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Cosmic Log: April 17-22, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: 1927 footage shows scientific meeting of the minds ... Whales in space ... Mars rovers show their age ...  The pitfalls of physics ...  Controversy over constant ... and more.

Watch Einstein in his element: It was the ultimate meeting of the minds: In 1927, more than two dozen eminent physicists — including Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg (of Uncertainty Principle fame) and Erwin Schrödinger (known for his dead-and-alive cat) — gathered in Brussels to contemplate the mysteries of electrons and photons.

The 1927 Solvay Conference was where Einstein protested the probabilistic course of quantum mechanics by proclaiming that "God does not play dice." Legend has it that Bohr replied with a wisecrack: "Einstein, stop telling God what to do."

A famous portrait of the group shows 29 scientists looking quite serious and sober — but a more animated view of the conference has come to light just in the past year, after languishing for decades in obscurity.

In the course of researching her biography of physicist Max Born, Nancy Thorndike Greenspan came across an exceedingly rare, two-minute-long "home movie," shot during an intermission in the conference by Irving Langmuir, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1932.

After showing the film at scientific conferences this year, Greenspan has made a narrated version of the footage available over the Internet.

It turns out that Einstein wasn't the only physicist of his day who liked to stick his tongue out for the camera. Paul Ehrenfest, a Vienna-born quantum theorist who corresponded with Einstein and other luminaries, pulls the same stunt on the Langmuir film. We can't hear what the scientists are saying, but Einstein looks positively dour during his brief appearance, while others seem to be having a wonderful time. Curie, for example, turns a little pirouette at one point.

Marie Curie was the only woman on the roster for the 1927 conference. Would it be any different if such an event were held today? I'm pretty sure the representation would be better in 2005. This week's look at a dozen females on the frontiers of physics demonstrates that women as well as men have the right stuff for math and science.

Cosmic Log correspondent Janice Hansen responded with her own nomination of an additional "intellectual heiress" to Einstein: astronaut/physicist/educator Sally Ride.

"I can pretty much guarantee that even if Sally Ride isn't Einstein's intellectual heiress, she's the force behind the development of the minds of the next generation of Ms. Einsteins. Best known for being America's first woman in space, Dr. Ride (a physicist, naturally) has made it her mission to encourage among middle-school girls exactly the kind of creative and collaborative approach to science you describe in your article."Her Sally Ride Science Club, Festivals, Science Camps and the amazing Toy Challenge program are exciting kids about science in a way that has not been tapped previously — through hands-on, interactive, collaborative, extended learning opportunities that take science out of the stale environment of the classroom and put it into the hands and minds of kids."Girls are eating this stuff up — and some intrepid boys are coming along for the ride and finding themselves hooked, too. I don't think you can approach an article on the next greatest thing in female scientists without exploring what Dr. Ride's been up to. ..."And by the way, I don't work for Sally Ride or her company. I'm just a mom who has seen these programs spark an interest in my daughter and her friends that didn't exist before — and I'm excited about it!"

April 22, 2005 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:

The Economist: Environmental economics
The New Yorker: A planetary problem

Whales in space: In the movie "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," a super-powerful alien probe is poised to destroy Earth unless it hears from a particular breed of intelligent creatures. Unfortunately, the creatures that the aliens have in mind are not humans, but humpback whales, which were supposedly driven to extinction long before the 23rd century. Naturally, the only solution was sending the Enterprise's crew back in time.

On Friday, the Hawaii-based Sirius Institute and the Florida-based Deep Space Communications Network marked Earth Day 2005 by giving the humpbacks their own broadcast to the stars, if only for five minutes. Maybe that'll save Kirk and Spock the trip.

As we reported weeks ago, Deep Space is the outfit that uses a 16-foot-wide (5-meter-wide) TV transmission antenna to beam radio messages spaceward for a fee. The Sirius Institute, meanwhile, is a group of researchers who are studying whales and dolphins in hopes of setting up communication links between the cetaceans and us humans.

"We feel that it is important to invite the Cetacea, the oldest sentient race on the planet, to our Earth Day celebration and share their songs with the universe," Michael Hyson, the institute's research director, said in a news release.

Hyson told me that the institute's founding partner, Paradise Newland, came up with the idea of broadcasting whale songs to the stars years ago.

"It's something along the lines of 'Star Trek IV,'" he said. "We thought we'd do it early, before the whales left."

The institute paid the standard $99 rate for the five-minute live transmission, which took place shortly after 4 p.m. ET today, said Deep Space's director, Jim Lewis. An underwater microphone in the waters off Maui picked up the tweets of the humpbacks, and the Whalesong Project streamed them over the Internet. Deep Space then relayed the signals toward the star Sirius.

Whale songs weren't the only music transmitted on Friday. After the Sirius Institute's message was transmitted, Deep Space aired the debut of an entire album, "Sentimental Junk," recorded by the pop group Black Eyed Soul, Lewis said. Yet another transmission, commissioned by the Orange County Register, beamed out short messages from the newspaper's readers.

You can see and hear what Deep Space transmitted by logging onto the company's online archive (free registration required).

It's highly debatable whether any aliens could hear the songs, even assuming that aliens actually exist. Researchers specializing in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, say signals of the kind sent out by Deep Space would fade out just a couple of light-years away from Earth, but Lewis said civilizations more advanced than ours still might be able to make out even an ultra-faint signal. (For what it's worth, Sirius the star is 8.7 light-years away.)

Aliens may well hear from the humpbacks by another means: Whale songs were included on the "Golden Record" that was carried aboard each of the two Voyager deep-space probes launched in 1977.

For Hyson, it's the thought that counts. "We consider this event to be sponsored by what we call the Cetacean Commonwealth, the whales along with the people who support them in an attempt to give them legal status and a voice," he said.

The Sirius Institute has been working on several projects to bring humans and cetaceans closer together, including plans for dolphin-attended underwater births, interspecies concerts and experiments aimed at translating the pitch-based dolphin language into human phonemes.

"It's rumored that the Navy has interfaces similar to this going already," Hyson said.

If such experiments are successful, Sirius' ultimate aim is to extend the same type of protections to whales and dolphins that humans now enjoy. It's an intriguing thought that has been debated for decades, if not centuries: Do we already share the planet with alien intelligences? Or are the thought processes of cetaceans, chimpanzees and cephalopods too alien to be considered on a par with human intelligence?

The idea reminds me of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous pronouncement: "If a lion could talk, we would not understand him."

If this is a tangent you wouldn't mind going off on, check out this section from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Wittgenstein and this New York Times excerpt from the book "If a Lion Could Talk," as well as this Satya review of the book. Then let me know what you think about the prospects for communicating with aliens on planet Earth.

Correction from 10:35 p.m. ET April 21: A Cosmic Log correspondent points out that in "Star Trek IV," the Enterprise itself did not go back in time. "The crew actually used an old Klingon bird of prey that they had hijacked in the third movie in the series," Ed writes.

Comet crater contest: How big a hole will NASA's Deep Impact probe blow in Comet Tempel 1 on the Fourth of July? Today the Planetary Society announced the "Great Comet Contest," which will offer cool prizes for the best guesser.

Deep Impact, which was launched in January, is due to put a copper-sheathed impactor in the path of the zooming comet on July 4 for a fireworks show that just might be visible from Earth. If all goes according to plan, the impact should blast a crater on the order of 330 feet wide (100 meters wide) in the dirty snowball — spraying out bits that the main spacecraft will analyze for chemical clues to the solar system's origins.

The Planetary Society will be accepting predictions of the precise crater size from now until the big blast. After impact, the mission's science team will provide its assessment of how big the crater turned out to be, and the guessers who come closest to the mark will receive prizes including copper commemorative plaques, lifetime society memberships and paper models of the Deep Impact spacecraft.

Check out the Planetary Society's detailed rules and the online submission form — and while you're at it, keep tabs on the status of the society-sponsored Cosmos 1 solar-sail mission, scheduled for launch by May 31.

April 21, 2005 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:

Nat'l Geographic: Cavers reach new 'bottom of the world'
The Globe and Mail: Bigfoot video wows Canadians

Mars rovers show their age: One year after their missions were supposed to have ended, NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers are still going and going ... but they're not going quite as well as they used to. In fact, it sounds as if the six-wheeled robots are experiencing some "senior moments."

Over the past week, Spirit suffered a series of software glitches and struggled through rough terrain in the Red Planet's Columbia Hills. Half a planet away, Opportunity is coping with a bum steering motor and encountered problems as it rolled through a wavy sandscape in Meridiani Planum.

It shouldn't be surprising that problems occasionally crop up, considering that the rovers have far exceeded their planned 90-day mission. And despite the robotic aches and pains, the rovers are still turning up fascinating finds.

During the early phases of the mission, Opportunity was the darling of the scientific set, coming across the first solid evidence for persistent water on ancient Mars. But now, after a long slog into the hills, Spirit seems to be grabbing more of the attention, at least from the growing legions of amateur rover-watchers.

Nowadays, if you're just checking NASA's official Mars rover Web site, you're not getting the whole story. On the Mars Forum, bulletin-board posters gush over features like the "right-angle rock" in this picture from Spirit's navigation camera. On Unmanned Spaceflight, the real prize appears to be an outcropping called Methuselah, or "Meth" for short.

One posting quotes Cornell University's Steve Squyres, principal investigator for rover science, as saying Methuselah is "a spectacular outcrop of layered rock, perhaps the best that Spirit has yet seen." Although NASA itself hasn't yet released any color imagery of the locale, amateurs have posted a jaw-dropping color panorama.

It's interesting to see how amateurs have really set the pace in distributing rover imagery, drawing upon the Exploratorium's excellent database. If you're an image-processing geek, or just someone who appreciates cool color pictures from Mars (and who doesn't?), be sure to check Daniel Crotty's "MER Color Imagery" page.

Great news for Genesis: It didn't look good when the Genesis solar-wind probe literally fell to Earth last September, due to a parachute glitch. Many of the delicate sample-collection disks were shattered by the impact. But now that scientists have had a chance to examine four key collectors placed inside an instrument called the concentrator, they say the most important solar-wind samples were intact after all.

Scientists will analyze the samples to measure solar-oxygen isotopic composition, one of the Genesis mission's top scientific priorities. The results could shed new light on how the solar system was formed billions of years ago.

"Finding these concentrator targets in excellent condition after the Genesis crash was a real miracle," Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, principal investigator for the concentrator, said in today's NASA statement. "It raised our spirits a huge amount the day after the impact. With the removal of the concentrator targets this week, we are getting closer to learning what these targets will tell us about the sun and our solar system."

April 20, 2005 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web: Detector finds Earth's solid core
Scientific American: How to build a nanocomputer

The pitfalls of physics: A century after his heyday, Albert Einstein is a true cultural icon, as shown in our special report marking the centennial of the physicist’s “miracle year.” He’s been justly credited for the ideas behind lasers and photocells, and perhaps unjustly blamed for darker facets of modern life such as nuclear weaponry.

But it wasn’t just his brilliance that set him apart from his contemporaries, according to University of Chicago physicist Robert Geroch, whose commentary appears in a newly published edition of Einstein’s “Relativity.”

“What was so special about him is that he did give a human face to science,” he told me. “It would be great if people could get that as the legacy of Einstein: that science is a human process rather than something that’s cast in stone or unchangeable. It doesn’t fall from the sky. It’s the result of people making hard decisions and spending long hours trying to find out how nature works.”

Einstein made plenty of mistakes along the way, including his back-and-forth over the cosmological constant as well as his many false steps along the path toward the theory of general relativity. As detailed in "Reflections on Relativity," Einstein poked fun at his own willingness to admit mistakes in a 1915 letter to fellow physicist Paul Ehrenfest: "That fellow Einstein suits his convenience," he wrote. "Every year he retracts what he wrote the year before." (Discover magazine goes into more detail on "The Master's Mistakes.")

Einstein's playful image — with the unkempt hair and the bike-riding around Princeton — was a sure antidote for the usual stereotypes of his trade. In that, he was like a certain Polish pope who was known to hit the ski slopes and wear funny hats.

On that theme, Pope John Paul II's freshly named successor has decried what he sees as today's "dictatorship of relativism," but it would be a mistake to blame moral relativism on the theory of relativity: As a matter of fact, physicist Richard Wolfson, author of the book "Simply Einstein," notes that Einstein had considered calling it the "theory of invariance," since relativity's true bottom line is that the laws of physics are universal and unvarying. Now that's something that even Benedict XVI could get behind.

Even today, there are pitfalls awaiting would-be Einsteins, and not all of them have to do with physics. Here's a selection of the feedback sparked by this week's special report on Einstein's legacy:

Vijay Sreedhar: "Even though Einstein was only a clerk at the patent office, and even though he had no connections to academia, he was able to submit and get his papers published in a professional physics journal.  All those papers were revolutionary. They began with destroying the accepted wisdom of academia. Yet, not only did the journal publish his submissions, but the editor and the reviewers did not even hesitate a bit."How could this be?  We all know of the horror stories (actual documented facts) of the journals being so difficult to get published in: Only those who have been in the good books of the editors have an easy time. For others, it is hell. Not that the ones published are so watertight and the ones rejected are crackpots. It is very well known that favoritism, personal bias, revenge, etc., play the dominant role in technical publications.  This has been going on for at least several decades. ..."So the question to you is: How can a new truly revolutionary physicist break on to the scence today?  The establishment crushes those who are outside of reputed academia. The majority of physicists are not objective, but bandwagon travelers. The science journalists are not persevering enough to follow through a newly revolutionary principle which has been ignored by the academic establishment. Einstein got his papers published, but if it were not for the liking and influence-wielding of powerful icons (such as Planck and Eddington), he would have bit the dust."So, it seems, there will not be any new Einsteins.  Not because there is no one with such revolutionary ideas, but because the entire process makes sure he/she is ignored.  The only ones who are crowned 'revolutionary' are the ones the establishment (some influential physicist who also knows how to do propaganda) picks up."It is so American, just like the political machinary that declares some presidents great, not because of their virtue, but because of the manipulated consensus managed by an unscrupulous political pundit."

It's important to note that Einstein's scientific career didn't begin with his "miracle year" in 1905. In fact, this Einstein Year timeline shows that he had at least five papers published in Annalen der Physik before 1905, and wrote a number of reviews as well. So when Einstein came up with special relativity, he wasn't quite as unknown as Vijay's message makes him out to be.

C.L. Omohundro, reflecting on the status of "My sister-in-law is a civil engineer with a master's degree. She found out that she was being paid less than any of the four men she was supervising. When I asked her why she didn't file a federal complaint, she said, 'If you file a complaint like that in this business, you'll never work again.' Less than a year later the firm 'downsized,' and she was one of the first laid off."I studied nuclear engineering myself. One of my male professors told me to get out of the discipline — it was too dangerous. Genetically speaking, he was right. But it's just as dangerous for men — gamma radiation doesn't discriminate between testes and ovaries. I don't think he ever ran off any of his male students with that routine. I had a B-plus GPA, but I dropped out, because it was abundantly clear that women had no future in that field, regardless of their intellectual capabilities."The real issue in sexism, whether it's in the scientific community or any other, is pay. And if a group, any group, is discriminated against for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with the 'job,' then it's not simply sexism or racism or ageism, it's slavery. If one group gets a corner on the market, so to speak, and uses mythical reasons to discriminate against qualified workers, we have a slave state."If no one ever does a public survey of the comparative salaries and benefits for the Harvard faculty based on gender then there will never be public recognition of the existence of that particular slave state. And of course, no one ever will. At least, no one at Harvard. The male faculty want you to think they dominate the numbers and command the highest salaries because they are in some way superior, even though they aren't. To do a survey would cause everyone to recognize that and, even worse, that they are also running a state of slavery. Believe me, there will NEVER be a survey."I appreciate your articles about women in scientific areas (outside of pediatrics!) and hope your editor won't get too nervous if you do more. I see that you have touched on the subject of Einstein's first collaborator, [Mileva] Maric, whose name he removed from the manuscript he submitted to the Nobel committee. The local PBS station here ran a special on her, titled 'Einstein's Wife.' It should have been titled 'Einstein's Collaborator.'"

PBS offers a Web site for "Einstein's Wife," as well as the beginnings of a Web site for the upcoming "Nova" docudrama "E=mc And while we're on the subject...

Gildardo Rivas: "A lot of people mistake the influence of the famous equation E=mc2 in the development of nuclear physics. But I must point out the connection between that equation and nuclear energy is a tenuous one at best."It is true that the validity of the equation is manifest in nuclear reactions (the tenuous connection), which was noticed in the late 1930s when nuclear fission was discovered, but it was not envisioned by the people working it that field then. There is no logical or conceptual connection between nuclear energy and relativity, and there never was a physicist that read the 1905 paper and realized 'E=mc2, ergo we must have energy from the atom' — that just never happened, neither literally nor figuratively."The notion of nuclear energy came from the study of the atomic nucleus by means of quantum mechanics, which traces part of its conceptual lineage to Einstein's explanation of the photoelectric effect in his earlier paper of 1905, in which he used the particle description of light. It was the scientists who developed that notion that laid the groundwork for nuclear energy and weapons."The fact that an equation from relativity is obeyed in nuclear physics is simply a consistency check by nature, since other relativistic equations are also verified in other physical processes, the same way that the laws of thermodynamics are obeyed in nuclear physics and other areas of science. Nobody developing or using thermodynamics envisioned energy from the nucleus!"I believe the confusion stems from the fact that Einstein's influence on quantum mechanics came from his photoelectric effect paper, written the same year as his relativity papers, and from his famous letter sent to President Roosevelt (written at the behest of Leo Szilard and Oppenheimer) urging him to do research to develop nuclear weaponry before Germany. Einstein himself remained skeptical of quantum mechanics, and therefore its explanation of nuclear energy, to his death. ..."

April 19, 2005 |
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:

Slate: How much for that monkey?
The Onion: Fifth-grade science paper flunks peer review

Constant controversy continues: Is the speed of light really constant, or does it change over time? Even as scientists mark the centenary of Albert Einstein's "miracle year" and today's 50th anniversary of his death, they're turning up new grist for the debate over the value of "c" in his most famous equation, E=mc2.

Over the years, some physicists have been developing evidence that a fundamental value known as the fine-structure constant wasn't really all that constant after all, but has been changing ever so slightly over the course of billions of years. That constant, known in the physics world as "alpha," has an indirect relationship to the speed of light and the charge of the electron.

If the fine-structure constant turns out to be inconstant, that could require adding unorthodox twists to Einstein's theories on relativity and quantum physics. In fact, Australian physicist/author Paul Davies has said such findings would require "giving up the theory of relativity and E=mc2 and all that sort of stuff.”

The claims of inconstancy also give encouragement to those who read the Bible as a scientific text.

For years, physicists have been debating whether the differences truly represented a change in the constant or merely blips within the observational margin of error. Just last week, Cambridge astronomer Michael Murphy said a detailed study of distant quasars confirmed the view that the fine-structure constant was indeed changing. But he acknowledged that the change was incredibly minute — about one part in 200,000 — and said the case was far from closed.

"We are claiming something extraordinary here, and the evidence, though strong, is not yet extraordinary enough," he said.

Today, physicists involved in the wider-scale DEEP2 galaxy survey presented strong evidence on the other side of the debate: They saw no change over the past 7 billion years, within a 1-part-in-30,000 tolerance. Moreover, the scientists said their observational technique was a more direct way to measure the fine-structure constant than the quasar method used in the past.

"This null result means theorists don't need to find an explanation for why it would change so much," said Jeffrey Newman, an astronomer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The DEEP2 presentation was made during the American Physical Society's annual meeting in Tampa, Fla.

So there's no need to throw out Einstein's theories just yet. But Murphy was still probably correct last week when he said the debate wasn't over. In fact, future findings from the DEEP2 project could well address yet another of the mysteries hanging over the theories, relating to the nature of dark energy.

April 18, 2005 |
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:

Times of London: Earth's gravity may lure asteroid
Science Daily: Happiness may be due to biology

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