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Cosmic Log: May 28-June 3, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: DNA data dangers ... Postcards from Mars ... Watching the solar sail ... Simulating the universe ... Space millionaire update ... Musical memories and more.

DNA data dangers: Genetic identification techniques have revolutionized victim recovery operations as well as criminal investigations. Just this week, officials in Japan and Ireland have been discussing the expansion of their national DNA databases as a crime-fighting measure.

But the technology has its limits, as illustrated by the complications that have arisen during a rape trial in Texas where identical twins are the defendants. In fact, some scientists say that as DNA databases become bigger, the chances of coincidental genetic matches will increase — raising the prospect of innocent people being wrongly accused on the basis of their DNA.

A suggestion from a Cosmic Log correspondent that DNA databases should be expanded to the general public — so that victims could be quickly identified in the event of, say, a catastrophic terrorist attack — brought a mostly negative response as fast as you could say "Big Brother." Here's a sampling of the e-mail:

Tom: "... DNA databases could never be secured. Nothing is secure, and the inevitable abuse of the information would far outweigh any benefit gained from the technology. By the time we would need such a database nationally for a nuclear terrorist crisis, it will already be too late for our society. We had better work towards making sure things don't ever reach that point. When the desperate poor and disenfranchised (as well as the terrorists that recruit them) feel threatened enough to make that kind of attack on Western societies, we will have already failed as civilzation. We must increase our efforts of inclusion so that the current crisis never expands to that point. The DNA database is a moot effort. It reminds me of the insane concept floated throughout America years ago of a 'winnable' nuclear war. We all know by now there is no such thing."Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "How Orwellian can we get? Oxytocin the hormone of trust and DNA banks being discussed today. Hmm? Anybody around with an aerosol can during a Shrub appearance? With the paranoids running the government, I distrust almost everything. National ID cards for entry into federal buildings or air travel? Electronic tracking? Oh, yeah! Fear your government as much as you love your country!"Jorge Fernandez, Hialeah, Fla.: "The DNA database would be an excellent for crime, health and dating. Crime would be drastically reduced because people would know they would be identified. The thing with this is an extension of the privacy problem with cameras, but if you are not doing anything wrong then you do not have to worry. ... Health benefits could be amazing as personalized recommendations and diagnosis could be beamed to the doctor's office or your home computer if it was made electronic. Dating would be so much easier because you would not need a compatibility test but could be matched up on your DNA! It would probably make the time-wasting, old-fashioned way obsolete. The con [side of the argument] would be if it got into the wrong hands (like anything). It would make it easier to frame you especially if they made evil clones (Hey, you never know with developments these days) — not to mention what could happen with ID theft (though it could help us identify impostors). ..."Burton: "Would you really want the likes of J. Edgar Hoover, Tom Ridge or any member of the FBI, CIA or any corporation to have access to your most personal information? Does '1984' or Big Brother come to mind? Why not just have babies bar-coded and implanted with a tracking device at birth?"

Actually, it might not be a bad idea to create your own family "DNA database": The idea would be to collect DNA samples for storage at home, just in case they're needed for identification purposes later. Lots of companies sell collection kits, but according to the S.A.F.E Network, the procedure could be as simple as swabbing the inside of your cheek with a sterile cotton swab and storing it inside a clearly labeled bag.

The Travelers Protective Association works with community groups to provide free DNA collection kits for child safety purposes. A large collection campaign was conducted just last month for kindergartners in Maryland's Washington County.

June 3, 2005 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:

'Nova' on PBS: 'Lost Roman Treasure'  
Seattle P-I: Will epigenetics rock evolutionary theory?
CollectSpace: Suits for space spies found decades later
NASA: Mercury probe snaps pictures of Earth and moon
N.Y. Times: Museum quits as intelligent-design film sponsor

Postcards from Mars: NASA's Opportunity rover is still struggling to break free from a Martian sand dune, and half a world away, the Spirit rover is delving deeply into the geology of Gusev Crater. As a result, the Mars mission teams seem to be in a head-down, nose-to-the-grindstone mode. Nevertheless, NASA is releasing Red Planet imagery that ranks high on the coolness scale.

Take the latest dust-devil movie as an example: NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has put together what it calls a "spectacular 21-frame animation" of a mini-tornado whipping right past the Spirit rover.

If you look closely at the latter images in the series, you can spot two more dust devils passing by in the distance. The animation has been sped up so that more than nine minutes of action take less than 30 seconds to play out.

Then there's the latest "you are here" picture from Opportunity, which was taken back in April, just after the rover got stuck in the sand. The image shows Earth in the Martian evening sky as a pale blue dot. Actually, the twinkling speck's color is more of a pale white, due to the filtering effect of the Martian atmosphere's red dust. Spirit took a similar picture of Earth in the night sky more than a year ago.

The rover team's top scientist, Cornell astronomer Steve Squyres, says getting Opportunity out of the sand is a "slow, laborious process," with progress measured inch by inch (about two and a half inches per day, in fact.) But he's confident that Oppy will eventually get back on track.

For Spirit, meanwhile, "the progress has been rather more satisfying," Squyres says. The rover is documenting a thick sequence of layered rocks that show ample evidence of alteration by water.

To a layman like me, the latest pictures are intriguing, even though scientists haven't yet said what they signify: This image seems to show a sandy channel running over Martian rock, almost like a rivulet. Of course, the feature could be the result of other processes, such as wind erosion, but it illustrates that the rovers are still sending back fascinating data after working more than a year's worth of "overtime."

Here are headlines from other frontiers of Martian exploration:

Watch the skies: All eyes will be on the Cosmos 1 solar sail when it's launched from a Russian sub on June 21 or later ... at least, enough eyes to track the gossamer spacecraft around the globe. Today the Planetary Society, a space advocacy group that is organizing the mission, announced that it has recruited NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Russian Federal Space Agency and other organizations for the Cosmos 1 radio tracking network.

NASA and NOAA are providing tracking services in exchange for access to the data collected in the course of the Cosmos 1 mission, with no money changing hands. Both those agencies are considering solar-sail programs of their own, as are the Russians. If the technology works as advertised, solar sailing could provide a relatively cheap way to travel to the stars.

“The data from this historic flight is critical because solar sailing is a technology that holds much promise for humanity’s future in space. If successful, this technology may change the way we explore space," Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society and project director for Cosmos 1, said in today's statement.

The project's backers are particularly interested in the results from the U.S. Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing Site in Hawaii, which will trying to capture images of the sail as soon as possible after deployment. “High-resolution pictures from Earth could be as beautiful as photos taken from shore of sailboats in the ocean,” Friedman said.

But you don't have to have a military-grade Advanced Electro-Optical System to watch for Cosmos 1. In fact, the Planetary Society is recruiting amateurs to monitor the skies for solar-sail sightings. Check out "Solar Sail Watch" to learn what to look for.

June 2, 2005 |
A daily carnival of science on the Web:

How to move Earth (via Improbable Research)  
Defense Tech: Bat bombs away!

Simulating the universe: An international research group has created the most realistic, highest-resolution computer simulation of the universe's evolution — and the experiment, dubbed the Millennium Run, has answered at least one of the cosmic mysteries surrounding the nature of dark matter.

The group of computational astrophysicists, known collectively as the Virgo Consortium, reported their results in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

They developed a program based on what is known about the interaction of "ordinary" matter as well as dark matter, which cannot be seen but has been detected only because of its gravitational influence. Then they ran a set of 10 billion particles through the virtual expansion of the universe to see how well the results matched reality.

The agreement between the theoretical and actual universes was "stunning," Nickolay Gnedin of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy at the University of Colorado at Boulder wrote in a Nature commentary.

It's ironic that the dynamics of dark matter — that is, the way it clumps into unseen "haloes" surrounding seen galaxies — are so well-understood, Gnedin said: "At present, cosmologists can simulate dark matter, which we can't see, better than galaxies and gas, which we can."

The findings address a phenomenon that has been a nagging concern for cosmologists over the past couple of years. In 2003, astronomers with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey observed an incredibly distant, incredibly brilliant quasar that must have arisen no later than 850 million years after the Big Bang. Such a quasar is thought to be associated with a black hole almost a billion times more massive than the sun.

"Forming such a monster in only 850 million years is a daunting task," Gnedin said, and some astronomers argued that the mere existence of the quasar spelled "serious trouble" for the currently favored model of the universe (known as the "cold dark matter" or CDM model).

The Millennium Run revealed that such objects could form naturally in the required amount of time, consistent with the CDM model.

The Virgo Consortium also reported that the Millennium Run pointed to prime territory for unraveling other mysteries of the universe's evolution.

"The best place to search for the oldest stars in the universe or for the descendants of the first supermassive black holes is at the centers of present-day rich galaxy clusters," the researchers wrote.

The Millennium Run was done on 512 processors of an IBM p690 parallel computer at the Computing Center of the Max Planck Society in Garching, Germany. The supercomputer simulation required almost a terabyte of memory, plus 350,000 processor hours — "or 28 days of wall-clock time," the researchers said.

For more information, check out the Max Planck Society's news release, and don't miss the imagery and fly-through videos.

Countdown to space ride: Russian reports are sounding more optimistic about inventor-entrepreneur Greg Olsen's chances to take a multimillion-dollar ride to the international space station in October. Olsen was bumped from a flight last year due to health concerns, but he's now back in training, as previously reported. Today, the Russian Federal Space Agency said  Olsen's health has "significantly improved."

Olsen's trip is being arranged through Virginia-based Space Adventures — which helped two other millionaires, California's Dennis Tito and South Africa's Mark Shuttleworth, get to the space station in 2001 and 2002, respectively.

"The Federal Space Agency and Space Adventures are optimistic and consider that Gregory Olsen can complete a flight to the international space station already this year," the agency said in today's statement.

June 1, 2005 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:

BBC: Drawing of 'Nazi nuke' uncovered
Popular Science: Five unbelievable technologies

Your most memorable music: Beauty is in the ear of the beholder, judging by the response to last week's article on music's power to evoke strong memories.

For many of those who wrote in about their most memorable music, the words were more important than the melody. And the music's evocative power usually related to a particular time of life — that era of teenhood or early adulthood when emotions (or is it hormones?) are felt so strongly.

Brain-scanning research helps pinpoint how external stimuli — ranging from well-known memories to the pictures of loved ones — affect the brain. But there's no one "most memorable tune," just as there's really no one "funniest joke." Like humor, music appreciation can be an idiosyncratic thing, varying with cultures as well as individual experience. Here's a selection of your observations:

M. Ashby: "There is one tune that especially evokes memory and emotion for me. Whenever I hear the organ opening to 'Your Time Is Gonna Come' from Led Zeppelin I (MP3 sample), and the subsequent song, I become filled with the memory and the emotion of a time when I was 20 years old. I am 50 now. I was in a bad relationship with a girlfriend and my world had taken a bad turn. It's just something about that opening (and song) that captures a moment in time that I will probably never forget and will just have to live with."Richard: "I am an avid music lover, and I have to say that lyrics have always been the most evocative aspect for me. Especially songs by Tori Amos. She writes the way my brain thinks about things, and I don’t get snippets of actual notes in my head, but repetitions of sentences and phrases. Like her song, 'A Sorta Fairytale': '…and I’m so sad; like a good book I can’t put this day back. A sorta fairytale with you…' Sometimes they have funky note progressions with them, but as a very word-oriented person, the lyrics stick with me."Carol Cunningham: "'White Wedding' by evokes a flood of memories every time I hear it.  I was in high school, and the boy who lived next door to me used to sing it all the time.  He called me 'his little sister,' then he was killed in a car crash.  I guess it holds a very emotional tie on me."Kevin: "'Know Who You Are' by . Teen years, girlfriends, summers in central Illinois ... what more could you ask for?"Grace: "It's interesting that you brought up the idea of music evoking old memories. I've noticed this pattern a few years ago, and let me tell ya, watching some old clip, or smelling something, also evokes memories. I just want to suggest that not only does hearing evoke memories. Seeing and smelling also does." E. Muratore, Rochester, N.Y.: "Considering that Beethoven continued to compose long after losing his hearing, it certainly means that music is from a sense other than just that of hearing. Music has the ability to alter your mood, and many studies have shown that certain music can influence your intelligence. While studying, classical music can increase your ability to retain information. Do we know why? No, but we can enjoy the many beautiful ways it affects our lives without over studying or simplifying it's power to bring about those wonderful feelings it stirs up."David Inverso: "A song that reoccurs unbidden in my head is often the 'Rawhide' theme song from a long-ago TV Western.  I vaguely remember the TV show. I'm not a huge fan of country and Western music. To me the 'Rawhide' song is so melodramatically 'cowboy' it's about as authentically Western as John Travolta duded up on a mechanical bull."I think the song got lodged in my head during a honeymoon car trip through northern Arizona 20 years ago.  We were driving south at dusk near Flagstaff.  The highway was taking us up and down red, rolling hills under a gray overcast with lightning so far off in the distance it appeared as pink sparks.  My wife and I were listening to the radio drift between stations. After a long stretch of mostly static, broken occasionally by sharp buzzes from lightning, or brief scratchy snippets of songs, or odd shaky voices, the 'Rawhide' song burst from the radio with loud and eerie clarity.Rollin' Rollin' Rollin' "My wife yelled in glee, 'Heya!'  I made a whip-cracking sound.  As soon as we had spoken, the song sank back into the static, never to return.  Yet, the song played on in my head for many a mile down that darkening highway. The song has returned for no apparent reason for 20 years afterward."

Other users cited these tunes:

  • "TV commercials for products in the '70s and up to now ... Noxzema, Cheerios, Cover Girl, also network TV promos for new fall shows."
  • "Anything by the Beatles! Especially John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Their songs were my lullabies."
  • "In the Jungle (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)"
  • "German Invasion" theme from the first movement of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony No. 7.
  • "I Feel Good" by James Brown.
  • "Plush" by Stone Temple Pilots.
  • "Time Is On My Side," by the Rolling Stones.
  • "Pina Colada" by Rupert Holmes.
  • "Blue Sky" by the Allman Brothers.
  • "Auld Lang Syne" by Dan Fogelberg.

DNA databases for the rest of us: Should everyone be registered in DNA databases like the one maintained by the U.S. military? DNA identification was particularly valuable in the wake of disasters such as the 9/11 terror attacks and the Asian tsunami — but it's a controversial idea, as discussed in our "Genetic Genealogy" special report more than once.

Jerry from Norfolk provides some additional thoughts:

"Personally, the conceptual and practical aspects of a DNA database for military personnel is a wonderful aspect of technology. During military confrontations, such as the Iraq war, there should be a proper way of identification of the remains of individuals who are killed in combat. Military and government employees provide a service to the country, and technology should be used for these individuals. Military personnel should also have a national ID card that has encrypted biosignatures for identification purposes — a biosignature being part of the person's DNA profile."While the ACLU may abhor the concept of national identification cards, eventually the civilian population of developed Western countries should have similar technology. As conflicts exist in the world, future world events may bring this technology to the forefront of society. If a terrorist attack occurs, such as a small nuclear explosion in one of the larger cities, how could the civilian or governmental casaulties be properly identified? The development of DNA databases for military personnel is a step in the direction of the development of a national DNA database — as long as the DNA databases do not turn society into an Orwellian world, but preserve individual freedoms and rights."

What are the pros and cons of civilian DNA databases? Feel free to let me know what you think, and I'll pass along a selection of your observations.

May 31, 2005 |
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:

• (via GeekPress)
McSweeney's: Embarrassing lightsaber moves (Ditto)
The Onion: What do you think about the stem-cell bill?

Memorial DNA: As Americans remember their fallen fighters on Memorial Day, there is at least one place, not far from Arlington National Cemetery, where today's servicemen and servicewomen can rest assured they will never be forgotten.

In a Maryland warehouse refrigerated to 4 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius), the U.S. military has lined up more than 4.1 million cards bearing spots of blood — representing foolproof DNA identification for 98 percent of all active-duty and reserve service members, said Chris Kelly, spokesman for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

The DNA database is aimed at ensuring that there will be no more "unknown soldiers". The blood is usually collected at the time of induction, or deployment, or during a medical appointment. Then, if a military victim needs to be identified, samples from the victim are compared with DNA from the cards, to back up identifications based on dental records and fingerprints.

"DNA is utilized as the gold standard for identification," Kelly said.

Check out DefenseLink to find out on how the DNA database works and get answers to commonly asked questions. (For example, can the DNA samples be used in criminal investigations involving service members? Answer: Not without a court order.)

The chilled samples are good as gold because they preserve a person's perishable nuclear DNA — the complete genetic record. The nuclear-DNA option isn't available for identifying remains from past conflicts, however. In such cases, mitochondrial DNA from the remains is analyzed, then compared with similar samples from maternal-line relatives. Mitochondrial-DNA testing isn't as exact as nuclear-DNA analysis, but it can help confirm (or rule out) identifications made by other means in the course of an investigation. In fact, mitochondrial DNA can trace relationships going back thousands of years.

So what happens if the mitochondrial DNA seems to contradict identifications that the military has made years earlier based on older technologies? That can be a highly emotional issue, as outlined in this Denver Post report.

For more on mitochondrial-DNA analysis, check out our "Genetic Fingerprints" interactive, as well as the archived reports in our "Genetic Genealogy" section.

Here's wishing you all a thought-provoking Memorial Day, as well as a happy summer holiday.

Correction: The original version of this item misstated the affiliation of the Institute of Pathology.

May 30, 2005 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:

• (via Slashdot)
New Scientist: Chemicals found to 'feminize' boys
N.Y. Times: Smithsonian to screen intelligent-design film

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