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Cosmic Log: Nov. 5-11, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: How the Net helps vets ... Plus: Silver space salute ...  Strange science explained ... Watching the elections ... Space dreams deferred ... and more.

Nov. 11, 2005 |
Vets and the Net: The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan might be considered not only the "first war of the 21st century," as President Bush noted on this Veterans Day, but also the first "wired war." Although the Internet's role on the battle lines was foreshadowed in the Balkans, this must surely be the first time the U.S. military has used Internet cafes as a routine communication medium, and the first time an international foe has used the Web as a guerrilla network.

So it's fitting that Veterans Day is taking on an increasingly cybercentric character as well: This is the first Veterans Day weekend for the Defense Department's "America Supports You" Web site, which lets the folks back home send messages of support and gifts to the troops. There are plenty of links to other resources for the troops, veterans, families and supporters.

From the high-tech point of view, a couple of organizations should be particularly noted: Operation Homelink provides refurbished computers to families back home so that they can communicate with troops in the field via e-mail. Over at Defense Tech, Noah Shachtman gives a shout-out to Project Valour-IT, which sets up laptops with voice-operated software for lending to wounded service personnel — and provides the same software for use back home when the patient is released.

Shachtman also points to's Veterans Day coverage — which is only natural, since he became affiliated with the site a year and a day ago.

For other reflections on Veterans Day, check out National Geographic's "War Letters" Web package, the History Channel's Veterans Day page, the Veterans Channel, and of course the Veterans of Foreign Wars site as well as Jack Jacobs' commentary on the day and its meaning right here on

Nov. 11, 2005 |
Talking about evolution: Televangelist Pat Robertson isn't the only one reflecting on the current debate over evolutionary theory and intelligent design. Here are some of the comments I've received in response to our coverage:

R.P. Nettelhorst, professor of Bible and biblical languages, Quartz Hill School of Theology: "From the theological standpoint, I believe that the intelligent-design concept is deeply flawed.  It is simply a new version of a very old error: the God of the Gaps fallacy.  To put it simply, the God of the Gaps fallacy argues that God is to be defined as mystery.  Where there is mystery, there is God. If we find something in the world we don’t understand, the explanation is always the same: God did it."This is an incredibly lazy approach to the world.  When explanations for objects and events are found — as they must always be — the God of this fallacy inevitably shrinks.  In my experience, those caught in the grip of this fallacy inevitably fear explanations.  Each time humanity’s understanding of the universe grows, a little piece of their God shrinks.  Yet, they little realize that they’re worshiping a false God who needs to disappear."Most theologians I know, along with most scientists, discarded the God of the Gaps fallacy a long time ago.  God is not dependent for his existence on ignorance."Neal: "In your interview with Neil Tyson [author of "Origins" and director of the Hayden Planetarium], he is giving Darwin's theory way too much credit for its importance in biology. Most of the fields of science were already founded, including biology, before Charles Darwin —and science would prosper very well without his theory ... perhaps better. Most scientists work within their specific fields and do research that has nothing to do with Darwin's macro-evolutionary theory.  Biology did not need Darwin to explain what we call micro-evolution today. Micro-evolution is where the research is focused.  Darwin took a known and extrapolated it into his origin-of-life theory. He dumbed down biology by minimizing the complexity of life and made sloppy armchair speculations an accepted approach to biology.  ID is forcing evolutionists to get past the armchair stories and calling them to account for the details. It's time to ask the hard questions of Mr. Darwin."

Darwinism definitely deserves to be put to the test, just as Einsteinian cosmology does — and if there are flaws in the theory, they'll be corrected over time. But I'm concerned that some folks make too much of a distinction between micro-evolution and macro-evolution, in the same way that I'd be concerned about anyone who says we understand "micro-astronomy" (observations of places we can get to) but not "macro-astronomy" (observations of places out of our reach).

Ben Kilgore: "It's sad how poorly science is understood. Physics and biology are not separate sciences. The macro descriptions of biology reflect the behavior of complex molecules and assemblies which themselves are driven by the laws of physics."Evolution described by Darwin was just the first description of the pattern of changes that differentiate species over time. Comparative anatomy and archaeology have provided an enormous body of evidence of the changes we call evolution. DNA has been found to be the underlying mechanism for propagating these changes."With all this body of hard science, the idea of intelligent design has confused otherwise sane people. Yet physicists for years have marveled at the complex yet elegant way physics describes our universe and can readily accept the idea that it is the creation of some greater being."Intelligent design applies to all of science, and it doesn't change any science. Science doesn't address who made the universe, the world, and the biology therein. Science describes how the universe and its creatures work and change."Science is observation summarized in a hypothesis which must then be verified by others. Einstein's general theory of relativity is powerful because it predicted minute details that could only be observed years later. Science is a web of interrelated findings. It's not a subjective viewpoint. Intelligent design is a viewpoint, not science."We can't expect high school students to learn all the details of any field of science, but we can expect a basic understanding of what is science and what's not."K. Srikumar, Bangalore, India: "I am a citizen of India. Sometimes this discussion looks like a discussion over whether God exists or not. Suppose we imagine that the universe we see is like negative numbers. Negative numbers do not exist in real life. I cannot eat -1 apple. But it does exist in maths. The universe exists as positive numbers in the minds of countless creatures, which is called Maya. These exist as negative numbers in the creator's mind. The known and unknown universe is the ultimate reality. Creation needs to be studied with reference to the minds of creatures before it can made a science."

Nov. 11, 2005 |
One more ghost story: Adam Crowl from Brisbane, Australia, sent in a late entry for the Halloween ghost story collection:

"I've had a couple of visual experiences of the 'spooky' kind from my more fundamentalist days. On one occasion I saw a dark humanoid figure crouching on my parents' neighbor's roof staring at me. I confronted it and it vanished, but the strangest thing about it was its mix of primate and feline attributes. That time the only other 'witness' was my dog, but my next visual experience was of a flying winged form steadily moving against the wind toward the city one night. I was visiting two friends, and we all looked at it and agreed we had seen, for want of a better name, an angel. There was no way it was anything else natural, though these days I incline more to the view that such images are Jungian exteriorizations of intra-psychic events. Yet Lisa Randall's brane theories leave me wondering if there aren't parallel worlds that somehow blend from time to time."

That's an invitation for feedback if I ever heard one. Is heaven — or E.T.'s home world — just a brane away? Of course it's not a question that could be answered scientifically ... or is it? Feel free to let me know what you think.

Nov. 11, 2005 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Newton's Dark Secrets'

Nov. 10, 2005 |
Silver space salute: The Planetary Society is celebrating its 25th anniversary and its status as the world's largest space advocacy group this weekend by giving awards to some big names in science fiction — and auctioning off some big slices of science fact.

The award winners are Ray Bradbury, the author of myriad works of science fiction including "The Martian Chronicles"; and film director (and would-be space traveler) James Cameron, who is known for "Titanic" as well as flicks with more of a sci-fi flavor, such as "The Abyss" and the "Terminator" saga.

Cameron is receiving the first-ever Cosmos Award for Public Presentation of Science, and so in its citation, the Planetary Society barely mentions his fictional films. Instead, the society dwells on Cameron's work on documentaries such as "Aliens of the Deep," which links undersea life to the search for extraterrestrial life. It's a pursuit that likely would have made "Cosmos" creator Carl Sagan proud.

Bradbury, meanwhile, is being recognized with the Thomas O. Paine Memorial Award for the Advancement of Human Exploration of Mars. The Paine Award is named after the engineer who was NASA administrator for the Apollo 11 moon landing, as well as a member of the Planetary Society's board of directors. Other Paine Award winners include the teams behind the Mars Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor missions, the Apollo-Soyuz astronauts — and, once again, the late astronomer Carl Sagan.

Sagan figures prominently in the society's lore because he was one of the co-founders of the group, along with planetary scientist Bruce Murray and space engineer Louis Friedman, who currently serves as the society's executive director.

One of Sagan's possessions happens to figure prominently in an online auction that is timed to reach its climax during Saturday's awards banquet: It's a 40-year-old copy of his report on "The Quest for Life Beyond Earth," taken from his personal library and signed by his widow, Ann Druyan.

Other auction offerings include a Mars-oriented tour of the Mojave Desert with two planetary scientists as guides; a private tour of the Hayden Planetarium guided by its director, Neil deGrasse Tyson; a book and a photo autographed by moonwalker Buzz Aldrin; and many more opportunities to rub elbows with space and sci-fi celebrities. Check out the eBay auction site for the full rundown.

In honor of the 25th anniversary, the Planetary Society has given its Web site an extreme makeover — which includes a wonderful Web log by Emily Lakdawalla. Today's entry highlights some amazing new pictures from Japan's Hayabusa asteroid probe. (Check out this Japanese-language Web page for still more pics.)

Like Hayabusa, the Planetary Society has had its ups and downs during this milestone year. It played a role in a successful effort to capture sounds from the Huygens lander during its descent to the surface of the Saturnian moon Titan, but its effort to launch the Cosmos solar sail fell short of the mark. Not to worry, though: There are plenty of other projects that are keeping the society and its 100,000 members busy. Here's wishing the group a fantastic silver anniversary.

Nov. 10, 2005 |
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Scientific American: Graphite exhibits surprising quantum effects

Nov. 9, 2005 |
Strange science explained: Can a guy get pregnant? That's not just a classic question for a barroom bet. It's also the title of a newly published book answering that scientific poser and many others.

So let's cut to the chase: Can he?

"The answer is yes, in theory — in the sense of carrying an already-fertilized egg implanted in his body," said Bill Sones, co-author of "Can a Guy Get Pregnant: Scientific Answers to Everyday (and Not-So-Everyday) Questions."

Not that it's ever happened, mind you. But Sones said doctors have reported cases where a fertilized egg slipped out of a woman's fallopian tubes and attached itself in the pelvic wall, resulting in a healthy baby delivered by Caesarean section.

"A couple of doctors told me a properly implanted and hormone-supplied, fertilized egg implanted somewhere in the guy would work," Sones said. "You'd need plenty of hormones."

In other words, guys, don't try this at home — or anywhere else, for that matter.

Male pregnancy is just one of the weird questions answered in the 192-page book, which has been distilled down from about 2,000 syndicated columns that Bill Sones and his physicist brother, Rich Sones, have written over the past nine years under the "Strange But True" brand. Among other subjects addressed:

  • Can you drink your own urine?
  • If you're starving, can you eat your clothes?
  • Can you really walk over hot coals without feeling pain?
  • Can you live without a body?

The answer to all those questions, strangely enough, is "Yes, but..." Sometimes the scientific caveats behind the "but" are the most interesting parts of the answer.

Other answers contain news you can use, sort of: For example, does one dog year really translate into seven human years? Not really, Sones said. A better rule of thumb is the 15-10-3 rule: Count 15 human years for a dog's first year of life, 10 human years for the second, then three human years for each succeeding year. Using this formula, a 10-year-old dog is about as mature as a 50-year-old human.

Here's yet another question: How do the Sones brothers get all the answers for those weird scientific puzzlers? Is there some special Internet site, some trick of the truth-finding trade?

Pi Press

"That's a great question," Bill Sones said. "The biggest trick is, I get the question, and I have no idea what the answer is, and I send it out to as many as 200 university researchers. Out the questions go, and here are these wonderful researchers, and they're sitting there answering this question blind, from somebody they don't know."

If the question is a good one, the Sones brothers might get oodles of e-mail responses. If it's a clunker, there might be just a couple. In any case, the expert opinions are indispensible, Sones said.

"We are very grateful to the wonderful world of researchers out there," he said.

As for how the questions are selected in the first place: The two brothers and their buddies congregate on Thursdays at the local jazz club, Nighttown in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to discuss future subjects for the "Strange But True" column.

It's far more fun than watching TV, Sones said. "There's a lot of silliness out there, on television," he said. "You don't need silliness. The world is so entertaining — like the question about 6-year-olds falling in love. Yeah, it could happen."

Nov. 9, 2005 |
Intelligent-design scorecard: On Tuesday, the defenders of mainstream evolutionary theory suffered a setback in Kansas, but took heart from the Dover school-board election results in Pennsylvania. Those weren't the only places where Darwin was a political issue: For example, Pharyngula's P.Z. Myers noted with approval that creationists appeared to be losing support in the Minnetonka school district in Minnesota.

Intelligent-design supporters, meanwhile, can find solace in school board results from Virginia's Montgomery County and California's Palm Springs Unified School District. Unfortunately, the evolution debate could become a part of local campaigns for years to come. Are you aware of other races where ID was a political factor? If so, feel free to let me know the score.

Nov. 9, 2005 |
Must-see science writing: The American Association for the Advancement of Science has rolled out this year's winners of the Science Journalism Awards — works presented in newspapers and magazines as well as radio, TV and online outlets that focus on subjects ranging from last year's Asian tsunami to global warming and the nature of the universe. I was lucky enough to receive an award a couple of years ago, but the competition is clearly getting stiffer. Which is a very good thing.

The winners will receive their awards at the AAAS annual meeting in St. Louis next February. Here's the full rundown:

Nov. 9, 2005 |
Scientific curiosity shop on the Web:
The Guardian: Women lie back and think of space travel

Nov. 8, 2005 |
Watching the elections: Polling-place glitches were Topic A during last year's big election, and even though the stakes may be lower for today's round of elections, the procedures and technologies behind the voting process are still a big concern.

If nothing else, this year's election day serves as a checkup to find out whether the process is working better than it did last year, and what needs to be fixed for the 2006 election.

Black Box Voting, an activist group that's skeptical of electronic-voting technology, is keeping up with bug reports from the field. So far today, most of the glitches have to do with balky e-voting terminals, misloaded ballots, or garden-variety snags that could cause citizens to give up before they even have a chance to register their vote.

As you might recall, last year's big issue had to do with provisional ballots — forms that were issued to voters even though it wasn't fully clear whether they were eligible to vote at a particular polling place. Some elections weren't decided until months after election day because vote-counters, lawyers and judges had to thrash out which votes were valid and which were not.

"Provisional ballots are not as controversial for this go-around, because at least for the time being, the law is settled," said Doug Chapin, director of Washington-based, an information clearinghouse for election reform. "We had that argument last year."

But Chapin said this year's focal point for election-watchers is the same as it was last year: Ohio.

"The big election-technology story is in Ohio, where 41 counties are going to be using touchscreen machines with voter-verifiable paper audit trails," he said today. "We haven't heard anything yet, but we're definitely watching it."

If there are close elections, those paper audit trails could serve as the basis for deciding a recount. Just last month, issued a report (PDF file) saying that many states haven't come to terms with the extremely time-consuming process of tracing those audit trails in case a recount is called for.

"The whole recount issue is an underappreciated wrinkle in the paper-trail debate," Chapin said. "The issue is, 'OK, now that we've got them, how do we use them?'"

Looking beyond e-voting technology to the wider voting process, Chapin said many states are devoting more attention to maintaining their databases of eligible voters. The procedure for removing names from those databases was a big issue last year, and it could become even bigger as we get into the higher-profile campaigns ahead.

To keep tabs on the results of today's election as well as the controversies to come, click onward to MSNBC's Politics section. To register for future elections, head on over to and follow the links. And to make sure your vote is counted, whether you're checking a box or touching a computer screen check out our interactive on voting technologies.

Nov. 8, 2005 |
Highlights from the scientific blogosphere:
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Nov. 7, 2005 |
Space dreams deferred: Eight months ago, Aera Corp. set an ambitious schedule to start sending customers on suborbital space trips by the end of 2006. Since then, however, the company "hit a few roadblocks here and there," the founder now says.

"We've drawn back and reorganized," said Bill Sprague, president, chief executive officer and chief scientist at California-based Sprague Astronautics. What used to be known as Aera Corp. is now under the umbrella of Sprague Astronautics and Aera Space Tours, a subsidiary that will be handling the tourism side of the operation, he said.

Sprague is as much in charge as ever, but there have been some shuffles in other areas of the organizational chart, he said. Lewis Reynolds, who had been Aera's president and chief operating officer, has left the venture. But Sprague said other seasoned hands have come aboard, including Thomas Bressan, a corporate finance executive who is now Sprague's executive vice president and COO.

Additions to the board of directors include Douglas Pewitt, who has had wide experience at federal agencies as well as high-tech companies; and venture capitalist Randell Young, chairman and chief executive officer of NETunes.

The bottom line? Sprague has had to readjust the timetable for developing the company's Altairis launch vehicle. "We're looking at a three-month slip at this point," he said, with commercial operations now scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2007.

Despite the delay, Sprague doesn't sound disheartened. He said the company was "making remarkable progress" toward reaching its financing objectives, thanks to fresh connections to venture capital. "The minimum requirement is $10 million," he said. "We're hoping to double that."

Sprague said he is also gearing up for the transfer of most operations to Cape Canaveral in Florida, where the test flights and the commercial liftoffs are to be launched. NETunes has agreed to sponsor one of the initial development flights for a "good chunk of cash," he said.

The engineering work and component tests continued even as the company was being reorganized, Sprague said, and the revised timetable calls for hot-firing tests of Altairis' rocket engine in the first quarter of 2006. Altairis might not be the first suborbital spacecraft to begin commercial service, "but we don't see that as the winning factor," he said.

"We're not letting the competition drive our schedule," he said.

Another competitor in the suborbital space race, PlanetSpace, has had to set back its schedule as well. Geoff Sheerin, head of the Canadian Arrow rocket team and a partner in PlanetSpace, said in August that he hoped to begin testing of the Arrow's escape tower system by the end of October. But now Sheerin and his business partner, Indian-American entrepreneur Chirinjeev Kathuria, say the preparations have taken longer than they planned.

"We are building a test stand in northern Ontario and beginning the fabrication of components," Kathuria said in an e-mail. "We are preparing the environmental study required for our escape tower launch test."

Once the environmental and safety plans win approval from the Canadian Forces and Transport Canada, the tests would proceed at Cape Rich on the shore of Ontario's Georgian Bay, Planetspace said.

Nov. 7, 2005 |
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