• | The biggest mysteries: What is the cosmos made of? Are we alone in the universe? How hot will our greenhouse world get? How much can we regenerate ourselves? To mark its 125th birthday, the journal Science has rounded up these deep questions and many more, in a scientific survey of how much we know about what we don’t know.
The special report — titled “What Don’t We Know?” — started as an effort to define 25 key unsolved scientific mysteries, based on suggestions from the journal’s staff and its board of reviewing editors. But that’s not where it ended, said Colin Norman, news editor at Science.
“We got so many really interesting questions that we felt 25 questions wouldn’t do justice to the whole list,” he told me today. So Science’s editors came up with a list of 125, with 25 of them given in-depth treatment.
“This is a list of 25 questions that would be close to the top of most scientists’ lists,” Norman said.
Norman wouldn’t go so far as to say that these questions provide the definitive roadmap to the scientific unknowns. “There are so many interesting questions scientists are working on that we just couldn’t encapsulate them all in the list,” he said.
And the list is sure to shift as old questions become resolved and new ones pop up. For example, a quarter-century ago, one of the great unanswerables might have been, “Are there planets around other stars?” Today, that question has been pretty definitively answered in the affirmative. Meanwhile, the question about the nature of dark energy arose only in the last decade. Other mysteries, relating to the regenerative power of stem cells, have taken on a much higher profile in recent years.
To comment on the list, or add some mysteries of your own, you can take part in Science's discussion forum.
There are plenty of mysteries out there, if you just know where to look: On the bookshelf, Norman recommends "A Short History of Nearly Everything" as an introduction to past and present scientific mysteries. That book was the April selection for the Cosmic Log Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that can be found at your library or used-book store. For this month, I'll throw in "The New York Times Book of Science Questions and Answers," which addresses everyday wonderings such as "Why do cats purr?"
Five years ago this month, Science began presenting a mystery a month as part of our “Mysteries of the Universe” section (you can use "ScienceMag.MSNBC.com" as a shortcut Web address).
So it’s in the spirit of partnership that we here at Cosmic Log wish Science a happy and insightful 125th birthday, with many more birthdays — and many more mysteries — to come.
• | Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:
• ESO: Einstein Ring found on cosmic frontier
• Univ. of Mich.: Scientists find a stem cell's 'bar code'
• Cornell: Our brains don't work like computers
• The Guardian: Where belief is born
• | How to grow green power: Will it take a multibillion-dollar "Apollo" program to break our current fossil-fuel addiction and enter the golden age of renewable energy? Or can we take it one affordable step at a time? Cosmic Log correspondents sent a blast of crackling comments in response to last week's recommendation from researchers that we move in a big way to an energy economy based on wind power and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.
Here's just a sampling of the feedback:
Kirk Pettersen: “The end of the status quo is coming despite the petroleum industry’s efforts to maintain it. As a result of 9/11, my wife and I made changes. My wife sold her gasoline-powered Geo Prism and bought a Jetta TDI, which now runs on B99 [biodiesel fuel]. Last year I sold my BMW 325 for a natural gas-powered Honda Civic. Your log talked about startup costs being huge and the need to add back the hidden costs of gasoline to make alternatives work. Although I agree with you on the need to do a real-life analysis of oil, I don’t agree that a huge cost must be incurred to start the transition to a hydrogen economy.
“For example: The fuel for my Civic GX costs $1.73 per GGE [gasoline gallon equivalent] on average, and could be lower with a home refueling system. Cost per mile is 5.4 cents. The B99 fuel for my wife’s Jetta is $3.10 or 8.9 cents per mile. Our average GGE fuel price is $2.415. The increased fuel economy of diesel engines means our actual cost per mile, compared to the gasoline status quo, is less. …
“If you average the cost per mile you get 7.15 cents per mile. We are paying less than gasoline users, without even factoring in societal costs you mentioned. I won’t go into the carbon-cycle benefits of biodiesel or the clean-air benefits of CNG [compressed natural gas], but they are both superior to gasoline. …
“The changes we have made are baby steps, and I would love to move to a purer hydrogen economy based on solar energy, but until that time, there is plenty we can do at little to no conversion costs. Additionally, the changes I recommend also improve our economy, our environment and our national security.”
Jim O’Brien: “I absolutely agree that America needs to find a pollution-free energy alternative. Not only do I think the wind-powered hydrogen conversion idea is good, but to help overcome the initial high costs of the project, I think the government should impose a mandatory three- to five-year term monthly tax of $5 per eligible taxpayer to help chip in for the cause. Based on 2004, there were roughly 131 million tax returns filed. So assuming there are 131 million taxpayers paying $5 each a month, that raises $7.86 billion a year to help aid the conversion project. And since everyone in America will benefit from a pollution-free environment, I think asking them to pay $5 a month for five years is more than reasonable. Perhaps the government can throw in some sort of discount incentives on everyone's first fuel-cell vehicle to help make the tax a little easier to swallow."
James Felder, Cleveland: “Wind is a good supplement, and should be installed where applicable. But it is not suitable for the base load the electrical system has to have. The only power source with sufficient power density and (relative) site independence is nuclear. We just need to stop throwing away the fuel after one use and start recycling it. And everyone seems to forget that hydrogen is not a fuel, it’s an energy transmission/storage medium, and not a terribly good one. While its energy content is high, its storage density is low and the conversion of electricity to hydrogen is a horribly inefficient process, with only a small fraction of the power from the generation source actually reaching the wheels. I have to think that we need to consider ways to use the electricity more directly. Perhaps cars with batteries for local trips and an external electrical power source along highways for intercity travel."
Scott Augusto, Lakewood, Colo.: “It is a common misconception that fuel cells are required for hydrogen-fueled vehicles. The (un)modern fuel-injected gasoline engine can easily be modified to burn hydrogen. The benefits for doing so are innumerable. The drawback is the lack of infrastructure, which can be overcome."
Mike Dean: “I too think that hydrogen energy needs to be brought online as rapidly as possible. Unless the hydrogen is generated by electricity produced by renewable generation sources (such as wind) or nuclear power, though, it is not a step toward energy independence. I would favor a 10-year program to bring hydrogen online. We would meanwhile require that 10 percent of the vehicles sold next year be hybrids. Each year for 10 years, that percentage would increment up by another 10 percent. Ten years from now, 100 percent of vehicles would have to be hybrids. In the 11th year, 10 percent of vehicles would have to be hydrogen-powered. Each year, that percentage would increment up by 5 percent each year until it reached 100 percent. In this way, we would force ourselves to get out of the fossil fuel business.”
Larry: “There are many ‘old hippies’ who have, are, and will espouse a Manhattan Project or Apollo Project, ever since the 1970s and the first oil crisis/ embargo. It was evident then that our economy and foreign policy would be held hostage by forces inimical to the U.S. and our culture. Our economic system continues to reward shortsighted solutions and the ‘get it while you can’ mentality. Maybe we need to begin to look for self-sufficiency in all ways?”
G.M. Merrill, Phoenix: “I still think the use of methane makes much more sense than large-scale conversion to hydrogen. Methane can be generated by biological means from any biomass resource, it can be combusted (quite cleanly) in conventional internal-combustion engines, has a significantly higher energy density than hydrogen, and is much easier to transport and store cryogenically. If we (humankind) were to concentrate on the utilization of methane generated from biomass we would not add any more greenhouse gases to the environment, all we would do is cycle the carbon through the atmosphere to plants then to methane and so on. Hydrogen fuel cells certainly have a great ‘gee-whiz’ appeal, but I really don't think that the fuel cells and their associated hydrogen storage systems will be cost-competitive anytime in the next century. My feeling is that the people pushing this alternative would really like to place private automobiles in the same category as private aviation, a toy for the well-to-do, and restrict everyone else to public transportation.”
Damon Crumley: “[Researcher] Mark Jacobson underestimates the future costs of hydrogen. Current gasoline prices are a combination of production costs and taxes. States depend on those tax revenues, and they would definitely tax hydrogen to make up for any lost revenue from a reduction of gasoline consumption.”
Frank Patterson: “This makes so much sense it's crazy. Not only would it be patriotic, but we'd end up beholden to nobody but ourselves. I'd love to see my tax dollars at work creating the wind-age infrastructure – and using part of the electricity to power a new network of fast passenger trains that could finally become a reality. Since electric airplane engines are foreseeably impractical, we could shift the subsidies currently lavished on air transportation to new ground-based rail infrastructure – and because train travel has that ‘magical’ on-the-move camaraderie about it, we'd reap the side benefit of renewed social interaction on trains. Plus, less nuclear waste to dispose of. I believe this Apollo-style approach would fire the American imagination in a very powerful way, and benefit the country in a number of respects, most notably by giving us a renewed sense of purpose – which we desperately need.”
Andres Lobo, Boise, Idaho: “What a bunch of wankers. Anyone who thinks that generating electricity to separate hydrogen from oxygen, ship it, store it, then convert it back into electricity which then is converted into mechanical energy is an effective way to use already limited electrical power generation is an idiot. Do you propose building more fossil-fueled power plants? Doubt it. How about a nuclear power plant? Oh god no, not in my back yard. Hydrogen in the near future will come from hydrocarbons – yep, the same stuff we make gas from. How about skipping all the conversion steps and reducing the need for as much additional electrical generation by using straight electric cars?”
Gary Pearcy, Copperas Cove, Texas: "Regarding the 'Apollo' energy program, of course it is a good idea. So are solar power, biogas-powered electricity from waste, tidal-generated power and several other promising technologies being developed and utilized mostly in other countries. The United States, instead of taking the lead in moving away from fossil fuels, is trying to milk every dollar it can out of oil, despite talk of a 'hydrogen economy.' Until the current shortsighted, corporation-controlled government is gone, I fear we will continue to willfully deny global warming and keep offering tax breaks for big SUVs. Is a government push away from fossil fuels a good idea? Yes! Will it happen? I doubt it. On the other hand, a grassroots movement by companies and individuals who are concerned about the environment might force the government to take notice. Keep promoting ideas that will benefit us all, not just the ultra-rich."
• | Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:
• New Scientist: Soot blamed for global warming overestimate
• Discover Magazine: Egyptians loved their dead animals
• Astrobiology Magazine: Tulips on the moon
• S.F. Chronicle: 10 things to do if you see a UFO
• | Time to revisit relativity: One hundred years ago this week, a little-known patent clerk changed the world with a paper called "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies." That treatise, dated June 30, 1905, came to represent one of the 20th century's grandest ideas: the special theory of relativity.
We delved into that grand idea and its legacy earlier this year in a report titled "A Century of Einstein," but it's well worth reviewing the subject. In a centenary news release, Duke University's Arlie Petters notes that the theory "has been holding up pretty well," but that relativity's weird world-view still hasn't settled into our conception of everyday experience. For example, we still think of gravity as an attractive force tugging one object toward another.
"It is nontrivial to switch to the general-relativistic viewpoint — namely, to think of gravity not as a physical force, but as the result of the warping of space-time," Petters says.
Then there's the concept of time itself, which permeates every aspect of the way we think about experience, but which is still little-understood by the physicists following in Einstein's footsteps. Today's New York Times looks at the state of the science in "Remembrance of Things Future" (registration required), and you can check out this archived story (and Cosmic Log follow-up) for additional perspectives on the puzzle of time.
• | SpaceShipOne's final destination: If you're a fan of the first-ever privately funded spaceship, you might want to keep the last week of July and/or the last week of September clear for a sentimental journey or two. The SpaceShipOne rocket plane is due to visit the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., held from July 25 to 31 — and one of aerospace designer Burt Rutan's other babies, the GlobalFlyer round-the-world craft, may be there too.
Advance word from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum is that SpaceShipOne wll be installed in the Washington museum's Milestones of Flight gallery during the last week of September, although the precise schedule has not yet been announced.
"Keep in mind that just about two weeks later the 1903 Wright Flyer will be returning to its place in Milestones of Flight," museum spokesman Michael Marcus told me. "So by the end of
October, both SpaceShipOne and the Wright Flyer will be hanging just feet apart."
• | Postcard from Michigan: It's sweltering here at Glen Arbor, where I'm spending a week of (mostly) down time. Thank goodness there's a cool lake nearby, and an air-conditioned wireless hotspot at the Leelanau Coffee Roasting Co. I've received a goodly amount of thoughtful e-mail about last week's wind-to-hydrogen power study, and in between the kayaking and the sand dune tours, I'll put together a selection of the feedback for later in the week. Until then, hoist a Manitou Amber Ale (or an equivalent cool drink) for me.
• | Your (not quite) daily dose of science on the Web:
• News.com.au: Scientists create zombie dogs
• Scientific American: The woodstock of evolution
• Nature: How hypnosis helps focus the mind
• Discovery.com: Lettuce uncovered as sexual stimulant
• | Hydrogen power play: What America needs is an Apollo-style program to encourage the development of alternative energy sources — in part by allowing fossil fuels to become more expensive. At least that's the view of a researcher who has done an analysis of a wind-and-hydrogen energy economy.
"You do need to undertake an Apollo program because even though the cost of a new wind turbine averaged over a long time is similar to a new coal or natural gas power plant, there's no incentive to replace these other sources with wind," Mark Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University, says in a news release linked to a study in this week's issue of the journal Science.
Jacobson and his colleagues at Stanford, Whitney Goldsborough Colella and David Golden, have proposed a power system in which wind turbines are used to generate the electricity for a water-to-hydrogen conversion system. The hydrogen, in turn, would go toward powering fuel cells in next-generation automotive vehicles.
"Converting all the current vehicles to fuel cell vehicles powered by wind would save 3,000 to 6,000 lives in the United States annually, and it could be done at a fuel cost that's comparable to the cost of gasoline — and less than the cost of gasoline, when you consider the health effects of gasoline," Jacobson said.
The scientist said he has no financial interest in any alternative-energy endeavor — other than his house (solar-powered) and his own transportation (a hybrid-powered Toyota Prius). But in the Science study, a wind-to-hydrogen combination comes out looking better in terms of the grand picture than four other alternatives, ranging from the status quo to hydrogen generated from natural gas (as is most common today) or coal.
The Stanford team contends that the cost of making hydrogen from wind would be $1.12 to $3.20 for the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline or diesel — on par with the current price of gas. But they say gasoline also has a hidden cost of 29 cents to $1.80 per gallon in societal costs such as reduced health, lost productivity, hospitalization and death, as well as cleanup of polluted sites. So the study contends that gasoline's true cost in March 2005 was $2.35 to $3.99 per gallon, which exceeds the estimated mean cost of hydrogen from wind.
The problem is, the up-front cost of conversion could be steep. Jacobson advocates supporting a new wind-to-hydrogen infrastructure to a level similar to the $20 billion recently proposed for a new natural gas pipeline from the continental United States to Alaska. That's roughly one-fifth the current-day equivalent cost of the 1960s Apollo space program, according to NBC News space analyst James Oberg's calculations.
Jacobson also believes fossil-fuel pricing should reflect the old technology's "true health and climate costs" — which means ending exemptions from current environmental regulations. That
Publishing in Science is a big deal for this type of analysis, and Colella reportedly has another paper in press at the Journal of Power Sources. With all this talk about the energy bill, the questions over the "end of oil," the climate change debate and the prospects for nuclear power, does this sound like a smart way to go? I'd love to hear what you think.
For further background on the technology and politics of alternative energy, check out our special report on "Green Machines" — and be sure to read about the account of last year's hydrogen-powered odyssey by my colleague at MSNBC.com, Miguel Llanos. Next Tuesday, by the way, the House Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Caucus will kick off its "End Dependence Day" campaign with a Capitol Hill display of civilian and military fuel-cell vehicles.
• | On the road again: I'll be heading out of town on vacation over the next week, so as always, postings will be dependent on time and bandwidth, and definitely less regular than usual. I'll be back in the office on the Fifth of July.
• | Summertime field trips on the World Wide Web:
• The Economist: Ripples in the sands of time
• New Scientist: Russia planning double assault on Mars
• National Geographic: 'The Search for Adam'
• Science News: Energy on ice
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