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Cosmic Log: May 20-26, 2006

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Readers weigh in on both sides of the longevity debate. Plus: A prize for Mr. X Prize ... Name that rocket plane ... Russia's SpaceShipOne ... Quasar quintuplets ... Infrared eye in the sky.
A photo from 2004 shows a small, unusually long-lived mouse, named Yoda, nuzzling against his normal-sized mate, Princess Leia, at right. Yoda, a genetically modified dwarf mouse, lived to be 4 years and 12 days old — roughly the equivalent of a 136-year-old human. Scientists say longevity research could make 100-year-plus life spans routine, but introduce new social challenges as well.
A photo from 2004 shows a small, unusually long-lived mouse, named Yoda, nuzzling against his normal-sized mate, Princess Leia, at right. Yoda, a genetically modified dwarf mouse, lived to be 4 years and 12 days old — roughly the equivalent of a 136-year-old human. Scientists say longevity research could make 100-year-plus life spans routine, but introduce new social challenges as well.Richard Miller / Univ. of Mich. Medical School

May 26, 2006 |
Immortality's pros and cons: This week, a series of stories from LiveScience laid out the potential problems with immortality — or, more realistically, medical advances that could extend normal life spans well beyond the 100-year mark.

The typical response from users shouldn't come as a surprise: We should all have such problems. But the dissenting opinions were, if anything, more interesting.

Some deep thinkers — such as Leon Kass, the former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics — argue that living with our mortality is what truly makes us alive, and that radical life extension would cheapen the value of life. Is extreme longevity worth it, even if some consider immortality to be downright immoral?

Here's a sampling of the feedback received over the past few days:

Martin Bradt: "Speak for yourself, Mr. Kass! If I get bored when I am 8,000 years old, I can decide to die then. As far as morality is concerned, people don't change so easily, and if someone stays young physically, the ethics they have learned will not evaporate.  In fact, the motivation to be dishonest will be decreased beacause they have plenty of time to get rich.  They also will not be willing to risk their life by committing a crime or shafting someone. I don't understand all of the fear people have of immortality. It will not come fast enough to create serious problems for society, and more problems will be solved than created. Let everyone decide when they want to die, including the ones who don't like the idea of immortality."Mark, Atlanta: "Worth it? I feel it is naive to think that humanity hasn't already made that decision. And not only humanity. Is it not the characteristic of every living thing to evolve?  One could argue that evolution doesn't necessarily mean a longer life, but I would say you are disillusioned if you believe that all of our efforts to cure disease and other infirmities are not an attempt at prolonging life, at living longer. I would agree that we are, right now, at the very edge of a precarious situation.  For the first time in our experience a living entity may soon have the ability to consciously, and quickly, alter their own evolution and to a great extent.  It is certainly not a issue to take lightly, but I welcome it.  What an exciting time to be alive. Believe me, I think it a curious statement to make. Humanity, in my opinion, has a deplorable record for doing good with our world and even our species. I feel, though, that until we are able to live long enough to gain the wisdom that helps break the cycle of these repeated mistakes we will never grow into something better than we are.  We will never evolve."Kari Thor Jonsson, Njardvik, Iceland: "Whether it's worth it or not, humans will do what they have always done: Push it to the limits." Joe Gregory: "With population as high as it is, extension of life is not a good idea.  Otherwise it might be a thought best entertained."G.H. Gordon Paterson, Richmond, Va.: "Life extension will lead to chaos or worse, assuming we all continue to demand 'our right' to our already bloated standard of living. It is a simple equation: The planet's finite resources, spread over increasing numbers of people, leads inevitably to a reduced standard of living for all, even the privileged few.  If adults are going to live 100-plus years on average, we will be burying the planet in human bodies if we do not restrict fertility. ... I continue to believe J.R.R. Tolkien had it right when he wrote that 'the gift of the One to men' was that they had only a few decades to endure the pain and struggle of this world before passing on to their rest."Natalie Lewis: "Has anyone here ever read 'Gulliver’s Travels'? A minority of one race that he visited did in fact live forever — and when I read it, at a fairly young age, it was horrifying. They did in fact get old, as we would expect, and at the normal rate, leaving them more and more decrepit and miserable as time went on. There was in fact a time at which their heirs were legally given their inheritance and everything moved on; they were at that point essentially dead.  It was gruesome."Anna: "I am 37. I don't have much to show for it by this society's standards, because I have led my life on my own terms and by my own rules. But I have done a lot more in my short life than most have done by 77. In fact, I have done so much, I am starting over again! Life has turned out to be longer than I thought. The difference? Twenty years ago, I had hope. Now, I do not. I have put in 10 years of office work and then 10 years of manual labor. I have worked with and provided customer service for all types of people and, in general, I don't think our society has enough caring, intelligent, sensible people to support longer life terms. As long as making money is more important than raising our own children, we should not be looking to intentionally prolong our lives."Ted Stevens, Las Vegas: " wrote a sci-fi story in which a few humans were granted immortality through being housed in robots. The best and the brightest were given this opportunity. However, because they could live forever, they lost the impetus to achieve through taking risks. The main example in the story was the construction of a starship.  Because the designers were immortal, they could continually scrap the project prior to completion and begin again, because they no longer had the drive to achieve a form of immortality through the achievement of great things."Scarlett: "To become immortal may end up being the same as living in hell. Have you ever seen a vampire happy about it?"Karl R. Falken: "As someone who's had a near death experience and seen what's beyond this life, I believe I have something pertinent to add to the discussion. First, the life beyond this one is more wonderful and at the same time more terrible than can be comprehended by the physical mind, and for those going on to better things, vastly superior to what we experience here.  (The latter group get everything they deserve and more.) Yet this life is unique and still filled with opportunity. Eternity will always be there, mortality will not. And I believe that a life well-lived here will bring much valuable development not easily achieved elsewhere.  For there are only three things we can take out of this life:What we do for GodWhat we do for others (who are going where we are)How we develop ourselvesAnd how in a more perfect 'afterlife' can we develop such fine qualities as patience, courage and perseverance without the uncertainties and obstacles already inherent in this existence. (But please don't think I am endorsing making it any worse!)"Personally, I'm for eliminating disease, deformity and death and other nonsense (like partisan politics and spiritually empty religion). Whatever benefit we gain from the direction, pressure and stress they add to our lives as a motivation for good can be achieved much better by intelligently designed and planned lives, education and experience. And I believe that, properly done, can enormously enhance the rate of progress being made by the race. "Scientists say millions of years and tens of thousands of generation have brought us to this level. I can't say how true this is, but I'd like to see the next and the next and the next, and don't care to gamble on the uncertainties of nature to get there and would happily dispense with the long wait. I like being human, but the shortcomings are frustrating. I think I'd enjoy being even more 'human' in an improved version. Just for example, being forgetful is highly annoying. I'd be quite pleased to pick my own date of 'graduation,' thank you."

For further perspectives on immortality, one anonymous reader recommends the works of science-fiction author Robert Heinlein: "Immortality will only be necessary when we can travel throughout this galaxy.  Read Robert Heinlein, 'Methuselah's Children' and 'Time Enough For Love.'  He always was years ahead of the rest of us."

Another anonymous reader emphasized that longevity without lucre would be meaningless: "Extending life without the monetary means to do the things you want to do is simply a way of extending the frustrations of not being able to do the things you want to do.  Why would one wish to have an extended life and still not be able, because of monetary restraints, to do the things you would like to do, or see the sights you would like to see?"

The financial implications of immortality are indeed considerable. For a slightly tongue-in-cheek perspective on the issue — and a laugh or two for the long weekend — check out this report from the Motley Fool.

May 26, 2006 |
Memorial Day: This weekend may mark the unofficial start of the summer holiday season, but more officially, it's a time to remember those military men and women who paid the ultimate price. The America Supports You Web site provides food for thought as well as links to other relevant sites. I'll be out of the office over the long weekend and back at work on Tuesday.

May 26, 2006 | Military vets share harrowing stories
'Nova' on PBS: 'The Boldest Hoax'
Duke: Scientists predict how to detect extra dimension
BBC: Smart sites to power 'semantic web'

May 25, 2006 |
X Prize founder wins prize: The impresario behind the $10 million X Prize for private spaceflight, Peter Diamandis, has won a prize of his own — the first-ever $500,000 Heinlein Prize, endowed by the estate of the late science-fiction great Robert Heinlein and his wife.

The Heinlein Prize was established almost three years ago to reward individuals who make practical contributions to the commercialization of space — and Diamandis' role in founding the X Prize is just one of the reasons for the award. He's also fostered the first U.S.-based weightless-flight airline, Zero Gravity Corp.; the world's most successful space tourism company, Space Adventures; the Rocket Racing League, the International Space University and several other space-oriented ventures.

"Dr. Diamandis' accomplishments have started space settlement and commerce," Art Dula, trustee and literary executor of the Heinlein estate, said in today's announcement of the prize. "He has catalyzed space activities by hundreds of people and organizations all over the earth who are creating a proud and prosperous future for humanity."

Diamandis told me today that he found out he was getting the prize "just a little bit ago."

"It was a surprise," he said. "I'm extremely proud. Heinlein's work meant a lot to me personally."

Heinlein's science fiction often extolled the final frontier as a real frontier, a place where people could live and actually turn a profit. Diamandis said Heinlein's novella, "The Man Who Sold the Moon," ranked as one of his favorite stories — so favorite that he arranged to have a copy of the book flown as personal cargo aboard during SpaceShipOne's X Prize-winning flight in 2004.

"When you stop and recognize when the book was written, 40 years ago, what he envisioned in terms of commercializing space was incredible," he said. "It's been one of the most creative business plans for opening the space frontier, in terms of media and sponsorship rights ... and recognizing that the entertainment industry is a critical part of the space frontier."

Diamandis paid tribute to his colleagues at the X Prize Foundation and other ventures working for what he calls the "personal spaceflight revolution."

"There's a community of space entrepreneurs out there, and it's our mission in life to get humanity off the planet," he said. "It's what drives us, and the focus right now is how can we tie real economic business models to opening up the space frontier, so we're not dependent on the ups and downs of government spending."

Diamandis is to be honored at an July 7 awards ceremony in Houston, where he will receive the gold Heinlein Medalliion, the Lady Vivamus Sword (as described in Heinlein's book "Glory Road"), a diploma ... and the $500,000.

So what's he planning to do with the money?

"It's what I have been doing with the money," he said, "focusing on creating what I consider to be the critical parts of a commercial space industry."

Part of that task has to do with organizing a bang-up show for the X Prize Cup in New Mexico this fall. "We're using that venue, that event to drive forward this personal spaceflight technology and business model," he said. "We're going to have quite an October this year."

And if he invests the money wisely over the next few years or decades, the 45-year-old just might be able to take a spaceflight of his own, fulfilling a decades-old dream.

"I realize now that one of my personal goals is to be one of the first private citizens to set foot on the moon," he said. "I just see it as an adventure that I want to take in my lifetime."

Who knows? Maybe Diamandis will turn out to be the man who sold the moon.

May 25, 2006 |
Name that rocket plane: The Rocket Racing League's first X-Racer rocket plane is due to make its debut at the X Prize Cup in October, and today the public was invited to select the name by picking a favorite out of the top 10 finalists. Some of the top 10 have commercial connections — such as Full Throttle (energy drink) or American Spirit (cigarettes). One of the names, Dream Chaser, is also the moniker for SpaceDev's orbital space plane project (would that be a plus or a minus for SpaceDev?). You can check out about 1,000 of the suggested names on this Web page, and register your vote via this one. Voting closes on June 5.

The "Name That Spaceship" game is a favorite of mine, so feel free to send me your own suggestions for rocket plane names. I'll pass along a selection of the nominees, and make sure the Rocket Racing League knows where to turn when it comes time to name the second X-Racer.

May 25, 2006 |
PC Magazine: Wozniak honors 2006's top inventions
LiveScience: Strange circles of light explained
Wired: The 2006 Rave Awards
Popular Science: In 2026, your car won't crash

May 24, 2006 |
Russia's SpaceShipOne: The year 2009 is shaping up to be a big one for space tourism, in America as well as abroad. By that time, Virgin Galactic's suborbital SpaceShipTwo flights are expected to be under way, and Russian space officials say test flights of their own SpaceShipOne-style rocket plane should start in the same time frame.

That's the word from the Interfax-Military News Agency, which today quotes a Russian aerospace source as saying the maiden test flight could come "as early as 2009." A feasibility study for the project — which involves Russia's space agency and the Myasishchev Design Bureau as well as Virginia-based Space Adventures and the Texas-based Prodea venture capital firm — is reportedly due to be finished by this July.

The craft, known as the AKS-55-5 in Russia and as the Explorer in the United States, would be launched from an M-55 high-altitude aircraft in midflight, just as SpaceShipOne was launched from the White Knight carrier airplane. It sounds as if the first flights would be strictly for test purposes, with no capability of carrying paying passengers. Later, the M-55 would be beefed up to carry a five-seat passenger craft, Interfax's unnamed source said — just as the SpaceShipOne design is being beefed up for SpaceShipTwo.

Space Adventures spokeswoman Stacey Tearne declined to comment on the report today. But if companies such as Virgin Galactic and Rocketplane (which is targeting flights for next year) hold to their expected development schedules, the Explorer would not be the "first to fly," as Tearne said when the deal was announced in February.

Another interesting tidbit has to do with last week's announcement that Russia would be beefing up the production line for its Soyuz workhorse spaceships, with backing from foreign investors. In return for that backing, the investors would get access to Soyuz seats for rides to the international space station.

We already know that Prodea's Anousheh Ansari, one of the backers of the Explorer project (and a former backer of the X Prize), wants to fly to the space station. That could serve as the foundation for a strong financial connection between the Iranian-American entrepreneur and the Russian space effort. Will Ansari and the Russians get what they're looking for? Stay tuned...

May 25, 2006 |
Scientific soul patrol: It should surprise no one that the DialIdol auto-dialing/handicapping program projected Taylor Hicks as the winner of this week's final "American Idol" sing-off. The robo-verdict paralleled the actual results, as well as the advance judgment of human reality-TV experts, the unscientific results of our own Live Vote and a weeks-long voting trend — so if Katharine McPhee had pulled off an upset victory, it would have been the result of a rift in the space-time continuum. Score one more for the numbers crunchers.

May 24, 2006 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
ESA: SOHO to lead fleet of solar observatories
Scientific American: The secrets of supervolcanoes
The Guardian: How Einstein struggled with math
Technology Review: Better fuel cells using bacteria
Nat'l Geographic: Mystery robot said to solve crimes in Chile

May 23, 2006 |
Quasar quintuplets: How is a galaxy cluster like a funhouse mirror? They both tend to bend the truth.

That may sound like a joke with a particularly weak punch line, but it all makes sense if you have a warped sense of humor — and access to the latest imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope. Today's picture shows a faraway quasar, "focused" into five funhouse images by a galaxy cluster acting as a gravitational lens.

Esa / Nasa / Tel Aviv U. / Calte

The lensing effect serves as evidence for Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity — the idea that massive objects actually warp the space-time continuum in their vicinity, and that even light waves follow warped paths through gravitational fields. Like a funhouse mirror, a concentration of mass — say, a huge galaxy or even a group of galaxies — can distort and multiply images of objects on the other side.

In today's image, a galaxy cluster 7 billion light-years from Earth, known as SDSS J1004+4112, is bending the light from even more distant objects, including a bright quasar.

The quasar's blast of light emanates from the center of a galaxy that's anchored by a supermassive black hole, 10 billion light-years from Earth. As light rays from the quasar pass by SDSS J1004+4112, the galaxy cluster's gravitational field bends those rays to make it look as if there's a ring of five quasars. The Hubble team's annotated image points out the quintuple quasars, as well as a triple image of another lensed galaxy.

Today's advisory from the European Space Agency reports that this is "the first-ever picture of a distant quasar lensed into five images." And like more conventional lenses, this galaxy-sized lens magnifies plenty of objects that otherwise might be missed. The most distant background galaxy identified so far is 12 billion light-years away, near the fringe of the observable universe.

Two other fun facts from the advisory:

  • A gravitational lens will always produce an odd number of lensed images, but one image is usually very weak and embedded deep within the light of the lensing object itself. In today's picture, Hubble was able to pick out the reddish fifth image of the quasar from within the lensing galaxy cluster.
  • Astronomers compared this picture with another Hubble image, taken a year earlier, to discover a supernova exploding within one of the cluster galaxies. That observation is now being used to try to reconstruct how such stellar explosions enriched the early universe with the heavy elements that were a prerequisite for life on Earth.

If your understanding of the lensing effect is still a little bit, um, fuzzy, this graphic from the Space Telescope Science Institute should help straighten you out. Also, our interactive on "Putting Einstein to the Test" uses an animation to illustrate how gravitational lenses work.

May 23, 2006 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Are we limiting the origin of (new) species?
Popular Mechanics: Is NASA's new course heading for trouble?
Sun Herald: Some companies cash in on 666 frenzy Take the 360-degree 'Da Vinci Code' virtual tour

May 22, 2006 |
Infrared eye in the sky: The latest addition to a fleet of night-vision telescopes has sent back its first pictures, including a sparkling set of snapshots showing the spiral galaxy M81 in six wavelengths.

The "first light" images from Japan's Akari sky-surveying satellite, formerly known as ASTRO-F, were distributed today by the European Space Agency as well as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. ASTRO-F's launch in February was counted as a welcome success after a string of setbacks for the Japanese space program.

The scientists behind the Akari mission (which takes its name from the Japanese word for "light") say today's pictures serve as the visual proof of success.


"These beautiful views already show how, thanks to the better sensitivity and improved spatial resolution of Akari, we will be able to discover and study fainter sources and more distant objects which escaped detection by the previous infrared sky surveyor, IRAS, 20 years ago," Akari team member Pedro Garcia-Lario said in the ESA announcement. "With the help of the new infrared maps of the whole sky provided by Akari, we will be able to resolve for the first time heavily obscured sources in crowded stellar fields like the center of our galaxy."

Infrared eyes like Akari — and, for that matter, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope as well as the Hubble Space Telescope's near-infrared camera — are well-suited to peer through the obscuring dust that surrounds many of the more interesting corners of the cosmos. For example, the U.S.-European Infrared Astronomical Satellite, or IRAS, was the first probe to provide imagery of the Milky Way's dusty core.

Akari's test images of M81 provide a good illustration of how looking at a galaxy in different wavelengths can provide a more complete picture: The shorter-wavelength views (3 and 4 microns) show the distribution of stars in the inner galaxy, free of obscuring dust clouds. In the middle-wavelength views (7 and 11 microns) the images reveal radiation from carbon-bearing organic molecules in the galaxy's interstellar gas. The longer-wavelength views (15 and 24 microns) show the distribution of dust heated by young, hot stars in the galaxy's spiral arms.

The probe's other "first light" imagery shows the reflection nebula IC4954, about 6,000 light-years from Earth. Click here for a comparison of the Akari image with the same area as seen by the lower-resolution IRAS camera.

Future observations should reveal the inner workings of other nebulae and galaxies, as well as  planetary systems in the making. "We are now eagerly waiting for the next 'infrared revelation' about the origin and evolution of stars, galaxies and planetary systems," said another member of the Akari team, Chris Pearson.

Even more infrared eyes are on the way: NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, considered the heir to the Hubble Space Telescope, will work primarily in the infrared spectrum — as will ESA's Herschel Space Telescope. Check out our interactive guide to learn more about wavelengths and the infrared spectrum's place on the electromagnetic scale.

May 22, 2006 |
‘Code’ overload: Are you already sick of "The Da Vinci Code"? I received several e-mails over the weekend saying "enough already" ... as well as a good number of e-mails providing additional perspectives on the serious religious issues underlying the Hollywood hype. Here are the pro-and-con observations from two longtime Cosmic Log fans:

Will Mari: "I would encourage you to please keep talking about this topic; it's absolutely fascinating for those of my (admittedly younger and naive) generation. We have such a fleeting grasp of history as it is. Things like the "Gospel of Judas" are about as wonderfully absurd as arguing that Elvis is still alive. Perhaps a discussion of this magnitude will help us discern the truth (i.e. the historical record) from the literal fiction of folks like Mr. Brown."Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "Enough with the superstitions, already! Let us get cosmic, not comic. ..."

Perhaps there's a Solomon-like solution to this: For still more on the religious scholarship behind the "Code," you can check out Newsweek's cover story ... and you can scroll through additional reader reaction in the Entertainment section. For now, I'll try to cool it on the "Code," at least for a little while.

May 22, 2006 |
Further field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Volcano Under the City'New Scientist: Nuclear fusion plasma problem tackledNature: Space elevator ... going down?
Science News: Plain old lightbulbs may soon be obsolete

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