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Cosmic Log: Sept. 24-30, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Debating intelligent design ... Intelligent-bleep theory ... How to zap a hurricane ... Partying with Einstein ... Questions about the space lift.

Sept. 30, 2005 |
Debating intelligent design: Between this week's intelligent-design court proceedings and Thursday's item on "intelligent-bleep theory," there's plenty to talk about in terms of what happens when scientific ideas interface with life's deepest questions.

Outside the United States, many commentators wonder what all the fuss over intelligent design is about. In Scotland, Beth Pearson of The Herald says "a happy conclusion would see ID confined to religious education lessons." And in England, Michael Vestey of The Spectator says, "Without knowing enough about American schools I can't think why 'intelligent design' ... can't be taught as part of religious studies, while Darwinism remains part of scientific studies, but perhaps that's too simple."

That's just the point that the opponents of teaching intelligent design have been pushing during this week's trial in Pennsylvania: that the reference to ID was mandated in an effort to get a little religion into a secular classroom. On the other side, ID's defenders have been trying to show that present-day evolutionary theory has gaps — which, of course, all theories tend to have.

Many of the letters I've received on the subject over the past week covered well-trod ground, mentioning buzz phrases like irreducible complexity, micro-evolution vs. macro-evolution, "theory, not a fact," etc. Rather than going through all those arguments in detail again, I'll just refer folks to the Talk.Origins Archive and its sub-site,, which I've found to be the best truth squads on such topics.

Without further ado, then, or further comment (in the interest of letting at least some Cosmic Log commentators have ther soapbox), here's a selection of the feedback from this week's mail. First, on "What the Bleep":

Ohadi Langis: "'What the Bleep' is a bunch of new-age mush. Having watched the DVD and browsed the companion Web site the whole picture is one of superstition and belief. It is not science. It does not pass Michael Shermer's 'baloney test.' ..."Isaac Luria, University of Florida: "From someone with a B.S. in physics, I can tell you straight up that the quantum mechanics of 'What the Bleep' is total garbage. I could go through a point by point, but that would take all day. But I'll point out the most obvious and compelling hole in the bleep science: The neuron is simply too big to function quantum mechanically. Individual ions? Perhaps. Electrons on the ions? Definitely. But these individual pieces have very little effect on the neuron function by themselves. And as pointed out in the film, quantum mechanics is probabalistic in nature; thus, over the large scale, the quantum behavior averages out. So even though the 'bleep' interpretation to quantum mechanics not scientifically valid, even if it was, it still wouldn't result in the power of consciousness that 'bleepites' love so much. ... 'Bleepism' is pure metaphysics, the same metaphysics that has always been. Esentially you take something that science knows about but can't explain, and simply make up your own explanation since it can't yet be disproven. It's not science, even though it talks about science and tries to explain science. It's still just fantasy until someone can prove it. I invite 'bleepites' to read an actual quantum mechanics text or at least visit Google and see what scientists have to say about the film, very little of it is positive."David: "I just watched this movie the other night. Virtually every concept, theory or hypothesis they state that relates to physics or biology is so wrong, that using the term wrong is an understatement. The movie is nothing more than a poorly written two-hour infomercial for the Cult of Ramtha. Please do not EVER refer to it in the context of real science.  If you don’t believe me, put the name of the movie into Google with the added search term 'junk science' and you can read the wealth of information from real scientists posted in rebuttal to this lunatic piece of trash. There has never been a more apt use of the phrase 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,' and trust me, the makers of this film have as little knowledge about science as one can have without being misidentified as a rock, flower or tree branch. ... Ramtha must be turning over in his 35,000-year-old grave."Eric Johnson, Concord, N.H.: "Bleep theory belongs in philosophy, not a science class. But I think it does have enough merit to be a topic of conversation somewhere other than the backwoods and closets."

Now let's segue over to some of the comments on intelligent design. Just as a reminder, I'm staying away from comments that repeat references to bacterial flagella, the evolution of the eye, the Second Law of Thermodynamics and other specific points that are addressed so well on Talk.Origins:

Heidi, Griffin, Ga.: "...  Even though I have personal belief systems that coincide with my scientific foundations, I do not believe it is my moral and societal duty to teach my personal principles in a classroom. However, I think that children in our schools today severely lack the ability to think critically about their lives and surroundings. I think being from the South, especially, I see a great ignorance in many children here about religions as well as philosophy. I would one day love to see high schools offering teach a multitude of classes based in Western and Eastern philosophy, world religions, and ethics. This can never happen, however, as long as parents are too strict on how much their child thinks for themselves."Jim Whitman, Guayaquil, Ecuador: "It is disturbing that Americans constantly criticize fundamentalists of other religions but cannot recognize the extremely narrow vision and its consequences in themselves. Religious dogma and intolerance, regardless of origin or what it claims, has been one of the most destructive aspects of human relations since the beginning of civilization. Science is not a separate god; science is a proven reality. Religion is a belief based on faith and should remain as such. If you want your children to learn about religion, teach them at home — and teach them about all religions."David Major, Ph.D., Toronto: "Folks seem to confuse what science is all about; it's a methodology of discovery to explain how things are and why they work that way. Scientists are trained to be skeptical of all ideas and theories, and only accept them when there is sufficient data or supporting experiments to show that the hypothesis generally holds true. Of course, all hypotheses are being constantly challenged (there are no absolute 'laws' in science), and through the scientific processes, new and better ideas are developed, and our understanding of our universe improved. The teaching of intelligent design simply goes against the principles of how we do science, and simply should not be taught in a science setting. ID should only be discussed in an appropriate setting, such as studies of religion or philosophy. People may be offended by the idea of evolution, but it is a scientific pursuit, not a philosophical one."T. Kwan, Toronto: "Scientists should not be afraid of having their theories challenged. Only by being open can we advance science. If a scientific theory cannot be challenged, then it is a dogma."Dr. Reggie Lo, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada: "The fallacy with intelligent design by a Supreme Being is that it does not explain how the being became Supreme. The being could have evolved to Supreme on their own or have been designed by someone more Supreme, hence a god. But by its own definition, the being could not have evolved on their own, therefore ID will eventually have to include a god, which makes it a religion in a laboratory jacket."Anonymous, Austin, Texas: "I find this whole debate disheartening. I am a pre-service middle-school science teacher. Teach religious ideas in Sunday school, and teach science in public-school science classrooms. If it comes down to it, I will have to seek employment elsewhere if I am told I must teach 'alternative views' to evolution which are not based in scientific research. Wake up, people!"James Nielsen, Boise, Idaho: "As a ninth- and 10th-grade science teacher, I fully intend to spend some time discussing 'intelligent design' with my students. In my opinion it is an excellent opportunity to show the difference between a valid scientific theory (evolution) and a weak pseudoscientific theory (ID). Kids have a certain sense of fairness, so one can't just ignore the controversy between the two theories without looking like you're afraid of something. Such a discussion highlights the burden of proof that a robust theory must live up to as opposed to the wishful thinking and easy answers of theories like ID (super aliens — maybe Vorlons — did it)."Kristine Harley, Minneapolis: "Having paid serious attention to the claims made by the Discovery Institute and the proponents of ID, I conclude that the 'Intelligence' that they're proposing has really nothing to do with the Judeo-Christian God. I am stunned that Christians are not more concerned about this. But unfortunately, they are being played for fools by people who look like allies, but aren't. The 'Intelligence' of intelligent design is looking more and more like a space alien — smart, but 'noninterventionist,' that is, someone who created us but does not answer prayer. Naturally, since this entity is subject to the laws of science, it (not He, or even She) is not necessarily supernatural! Is this what Christians want? Is this what they want their kids to learn — that the 'science' of intelligent design essentially disproves the power of prayer? I am no longer a Christian, but I was raised one and know Scripture very well, and I have family members and other people that I care about who are true Christians. I should think that all Jews and Christians should be extremely concerned about how they are being used in an agenda to advance the concept of a values-free, hands-off, science-fiction alien as the 'creator' of mankind."Pastor R. Kevin Kline, Salina, Kan.: "As a pastor at a Lutheran church in Salina, Kansas, I find the attempts by the Kansas school board and others to insert the teaching of intelligent design alongside the teaching of evolution to be a threat to science and perhaps even a bigger threat to faith. In essence, what the proponents of intelligent design and creationism are trying to do is make children and others believe that the existence of God can be proven. This is and would be the death of faith. Faith is not knowing. Faith is belief in what cannot be known."Claire Isidor, Shelton, Conn.: "I wonder what the proponents of intelligent design would think if someone advanced the theory that the intelligent designer was Satan rather than God? Since Satan is a 'fallen angel' of the highest order, I'm sure Satan would have the necessary intelligence to create mankind for 'his' purposes as readily as any other intelligent designer."Mark Thrice, Fairfax, Va.: "Unfortunately, the usual 30-second sound bites we read on the issue often amount to little more than name-calling or hopelessly simplistic responses. Informal logical fallacies frequently appear in the mainstream press, especially appeals to authority and often-appalling ad hominems. I was weaned on Darwinism, but am increasingly troubled because of the increasingly uncivil tone from those in the scientific and academic communities who should have better manners, not to mention more confidence in the subject they are ostenisbly defending. Sadly, even magazines like Scientific American, usually noted for their restraint, mix so much sarcasm into their counter-arguments that it makes one wonder why they don't just answer the arguments of the ID movement, many of whom are distinguished in their respective fields. If there is so much incontrovertible evidence for Darwinism, let's just bring out the appropriate counter-evidence for each respective ID claim. ..."R.W.W., Fez, Morocco: "I have two doctorates and have done four years of graduate study at Yale University. I also received the NSF award as College Teacher of the Year in 1968. More times than not I see certified scientists deliberately and irresponsibly denying plain evidence, yet pontificating about subjects in which they are ignoramuses. I have seen them ban books from an entire state library system, and smash entire laboratories and libraries containing material they don't agree with. They are just a bigoted old-boy network religion themselves."John Rogers, Chattanooga, Tenn.: "The problem lies in a misunderstanding of what the limitations of science are. Science can only deal with phenomena that are physically verifiable. Thus, it is limited to explaining and duplicating natural processes. Explaining origins is the purview of philosophy and theology, since origins cannot be absolutely verified or duplicated using the scientific processes. Evolutionary theory is really naturalistic philosophy disguising itself in scientific garb; therefore, intelligent-design theory, theistic philosophy, should be extended the same courtesy. The real solution is for schools to teach science by concentrating on processes, not origins."Rick Lavon, New York: "I think that intelligent design promotes an attitude that squashes any form of inquisitiveness and thought about nature. It's a lazy way to answer any questions about things. 'Oh, don't bother trying to figure out why no two snowflakes are alike ... it must be God.' Other school systems around the world that don't have our religious hang-ups will surpass ours in math and science and leave our kids in the dust. In their effort to 'help' our kids, the ID people will really make them worse off."Chris Morse, Providence, R.I.: "If intelligent design was based in science, fine, teach it. Seeing how it's just polemical, there's no reason it should be. Then there's the question of mutation of viruses, Darwin's finches, the genetic similarity of humans to other great apes, and years of scientific evidence. If we choose to ignore science, why not call into question physics, chemistry and medicine. A theory is just the best explanation available until new evidence comes along. This 'intelligent design' argument can be applied to these sciences as well. Do we just give up on science altogether in favor of religious explanations? It's been done before, just ask the Taliban."John, Fort Collins, Colo.: "Discussion, not sponsorship, of God's role in our origin can be a valid and constitutional part of state education so long as it is presented in the appropriate forum — religious or philosophical studies. I think a religious education curriculum would be of great value in our schools for this and many other reasons, but if we're to teach religion then we must pay equal due to all major faiths, not just Christianity. As for this case specifically, I don't see why evolution should receive its own mandatory disclaimer, but not the laws of gravity or other commonly accepted scientific principles. Do the proponents of ID really care about clarifying the difference between a law and a theory, or do they only care about discrediting science which conflicts with the Bible? This specific focus on weakening the theory of evolution amounts to forwarding a religious agenda, which is exactly what the founding fathers sought to avoid. Freedom of religion means neither banning nor mandating it."Jorge Fernandez, Hialeah, Fla.: "Science is not built on answers, but built on questions. If we as kids do not learn any science, but have the ability to think critically, then we are better off. A scientist can know all the book knowledge in the world, and if he can't think for himself he won't amount to anything. But if someone can critically think, they can be a great scientist regardless of their educational level. Naturalism has become nothing more than the state-endorsed religion it came to prevent. ... So much of the world having similar creation stories can also testify to one Being creating everything and the presence of spiritual forces. A world-religion class will set Christianity apart. The fact is that it takes more faith to believe in atheism than in intelligent design. Even Einstein believed in a higher power, and was he a religious fanatic? Why are the schools trying to force down what most of our parents have rejected for good reason? I am tired of MTV and the government brainwashing my generation. So-called 'dark energy' expanding the universe sounds like God to me and should be looked further into as evidence for intelligent design. But I'm just a kid. What do I know?"

And finally, a couple of letters questioning how we're handling the whole debate, including the unscientific Live Vote displayed at right:

James White, Dallas: "What kind of poll is this? Shouldn't it be 'alternative scientific theories' of evolution? Scientific being the catchword for falsifiable? Not just alternative. That's like alternative treatments for hair loss. There is nothing falsifiable about ID. Geez, get a grip and contribute meaningfully to the debate."Susan Jorstad, East Stroudsburg, Pa.: "What do I think? I think that whoever selected the e-mail comments for inclusion on this Web page is clearly biased toward teaching only evolution and teaching it as if it were fact, not theory. This Web site's editors have made up their minds about this issue and are more concerned with furthering their version of truth than they are with posting the true range of e-mail letters received on this topic. Ditto for the chosen links and resources on this topic. Such blatant bias makes undermines any credibility for this site as a source of news or real discussion."

Sept. 30, 2005 |
One small step: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and Goddard Space Flight Center have been put in charge of developing a robotic lunar lander for launch as early as 2010. "This mission will have as a primary objective to determine whether there is water ice in the permanently dark areas within craters in the moon's polar regions," NASA's Doug Cooke said in today's agency announcement. The existence of water-ice has important implications in living off the land when we return with human explorers." This archived story provides more of the big picture for NASA's lunar exploration plans.

Sept. 30, 2005 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:

N.Y. Times (reg. req.): That famous equation and you

Sept. 29, 2005 |
Intelligent-bleep theory: For some months now, there's been a groundswell of interest in a new concept that cites scientific research to explain the grand design that we see in the universe around us. The question is, should this concept be addressed in science class, even though it faces derision from mainstream scientists?

We're not talking about intelligent design here. Rather, this phenomenon has to do with a documentary called "What the Bleep Do We Know?" — which looks to quantum physics and neuroscience for hints about how consciousness might shape the cosmos.

Like intelligent design, "What the Bleep" has sparked a great deal of controversy since it came out in grass-roots theatrical release last year. It's now available on DVD, and has sparked seminars, authorized study guides and an unauthorized book on the scientific debates behind the phenomenon, titled "Beyond the Bleep."

Part of the controversy stems from the way "What the Bleep" blends together edgy interpretations of a wide variety of issues, ranging from quantum superposition and brain biochemistry to transcendental meditation and "the hidden messages in water," to support the new-agey idea that, in a sense, you create your own universe. And part of it stems from the fact that many of the people involved in the making of the film are also involved in Ramtha's School of Enlightenment, headed by a woman who claims to channel the spirit of a 35,000-year-old warrior.

The author of "Beyond the Bleep," Alexandra Bruce, doesn't take much stock in the Ramtha movement, and she doesn't agree with some of the claims put forward in "What the Bleep."

But she does think skeptics who see the whole subject as nothing more than "quantum flapdoodle" should take a closer look at some of the studies conducted into the influence of consciousness on physical phenomena, like the work of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program. And nowadays, thanks to brain imaging, researchers are making a stronger case that the wiring of your brain affects how you perceive external stimuli — and that changing those patterns of stimuli can rewire your brain.

What's more, as has been amply reported in this space, there appear to be more spatial dimensions to our universe than the three we perceive. "Materialism doesn't suffer any criticism of itself," Bruce complained. "It says '3-D is it,' which to me is patently insane."

So if some school board members around the country think it's OK to introduce students to intelligent design in science class, should extradimensional "Bleep" science be given equal time?

"It would be fantastic for kids to be exposed to the philosophical implications of quantum physics, of evolution and all science," Bruce said. "It's very unfortunate that science and spirituality are segregated, and any attempt is so volatile, just so not done. ... I just have to think that a scientist who doesn't want to take on these philosophical implications is afraid of the truth, or trying to control the truth."

Bruce has a point — as long as the discussion is conducted in, say, philosophy class rather than biology class. But rather than going any further down this line of reasoning (I may well end up with the Pastafarians), I'll just throw it open to find out what you think about "Bleep" science.

Sept. 29, 2005 |
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:

ABC (Australia): Probed! The mother of all brains

Sept. 28, 2005 |
How to zap a hurricane: Controlling the weather may be an idea whose time has passed, but some outer-space fans say a future constellation of space solar power stations just might be able to take the sting out of storms like Hurricane Katrina. Wienerlog's Daniel Wiener goes so far as to call it "the killer app for space elevators and cheap space travel."

Here's the basic idea behind space solar power: Giant satellites would be placed into orbit to collect sunlight, convert it into microwave energy, then beam that energy down to receiver stations on Earth. The receiver stations would turn the microwaves back into electricity. An alternate concept calls for building giant space mirrors that would reflect the sunlight down to earthly solar arrays. (For more, check out this explanation from Mark Whittington at Curmudgeon's Corner.)

Wiener suggests that the microwaves could be used to zap storms as well as to provide power: Energy could be focused from space into a developing tropical storm system, to disrupt the cyclonic wind pattern or at least "steer" the storm along a benign path. (Wiener and Whittington link to more information from Scientific American.)

Scenarios for developing space solar power have been bandied about for years, and as Adam Crowl noted earlier this week, space elevators are generally mentioned as leading candidates for getting the power stations into orbit.

The idea has generated a pretty good discussion at Transterrestrial Musings, where folks have already raised some of the reservations I would have: For example, would beamed power even have an effect on tropical storms? What's to stop a future Dr. Evil from getting control of an orbiting power station and wreaking havoc? And the big one: Is this whole scheme of space elevators and solar power stations even plausible in the first place?

I'm getting inundated with e-mail on evolution and intelligent design, but there's still room in my mailbox for messages letting me know what you think about the storm-zapping idea.

Sept. 28, 2005 |
Visualize science: Science is beautiful. No, literally. We're not just talking about the beauty of the scientific method or scientific concepts, but also the way that scientists look at and imagine the world around them. Just in the past week, two new galleries have been added to the mix:

  • The winners of this year's Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge are on display at the National Science Foundation's Web site as well as the journal Science's Web site. The annual contest highlights great photos, illustrations and interactive applications that serve a scientific purpose as well. The subjects of this year's winning entries range from planetary motion to evolutionary morphing to an Estonian bog.
  • Visions of Science 2005, presented by Novartis Pharmaceuticals and The Daily Telegraph, is a British contest that highlights photography and artwork with a scientific slant. More than 2,200 entries were submitted in categories that include a special tribute to the Einstein Year. Among the most memorable images: a photomicrograph of a cancer cell making its way down a pore in a filter, and a colorful comparison of a grain of sea salt with a peppercorn.

Sept. 28, 2005 |
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:

The Onion: NASA's plans for moon mission

Sept. 27, 2005 |
Partying with Einstein: Today marks the 100, and in honor of the milestone, some folks are partying like it’s 1905 — complete with jazz concerts, exhibits, bistros and silent films that reflect the cultural milieu surrounding Albert Einstein’s “miraculous year.”

What does all this outreach have to do with cutting-edge science?  Maybe more than we think, says Howard Burton, executive director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, and one of the organizers of the institute’s three-week-long EinsteinFest.

“Let's suppose that we can conclude that our outreach programs have been phenomenally successful in scope," he said, "and that a substantial number of people who might not otherwise be tempted to give science a great deal of thought when they were in their formative years were positively influenced in a direction that made them consider science, and some even went on to become scientifically very active. ...

“At the end of the day, when one is doing the calculation, you might find that the amount of influence we were able to procure actually was larger through the outreach program than through the science program per se,” he mused. “It's possible.”

The Perimeter Institute's party begins on Friday, and the schedule includes talks on Einstein and his legacy, geared for all ages — as well as somewhat less scientific fare:

  • Performances of the Steve Martin play "Picasso at the Lapine Agile" (in which Einstein is a character).
  • Jazz, blues and string quartet concerts featuring music from Einstein's heyday as well as tunes inspired by the great man.
  • Silent-film classics starring Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.

Burton explained that the 1905-era tributes reflects a "core aspect of the beliefs" at the Perimeter Institute.

"Science isn’t done in a vacuum," he told me. "It's not this dry, desiccated field of study which is handed down to the masses ex cathedra from textbooks, but actually is a human activity, practiced by humans, developed by humans who were influenced by their times, and in turn influenced their times. It's that interplay between science and society ... that not only is intellectually stimulating but also is historically accurate and relevant."

Today and tomorrow, a similar blend of science and culture is being served up at the Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.

Although the educational outreach looms large in Burton's mind, it wouldn't mean anything without a solid scientific foundation. For five years now, the Perimeter Institute has been working to build that foundation — as a Canadian version of the Institute for Advanced Study, backed by tech-industry philanthropy as well as government research funds.

During EinsteinFest, Burton himself will deliver a talk on "Building an Einstein Factory." But he acknowledged that you can't mass-produce genius. In fact, it's an open question whether Einstein would have been taken on by a place like Perimeter back in 1905 — and whether he would have been as successful if he had been.

"Would we have hired Einstein? Would he be here? The answer is maybe not," he said. "Are we doing everything we can to maximize that possibility of happening with the next Einstein? Probably not. We were crafted with a deliberate role of doing what we could within reason. But maybe we're not doing enough. ... And maybe due to the very nature and disposition of somebody of an Einsteinian caliber, you wouldn’t fall into that standard institutional framework anyway."

But Burton and his colleagues are trying to make it easier for outstanding theoretical physicists to release their inner Einstein — in line with the institute's mandate to focus on basic rather than applied research. Another mandate calls on the institute to foster alternate approaches to solving the mysteries of the universe.

"We're certainly not saying that we shouldn’t do the mainstream or the orthodox approaches," Burton said. "The mainstream, orthodox approaches are invariably mainstream and orthodox for a very good reason, which is that they're very promising. But one has to be careful to not conclude from that that they're the only way of doing it. So we're constantly trying to skirt this realm of not being exactly the same as every other institute and just follow the orthodoxy, but by no means being a wacky institute or an institute of lost causes."

A prime example of that is the quest to bridge the gap between the micro world of quantum mechanics and the macro world of general relativity — two theories that work amazing well in their own realms but don't work at all well together. String theory is providing the mainstream route toward blending the two worlds in a "theory of everything," and Perimeter certainly has a good number of string theorists. But the institute also employ researchers who are looking into alternative explanations such as loop quantum gravity.

Will one of those researchers emerge as the next Einstein? Could anyone match the miraculous year that reached its climax a century ago?

"In every area of inquiry that we're involved in, suffice it to say there are an awful lot of interesting pivotal open questions that remain," Burton said. "Are we likely to witness revolutionary ideas on a par with what Einstein was able to do in 1905? It's difficult to conceive of a whole group of people being able to cause that much of a shift in our world view within such a short period of time, let alone one person. It was really an intellectual tour de force that’s been unrivaled through the ages. But something has to change, and there are an awful lot of questions we have with no answers to them."

Check out our "Century of Einstein" section for more about Einstein's legacy and the great unanswered questions — and party on.

Sept. 27, 2005 |
Hot copy on Katrina:
Following up on its unusual non-cover-photo, single-topic issue on Africa, National Geographic is rushing out a special newsstand-only issue about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The magazine's editors say it's the first time they've put out a single-topic issue based on breaking news.

The issue was put together with the assistance of newspapers in the hurricane zone as well as a variety of photo agencies and wire services. Net proceeds from sales of the advertisement-free issue will benefit hurricane victims. For details, check out National Geographic's Katrina Web page.

Sept. 27, 2005 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:

AMS: Math unites the celestial and the atomic

Sept. 26, 2005 |
Questions about the space lift: What do you think about the idea of sending a ribbon of carbon nanotubes a quarter of the way to the moon, then pushing robots up and down that ribbon on a beam of laser light?

To many, it sounds like science fiction — and indeed Arthur C. Clarke made it the central theme of his novel "Fountains of Paradise" back in 1978. But over the weekend, Clarke touted the concept as an "idea that may ultimately make space transport cheap and affordable to ordinary people." One of my fellow MSNBC bloggers, Glenn Reynolds, also casts his vote for the space elevator in his column on Tech Central Station.

It's not just all talk: Last week, the LiftPort Group reported that it had sent its latest prototype robot up a 1,000-foot ribbon in an early test of the concept, and next month the first Space Elevator Games will take place at NASA's Ames Research Center, with thousands of dollars in prize money at stake.

Now is the time to take the space-elevator concept out of the realm of PowerPoint presentations and put it to work in earthly applications, says Michael Laine of the LiftPort Group.

"What we'd really like to do is start selling this system for high-altitude observation, radio and Internet applications. We think we've got a system now that will actually get that job done."

Eventually, LiftPort plans to develop a system that can send cargo up to a mile-high platform, then up to many miles in altitude. But based on last week's testing, the job will require ribbons of stronger stuff, Laine said.

"What we realized was that the ribbon we're using now just isn’t going to get the job done," he said. "We need something stronger than that. There are plenty of materials available. ... We're trying to fig out the best way to get what we need that’s lightweight but still strong."

That's where another one of LiftPort's ventures comes into play: Last week, after a longer-than-expected delay, Laine finally nailed down the details of a lease for a carbon nanotube production facility in New Jersey. He said he now expects the first furnaces to be installed by the end of November. The aim is to turn out low-cost, high-quality nanotubes that could be used to strengthen steel, plastics and ceramics.

"Our goal is to produce the highest quality, but more importantly, the highest quantity that we can," Laine said. "For this stuff to change industrial society, you've got to produce tons per day, not just pounds or milligrams per day."

Eventually, the boosters of the space elevator hope that carbon nanotube ribbons will provide a super-strong "highway to the sky" for the robot lifters. But will the idea ever get off the ground? In response to a item earlier this month, Cosmic Log readers sent in a variety of questions and observations — and Laine addressed some of those questions in turn:

Anonymous: "I continue to be surprised by the thought of having a space elevator in orbit around Earth. The near-earth orbital environment is just too cluttered by active satellites and manmade debris to allow for any effective and survivable Clarke-type space elevator. While I have seen it discussed that the tether could be moved out of the way of debris, this is probably a practical impossibility, and clearly additional complications of the collision avoidance process have not been considered. Other problems that I have not seen discussed have to do with how the currently favored ribbons would respond to weather as they pass through the atmosphere. In particular, how would they deal with icing or flutter caused by high-speed winds?"I suggest that if the space elevator community is really serious, they should look at a Mars application of the concept. Mars makes the idea much more appealing, as Mars' smaller size would significantly reduce the size and mass of the required system. Mars has much less atmosphere as well, which means issues of flutter and/or icing would be seriously reduced. Finally, at least right now, Mars has almost no manmade orbital debris problem. The space elevator community should work toward a Mars application and work to prevent the contamination of Martian orbital space with manmade debris."

"We love the idea of an elevator on Mars as a demonstration system," Laine replied. "There's also been talk of an elevator on the moon as a technical demonstrator. We think both these ideas are very good and should be pursued."

As for the orbital debris issue, "we have looked at it," Laine said. He noted that students and professors at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Rutgers University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been working on the problem, and that some new reports could be coming out in the next few weeks.

"For small debris, we don't think it's much of a problem," Laine said. "For large debris, [the ribbon system] will have to be moved, and we think it can be moved."

J. Randall, "I understand geostationary orbit must be equatorial and at an altitude of nearly 36,000 kilometers. How would an object in low orbit remain geostationary, so that it did not snap the tether or fall flat?"

Laine said the ribbon deployment scheme would involve sending a spacecraft up to low Earth orbit initially, but then a beam-powered rocket propulsion system would boost the spacecraft deeper into space. The first ribbons would be sent down to Earth, as well as far beyond geosynchronous orbit. Then "construction lifters" would scuttle up and down the first thin ribbon, widening it with additional nanotubes.

"There are probably changes to the NASA baseline concept that will be coming out pretty soon," Laine said.

Transterrestrial Musings' Rand Simberg goes into more detail on the physics of space elevator deployment.

Christopher Dahl, San Francisco: "For years, I had been an unquestioning enthusiast for a space elevator, or lifter, as it seems to be called these days. But within the last year, I read an article that raised questions about this. There was an article on MSN ... about recent discoveries of atmospheric electrical discharges extending from the stratosphere to much lower levels. I certainly appreciate that plans for any lift cable would include electrical insulation, but my concern is that any disturbance [in the system] would inevitably disturb weather patterns, possibly even catastrophically. I hope that LiftPort's efforts will acknowledge that this is a significant issue and will collect all relevant data."

"All I can say to that is, yes, it's on my list of questions," Laine said. He said one expert has told him the electrical discharges "may be a showstopper," while another has said they shouldn't be a concern. More study will be done on this issue, he said.

Dave: "The thinking is backwards on this project. We already have the international space station in orbit. Why not make this a major project and instead of spending billions of dollars on starting up a new moon mission, stockpile the carbon nano-tether material in orbit, then assemble it in space. When it's ready, drop the cable. [It's a piece of] cake from there. Then, once you have the tether in place, try building robots to walk it."

"The fact is that we just don't have control over those assets, and we're never going to," Laine said. He acknowledged that the international space station might be a valuable asset, but his venture has been concentrating instead on using commercial rockets to deploy the elevator system — once it gets to that point.

A couple of Cosmic Log regulars weighed in on the issue of why the space-elevator trip is necessary:

Adam Crowl, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia: "This is absolutely vital for our energy future, I reckon, since we need space elevators (not just one) to lift Solar Satellite Power Stations to geosynchronous Earth orbit and beyond, for a lot cheaper than chemical rockets can currently achieve — especially as the kero gets tighter and tighter."Of all our energy options for the mid- to long term, SSPS's are way out in front — if we do them smartly. Old-style NASA studies posited humongous Big Dumb Rockets to get parts up there, and then posited a huge human presence at geosynchronous orbit to assemble them and maintain them. That's unworkable and unnecessary thanks to lighterweight designs and better automation. But it will still be a big task."Currently we use 14 terawatts of energy, averaging out the peaks and troughs around the globe. Currently demand is running hot at more than the average energy growth rate of 2.6 percent, but even that lower figure means about 364 gigawatts per annum, and of course more next year, etc. If 1 gigawatt per SSPS is reasonable, and an SSPS can weigh in at about 1,300 tons per gigawatt (some designs do), then space elevators need to be haulling a 1,300-ton SSPS to orbit every day. [Space-elevator pioneer] Brad Edwards has posited about 500-ton cargo hauling space elevators once all the bugs are ironed out, and with a seven-day trip that's 14 space elevators running SSPS's to orbit continuously, with separate descent elevators for the lifters."Big task indeed, but not utterly absurd either. Considering that oil companies spend about $150 billion each year on exploration to find less and less, I'm starting to think they won't see it as all that big an effort once space elevators are a proven technology."Dennis McClain-Furmanski, Lawton, Okla.: "Basic science often leads to applications which could not be foreseen at its inception. This makes it hard to justify to people who control budgets because they expect useful results. Applied science often produces useful results that have nothing to do with the original intent because it produces novel results of its own in the process of trying to solve a particular problem."If the research can result in something good and useful to people in some way other than originally intended, I don't care if the planned experiment is designed to test a multiperson circular belt intended to allow for doing a group dance of the boogaloo in zero-G. It should be done. You never know when someone will notice something, like the way they developed a quick-release latch that holds people onto the belt but can release them quickly when they get space-sick — [a device that] can also be used as a positive action, stick-free latch to hold strap-on boosters on a rocket during flight and instantly release them when their thrust cuts off. Dance on, I say."

And then we have this "future news item" from Patrick Bishop of Caldwell, N.J., who suggests that there could be a down side, to put it mildly, to the space elevator:

"SPACE TOWER PLUMMETS — September 12, 2051: The Space Elevator, much-heralded gateway to low-cost exploration and exploitation of space, was spectacularly destroyed yesterday morning in what can only be described as a major victory for anti-Western terrorists."Dedication ceremonies had only just begun at the tower's topmost level when the tower suddenly broke into three large sections. The topmost section (including the VIPs) remains in orbit, but most of the rest of the 60,000-mile-long structure has plummeted to Earth in the last 24 hours."The Tower was destroyed on the anniversary of a barely remembered terrorist attack against the United States 50 years ago. A terrorist organization calling itself simply 'Scimitar' is taking credit for the tower's destruction. In a video statement released to news agencies worldwide moments after the Tower's breakup, a masked Scimitar spokesman claimed that terrorists posing as students had infiltrated laser research programs at several universities in the United States and Brazil, and it was equipment owned by these universities, operated by terrorists, that brought down the tower."In English, the masked and rifle-toting spokesman said, 'In ages past, God taught haughty man his proper place by destroying the first Tower of Babel. God has once again taught his enemies that there is nothing they can do which he cannot undo, and Scimitar has been his instrument in bringing down this second Tower of Babel...'"Contact has been lost with the Tower's still-orbiting topmost section, but officials say there is little hope anyone has survived."'In heavily populated areas where debris has fallen, we're talking about a death toll in the tens of millions,' said one U.N. official who spoke only on condition of anonymity. 'It really is the most deadly act of terror in human history.'"Another analyst from the Pentagon said, 'The Tower was 60,000 miles tall. This made it visible from any point on the Earth's surface on the same hemisphere facing it. We always knew it was vulnerable to attack by laser, since with a laser weapon system if you can see a target you can hit it, but we felt that if we just didn't say anything maybe none of the terrorist organizations would get the idea themselves. Of course, they must have infiltrated these university laser programs decades ago...'"The Tower, estimated by some analysts to have cost almost $1 trillion to build, fell mostly in unpopulated areas, and the cost of rebuilding vast swaths of urban areas destroyed by millions of tons of flaming debris re-entering Earth's atmosphere is estimated to exceed the actual amount of money in the world."

Sept. 26, 2005 |
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