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Cosmic Log: April 23-30, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: The science of dream teams ... Back to the future ... More intellectual heiresses ... Comet in NASA's sights  ... Mars probe mired ... Debating evolution ... Guides to the galaxy ... The three faces of Titan ... Nanotube news.

The science of dream teams: Research into the nature of networks has turned up a tried and true recipe for a "dream team": Start out with well-seasoned performers who haven't necessarily worked together before, add some fresh newcomers, and mix well.

The recipe for success comes from an analysis of the author lists for thousands of published research papers on social psychology, economics, ecology and astronomy, as well as the top credits for Broadway musicals since 1877. The study, published in Friday's issue of the journal Science, was conducted by Northwestern University's Luis Nunes Amaral, Brian Uzzi, Roger Guimerà and Jarrett Spiro.

When the team mapped out the interconnections between the authors of the research papers, they found that the "successful" papers, published in journals that were rated as having a high impact in their fields, tended to have a characteristic mix of rookies and veterans. Those who published "unsuccessful" papers in low-impact journals tended to have authors who collaborated with each other over and over again, they said.

"The entire network looks different when you compare a successful team with an unsuccessful team," Amaral said. "The teams that publish in bad journals form a network broken into small, unconnected clusters while the teams that publish in good journals give rise to a giant, connected cluster. A strong correlation clearly exists between team assembly and the quality of the team's creations. You need someone new to get the creative juices going so you don't get trapped in the same ideas over and over again."

The researchers found a similar blend of rookies and veterans in the credits of the Broadway musicals. In Northwestern's news release, Uzzi pointed to "West Side Story" as an example of the successful blend: Producer and director Harold Prince and lyricist Stephen Sondheim had worked together before, on "Pajama Game"; choreographer Jerome Robbins was experienced in the industry but hadn't worked with Prince or Sondheim before; and classical musical composer Leonard Bernstein was a newcomer to the Broadway scene.

Notre Dame physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, a computer scientist who specializes in the science of networks ranging from the World Wide Web to terrorist networks, said managers could learn a thing or two from the research, even if they don't work on Broadway or in academia.

“The recipe for success seems relatively simple: When forming a 'dream team' make an effort to include the most experienced people, whether or not you have worked with them before. The temptation to work mainly with friends will eventually hurt performance,” he wrote in a Science commentary on the research.

Aurora alert: Watch the skies on Sunday and Monday for northern lights (or southern lights if you're Down Under). The Space Weather Web site reports that auroral displays are expected to be brighter on those nights when Earth runs into "a solar wind stream flowing from a coronal hole on the sun." Space Weather's gallery already has shows off some great auroras for April, and while you're on the Web site, don't miss the movie of a giant sunspot turning in our direction.

April 30, 2005 |
More weekend sights on the World Wide Web:
• •
Mars Express looks at Tithonium Chasma from above
Defense Tech: GoogleSat mania continues

Back to the future: What will the next quarter-century bring? That seems to be a question on the minds of politicians as well as technologists — and it's not just about Social Security.

The next quarter-century or so will be crucial for issues ranging from energy production to space exploration, and perhaps even for the future of humanity itself. In his forthcoming book, "Radical Evolution," trend-watcher Joel Garreau argues that the next generation will see a "transformation of human nature," through genetics, cybernetics and pharmacology.

"Suddenly we find ourselves in this information age where we're increasingly getting the power to control our own human nature, and we're sitting here scratching our heads wondering whether we like this game, and wondering whether there's any way to get off," he told me.

The curve of change is rising so quickly that "the last 20 years is not a guide to the last 20 years, it’s a guide to the next eight," he said.

You'll hear more about Garreau's themes next week. But for now, I'd suggest that for most of humanity, the world of tomorrow might not look all that different from the gee-whiz world of today, where "zero-energy homes," personal air vehicles and private spaceships are already in the works.

The world of 2030 might well prove the truth of novelist William Gibson's famous dictum: "The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed yet."

For cautionary tales about the pitfalls of predicting the future in the realm of transportation, check out our roundup of flights of fancy that fizzled, as well as Berkeley's "Transportation Futuristics" gallery.

More intellectual heiresses: Our look at 12 females on the frontiers of physics sparked more nominations of worthy frontierswomen, as well as other musings from Cosmic Log readers. Here's a selection from the e-mail feedback (and here's an earlier follow-up on the original report):

Risa Wechsler: "Nice article on female successors to Einstein. You asked who should be added to the list, so I thought I would send this list of a few more women who are theoretical cosmologists/astrophysicists, since there aren't too many of us!"Rachel Somerville (Space Telescope Science Institute): Cosmology and galaxy formation, member of the GOODS team."Tiziana di Matteo (Carnegie Mellon): Black holes, high energy astrophysics and cosmology. Cosmological simulations of black hole formation. "Rosalba Perna (University of Colorado): High energy astrophysics, including gamma-ray bursts and neutron stars."Priya Natarajan (Yale University): Cosmology, gravitational lensing, black holes"Rachel Bean (Princeton University): Cosmology with the cosmic microwave background, dark energy, member of the WMAP team."Nicole Bell (Caltech): Astroparticle physics, neutrino physics."Risa Wechsler (University of Chicago, me): Cosmology, large-scale structure and galaxy formation, using cosmological simulations. Member of SDSS, Dark Energy Survey."

More nominations came from Aaron Chou of Fermilab:

"In addition to established researchers, I would suggest making a list of up-and-coming female physicists.  There is a very strong group of young post-doctoral research associates working on the experiment at Fermilab.  This group includes: Hyejoo Kang and Simona Murgia (Stanford University); Hai Zheng (Caltech); Mayly Sanchez (Harvard); Nikki Saoulidou and Alysia Marino (Fermilab)."They are working on sending a particle beam of neutrinos from Fermilab in Illinois, 700 kilometers to the Soudan Mine in Northern Minnesota, in order to measure the properties of neutrino oscillations."

Tony Castaneda took my "white liberal butt" to task for being too politically correct about the differences between men and women in the brain department:

"I used to be an X-ray technologist in the early days of brain aneurysms and the use of catheters, balloon angiopathy and cerebral imaging with barium. We had to map the brain and heart in three dimensions accurately, and it directly affected the way I had to design catheters, guide, monitoring and control wires inside catheters. This was 1972, in San Francisco, with a Dr. Myler."We prepared a paper on the brain differences (physical) between men and women, and it was roundly booed and hissed in 1972 San Francisco, as you might guess. So we did not build compensatory differences into the Myler catheter, the early heart-lung machines, the pressures introduced into brain blood vessels, sinuses. My guess is that killed about 80 women a year clear up into the 1990s, when the differences were quietly re-introduced, as what were called addendums to the physical equipment."Now we face the same thing with women and minority brain differences (functional). As a result, women will not be trained differently in school to compensate for their population pool tendencies against math. It will perpetuate the 7 percent [the percentage of tenured and tenure-track positions at America's top 50 research universities filled by women]."Blacks will not be medicated differently in hospitals to compensate for their population pool tendencies toward blood/brain barrier diseases (like sickle cell or thalassaemia) or their different stress brain chemistry. ... And, lastly, people who should not be science writers will be shunted off into another line of work. Say, mystery writing. Science is about numbers, my friend. Deny what the numbers tell you, and you stop contributing as a scientist."

There were also these rants about the current state of things:

Sydney: "When I applied to Stanford, I was told the 'quota' for women was full already.  At the time, I didn't know such a thing was questionable and went elsewhere. And colleges still rave about the ratio of men to women on campus in their catalog — which seems to me to be written proof their selection process is still biased.   So why is this all still allowed?  Are they just arrogant or do they still believe the people who pay the fees are idiots?"Guy Newell: "Why is everyone hung up on the gender of scientists? Why is no one concerned about the gender of primary educators or nurses? Is it that people think scientists make more money than teachers? Or that washing test tubes is more interesting than giving sponge baths? No. It's about political correctness. A university president complains about not being able to hire female scientists and suggests that it might not be all his fault for being such a sexist pig. Maybe he's right. Maybe men just don't like teaching or giving sponge baths, and women don't like being cooped up in a lab by themselves 15 or 16 hours a day. It's possible, isn't it? Maybe it's not because of discrimination? I look around me here in this lab, and it's mostly minorities of one sort or another. Not many women, though."

On the road again: I'm getting away to Washington on Friday for meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Updates will depend on time and bandwidth.

April 28, 2005 |
Other destinations on the scientific Web:
• •
'Nova' on PBS: 'Hunt for the Supertwister'
Play a game of chess with Thinking Machine 4

Comet in NASA's sights: The Deep Impact spacecraft has sent back its first snapshot of the comet that will be targeted for collision on July 4.

The probe's first image of Comet Tempel 1 was snapped on Monday from a distance of 39.7 million miles (63.5 million kilometers). Right now, the comet is just a fuzzy white patch on a field of black, but over the next 10 weeks, the patch should steadily loom larger in Deep Impact's figurative windshield.

"It is great to get a first glimpse at the comet from our spacecraft," Deep Impact's principal investigator, Michael A'Hearn, said in today's NASA advisory. "With daily observations beginning in May, Tempel 1 will become noticeably more impressive as we continue to close the gap between spacecraft and comet. What is now little more than a few pixels across will evolve by July 4 into the best, most detailed images of a comet ever taken."

Once the main Deep Impact spacecraft gets close, it will release a copper-sheathed impactor probe into the path of the 4-mile-wide (6.4-kilometer-wide) comet, colliding at a relative speed of 23,000 mph (36,800 kilometers per hour). The impact should blow a crater that could range from the width of a small house to a football stadium. (The Planetary Society is taking your guesses about just how big it will be.)

From a distance, the main spacecraft will analyze the debris and send pictures and data back to Earth. The results should tell scientists quite a bit about the primordial stuff that was left over from the solar system's creation.

It could also be quite a cosmic fireworks display: Skywatchers should be able to watch the brightening of the comet through binoculars and small telescopes — or even using the naked eye, under just the right conditions.

Mars probe mired: NASA's Opportunity rover has been spinning its wheels in some Martian sand dunes on its way to Erebus Crater, according to an exchange on the Mars Forum. Principal rover scientist Steve Squyres is quoted as saying that "all six wheels were dug pretty deeply into a large ripple."

"We've gotten dug in before and gotten out just fine, so this isn't cause for immediate concern," Squyres says in Tuesday's mission update. "But we're likely to be here a little while, taking our time to get our wheels back on top of the soil again, and also taking some time to figure out what's different about this soil and how to keep this from happening again as we continue to work our way toward Erebus."

On the other side of the planet, the Spirit rover is grooving on a bedrock outcropping called Methuselah. "This is indeed the best piece of layered bedrock Spirit has ever seen," Squyres reports. (Tip o' the Log to NBC News space analyst James Oberg.)

Debating evolution ... or not: Instead of wishing it would just go away, scientists and educators should pay more attention to intelligent design, the idea that nature is so complex that it had to be arranged by a supernatural being. That's the message from a cover story and an editorial appearing in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

The story notes that the intelligent-design movement is inching its way onto college campuses, and that evolutionary biologists tend to shy away from public debates because designists are so well-schooled in their talking points.

The trend can put educators in a difficult position, Nature's editors say: "Scientists know that natural selection can explain the awe-inspiring complexities of organisms, and should be prepared to explain how. But attacking or dismissing intelligent design is likely to aggravate the rift between science and faith that causes students to become interested in intelligent design in the first place."

The editors say scientists should be prepared to offer their own constructive thoughts.

"For religious scientists, this may involve taking the time to talk to students about how they personally reconcile their beliefs with their research," the editorial recommends. "Secular researchers should talk to others in order to understand how faiths have come to terms with science. All scientists whose classes are faced with such concerns should familiarize themselves with some basic arguments as to why evolution, cosmology and geology are not competing with religion. When they walk into the lecture hall, they should be prepared to talk about what science can and cannot do, and how it fits in with different religious beliefs."

National Geographic's John Roach, meanwhile, offers a preview of the intelligent-design debate that is likely to play out next month before members of the Kansas State Board of Education as they reconsider their science curriculum standards.

The debate tends to heat up quickly, as evidenced by the reader response to our Q&A with "Origins" astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Many of the e-mail messages did little more than assert that Tyson and I were wrongheaded — or mischaracterize the claims of evolutionary biologists. Here's a selection of the more thoughtful responses:

Jere Davis, Greenville, S.C.: "... I am simply a devoted amateur when it comes to science, but I read a lot and love to challenge my mind with the understanding of new or accepted theory, tested and untested, verified or not.  When it comes to Darwin's theories, I find that there are many elements of them that are undeniable and that unquestionably moved our scientific understanding of life forward.  However, I believe that when his theories are presented as a whole, they should not be characterized as untroubled or universally accepted by all reputable scientists."I am interested in truth.  As Einstein himself learned the hard way, when you let your prejudices of thought get in your way it can lead to lapses of judgment and mistakes ('the cosmological constant').  So I would urge you to be less zealous in your promotion of Darwin and condemnation of those who see flaws in his work.  True, sometimes science brings old truths inside the circle of new and greater truths, but just as often, science has to throw out some of the old truths because they are simply wrong. ..."Rebecca N., Longmont, Colo.: "It is misguided to suggest that the only reason Darwin's theory could ever be questioned is because a person is ignorant and religious. This piece went so far as so suggest that Darwin's theory is more solid than relativity. Never once was the possibility of improving Darwin's theory even suggested. Of course relativity may be fine-tuned to incorporate quantum mechanics (it's also likely that quantum mechanics will be modified) but there are far more shortcomings in the theory of natural selection and random progression that will need to be fine-tuned in order to describe biology in a universal way. To suggest that Darwin's theory is complete in its description of observable biology is false. One need not be a religious extremist to hope the 'theory of evolution' will improve in the future."The most disturbing bit in this article is the blatant claim that a believer in the Bible has no business being a scientist. I've not seen such a statement in a long time. Many significant scientific achievements have been made by religious people. It's not very professional to crap on the shoulders you stand on."David Rinehart: "... The fundamental difference between Einstein's theories and Darwin's theories is that Einstein attempted to explain things that happen every day. Darwin attempted to explain things that happened in past eons of history. One can be tested today, the other is shrouded in mystery, at least until we devise better ways to look back in time. Even if evolution is 'demonstrated' in labs and miniaturized examples, it simply does not prove that's what happened millions of years ago. "Evidence is slim at best for evolution. Transitional forms are exceedingly rare in the fossil record, a fact that counters one of Darwin's own predictions. Not that there is more evidence for any other theory. That's exactly the point: from a factual standpoint, our origins are little known and understood. We might as well admit it. For all we know, we could have been beamed down by aliens. I'm tired of condescending science hacks calling any non-evolutionist an idiot. I can hardly imagine anything more closed-minded and counter to the imagination and creativity that truly powers scientific progress. If you want to do society a service, keep your science honest and free of this sort of nonsensical propaganda."

In fairness, I should say that the evidence for transitional forms in the development of species is stronger than the evidence that we were beamed down by aliens. I'll list the Talk.Origins Archive and the National Center for Science Education as resources. And if the equal-time rule must be invoked, you can check the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis to look at the doubts voiced about Darwin.

Eric Nelson, University of Louisville: "As a physicist, lecturer, and person who all too often sees the little fish icons depicting Darwin as being anti-Christian, I think that our society needs to examine the way we think about Darwin. Your article was well-written, and it aids this examination. However, I find that your article fails to address the most basic misunderstandings concerning how our society views Darwin today. The following facts may come as a surprise to you.

"(1) There is no theory of evolution. Darwin's theory was the theory of natural selection. At the time that Darwin took his trip on the Beagle, evolution was understood to mean only that things change over time. Large segments of our society now assume it means spontaneous generation of life. Darwin never used this modern definition. If you look at old dictionaries, you can see that this definition emerged only after Darwin's work was published. Based on the timing of the change in dictionaries, I suspect that the change was probably done to discredit Darwin by clouding the true issues. Let me reiterate: Darwin's ideas have absolutely nothing to do with the origin of life on our planet. They deal with how that life changes over time, and what happened after its initial creation. "(2) Darwin himself did not believe in spontaneous generation of life. He believed that God created us all. Most of Darwin's opponents will try to discredit or hide this fact at all costs."(3) Darwin was a religious man, originally attending college to study theology."I feel saddened every time I see one of several little fish icons, some of which show the Darwin fish eating the Jesus fish, and some of which show the reverse. Everyone with high-school science proficiency or better believes in evolution as Darwin described it (not necessarily as people say Darwin described it). All of the scientists I know also believe in a higher power of some form. There is no reason these two sets of beliefs must be mutually exclusive. I wish this ignorance would end."Your article is good, but I hope that if you ever write more on the subject you will help to destroy one of the greatest myths of our time, that if one admits that life changes over time, one cannot believe in God."

April 27, 2005 |
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:

• (via Daily Grail)
TutWatch from Archaeology magazine
Discover magazine: Native America's alleles

Life, the universe and nearly everything: "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" finally comes to the big screen after a gestation period of about two decades — and close to four years after the death of its author, British humorist Douglas Adams.

The movie, which begins with the destruction of Earth (after the dolphins leave, of course), traces the exploits of refugee earthling Arthur Dent and his extraterrestrial travel mates as they carom from one cosmic scrape to another — adding a few new twists to the ground covered by the radio series, the five-book "trilogy," the TV series, the computer game and even an honest-to-goodness "Hitchhiker's Guide."

I have a soft spot for the "Hitchhiker" saga, in part because of my supporting role in the naming of Asteroid Douglasadams (which followed an earlier asteroidal tribute, Arthurdent). But the film version is sparking a controversy even before its scheduled Friday release.

Some reviews say it's a worthy if not quite stellar addition to the Adams oeuvre: The Hollywood Reporter, for example, says the story made "the tricky leap to the cinema with largely pleasing results." The praise is somewhat fainter in The Associated Press' review, which says the movie is too "mindbogglingly big."

But it's the verdict from Adams' own biographer that's the most damning: "You just won't believe how vastly, staggeringly, jaw-droppingly bad it is," M.J. Simpson says on his Planet Magrathea Web site. The outcry over Simpson's thumbs-down is so stormy that it's led Simpson to stop updating the site — and vow never to write another word about Adams or "H2G2."

Guess I'll have to see the movie to find out what all the fuss is about.

To get more of the flavor of the original "Hitchhiker's Guide," check out the BBC cult Web site. And if you're in the market for a truly scientific guide to life, the universe and nearly everything, check out this month's selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club: "A Short History of Nearly Everything," by Bill Bryson. The well-known author brings a wonderful beginner's mind to all the big questions about the rise of the cosmos and civilization.

Bryson's book is a worthy addition to the CLUB Club, which recognizes books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to show up in libraries or used-book shops. Send in your suggestions for future CLUB Club books, and if your nomination is the first one chosen, I'll send you a copy of the newly published edition of Albert Einstein's "Relativity," in which the great man himself explains his special and general theory. The updated book marks the centennial of Einstein's "miracle year."

April 26, 2005 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:

OSU: Trapping atoms for future computers
New Scientist: Mind-reading machine knows what you see
The Onion: Hyperbolic chamber is greatest invention ever

Three faces of Titan: How you see Saturn's largest and most mysterious moon depends on how you look, as illustrated by the pictures from the Cassini probe's latest flyby.

In visible light, Titan's surface is totally obscured by orangish haze — but if you filter the moon's reflected light just right, near-infrared wavelengths reveal a puzzling mosaic of light and dark areas. Thanks to Cassini and its piggyback probe, Huygens, scientists now feel more confident about linking those patterns to continents of relatively bright ice, and rivers and oceans of darker hydrocarbon ooze.

If you combine several filters, you can get a detailed reading of how Titan's atmosphere behaves at different levels.

"Green represents areas where Cassini is able to see down to the surface," Cassini's imaging team explains in its advisory. "Red represents areas high in Titan's stratosphere where atmospheric methane is absorbing sunlight. Blue along the moon’s outer edge represents visible violet wavelengths at which the upper atmosphere and detached hazes are better seen."

The picture were taken on April 16 during Cassini's latest and closest flyby, during which the probe dipped down as close as 638 miles (1,027 kilometers) to the surface.

As pleased as the scientists are with the snapshots, they sound even more excited about the atmospheric analysis conducted during the encounter: Surprisingly high volumes and varieties of complex hydrocarbons were found in the outer layers of Titan's haze, NASA said today in a news release. Scientists reported finding hydrocarbons with as many as seven carbon atoms, as well as nitrogen-containing hydrocarbons.

"Ultimately, this information from the Saturn system will help us determine the origins of organic matter within the entire solar system," said the University of Michigan's Hunter Waite, principal investigator for Cassini's ion and neutral mass spectrometer.

Scientists always thought they would see complex organic chemistry in Titan's atmosphere, but NASA said the molecules had been "expected to condense and rain down to the surface." It's surprising that the complex hydrocarbons are still hanging around in the upper atmosphere, where ultraviolet light and particle radiation can force new chemical combinations. Some researchers speculate that the raw material for life on Earth may have been manufactured in the same way.

"Biology on Earth is the primary source of organic production we are familiar with," Waite said, "but the key question is, what is the ultimate source of the organics in the solar system?"

Going up, with nanotubes:
The LiftPort Group, one of the players in the fast-evolving space elevator community, has struck a deal to manufacture carbon nanotubes at an industrial facility in Millville, N.J.

The city of Millville and the Cumberland Empowerment Zone are partnering to provide $100,000 in seed money for the facility, to be located at Millville's airport. LiftPort Nanotech is to begin operations in June with six employees, said Michael Laine, president of the Seattle-based LiftPort Group.

Laine emphasized that the facility would be focused on making super-strong, commercial-grade nanotubes for industrial applications rather than the space elevator — an orbital transfer scheme that is most likely more than a decade away from becoming feasible.

"My hunch is, it's going to go more toward the automotive and marine engineering applications as an enhancement or replacement for fiberglass," Laine told me. "But we're going to mostly leave that up to our customers."

Sandra Forosisky, executive director of the Cumberland Empowerment Zone, noted that Millville has had a long history as a manufacturing center.

"Millville is historically glass, and then it was plastic, so when Michael said 'nanotubes,' it was a natural progression," she told me. "We're all about jobs and improving the technological infrastructure. It's a win-win for both of us."

Laine said the New Jersey operation doesn't signal that LiftPort is shifting its long-term focus from space elevators. "It's designed to be a cash cow, so we can go on to build the space elevator," he said. "It's an important technological steppingstone."

The idea behind the space elevator is to build nanotube-strength ribbons that would stretch out for tens of thousands of miles, providing a roadway for robotic beam-powered transports to carry payloads into orbit. NASA and the Spaceward Foundation recently announced a pair of competitions for those types of technologies.

LiftPort's experimental climbing robot and ribbon material were given a tough test last month during a simulated mission at the Mars Society's research station in the Utah desert. Unfortunately, twists in the ribbons caused the robot to get hung up and "fried the motors," according to a Mars Society status report. I guess that's just how the climber crumbles.

In other nanotube news:

  • Los Alamos National Laboratory makes a deal with Carbon Designs, another pioneer in the space elevator field, to develop next-generation carbon nanotube fibers.
  • NASA awards Rice University's Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory a four-year, $11 million contract to develop a prototype power cable made entirely out of nanotubes.

April 25, 2005 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:

LiveScience: Sumatran quake left gravitational 'scar'
Technology Review: Environmental heresies
The New Yorker: A model patient

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