyway, but it would have taken much, much longer," Rudes said. "This type of work is very time-consuming and expensive. ... There are so many other projects, I probably wouldn't have turned to this one."

Jan. 20, 2006 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Secrets of Lost Empires'WSJ: Scientists share data to develop drug Houses woven out of trees proposed
Nature: Drinking au naturel

Jan. 19, 2006 |
Rocket home on the range: The Rocket Racing League is following up on its plans for NASCAR-style rocketplane runoffs in New Mexico by putting its "world headquarters" in Las Cruces, N.M. — the same place where a prototype for its X-Racers was demonstrated last October.

The announcement was made today in Santa Fe, with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson saying the league's operations could bring as many as 200 more jobs to the state over the next two years. Richardson hopes that New Mexico's rising rocket operations — ranging from the league's racing finals to the X Prize Cup and Virgin Galactic's future spaceport — will eventually generate thousands more jobs.

"As the future home of Rocket Racing League, we look forward to welcoming the hundreds of thousands of people who will come to New Mexico to enjoy NASCAR in the sky," Richardson said in a news release (PDF file).

The next few months will be key for the league, which unveiled its plans just a few months ago. Now that the EZ-Rocket prototype demonstrated last year is in retirement, the league's first true "X-Racer" planes are under development. So is the league's financial model, which relies on sponsorships, spectators and TV deals.

"Now that we're headquartered here, you may see some announcements in the months to come," Granger Whitelaw, the league's chief executive officer, told me by phone after the Santa Fe news conference.

He said the first X-Racer is "in heavy fitting and engine testing phase" right now. Another news conference, related to the general subject of league expansion, is scheduled for Jan. 30 in New York, Whitelaw said. "I think you'll see the media-related [announcements] at the end of the spring," he added.

All this is building up to October, when the league is planning to present demonstration rocketplane flights in Las Cruces. A multi-city series of competitions is to begin in earnest in 2007. Once the league is in full swing, the finals are to be conducted at New Mexico's Southwest Regional Spaceport in conjunction with the X Prize Cup.

The next few months will be key for New Mexico's space vision as well: Richardson and his aides hope to get federal approval this year for the yet-to-be-built spaceport, and they also have to persuade state lawmakers as well as federal and local officials to put up the $225 million required for construction. Even within the New Mexico Legislature, some folks aren't convinced that's the best way to spend the state's surplus.

Rick Homans, secretary of New Mexico's Economic Development Department, told me that the process of building support for the spaceport was "going as we expected," and he put a positive spin on this week's meeting with legislators.

"It was a very free-flowing and wide-ranging exchange, with lots of good questions that I think we were able to answer to the satisfaction of the legislators," Homans said. He said state officials were talking to "lots of different companies now" about setting up spaceflight operations in southern New Mexico.

"This is what a new industry looks like," Homans said. "It's full of entrepreneurs and innovators with new ideas, new technologies, new companies. ... We're getting in on the ground floor of this industry, and that's exactly what we wanted to accomplish."

As part of the deal bringing the league to the area, the city of Las Cruces will be donating 10 acres of land for a 50,000-square-foot headquarters building, and will reserve 10 hangar sites at the city's airport for rocket racing teams. Whitelaw, who has backed Indy 500 auto racing teams in the past, said the airport would furnish a taxiway as well as "our own gasoline alley, paddock area and pit area" for the rocket planes.

Today's news release cites independent studies estimating that the league could stimulate $15 million to $30 million in spending in New Mexico over the next four years, with the league itself paying out $9 million to $18 million for personnel, leases, services and local purchases.

But it's not just about the money, Whitelaw said.

"This partnership will not only serve as a launch pad for economic growth," he said in the news release, "but for a future where children are drawn to science by the roar of rocket planes."

Jan. 19, 2006 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web: Vote-PAD rocks the disabled voteThe Intersection: Of hype and adult stem cell researchBiblical Archaeology Review: Did I find King David's palace?
Slate: 'Tissue Rejection 101'

Jan. 18, 2006 |
Powered by methane: As a potent greenhouse gas, methane has been getting a bad rap — especially with the recent news that methane generated by plants may be a significant factor in global warming. But as a potential rocket fuel, methane's stock has been going up — because of its efficiency, portability, storability and relatively low toxicity, and also because it could conceivably be manufactured on Mars.

In its vision for space exploration, NASA has touted a liquid oxygen/methane combination as the best system for future spacecraft engines. The space agency refers to the methane concept liberally in its Exploration Systems Architecture Study, and has said it should be taken into account for the Crew Exploration Vehicle that will one day take the place of the space shuttle fleet.

Lately, there's been some concern that NASA is backing away from the methane idea — perhaps because the technology wouldn't be as handy for lunar trips as it would be on Mars, or perhaps because the space agency is having to hurry up its plans to replace the shuttles. Last week, NASA Watch's Keith Cowing called the retreat "one more step backward from Mars."

Could a methane-powered rocket engine really be ready in time for the next generation of spaceships? At least one company, California-based XCOR Aerospace, has been working for a long time on a liquid oxygen/methane engine suitable for space applications, under a contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory. For that reason, XCOR doesn't want to see methane lose momentum.

To keep hope alive, XCOR is announcing that it's successfully tested a methane engine that fires short, rapid bursts — and has released a video to prove it. The quick on-and-off control is key to developing a thruster system for space maneuvers, XCOR President Jeff Greason said in the news release.

"This test demonstrates the rapid stop and restart pulse mode and minimum impulse bit that are required for reaction control system applications," he said. "This system has potential for a variety of space applications."

The four-pulse test shown in the video took place at XCOR's Mojave facility last November, using self-pressurizing propellants. XCOR says pressure-fed and pump-fed versions of the engine are currently in development.

The subject may seem rather geeky, but in general, space propulsion technology is a hot topic nowadays — not only because of the debate over methane but also because of recent advances in ion engines, the rescheduled maiden launch of SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket on Feb. 8, and even this month's back-and-forth over a potential hyperspace drive.

Over the next month, still more private-sector space proposals are due to be submitted to NASA, as part of a program called the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems demonstration. If you've been following the interplay between the space agency and the new breed of space entrepreneurs, I'd love to get your perspective on the future final frontier.

Jan. 18, 2006 |
To drink or not to drink: Should astronauts drink alcohol in space? As we mentioned Tuesday, some Russian space officials think half a shot of cognac wouldn't be so bad once in a while, but NASA considers it a strict no-no. The feedback from Cosmic Log correspondents was, um, mixed. Here's a selection from the mailbox:

Kate: "For Pete’s sake, are they not adults and professionals? Why does not NASA trust their ‘children’ to act like adults? Of course I think a little would go a long way toward making the isolation and dangerous work of being a resident worker in space a bit easier. But then, that's only one American’s opinion."Steve: "Yet another reason we need private companies in space, not these nervous Puritans." Ron Matuczak: "Half a shot? Unless zero gravity somehow increases the effect of alcohol, I can't imagine that amount of alcohol impacting health or judgment to any measurable degree. It would be little more than the sip of wine Catholics take at Mass. If they find it comforting to engage in a familiar ritual, I say let them."John Abrahams: "Maybe it's not a big deal and wouldn't cause trouble, but I'd say every potential problem eliminated contributes to the success of a mission. It's just not necessary to bring alcohol — except as an industrial solvent."Howard, Ste. Genevieve, Mo.: "I see it as a recipe for disaster."Charles Phelps: "I thought space-nauts were highly trained to handle stress. What can alcohol add?"Dustin Gentis, West Lafayette, Ind.: "I don't think there is anything wrong with a few drinks in space, as long as you're not doing any science experiment, flying or re-entry at the time. I'm sure they get 'free time' up there, so let them get free. If you're hundreds of miles above your home, and going a quadzillion miles per hour around a planet, don't you think you would want a little relaxer? Come to think of it, maybe two? They want us to land on Mars someday, right? Well, there better be a few good bottles of everything for them when they do land. What do you think Columbus wanted to do first when he jumped off his ship?"Lou: "To quote Winston Churchill: There are two kinds of problem drinkers — those who drink too much and those who drink too little. I think the Russkies have it right."

Jan. 18, 2006 |
An extra shot of science on the Web:
New Scientist: Disgraced cloning pioneer could keep patents
Discover Magazine: The new planet machineDefense Tech: David and the inflatable GoliathUCSD: New evidence that evolution is a one-way street

Jan. 17, 2006 |
Do astronauts and alcohol mix? There's another round of news reports from Russia about the prospects for bringing alcoholic beverages aboard the international space station — with an article in London's Sunday Telegraph leading the way. This time, the head of the cosmonaut corps at Russia's space training center is quoted as saying he'd let station residents sip about half a shot of cognac to celebrate New Year's or the end of a spacewalk.

Cosmonauts gather to have some cognac on the Mir space station in 1997, hours after a flash fire nearly killed them. The picture was taken by NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger, who passed up the opportunity to imbibe.

Russian space officials are reportedly of the view that a little nip would help cosmonauts relax after a tough job — and could even "replenish one's strength." But champagne would remain a no-no, because the pressurized contents of a bottle could gum up the works in zero-gravity.

NASA, meanwhile, is sticking to its view that astronauts and alcohol should not mix. Reading between the lines, it appears that the Russians are giving an unofficial wink and a nod to an occasional drink, much as they did for operations on the long-gone Mir space station. Just don't expect to see NASA astronauts joining in the toasts.

In an e-mail, NBC News space analyst James Oberg said the Russians' reported stance "only endorses the unofficial practice in place for decades." As proof, he sent along a 1997 photo from Mir, accompanied by a drinking tale:

"As early as the mid-1980s, crews received treats on supply drones that included brandy-filled chocolates. The most famous 'space cognac' affair was in February 1997, aboard Mir, after a flash fire nearly killed the six crewmen (including American Jerry Linenger)."That evening, space doctors instructed the crew to get out the secret bottle of cognac and take medicinal doses. Linenger declined, but photographed the others. The interesting angle is that the men drank the cognac through a straw."NASA refused to release the photographs, but I filed FOIA on them and got the images. One of them appeared in my 2002 book, the book that's still banned from NASA bookstores. That image is attached."

Are NASA officials just being nervous Nellies? What do you see as the pros and cons for alcoholic beverages (or other indulgences) in space? Let me know, and I'll pass along a selection of the feedback.

Jan. 17, 2006|
Testing the space hotel: In an example of beating space swords into plowshares, the Russians are gearing up to launch the Genesis 1 inflatable spacecraft from the Dombarovsky strategic-missile base in Russia's Orenburg region, according to a report distributed last week by the Interfax Military News Agency.

Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis Pathfinder project is aimed at testing an inflatable habitat design based on NASA's TransHab project, and could lead the way to the creation of a commercial space module known as the Nautilus or the BA-330.

NBC News' James Oberg wrote about the Dombarovsky base — and the prospect that the Kosmotras rocket company would be using it for commercial launches — more than a year ago. Last week's report provides further hints that the base will play a role in the testing of technologies that could someday be used in Bigelow's orbital space hotels.

Some details still need to be filled in: Interfax Military reported that the Dombarovsky base would be preparing in March for launching the Genesis 1 on a converted SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile, but it did not spell out when the landmark launch would actually occur.

Jan. 17, 2006 |
Rocketplane’s pacts: Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Ltd., one of the front-runners in the suborbital space race, announces that it has finished up an agreement with Florida-based Incredible Adventures for marketing seats on future spacecraft. In addition, the company says it will be working with British tourism company Pure Vacations to offer suborbital trips under the brand name Pure Galactic.

Rocketplane says its representatives also presented a paper on their spacecraft design last week at a meeting sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. And as if all that's not enough, the company recently redesigned its Web site.

The Rocketplane/Incredible Adventures combination was cited as one of the three top suborbital space teams in Aviation Week's 2006 Aerospace Sourcebook, according to Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport News. The other two teams to watch are Scaled Composites plus Virgin Galactic; and XCOR Aerospace plus Space Adventures.

Jan. 17, 2006 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Custom-made microbes, at your service
The Guardian: Meetings are bad for you (via Slashdot) E-paper almost ready for prime timeScientific American: Get ready for inflatable airplanes

Jan. 17, 2006 |
The lighter side of Pluto: The anticipated launch of NASA's New Horizons mission puts tiny Pluto squarely in the scientific spotlight, as the "only unexplored planet" in the solar system. However, a lot of folks say Pluto doesn't really deserve to sit at the big table with the eight other major planets — especially since another iceball was discovered that appears to be even bigger than Pluto.

The Planetary Society played off the controversy with a "Top 10" contest for the pros and cons — and now the results are in. The winning entries definitely emphasize the lighter side. In a prelude to the listing, Bruce Betts, the Planetary Society's director of projects, said the judges gave more weight to tongue-in-cheek responses than seriously scientific reasons, "although some entrants managed to combine both."

For example, here's the top reason for keeping Pluto's status unchanged, from Jim B. of Pasadena, Calif.: "Eight is not enough." On the other side of the argument, Lyford R. of Ventura, Calif., punningly alluded to Pluto's unusually tilted orbit when he said it shouldn't be considered a planet because "it doesn't appear to be so inclined."

Well, that's what you have to expect when you're dealing with astrophysical humor.

One of the thought-provoking entries was Doug E.'s reason for leaving Pluto on the planet list: "If Pluto isn't a planet, then My Very Eager Mother Just Sewed Us New...What?  New what!" That's a reference to one of the many mnemonics used to keep the planetary lineup straight: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (the "Pajamas" in Doug E.'s mnemonic).

Will we have to fiddle with the phrases, as has been the case with the spectral classification system? Here's a suggestion for adding the so-called 10th planet, Xena, to the list — and for keeping the question of planethood as open-ended as it deserves: "My Very Easy Memory Jingle Seemed Useful Naming Planets, Except ..."

Of course, one of the discoverers of the object says "there is no chance whatsoever" that Xena will actually end up being the official name. So I guess it's back to the drawing board. Sigh ...

Here are a few of your own lighter-side comments on the Pluto question:

Blake Vackar: "Has anybody thought to ask Pluto what it wants? My idea would be to send a probe all the way out there to ask — it's only polite. If we humans do decide to demote little Pluto, then please e-mail and let me know. I want to be sure and buy stock in any company that has to reprint all of the thousands of maps, books, CD-ROMs and such that will now all be out of date."Jorge H. Ranson, Mahwah, N.J.: "Let's put together a whole lot of spaceship dump trucks full of dirt — whatever material that would be. Ship them off to Pluto; add the dirt to Pluto until becomes undeniably a planet of the right 'size.'"Austin, Lake Jackson, Texas: "I think we should keep it [as a planet] because it is cool. I like my planets like I like my women: small and far away, so I don’t have to see them every day."Gary Borkan, Aurora, Colo.: "It comes down to the name. Major planets are named after major gods. As long as Pluto is called Pluto, it should be referred to as a planet and cannot in good faith be 'demoted.' If we do demote it, we should change its name. In that case I think we should call it Garcia, as it would no longer be the God of the Dead, but just one of the founding members."

Jan. 16, 2006 |
Science and fiction on the World Wide Web:
Science News: Solar system at the fringe
The Independent: A long doomsday ahead? (via Slashdot)
PhysOrg: Offbeat science tales of 2005
The New Yorker: A battlestar is reborn

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