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Cosmic Log: And the robo-winner is...

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Which robotic TV star is the People's Choice? Plus: Inconstant constant ... Regolith rush ... "Idol" update ... Space station test fizzles ... Liftoff for space challenges ... Spaceport setback in California ... Watching for the Little Ones.
Jonathan Harris and Bill Mumy in <Lost in Space>
Robot B9 takes its lumps from Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) as Will Robinson (Bill Mumy) tries to restrain him, in a 1967 scene from "Lost in Space."Bettmann / Corbis file

April 21, 2006 |
And the robo-winner is ... the B9 robot from the '60s-era "Lost in Space" TV series! B9 garnered the most write-in votes in our informal "People's Choice" award, open to those robots left behind in the wake of this week's Robot Hall of Fame selections.

Carnegie Mellon University's Hall of Fame recognized five fictional and real-life robots, ranging from 1927's "Metropolis" Maria to the recently retired AIBO robo-dog. They joined other gear-driven greats such as C-3PO and R2-D2, Robby the Robot, ASIMO and the Pathfinder robot.

But there are always some crowd favorites who get left behind in these award ceremonies (isn't that true, Jim Carrey?), and that's why we opened up the People's Choice category for Cosmic Log readers.

It was a close vote: Lieutenant Commander Data from "Star Trek" came in just a few ballots behind. I feel better about B9's win, however — not only because there's a healthy build-a-B9 community out there, but also because he embraced his inner robotness, while Data sometimes ran away from the robot label.

For more on that — and a rundown of the other People's Choice nominees — read on:

George Myers: "I would like to nominate Data from 'Star Trek,' who seems to follow Asimov's rules for robots to first 'do no harm' to humans. .... Also, Huey, Louie and Dewey in 'Silent Running' with Bruce Dern, which I saw before a sci-fi convention in New York City years ago about 1972. The three drone robots Huey, Dewey, and Louie were operated by four multiple-amputee actors: Mark Persons, Steve Brown, Cheryl Sparks and Larry Whisenhunt."Connecticut's Big Kahuna: "R. Daneel Olivaw most definitely belongs in the Robot Hall of Fame.  I am surprised to hear he is not already there. With respect to ST:TNG's Data, it is best I quote him (from more than one episode): In response to a newcomer who says to Data 'You are a robot!' ... Data plainly replies, 'That is incorrect: I am not a robot, I am an android.' That said, if an Android Hall of Fame is established (if one does not already exist), Data should, in my opinion, be the first inductee. Live long and prosper!"Maria Galloway: "Although the character Data is not a real robot, but an android, he should definitely be in the Hall of Fame if the movie character, David, played by Haley Joel Osment, can be.  Data is a giant step forward in the artificial intelligence/human/robot department.  If we can think it, maybe someday we can do it."Toni: "Data wasn't a robot.  But maybe that doesn't count. I vote for the Enterprise computer ('Star Trek'). Majel Barrett's voice will always be the computer voice for me."Chari Mercier, St. Petersburg, Fla.: "My nominations are the following:  Data from 'Star Trek'; the two robots from 'Lost in Space'; The bionic robot dog from 'Battlestar Galactica.' That's all I can think of right now.  Hope my list gets in! :)Sue, Great Falls, Mont.: "I was literally shocked to find that Robot from the original 'Lost in Space' was not already in the Hall of Fame.  For the later baby boomers, he was the original robot."Arthur E. Ragosta: "How can any robot hall of fame not have Robot B9 ('Robot') from the 'Lost in Space' TV show.  He was second in coolness only to Robbie from 'Forbidden Planet.'"Chris Cole, Sterling, Va.: "...Robbie seems to have been a forerunner for other cinematic creations ... to include the totally shameless copying of the majority of Robbie’s features for the 'Lost In Space' robot.  That robot is to Robbie what the comedian Rip Torn was to Sir Lawrence Olivier."

Robbie, of course, was an earlier Cosmic Log People's Choice award winner who went on to the Hall of Fame in 2004. We can only hope that B9 (a.k.a. Robot) and Data will go as far. Here are some of the other People's Choice nominees.

E.L. Keel, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: "Bender from the animated show 'Futurama' should most certainly be considered for the Robot Hall of Fame. Robots in the future will probably evolve just as mankind has and, will no doubt suffer from many maladies which could include addictions (in case you haven't seen 'Futurama,' Bender is a wisecracking self-absorbed alcoholic robot).Eric Scudder: "I'm rather fond of R. Daneel Olivaw so he would be my clearest choice. It also begs the question: As time moves forward, should computer intelligences that respond to human interaction be qualified as 'robots' even though they may well lack a physical presence of any kind? I also think that any and all of the DARPA Grand Challenge finishers should earn a nomination."Richard J. Archer: "How can the Robot Hall of Fame not include Johnny Five, from the 'Short Circuit' movies? J.F. is one of the most endearing robots of all time and is at least a co-star, if not the headliner, of the two movies. He even has his own Web site."J. Dee German: "How about 'I TOBOR' ('ROBOT I' accidentally stamped in reverse on the robot's chest) from the mid-'50s black-and-white TV serial.  I TOBOR went nuts and turned against its makers in a daily, 15-minute program that came on in the early evening in the 1955-57 time frame."Mark Bradley, Columbus, Ind.: "...For real robots, Roomba the vacuum would be an obvious choice, as would the Robomower!  These admittedly have less impact than industrial robot welders and computerized cutting machines, but they are the type of robots that people will gradually come to "associate" with!"Roland C. Moss: "Among the fictional choices, I’d go with those depicted in the ABC cartoon series of the early '80s named 'The Mighty Orbots.'  To this day, I can remember the individual names of the Orbots . . ."Another choice for recognition of fictional robots would be the target droids of 'Star Wars' fame.  Sure, they didn’t talk, but they could hover, change position without hitting anything, orient on an object and fire a laser, the action which was the incentive for Jedis to become more attuned to their environment ... those lasers smarted enough that you wanted to avoid them touching you anywhere!  These droids are now serving as inspiration and models for mini and micro robotic satellites. ... "Then there’s 'Sonny' of the movie adapted from Asimov’s 'I, Robot.' If artificial myomers of sufficient compactness are ever made, and the apparent body plan of the NS-5’s of the movie are followed, I see no reason that tens of thousands of eerily graceful “Sonnys” won’t be seen everywhere. Lastly of the fictional robots/androids, I don’t think anyone could overlook Data of 'Star Trek: the Next Generation.' ... "As for the real-life robots, I’d submit the Packbot currently in deployed development in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Though the underlying technology seems ordinary and mundane now, the application of that technology is actually a marvel, something that could not have been built at even three times its current size just a decade ago. ...

Other nominees include Stanley, the winning robo-car from the DARPA Grand Challenge (from Tom Shultz), and the Pioneer robot that braved the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident (from Joe Patchen, Milford, Conn.). The Chernobyl nomination is particularly apt, since we're nearing the 20th anniversary of the disaster.

Do you have some late entrants? Even though the voting has officially ended, feel free to send in your tributes to robotic greats — along with a brief explanation of what made them great.

April 21, 2006 |
Watch the skies: Don't forget that the Lyrid meteor shower reaches its peak tonight. The best time for meteor-watching generally comes between midnight and morning twilight. Find a place far away from city lights, with clear skies, and be patient. Oh, and don't get your hopes up too high: The Lyrids usually aren't that big of a deal, with an average of five to 20 meteors per hour under peak conditions. For more about the Lyrids, check out Astronomy's Web site, or Kronk's Comets and Meteor Showers. Give a look to our interactive graphic on shooting stars as well.

April 21, 2006 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land'Wired: Typo confounds Kryptos sleuths
The Economist: Eat less, live more
Slate: Who were the Knights Templar, anyway?

April 20, 2006 |
Another inconstant constant? Physicists are already wondering whether the speed of light has changed over time, and now another fundamental constant is being called into question.

This one is known as “mu” – the ratio between the masses of the proton and the electron. An international research team reports that the value of mu has decreased by 0.002 percent in the course of 12 billion years, based on an analysis of molecular hydrogen spotted near the edge of the visible universe.

If this constant (set at 1,836.1526726) actually varies over time, it could mean that atoms behaved slightly differently during the infancy of the universe. Generally, scientists assume that the laws of physics are unchanging across time and space. But if laws and constants turn out to be bendable, physicists might have to rethink the conventional wisdom on matters ranging from the age and evolution of the universe to time travel and way-out power possibilities.

To determine the value of mu long ago, the researchers analyzed the patterns of lines on ultra-high-resolution spectrographs of hydrogen gas in the lab, then checked them against the lines in spectral data from hydrogen seen as it was billions of years ago, as recorded by the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

A write-up in Physics News Update explains the reason for the comparison: "Because the position of a particular spectral line depends on the value of mu; locate the spectral line accurately (that is, its wavelength) and you can infer a value for mu." Researchers found an ever-so-slight variation in the pattern, implying that mu is moving.

The researchers say the statistical confidence of their comparison is at the level of 3.5 standard deviations, which physicists would generally characterize as pretty good, but not conclusive. Thus, the findings reported in Friday's issue of Physical Review Letters require further confirmation — something that has bedeviled the longer-running debate over the inconstancy of the speed of light.

The mystery of mu could have an impact on the quest for the "theory of everything," Wim Ubachs of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam says on his Web page. He notes that standard physics can't explain why mu has the value it does, or why it would vary. "However, superstring and M-theories do provide qualitative explanations for [mu] and also predict possible variations of the fundamental constants," he says.

To delve into the details, check out the full research paper (PDF file) as well as a report on Nature's Web site.

April 20, 2006 |
The regolith rush: A couple of days ago I mentioned five NASA Centennial Challenges that were officially ready for prime time, including the Regolith Excavation Challenge overseen by the California Space Education and Workforce Institute. It turns out that this particular challenge is one of the more popular offerings, drawing more than 120 expressions of interest, according to Matt Everingham, special project manager at the California Space Authority.

"About a third of those have come from outside the United States," he told me today. The prospective competitors include industry types as well as students and hobbyists, he said. But it's not yet clear how many of those interested parties will actually be able to build a presentable moon-dirt digger in time for the actual challenge, scheduled for May 12, 2007.

"The requirements are really pretty tough," Everingham said. To be in the running, a robotic excavator will have to dig up 150 kilograms (330 pounds) of simulated moon dirt in just 30 minutes — and do it with just 30 watts of power.

"If you can imagine a 30-watt light bulb, it's not a lot of power," Everingham said. In comparison, a vacuum cleaner uses about 700 watts, he said.

The simulated moon dirt won't be anything like girlie-man sand, either. "It's almost like scooping thick mud, but it'll be dry instead of wet," Everingham told me. It's a daunting task — but if you think your robot has the right stuff, go for it.

"We don't want to try to exclude anybody from competing," Everingham said.

April 20, 2006 |
‘Idol’ analyzer aces another test: For those of you keeping score at home, the "American Idol" song-contest marathon unfolded along the lines predicted by the DialIdol busy-signal analysis system this week. DialIdol missed the mark when I first wrote about it last month, but the Web site's ranking system was consistent with the actual outcome this week (when Ace Young was trumped). That could be a tribute to the tweaking that the DialIdol algorithms have undergone over the past few weeks. The experimental modeling continues ...

April 20, 2006 |
Quick stops on the scientific Web:
Forbes: Remaking humanity
Astronomy: April showers bring meteors by the hour
USGS: Geologic maps of the San Francisco Bay AreaThe Guardian: Sex cues ruin men's decision-making ability

April 19, 2006 |
Five robots for the ages: The Robot Hall of Fame's five newly inducted members span eight decades of robotic lore — highlighting the role of machines in fiction, function and just plain fun.

The honorees include one of the earliest movie androids (the metallic Maria from Fritz Lang's 1927 classic, "Metropolis") as well as one of the latest (David from the 2001 film "A.I.," portrayed by Haley Joel Osment) and the biggest (Gort from "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a 1951 Cold War parable).

There are real-world robots, too: Sony's AIBO robot dog, which serves as a toy as well as a low-cost research platform; and the Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm, which has spawned an entire class of industrial robot arms.

Ifr / Hulton Archive / Getty Ima

This year's list was announced today at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center in Pittsburgh, during a kickoff event for CS50, a celebration of CMU's first 50 years of computer science education and research. The formal induction ceremony is scheduled for June 21 during the RoboBusiness Conference and Exposition in Pittburgh.

The Hall of Fame was founded in 2003 by James Morris, former dean of CMU's School of Computer Science. Past inductees include R2-D2 and C-3PO from "Star Wars," HAL 9000 from "2001," Robby the Robot from "Forbidden Planet," Astro Boy, the Mars Pathfinder rover, ASIMO, Shakey and Unimate.

"We decided to give awards to both real and fictional robots because the fictional robots provide inspiration to the real ones," Morris explained in a news release. "Now, however, we see that some robots occupy a middle ground. AIBO is real, but also entertaining. R2-D2 started off with [actor] Kenny Baker inside, but then became automated. Eventually, our deliberations will confront the age-old question of real vs. fiction."

The Hall of Fame may also have to confront the age-old question of crowd-pleasing picks vs. expert opinion: AIBO was the only inductee listed among the top 10 vote-getters on the Hall of Fame's nomination page, although Maria and Gort show up in the extended standings. Unfortunately, there's no "People's Choice" category in this competition. Instead, the inductees are chosen by an international jury of experts.

Whenever the Robot Hall of Fame gets some fresh blood (so to speak), we put the question to Cosmic Log readers: Who would you like to see in the programmable pantheon? Optimus Prime from Hasbro's TransFormers? Isaac Asimov's fictional R. Daneel Olivaw? Data of "Star Trek" fame? Send in your nominations, and we'll run our own People's Choice awards. Check out the lists from 2003 and 2004 for suggestions.

April 19, 2006 |
Space station test fizzles: Today was supposed to mark the first time in six years that the engines were fired up on the international space station's Zvezda service module. The test firing was aimed at raising the orbital outpost's altitude by about half a mile (700 meters) — and also finding out whether the engines still worked.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg was watching the test closely, and reported that the firing was aborted because one of the valves on one of the engines failed to open. Fortunately, the non-firing is basically a "non-event," and there are no immediate plans to try the test again, Oberg quoted NASA spokesman Rob Navias as saying.

The station will still be in an acceptable orbit for next week's scheduled rendezvous with a Progress cargo ship, even without the engine firing, Oberg said.

"Even if the engines never work, they are only a backup to propulsion capability usually provided by visiting vehicles docked to the aft port," he explained in an e-mail. "The loss of these engines has no impact on station operations — the Russians were just curious if they would work after so long, and they have their answer."

April 19, 2006 |
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
Nature: Computer glitch hits climate prediction project
New Scientist: Scientists find 'off switch' for self-awarenessMini-AIR: Hypothetical people smell good ... and more
The Onion: Beaver overthinking dam

April 18, 2006 |
Liftoff for space challenges: Think you can make a better space glove? How about a stronger carbon fiber or a more agile climbing robot? Can you bake the oxygen right out of moon dirt, or build a robot to dig into that dirt all by itself?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then now's the time to take on one of the five NASA Centennial Challenges that are now open for business. For months, the space agency has been talking about how such challenges can further its exploration goals while delivering six-figure payoffs to entrepreneurs.

Today's announcement serves as the opening of the "starting gate" for the competitions, according to NASA program manager Brant Sponberg.

The maximum payout for the five challenges mentioned today is $250,000, but NASA is expected to kick off still more contests in the next few weeks, including a $2.5 million Lunar Lander Challenge and a $500,000 Reusable Rocket Challenge. Those announcements should come during the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles, and will likely also involve the X Prize Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Even bigger contests, such as the Human Orbital Vehicle Challenge (also known as the O Prize), are still waiting beyond the horizon.

The Centennial Challenge program was set up as a tribute to the 2003 centennial of the Wright Brothers' first powered airplane flight, and is aimed at giving a boost to the kinds of tools needed for a return to the moon and the push onward to Mars. All of NASA's Centennial Challenges involve partnerships, with NASA putting up the prize money and allied organizations taking care of the logistics. Here's a rundown for each of the five contests highlighted today:

  • The gloves currently in use for spacewalks lack the desired dexterity for outside work on the moon, so in cooperation with Spaceflight America / Volanz Aerospace, NASA is offering a $200,000 prize for prototype gloves that can pass a grueling series of tests — plus $50,000 in a separate "Mechanical Counter Pressure Glove Demonstration" for gloves that don't have bladders and bladder restraints. Volanz is planning a workshop for entrants in Windsor Locks, Conn., on Monday, with 20 to 30 people expected to attend, said spokesman Alan Hayes. The competition itself is tentatively scheduled for April 2007. For more information:
  • This contest is for beam-powered robots that have been designed to shinny up dangling tethers. The technology could be adapted to robo-climbers suited to exploring the highs and lows of the moon or Mars. Such climbers are also key components in the space elevator concept, which proponents say could dramatically lower the cost of access to orbit. The beam-power system could be adapted for power transmission on Earth or in space. This challenge offers prizes of $150,000, $40,000 and $10,000 for first, second and third — and 19 teams already have signed up to compete Aug. 4 in Mountain View, Calif., during the Space Elevator Games organized by the Spaceward Foundation. For more information: Elevator:2010.
  • Remember those tethers for the Beam Power Challenge? A parallel contest, also planned by the Spaceward Foundation for Aug. 4, would pit prototype tethers against each other as well as last year's best tethers. The idea is to encourage the development of super-strong carbon nanotube materials that could be used in those space elevators, or in a host of other applications on Earth or in space. Prizes follow the same $150,000-on-down formula used for the Beam Power Challenge. So far, two teams have signed up. By the way, Spaceward put on the first Beam Power Challenge and Tether Challenge last year, but no one did well enough to win NASA's money. For more information: Elevator:2010.
  • NASA wants to develop systems that would allow moonwalking astronauts to live off the land, and one big plus would be a system that extracts oxygen from moon dirt. This challenge, presented in partnership with the Florida Space Research Institute, would award $250,000 to the first team able to get 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds) of breathable oxygen from 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of simulated moon-dirt mix in four hours or less. Unlike the other contests, "ours is going to be a first-to-demonstrate competition," said FSRI's Tim Bailey. That's because it'd be unwieldy (and potentially dangerous) to have teams bring their dirt-baking equipment to a contest site. "It would be much more suited to a laboratory environment," Bailey told me. He expects five to 10 teams to enter the competition. For more information: FSRI Space Research.
  • If you're going to extract oxygen (and maybe water as well) from lunar soil, you're going to have to dig up a lot of dirt. This challenge promotes the development of autonomous robots capable of excavating moon material and essentially putting it on a conveyor belt. NASA's partner in the contest is the California Space Education and Workforce Institute. According to the contest Web site, a head-to-head digging competition is scheduled for May 12, 2007. If teams meet the excavation specifications, up to $250,000 in prizes would be awarded. For more information: California Space Authority.

April 19, 2006 |
Spaceport turnaround: While New Mexico is spending tens of millions of dollars annually to build a spaceport for suborbital tourist flights, the only place in the world that's ever hosted private-sector spaceflights is struggling to get an $11 million loan from California.

Tuesday brought a quick succession of bad news and good news for Mojave Airport manager Stuart Witt, whose airport district is seeking a 30-year loan from the state's general fund for a research facility and passenger spaceflight terminal. He attended a hearing on the enabling legislation, SB 1671, conducted by the state Senate's Transportation and Housing Committee.

After the hearing, four committee members voiced support for the plan. That fell short of the seven votes needed to move the bill along — and Witt was discouraged. "California was consistent today," he said glumly.

But a few hours later, Witt got the word that Republican state Sen. Roy Ashburn, the bill's author, had rounded up four more votes in support. "Our vote made it out of committee — they got the extra four votes, we're good to go," Witt said. "Just got the word ... Now on to the next one."

The legislative struggle serves as the latest chapter in an interstate spaceflight competition involving much more money than was at stake for the $10 million X Prize.

Testifying along with Witt were representatives from Mojave-based Scaled Composites, the builder of the SpaceShipOne rocket plane, and other players in the nascent passenger-spaceflight business. The Mojave Airport served as home base for SpaceShipOne's historic flights back in 2004, and Scaled Composites is hard at work building a fleet of SpaceShipTwos for Virgin Galactic's future commercial service.

Current plans call for Virgin Galactic, backed by British billionaire Richard Branson, to fly out of Mojave to begin with in 2008 or early 2009, then shift its main operations to New Mexico around 2010. But Witt is hoping that Mojave — and California — can stay competitive in the commercial space race.

State support for private ventures is always controversial, and probably more so for blue-sky ventures like space tourism. Even in New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson is coming under fire for his outer-space aspirations. (And could that in turn have an effect on his presidential aspirations?)

In California, meanwhile, the Senate committee staff report on SB 1671 didn't exactly provide a ringing endorsement for the $11 million. The report wondered whether the airport district should look into taking on the debt itself before turning to the state — and asked whether it was appropriate for the state to provide "millions for a billionaire."

Witt said he tried to answer those concerns in his testimony. For example, on the question of issuing bonds, he told me "it's doable, but not reasonable in a sparsely populated district." And on the question of public backing for private enterprise, Witt worries that a "no-government approach" could turn the state into a laggard in the commercial space race.

SB 1671 still has to travel a long road to become law, but Witt was heartened by Tuesday's turnaround. "It's a good thing for California," he said.

April 18, 2006 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:
RLV/Space Transport News: $99 special on space payloadsN.Y. Times (reg. req.): A real flip-flopper
Science News: The car-crash gender gap
Scientific American: The rightness of right-handednessBBC: Duke Nukem sheds light on brain

April 17, 2006 |
Watching for the Littler Ones: As the world commemorates the centennial of San Francisco's  devastating earthquake and fire, the bad news is that if another quake like the 1906 shocker were to happen tomorrow, it would catch authorities flatfooted, do more than $120 billion worth of damage and probably kill thousands of people.

The good news is that northern California's San Andreas Fault isn't yet primed for another Big One on the scale of the 1906 disaster, reports William Ellsworth, a seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. "About half of the strain has reaccumulated in the past century, leading to the expectation that another great earthquake there is not imminent," he writes in the current issue of the journal Science.

So far, so good, right? Not really. Ellsworth emphasizes that the "potential for smaller but deadly earthquakes is high ... and northern Californians cannot afford to be complacent." Another Big One may be decades away, but the USGS says it's more likely than not that a Littler One — on the order of the 1989 World Series quake, only a tenth as strong as the 1906 shaker — will hit the region within 30 years.

The Littler Ones, then, are the current focus of earthquake research: The magnitude-6.0 Parkfield earthquake of 2004, for example, provided "a rich harvest of information" about the physics of seismic cycles, Ellsworth says. And as time goes on, deep-earth monitoring networks like the proposed Advanced National Seismic System could provide a more solid foundation for earthquake science — and save money and lives as a result.

A National Research Council study estimated that the system could reduce earthquake losses by an annualized average of $5.6 billion, "by providing critical information for land-use planning, building design, insurance, warnings, and emergency preparedness and response." After all, it's the Littler Ones that teach experts how to deal with the Big One.

The trick is to keep working on research, rebuilding and mitigation between now and the time that the Big One strikes. When it comes to raising awareness about disaster preparedness, you don't have to go back 100 years to find cautionary tales: The 2004 Asian tsunami and last year's Gulf Coast hurricanes also should whet our appetite for a better understanding of natural disasters and how to cope with them.

Here are a couple of additional cautionary tales, received from readers in response to our earthquake anniversary coverage so far:

Richard Youngs, Yuma, Ariz., on "An interesting article. However, the majority of the commentary leads to one question: 'So what?'"I was born and raised in California. We had a farm. The horses would run around and act up. The birds would quit singing and quit flying, etc., etc. Within 30 minutes to 3 hours we'd have an earthquake. So what? Did we 'take shelter'? No. Did we call the authorities? No. Did we fly about in panic? No."If long-range prediction becomes practical — so what? Will civil authorities evacuate large hubs of commerce? No — 'business' would lose too much money on a 'hunch'! Will government and other municipal authorities require action by the populace? No — they would be risking their elected positions. Will government appropriate major funding to beef up public structures seismically? No — they would be risking their elected positions, and there would not be 'adequate technical justification' for them to assume such a 'risky' position. Would the L.A., San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, N.Y., etc., etc. municipal authorities order mass evacuations (and risk creating panic and the ensuing chaos)? No!"So, once 'we' have expended billions on research and can say that we can accurately predict earthquakes — we'll be able to say that 'we can accurately predict earthquakes'! I'd rather spend that money on developing a manned Mars colony!"Chris Eldridge, Harrisburg, Pa.: "I really liked MSNBC's 100-year aniversary special report on the San Francisco earthquake and what could happen today, but I am taken by the fact that you did not mention the conspiracy to cover up the dangers of an earthquake after the 1906 quake and after a late-1800s quake. Political and business leaders of the time tried to suppress the dangers of a earthquake by calling it the great San Francisco fire. It is the reason so many people have moved to such a dangerous area."

Was it a mistake to have so many people move into the San Francisco Bay Area? Is it folly to build stadiums and other structures right on the fault line? This question is a variation on a theme heard in the wake of Katrina — that is, that the authorities shouldn't let folks rebuild in disaster-prone zones. If another Big One comes, should the worst-hit areas be rebuilt, as they were in post-1906 San Francisco, or should they be simply written off? And if survivors should be resettled in areas that are safe from natural disasters, which areas would you consider "safe"? Let me know what you think, and I'll pass along a selection of the feedback later this week.

April 17, 2006 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
The New Yorker: The science of driving directionsTechnology Review: Europe's robotic challenge
The Guardian: The bionic man is real — and plays the Thoughts trigger mental typewriter

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