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Cosmic Log: May 1-6, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Science by majority vote ... Space Day, Ole! ...  Shuffling the shuttles ... Lights, camera, blastoff! ... Astronauts take thrill rides ... and still more.

Science by majority vote: Will there ever be complete scientific agreement on global climate change, or evolutionary theory? Probably not, until thousands if not millions of years from now. After all, the Flat Earth Society can still mount some scientific-sounding (if not totally serious) arguments on its behalf.

So how do you know when the questions about controversial scientific topics are finally settled? Most of the time, you really don't. After all, as detailed in our special report on Albert Einstein's legacy, physicists thought they were on the verge of figuring almost everything out a century ago — and then Einstein revealed just how little was known about the nature of the universe.

Although the exercise may be politically satisfying, it does little good to try to resolve scientific debates by calculating how many wheelbarrows' worth of published papers support your view, as the backers of standard evolutionary theory did this week in Kansas, or as climate researchers did recently in the journal Science. (Check British social anthropologist Benny Peiser's Web site for updates on his feud with Science over those global-warming claims.)

On the other hand, it does little good to throw up your hands and say we can't possibly tease out the scientific explanations behind a complex phenomenon, whether we're talking about the impact of reflected sunlight on climate change, or the mechanism behind human origins. Although there may never be complete agreement on the controversial issues, it's possible to arrive at enough consensus to move on, leaving the Flat Earthers to their Web sites.

For one example of how to handle scientific debates, check out the Web site for "The Eyes of Nye," the latest TV production from Bill Nye the Science Guy. He provides resources for a dozen science controversies, ranging from climate change to cloning, but also reserves space for "The Flip Side" — that is, the minority report for each issue. (If you're in an area where you can catch "The Eyes of Nye" on television, consider yourself lucky.)

This week's special report on, "Fast Forward: The Future of Evolution," stirred up a new wave of feedback from the Flip Side. Here's a selection of the e-mail from both sides of the issue:

John Turner: "I am a Ph.D. chemical engineer with advanced training in science and mathematics, and I find that the whole idea of creationism is a lot more practical from an intellectual point of view than the idea of intelligent life arising from 'nothing.' ... I am not religious, but as an engineer, the idea of a master engineer behind everything seems more practical. I think the idea ... that we are results of alien experimentation is even more practical than the rubbish that is taught of the origins of species and labeled as science."Jack Foster, Red Oak, Texas: "... Until the scientific community can demonstrate beyond doubt that they have witnessed and documented a change from one species to another without artificial genetic manipulation, schools should stick to teaching what is known, not what is theorized. All we Christians have is a hearsay account of what happened which is being supported by more and more evidence all the time. Secular humanists who promote Darwinian evolution don't even have that!"Frank Sherwin, "You said, 'Scientists are fond of running the evolutionary clock backward, using DNA analysis and the fossil record to figure out when our ancestors stood erect and split off from the rest of the primate evolutionary tree.' Scientific research does not support the above statement.  Evolutionary atheist James Trefil said, 'So now what? We have two bodies of evidence, each with seemingly impeccable credentials, that lead us to mutually contradictory conclusions — the same situation our predecessors faced at the end of the last century. If we believe the DNA, modern humans spread around the globe from Africa starting about 100,000 years ago. But if we accept that, we have to ignore the evidence of the fossils, and if we believe the fossils, we have to ignore the evidence from DNA.' — ['101 Things You Don't Know About Science and No One Else Does Either,'] Mariner Books, 1996, pp. 268-69."

This citation was easy to check using's book-searching function, and the context puts Trefil's quote in a different light. Trefil was actually talking about the two competing theories for the migration of early humans. The debate over the mechanism for human migration doesn't take away from the validity of the strategies being used to untangle the human evolutionary tree (or is that a bush?). Trefil agreed that Sherwin was off base on at least a couple of counts when I forwarded him the message:

James Trefil, "First, I'm not an atheist. Second, the quote you have picked out refers to events that took place a few hundred thousand years ago, while we know from the fossil record that humans and their ancestors have walked erect for at least 3.5 million years, and maybe longer. There is no connection between these two events. It would be dishonest in the extreme to take a statement made about one question and apply it to something completely different."

Meanwhile, in a discussion comparing Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin, the Hayden Planetarium's Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about how the concept of scientific laws has given way to the concept of scientific theories in the 20th century. "Until Einstein, all tested, confirmed physical theories were labeled laws," Tyson said. Gerry Rau, a science teacher at the Lincoln American School in Taichung, Taiwan, took Tyson to task for that:

Gerry Rau: "No, No, No!!! How are we ever going to get students to understand the difference between law and theory if people keep giving them the wrong information? Laws and theories are totally different. A law is a pattern in the data, often expressed mathematically. It describes what happens. A theory is a proposed explanation of why it occurs, the mechanism. Laws often precede related theories — people see a pattern and then ask why that pattern exists. That is why the laws came first. Check the November 2004 issue of NSTA's high-school magazine, The Science Teacher, where at least three or four articles stress the difference between law and theory."

Unfortunately, The Science Teacher is available online only to members of the National Science Teachers Association, but you can steal a peek at a key article that's available as a PDF file. The article distinguishes between the "law of evolution" (organisms change over time) and the "theory of evolution" (that change is driven by natural selection).

Finally, here are a couple of letters that take intelligent design to task:

Bob, Philadelphia: "The scariest aspect of 'intelligent design' is that it stifles research. Why would you continue to look for answers when the ultimate answer is always available? It's the easy way out."Bryan Turkelson, Columbus, Ohio: "One of the witnesses in the 'evolution hearing' or whatever you want to call it had this to say: 'Public science education is an institution. ... It appoints a teacher to be a referee among ideas. ... Nobody would tolerate a football game where the referee was obviously biased." They're wrong. A teacher isn't a referee, and the analogy a sports game makes it sound like this is something that's going to happen in the future — that we're guessing at the outcome."The game has already been played. The stadium is empty. The 'intelligent design' point of view is analogous to a guy showing up at the stadium and saying 'Well, I see an empty stadium. I see trash on the ground. I could look around, but I'd rather read my book. In any case, I've been here for 10 minutes and it's still empty, so it must have been built this way and it hasn't changed since. That's all there is to it.' Scientists don't just take a look at the stadium, but they examine every bit of it they can. When they find the tapes of the game in the press booth, they watch them. Then they call in other scientists to watch them. Finally, it becomes apparent that a game was played, and that while one team was defeated, the team that played better moved on to the playoffs."

May 6, 2005 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
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The Globe and Mail: Fuzzy Bigfoot legend adds new chapter
National Geographic: Did tomb toxins cause 'King Tut's Curse'?

Space Day, Olé! In honor of Space Day — and Cinco de Mayo — the science team behind NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has released a crowd-pleasing view of the Sombrero Galaxy, based on infrared as well as visible-wavelength imagery.

The galaxy is named so because it has a broad-brimmed look that reminds astronomers of the traditional Mexican hat — making it a fitting subject for one of Mexico's most widely known national holidays, the Fifth of May. But because today is also the first Thursday in May, it serves double duty as a global holiday set aside for remembering the contributions of space scientists and explorers, and for inspiring the next generation as well.

With backing from a consortium of educational, governmental and industry groups, Space Day activities took place today at schools and museums around the country. The day's biggest celebration was at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center. Among the honorees were the student winners of the "Space Day Design Challenge."

The new Spitzer photograph serves as part of NASA's official salute to Space Day.


Spitzer's infrared eye is well-suited to spot the galaxy's bulbous core and its dark, dusty ring, which is highlighted in red in this enhanced-color image. A three-part image from the Spitzer team shows how the infrared view was combined with earlier imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope to add fresh perspective.

The Sombrero, also known as M104, is 28 million light-years away, on the southern edge of the Virgo galaxy cluster. It measures 50,000 light-years across, with a mass equal to that of 800 billion suns. The Hubble imagery was collected in 2003, while the Spitzer observations were made in June 2004 and January 2005 as part of the Spitzer Infrared Nearby Galaxies Survey, or SINGS.

"The survey is one of the six Spitzer Legacy Science projects designed to reveal how stars form in different types of galaxies, and to provide an atlas of galaxy images and spectra for future archival investigators," the telescope team said. "The Sombrero is one of 75 galaxies being observed by the survey team."

For more about Spitzer and the infrared universe, check out our archived report on the space telescope, plus our Spitzer slide show.

Optimism for Oppy: When last we checked on NASA's Opportunity rover, its six wheels were mired in a Martian sand drift, and top rover scientist Steve Squyres said the rover might have to stay there for a while. Oppy's position hasn't changed since then, but Squyres is sounding a lot more hopeful that this won't be the end of the road for the far-ranging robot.

In a Wednesday status report, Squyres said team members at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been simulating the situation in their rover test yard.

"It's been nasty work... shovel-and-wheelbarrow stuff, moving around literally tons of fine-grained soil. Rob Sullivan from the science team came up with a 'recipe' for a soil mix that rather nicely matches the properties of what we've gotten ourselves into on Mars," Squyres wrote.

He said he remained optimistic that "we're going to be out of this stuff and on our way again before too long," heading south toward Erebus Crater.

So how do you keep from getting stuck again? I happened to run into Squyres last weekend in Washington, and he told me the remedy may be as simple as sticking to the troughs in the sand, rather than trying to plow through the tops of the dunes. Fortunately, the troughs tend to run in a north-south direction, meaning that Oppy won't have to go against the grain.

Squyres and his colleagues are also heartened by what the Spirit rover is seeing at a geological target called Keystone, part of the Methuselah bedrock outcropping. You can read all about it in the status report, and get a look at the pictures by going to the archive of Spirit's raw imagery and checking out the Microscopic Imager category.

May 5, 2005 |
Must-see science (and parody) on the Web:
• •
Technology Review: The 'nature' of Net viruses
Space Race News: Entrepreneurs join forces in Planetspace
The Onion: Actual expert too boring for MSNBC TV

Shuffling the shuttles: Last week's rescheduling of the shuttle Discovery's launch from May to July is having a domino effect on the flights due to follow over the next year — and further delays could have an impact on reservations for the international space station.

NASA Watch's Keith Cowing passes along the proposed revisions in the flight schedule: The flight due to follow Discovery's, involving the shuttle Atlantis, will definitely be delayed to no earlier than Sept. 9. That flight is supposed to bring German astronaut Thomas Reiter up to the space station for a six-month stint, overlapping the current Expedition 11 as well as Expedition 12.

If Atlantis' flight were to slip even later, Reiter's arrival could conceivably be delayed until after the scheduled crew change aboard the space station in the September-October time frame. Instead of overlapping Expeditions 11 and 12, Reiter's presence would overlap Expeditions 12 and 13 — making life just a bit more complicated for mission planners.

The shuttle shuffle just might also be a factor holding back an expected announcement about the next millionaire space passenger to visit the space station.

For the past couple of months, reports from Japan have hinted that 33-year-old Japanese entrepreneur Daisuke Enomoto is slated to fly to the station for a short-term visit — perhaps this fall, perhaps next year. Enomoto has reportedly passed his preliminary medical exams, and an announcement is supposed to be coming anytime now. However, there's not yet been any confirmation from Space Adventures, the Virginia-based company that helped with the arrangements for two earlier spacefaring millionaires, Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth.

Other reports, picked up secondhand from the Russians, hint that New Jersey inventor/entrepreneur Greg Olsen, who was bumped from a spaceflight for medical reasons, has now received a clean bill of health. It sounds as if would-be visitors to the space station are standing in the wings, waiting for NASA and the Russians to firm up the flight schedule.

For more about Space Adventures' vision for future space tourism, check out "Space Cowboy," Forbes' profile of Eric Anderson, the company's president and chief executive officer. And for updates on the commercial space race, check out the usual suspects: Our "New Space Race" section, Space Race News and Clark Lindsey's RLV News.

Correction for 11 a.m. ET May 5: The original version of this item mixed up the space station expedition numbers — that's what I get for writing from the airport and from my foggy memory!

May 4, 2005 |
Wonderings and wanderings on the World Wide Web:
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Slate: Wikipedia is a real-life 'Hitchhiker's Guide'
San Diego Union-Tribune: Dead reckoning

Lights, camera, blastoff! Visiting NASA's Kennedy Space Center sometimes feels like coming to a vast movie set, particularly when you're at a news conference held within what seems like a stone's throw from the space shuttle on its launch pad.

That effect probably comes from the memory of movies ranging from the fact-based "Apollo 13" and "The Right Stuff" to over-the-top science-fiction yarns such as  "Armageddon." In recent years, the space center hasn't been used all that much as a backdrop for Hollywood, in large part due to post-9/11 security concerns. But there are signs that the Cape is edging back into the big-screen spotlight — first for sober documentaries, and more recently for totally fun feature films.

One of the recent examples, strangely enough, is a Bollywood feature-film epic called "Swades," the saga of an Indian-born engineer who must choose between his NASA career and his homeland (plus a good-looking woman, of course). Some shots were filmed at Launch Pad 39A, and a couple of NASA employees even served as extras.

The trivia file at the Internet Movie Database notes that the hero was working on a mission that's actually due for launch in 2007, the Global Precipitation Measurement satellite. Let's just hope that GPM doesn't come to a sad ending due to the budgetary tug of war between space exploration spending and Earth science.

Kennedy Space Center may also play a supporting role in an upcoming space-station thriller titled "Godspeed," with Harrison Ford in a starring role. The project is currently in pre-production, however, which means that particular launch hasn't quite yet gotten off the ground.

May 3, 2005 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
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Scientific American: Too cold for comfort
National Geographic: Cuckoos reveal a new disguise

Astronauts take thrill rides: Shuttle commander Eileen Collins may be no fan of roller coasters, but while she and the rest of Discovery's crew are visiting Kennedy Space Center for this week's launch rehearsal, they're getting some rides that would turn theme-park fans green with envy (if not green around the gills).

Today, each of Discovery's seven astronauts took turns driving the M-113 armored vehicle that will be stationed near the launch pad to carry them away in the event of an emergency. The tank-driving practice is part of the tradition for the rehearsal, known as the terminal countdown demonstration test or TCDT.

Legend has it that during a previous TCDT, one of the astronauts drove the M-113 into some water, setting off a long-running round of ribbing. No reports of missteps emerged from today's exercise — just the usual sets of pictures that are vaguely reminiscent of the famous Dukakis-in-a-tank campaign photo.

The astronauts' guide was rescue team leader George Hoggard, who has put space fliers through safety drills since the days of Apollo 11.

Later in the day, Collins and shuttle pilot Jim Kelly practiced for Discovery's landing by flying two of NASA's Shuttle Training Aircraft, jets that are specially modified to simulate the feel of the shuttle.

In a NASA feature story, research pilot Triple Nickel describes how the jets simulate the shuttle's "falling brick" aerodynamics: "We lower the main gear of the STA and put the engines in reverse thrust. You know when a commercial plane lands and you're thrown forward after the wheels touch down? We do that at 30,000 feet."

And as if that weren't tricky enough, Collins and Kelly were dressed up in bulky orange spacesuits and helmets for today's practice landings — just as they will be for the real thing.

I've been covering the TCDT on the scene in Florida as my own kind of rehearsal for Discovery's launch. So far, there hasn't been much opportunity for a back-and-forth with the crew, but the astronauts are due to conduct an informal news conference at the launch pad at 8:45 a.m. ET Wednesday. To follow along, tune in to NASA Television on cable or on the Web.

May 2, 2005 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
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New Scientist: Squeaky clean fossil fuels
Nature: Acupuncture activates the brain

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