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Cosmic Log: May 7-13, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Point/counterpoint on evolution ... Happy B-day, C-log ... Views of Titan ... Moon makes waves ... White Knight rides again ... Robot speech and more.

Point/counterpoint on evolution: Now that the Kansas evolution hearings are over, both sides are claiming the high ground: Defenders of Darwinian theory say the event illustrated why mainstream scientists were smart to pass up the opportunity to testify, while at least one intelligent-design advocate says the scientists ought to be subpoenaed.

I'm all for a friendly exchange of views, but I fear that escalating the rhetoric only exasperates the country's current culture war — and maybe that's what some folks, particularly on the conservative side of the political fence, actually want. After all, if average folks felt they were forced to choose between science with a religious twist and "Godless science," very few would cast their vote with the heathens.

In my view, the proponents of mainstream evolutionary theory have to stay engaged in the debate — patiently referring to the evidence at hand, straightening out the twisted quotes and making clear that the spheres of science and spirituality can co-exist. (Admittedly, some scientists would disagree on that last point). An "us vs. them" attitude might well win a rhetorical battle but lose the philosophical war. That was the very point made by editors of the journal Nature just last month.

Our own special report, "Fast Forward: The Future of Evolution," has been stirring up debate as well, with the observations of "Origins" astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson leading the way. Recently, a correspondent named David Bump wrote an angry e-mail critique of the piece and sent a copy to Cosmic Log, with a copy going to Tyson. Tyson took the time to respond, interlacing his comments with Bump's. I thought it'd be worth the space to publish the exchange here:

Bump: "I must say, when someone told me about "Einstein and Darwin: A Tale of Two Theories," I had some doubts that it could be as bad as indicated, but as I've started to read it, I'm having a hard time believing how bad it is! I think my first question would have been, 'So how much have you, as an astrophysicist, studied Darwin and his theory?' Isn't that a rather important point to establish on this subject?"

Tyson: "I am quite well-versed in evolution by natural selection and its implications for life on Earth and elsewhere."

Bump: "Instead, you jump right in and ask why Darwin doesn't get the respect that Einstein has. Then, the first thing the two of you come up with is that Einstein was politically active. Tell me this is a joke, please! What about pointing out that Darwin's idea of inheritance was actually wrong, even though Mendel did the experiments and discovered the true nature of inheritance patterns at about the same time? How about mentioning that Darwin's theory has been supported by frauds (Piltdown Man, doctored embryo comparisons), plagued by dead ends and backtracking (Nutcracker Man, Neandertals as ancestors of Homo sapiens sapiens), and has been used to support horrific social policies (Social Darwinism, eugenics) ... among other problems? How do you expect to properly defend a theory if you only see it through rose-colored glasses? Has Dr. Tyson heard of the case of Ota Benga? He should look it up if not."

Tyson: "The marvelous thing about science is the built-in error correction that goes on. It eventually catches blunders as well as fraud. You are mistaken if you believe that Darwin's ideas of inheritance were wrong. Mendel lucked out with his experiments, which would have all failed (or, more precisely, been inconclusive) if the inherited traits he was attempting to measure were blended rather than distinct."

Bump: "Oh yes, and Dr. Tyson illustrates Darwin's work by saying 'Does evolution work as Lamarck said, with the inheritance of acquired traits? No, it doesn't,' but if he's actually read Darwin's 'Origin,' he should know that Darwin's idea of inheritance included the rather Lamarckian idea that acquired development through frequent use of parts or organs over generations could be inherited."

Tyson: "Frequent use of organs or appendages, where that use contributes to one's survival until reproductive years, will reinforce the existence and utility of that feature, as continuous variations of that feature get further tuned for survival."

Bump: "I must say, the point that 'There is no science in this world like physics. Nothing comes close to the precision...' is quite telling, but since chemistry and much of biology relies on physics, it's also simplistic to say that 'Biology doesn't do that. Chemistry doesn't do that.' Many things in biology are quite reliable and predictable — if not, everything from farming to pharmacology would be sheer guesswork at best."

Tyson: "Chemistry is harder than physics, and biology is harder than chemistry, precisely because of the accumulated complexities involved. In other words, the most complex chemical system we know is called 'life.' The greater the complexity of a system the harder it is to make a prediction. So while predictions can be made in biology, even more predictions are possible in chemistry, and vastly more predictions are possible in physics. The success of modern farming is quite a triumph — a feat that fails when we try to understand the global balance of plants and animals. Pharmacology is still driven more by experiment more than by the predictive capacity of theory."

Bump: "Perhaps this indicates that Darwin's theory is not the 'organizing principle' of biology that it is claimed to be."

Tyson: "That Darwinian evolution is an organizing principle of biology is true, whether or not you agree with it."

Bump: "Einstein's legacy has been demonstrated, reliable and useful scientific progress, while Darwin's is largely still in the realm of storytelling."

Tyson: "You are badly misinformed about modern biology."

Bump: "I'm sorry to sound so harsh, but this statement should go on a list of all-time stupid things said in an intellectual context: 'Since evolution is an organizing principle of biology that allows you to understand phenomena, there are people who resist it.' That makes no sense at all. Nobody is going to resist a principle that allows you to understand something — certainly not just because it does that."

Tyson: "I agree, the word 'stupid' is a bit harsh. Surely there is another word in the dictionary that you could have chosen to convey your meaning with greater precision. In any case, the simple point I was trying to make was that unlike Einstein's relativity, and all his other contributions to physics, Darwinian evolution was not born with equations that enabled quantitative prediction about the biological world. So if one were to pick a fight, especially in the early days, it would be easier with Darwin than with Einstein."

Bump: "No, evolution is opposed precisely because it fails to provide any useful understanding that is not consistent with modern creation science and, many believe, leads to serious misunderstanding of who we are and our place in the universe."

Tyson: "Once again, you are badly misinformed about modern biology. P.S.: A few years ago I visited the creation science museum outside of San Diego (I think it has since moved from that location) and I was struck by the level of denial about what is known about the physical world. With statements asserting that dinosaurs co-existed with humans, and were saved by Noah in his ark, and that stars are not born and do not evolve, and that the universe is no more than 10,000 years old — with books and research papers (which I purchased from the museum book and gift shop) that tortuously try to explain away vestigial organs, and the denial of the fact that humans and chimpanzees share nearly 99 percent identical DNA — I realized, there is not much of a platform on which to have a convergent conversation."

Bump: "Did Dr. Tyson have a chance to review this article? I would think he'd want to modify such off-hand statements as 'We didn't have Newtonian gravity back then.' Of course we had Newtonian gravity then, it was Newton's concept that wasn't around until Newton."

Tyson: "I apologize for my lack of precision. I had assumed (apparently incorrectly) that the meaning of my colloquial statement 'we didn't have Newtonian gravity back then' was unambiguous."

Bump: "And he's quite a bit off about a lot of things — there really wasn't significant resistance to Copernicus, lots of 'religious types' such as Kepler had no problem with heliocentrism to begin with, and much of the opposition to Galileo was due to personality conflicts and academic politics. It's as if he hasn't studied any of the recent scholarly works on the subject and is just rehashing popular misconceptions."

Tyson: "Copernicus did not publish 'De Revolutionibus' until he was ready to die, out of fear of retribution from the inquisition. In any case, the book was banned by the church. Nearly everyone was religious back then — including Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, yet they made scientific discoveries that conflicted with prevailing interpretations of scripture. And while Galileo was indeed a pompous showoff, his key books were banned long before his trial, and continued to be banned long after he was dead. To have been absolved of wrongdoing by the church in the late 20th century seems a bit late if his primary transgression was simply being a jerk."

Bump: "Then there's his personal creationist-bashing, again nothing more than his opinion, that 'Because they can't use your knowledge base to invent the next vaccine, the next medicine, the next cure for cancer. That knowledge base does not track into discoveries we know are awaiting us in the halls of biotech firms.' On the contrary, belief in evolution has nothing to do with such things, and a number of creationists have been and continue to be involved in active research in such areas. The first vaccine was devised long before Darwin, wasn't it? Pasteur, who came up with the vaccine for rabies, was also a creationist although he was aware of Darwin's theory. Raymond Damadian, who largely pioneered the application of magnetic resonance imaging, is also a creationist. There are also creationist physicists and astronomers. Stop spreading such fear- and hate-mongering and stick to the facts."

Tyson: "Indeed, there are plenty of religious scientists (as many as a third of all scientists), astrophysicists included. My simple point is that if you get your science out of the Bible, history has demonstrated that you are stunting, or at best limiting, your capacity to discover. Pasteur did not work on the origin of the universe, he worked in a biology lab. Had Pasteur felt the same way about his research as the religious critics of the day, he would have never entered his lab. At the time, sick people were sick largely because of God's will. The fact that, for example, penicillin could cure venereal disease left scientists vulnerable to the criticism that they were interfering with the work of God. And I assure you that zero percent of active, publishing astrophysicists who are religious assert that the universe is 10,000 years old."

Bump: "It's interesting that he admits that in his own field, 'Yeah, we've got gaps today. We don't know what dark matter is. We don't know what dark energy is. We don't know what was around before the Big Bang. We don't know what's going on at the center of a black hole. We don't know how gravity can merge with quantum mechanics. We don't know how galaxies formed. There are major areas of the unknown that remain today.' Dark matter and dark energy are supposed to make up (by far) the majority of the universe. Black holes are phenomena within the universe for which calculations of the natural forces involved produce infinite results ... and we're supposed to trust that all is well with this field of science? That this is just 'the nature of science'?"

Tyson: "What we do know, we know well. And what we do not know, we are working on. Yes, that is, in fact, the nature of science."

Bump: "I hope the science behind any medicine I'm given doesn't involve not knowing more than a small percentage of how it will affect me. ..."

Tyson: "I would hope so too. But a better analogy would be not knowing what effect a medication will have. Most of the Physician's Desk Reference is accounting for uncertainties in how medicine affects different people. As the saying goes, no medicine is safe for anyone until it has been tested by everyone. So in the meantime, you can take safe medicines, just as you can learn safe facts about the universe. It just so happens that evolution by natural selection is one of those safe facts."

There's a lot more feedback where this came from, on both sides of the issue. We'll try to work a wider sampling of the e-mail into the "Fast Forward" special report next week.

Wide-angle view of Titan: The European Space Agency has released two unconventional perspectives on the Saturnian moon Titan, as seen by the Huygens lander during January's descent to the surface.

The mosaic pictures include a stereographic projection of the descent imagery that makes it look as if one picture was taken with a fish-eye lens. The picture shows what scientists believe are drainage channels, leading down to a shoreline with river deltas and sandbars.

"The current interpretation of these lines is that they are cut by flowing liquid methane," ESA observed in today's picture advisory. "Some of them may have been produced by precipitation run-off, producing a dense network of narrow channels and features with sharp branching angles. Some others may have been produced by sapping or subsurface flows, giving shape to short stubby channels that join at 90-degree angles."

A "gnomonic" projection presents a sharper view of the channeled area where Huygens landed, with a ridge of ice boulders rising out of the darker lakebed material. It all goes to show that the mission is still yielding plenty of marvelous data, months after the spacecraft itself went silent. For a trip down memory lane, check out our archived story about Huygen's descent.

Happy birthday, dear C-Log: Light up the candles on a virtual cake for Cosmic Log, which started up exactly three years ago today. Back then, a Google search turned up only 18 references to "Cosmic Log." A year later, it was 3,200, and last year we were up to more than 30,000. Today, depending on how you cast the query, you can come up with a tally of either 31,100 or 59,100 (but who's counting?).

The Cosmic Log archive on is only the tip of the iceberg; to trace the Log's full history, you have to go back to the mists of time in the Cosmic Log Warehouse.

Format-wise, surprisingly little has changed since the beginning. For three years, the Log has featured odd fixations on topics ranging from space tourism to the evolution debate, observations on the intersection of science and spirituality, daily doses of Web links — and most importantly, the invitation to let me know what you think. Thanks for hanging out with me for the past three years, and here's hoping there'll be plenty more "follies and mysteries" to share in the years ahead.

May 13, 2005 |
Weekend field trips on TV and the Web:
• •
National Geographic: 'King Tut's Final Secrets'
Science Channel: 'Astronaut Diaries' and the shuttle

High time for Titan: Saturn's biggest and most mysterious moon gets cover-story treatment in this week's issue of the journal Science — and one of the research papers hints at a chemical process in Titan's upper atmosphere similar to what's happening over the Antarctic ozone hole on our own planet.

The team in charge of the composite infrared spectrometer aboard the Cassini spacecraft, now circling through the Saturnian system, says that Titan's atmospheric patterns can be as complex as Earth's. For example, they see evidence of a polar vortex that is arising during the long winter, isolating the atmosphere at Titan's north pole.


On Earth, a similar Antarctic vortex gives rise to stratospheric clouds that turn the polar region into a veritable chemistry lab. It's those chemical reactions that eventually give rise to the ozone hole during southern springtime.

Titan's atmosphere contains no ozone — but the Cassini scientists did find that heavy organic molecules were concentrating around the north pole, which would be consistent with the formation of a polar vortex.

"We don't know if there are even more similarities to Earth's ozone hole process, like polar clouds that react with molecules in the atmosphere, simply because we haven't seen them yet," Michael Flasar, the spectrometer team's principal investigator at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a NASA news release. "But we wouldn't be surprised to discover them, nor would we be surprised to find that Titan has some unique twists of its own."

There's a flip side to the research as well: Studying Titan's atmosphere could well give scientists a better understanding of how the Antarctic ozone hole works. That's the whole point behind comparative planetology.

This week's research provides further support for the long-simmering view that Titan's hydrocarbon-rich chemistry is a present-day analog for processes that occurred on the early Earth and fostered the development of life. However, Titan's extreme cold may be holding back those chemical reactions, leading some researchers to call it a "Peter Pan" world that just never grew up.

Other studies in this week's issue of Science focus on Titan's complex, young, active surface, which may be changing as the result of ice volcanism; and the interactions between Titan and Saturn's magnetic field. For more of the greatest hits from Titan, check out our slide show.

May 12, 2005 |
Virtual newsstand on the World Wide Web:
• •
Archaeology: Treasures of the forgotten pharaohs
National Geographic: Beyond the Big Bang

Columbia’s chroniclers: Over the past two years, we've heard a lot about how the shuttle Columbia's seven astronauts died. But how did they live?

That part of the tragic tale is addressed in "Astronaut Diaries," an hourlong documentary premiering this weekend on the Discovery Science Channel. The show draws heavily on cassette upon cassette of home videos shot by Columbia crew member David Brown, a former circus clown and physician who was on his very first spaceflight.

In addition to his other talents, Brown was a budding filmmaker, and he made it his mission to show the months of training leading up to the Columbia mission in January 2003.

"He wanted to be able to distribute something via the astronauts," Brown's older brother, Doug, told The Washington Post. "When they'd go out to speak, this would be a way for them to have a tape about the training."

After the tragedy, Doug Brown and other members of the astronauts' families, along with expert commentators, helped the Discovery team sharpen the story chronicled in David Brown's hundreds of hours of videos — producing a candid look at seven men and women who first became a team, and ultimately became the heroes of an international tragedy.

The crew's lives and legacies are also the focus of a new book by space reporter Philip Chien, "Columbia: Final Voyage." Chien drew upon his own reporting from before, during and after the star-crossed mission, supplemented by the reminiscences of Doug Brown and other family members. A companion CD-ROM contains more than 1,000 photos, audio and video clips, as well as technical information about the Columbia mission.

"'Columbia: Final Voyage' is a look at the STS-107 mission," Chien said in an e-mail. "Not at the accident, but the mission and the people."

Climate counterpoint: It's ironic that one of the biggest scientific controversies in the debate over global climate change has to do with whether there's still a scientific controversy.

According to the final installment of The New Yorker's series on global warming, keeping the scientific questions open is merely part of a Republican political strategy. But Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University who specializes in the lore of potential catastrophes, is among those who insist there are plenty of unsettled questions.

On Tuesday, Cosmic Log correspondent Brian Schmidt took Peiser to task for his stand. Today, it's Peiser's turn:

"Naomi Oreskes claims to have analysed 928 abstracts on global climate change. She claims that 75 percent either explicitly or implicitly accept the view that most of the recent warming trend is man-made and concludes: 'Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.' I'm afraid none of her claims are correct. I have analysed the same set of abstracts. Not only are there a few abstracts that explicitly reject the alleged consensus; the vast majority of abstracts does not even mention anthropogenic global warming. Her claim that the consensus is supported by 'all major scientific bodies in the United States whose members' expertise bears directly on the matter' has also been shown to be bogus."I am sorry to say that Mr. Schmidt's claim that '99 percent of the experts agree' is just as fictitious, as a recent survey among 500 international climate scientists has shown: 'These results seem to suggest that consensus is not all that strong and only 9.4 percent of the respondents "strongly agree" that climate change is mostly the result of anthropogenic causes' (PDF file)."So much for universal agreement among the climate research community."

And now, I think, it's time to move on.

May 11, 2005 |
More scientific questions on the Web:
• •
New Scientist: Are centrifugal weapons for real?
Slate: What matters in Kansas?

Moon makes waves: The Cassini orbiter has discovered yet another moon nestled amid Saturn's rings — and this one is literally having a ripple effect. In fact, it was the ripples that tipped off astronomers to the moon's existence.

The moon, provisionally named S/2005 S1, brings Saturn's satellite count to 47. That count got a big boost just last week when the International Astronomical Union confirmed the discovery of 12 irregular moons.

As far back as last July, Cassini mission scientists suspected that the gravitational influence of an unseen moon was responsible for stirring up a series of ripples and wisps in the Keeler gap, an open space within Saturn's outer A ring. Another small Saturnian moon, Pan, whips up similar features in the rings' Encke gap, as do the "shepherd moons" Prometheus and Pandora.

It took several months for Cassini to get into the right position to spot the moon itself — but it finally showed up in a time-lapse sequence of images captured on May 1.

S/2005 S1 is thought to be about 4 miles (7 kilometers) across, orbiting about 84,820 miles (136,505 kilometers) from Saturn's center. "It's too early to make out the shape of the orbit, but what we've seen so far of its motion suggests that it is very near the exact center of the gap, just as we had surmised," Joseph Spitale, imaging team associate and planetary scientist at the Colorado-based Space Science Institute, said in today's announcement of the find.

Scientists said detailed observations of the moon and its surrounding ring material could shed light on the mini-world's physical makeup (loosely or densely packed?), the precise shape of its orbit and much bigger questions as well.

"By examining how such a body interacts with its companion ring material, we can learn something about how the planets in our solar system might have formed out of the nebula of material that surrounded the sun long ago," said Carolyn Porco, imaging team leader at the Space Science Institute. "We anticipate that many of the gaps in Saturn's rings have embedded moons, and we'll be in search of them from here on."

Cassini is providing insights about other moons as well. Just last week, researchers reported in the journal Nature that one of the planet's most distant moons, Phoebe, appears to have been born far from the Saturnian system.

"Phoebe was left behind from the solar nebula, the cloud of interstellar gas and dust from which the planets formed," Torrence Johnson, a member of the Cassini imaging team member, said in a news release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "It did not form at Saturn. It was captured by Saturn's gravitational field and has been waiting eons for Cassini to come along."

The researchers' conclusion is based on an analysis of Cassini data about Phoebe's composition, which is more like what's found in Pluto's neighborhood than Saturnian stuff.

"Cassini is showing us that Phoebe is quite different from Saturn's other icy satellites, not just in its orbit but in the relative proportions of rock and ice. It resembles Pluto in this regard much more than it does the other Saturnian satellites," said Jonathan Lunine, Cassini interdisciplinary scientist from the University of Arizona at Tucson.

For more of Cassini's greatest hits, check out our slide show — and don't miss our growing gallery of space sights from Saturn and elsewhere.

White Knight rides again: If the SpaceShipOne rocket plane is heading to the Smithsonian this summer, what's going to happen to the White Knight, the swoopy Scaled Composites aircraft that helped it zoom into the history books?

It turns out that the White Knight won't be ready for retirement for some time: Right now it's gearing up for Pentagon-sponsored tests of the X-37 rocket plane, which some see as a test bed for a future "space bomber." As was the case for SpaceShipOne, the X-37 would be carried up by the White Knight for high-altitude drop tests. Find out more from the L.A. Daily News and Clark Lindsey's RLV News.

Setting the record straight: Last weekend's hubbub over a British-built, electric-powered speed racer unfortunately eclipsed an earlier effort, as Kathy Fortner pointed out in an e-mail:

"I enjoyed the articles keeping us appraised of the British team's efforts at setting a new speed record for an electric car.  However, the information regarding the current record is incorrect.  On October 13, 2004, The Ohio State University's Buckeye Bullet set the international speed record at 271.737 mph. The team then went on to set the national record at 314.958 mph two days later. 'The Bullet has been designed, built, and maintained by undergraduate and graduate students at Ohio State.'  For more information regarding the Buckeye Bullet, please see their Web site ... as well as the press release regarding the international record, from OSU."While I am excited for the advancements in this technology and the British team's efforts, I find it sad that a group of hard-working students are ignored at the time of their accomplishment, followed by their record not being recognized. Just the efforts of the British team received national coverage."

You might ask why the claimed "national" record is higher than the "international" record: It's because the Buckeye Bullet's October run wasn't sanctioned or certified by the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile, the governing body for international motor sports. According to news reports, the Bullet got a push start for its fastest runs and took longer than specified to charge up its batteries between runs. The FIA says the current electric-car speed record was set by the California-based White Lightning team in 1999.

Meanwhile, Brian Schmidt of Palo Alto, Calif., weighed in on the controversy over scientific consensus on global climate change:

"When publishing Benny Peiser's attack on the global warming consensus position, you should also publish how easily he's been refuted. ... Peer review and consensus have something in common: quality control. Peiser challenged the consensus position, refused peer review, and ended up with material that supports the opposite of his position. When 99 percent of the experts agree, they may still be wrong, but anyone who relies on that possibility in order to do nothing is foolish indeed."

Finally, Ellis Glazier of La Paz, Mexico, set the record straight on Cinco de Mayo:

"Cinco de Mayo is widely known as a Mexican national holiday in the U.S., but not in Mexico. Until relatively recently, it was not a national holiday but was hyped up in the U.S., and finally Mexico decided to join in. I suspect few here really know what is being celebrated. There are other holidays here that are much more known and followed: Benito Juarez's birthday, the two independence day celebrations on the 16th of September and the 20th of November, Labor Day on the 1st of May, and others. Cinco de Mayo is a U.S-Mexican celebration, but for what reason is difficult to fathom."

May 10, 2005 |
More sites to see on the World Wide Web:
• • Music playlists reveal character
The Onion: Scientology losing ground to new Fictionology

Robot speaks in tongues: There's more than one way to teach a robot to talk: Typically, all you have to do is hook up a speech synthesizer and put the speaker where the mouth would be, a la C-3PO in "Star Wars." And if you really wanted to get fancy, you could give your droid a video image or rubbery lips that would move in sync with the sounds.

But researchers from Waseda University in Japan have been teaching robots to speak the old-fashioned way: by forcing air from mechanical lungs through an artificial throat and mouth, complete with tongue, lips and even a nasal cavity.

They'll discuss their latest project, WT-4 (for Waseda Talker 4), at a joint meeting of the Acoustical Society of America and the Canadian Acoustical Association, scheduled next week in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The researchers say their system isn't just for androids: "The mechanical talking robot has several engineering applications like an audio-visual talking head, medical supporting devices for vocally challenged people and lifelike learning devices for foreign languages," they report in a summary of their paper.

WT-4 learns words by mimicking how a human speaker says them. If you watch the videos that are included on the Web site, you'll find that WT-4's voice still sounds reedy and rather unnatural. But as time goes on, robots just might be able to speak as sexily as Gigolo Joe, the mechanical heartthrob in the science-fiction movie "A.I."

Check out the acoustical societies' list of "lay language papers" for more coming attractions from next week's meeting, ranging from the infrasound signature of last year's Asian tsunami to an analysis of the Pacific Northwest dialect and whether people can "hear" shapes.

May 9, 2005 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
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N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Puzzle finally makes 'cosmic figures' fit Time travelers are no-shows at MIT party

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