Workers hold the cables for the New Year's Eve ball today during a test on top of One Times Square in New York.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
As you head out to ring in the New Year, take a cue from that iconic ball in Times Square. It sips its juice rather than guzzling it, and glows brighter than ever.
The ball, which drops 77 feet down a pole as New Yorkers count down the final minute to 2011, is lit by 32,256 Philips LEDs (light-emitting diodes), with each 48-diode module using just 22 watts of electricity. As a result, the lights consume about the same amount of energy per hour as it takes to operate two traditional home ovens.
But that energy frugality doesn't mean New York is skimping on the bling: Each light can be digitally controlled to create a palette of more than 16 million colors and billions of possible lighting effects.
The ball is a geodesic sphere, 12 feet in diameter and weighing 11,875 pounds. It's covered with 2,688 Waterford crystal triangles that are cut in different patterns. This year, 288 of the triangles are emblazoned with a new heart-themed glass pattern called "Let There Be Love." (The other 2,400 triangles feature patterns from past years.)
Times Square's first New Year's ball drop took place in 1907, with 100 light bulbs mounted on an iron-and-wood frame. Philips has been lighting the ball for 11 years, beginning with an array of specially designed halogen bulbs for the 1999-2000 celebration. The company replaced the halogen with LED technology for 2008, and used even more efficient LEDs starting with the New Year's celebration for 2009.
"Today's ball is lit all year round and uses just 12 percent of the energy that would have been required to light it with the original technology," Philips said in a press release.
The numerals that light up to display "2011" are also all-LED, and consume about as much power as a 40-gallon home water heater, Philips said. Over the past month, visitors to New York have been stopping by Duracell's Smart Power Lab to pedal a stationary bike and generate electricity for the "2011" numerals. The "Final Pedal" celebrity event took place just today. On New Year's Eve, all that stored-up pedal power will help ring in the new year.
How would you make things even more energy-efficient for 2012? Do you have some "green" resolutions for the new year? Feel free to discuss the alternative energy outlook for the next 12 months in your comments below.
Update for 5:45 p.m. ET by Alan Boyle: It almost takes an electrician to figure out the wattage of the Times Square ball — and compare it to household electrical use. When Philips says it takes 22 watts to produce the light level that previously required 180 watts, it's talking about the 48-LED modules used in the ball. That's 12 LEDs each for red, blue, green and white. The ball has 672 of those 22-watt modules, which means the entire ball would require 14,784 watts of electricity. The comparison to traditional home ovens would be valid if you were running two 7.5-kilowatt cooking appliances continuously at full blast — which would make the kitchen blazing-hot.
"Help me, IBM-Kenobi!" This illustration shows how holographic displays might someday be incorporated into a mobile device. Such a concept is nowhere near reality yet, but IBM's forecasters say it could be in five years.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
In the year 2015, will we be using holographic 3-D cell phones powered by air-breathing batteries in energy-saving offices to protect the planet and anticipate traffic jams? IBM's forecasters think we will — but a look back at their past technology predictions shows why some forecasts are sure bets and others fall flat.
The company's "Next Five in Five" list is an effort to anticipate technological innovations that are just over the horizon today but will make a significant impact on everyday life five years hence. "These are technologies we are working on, in some cases," Kerrie Holley, an IBM fellow and chief technology officer for global business services, told me. In other cases, IBM's researchers are just trying to figure out "where the hockey puck is going" when it comes to broad tech trends, he said.
Such forecasts blend common-sense projections of current trends with wild ideas that sound so crazy they just might work. You can see how this works in this year's "Five in Five" list:
Beam up your friends in 3-D: Future devices will display 3-D imagery as holograms, which will open the way for real-time interaction at a distance, the way Jedi knights interacted with each other in "Star Wars." Princess Leia could make her famous holographic plea for help using a cell phone rather than R2-D2. This sounds like a crazy idea, but just last month, University of Arizona researchers demonstrated just such a prototype holo-display. Holley said IBM was less interested in holograms and more interested in 3-D data visualization — for example, using medical data to create a computerized avatar that can be twisted and turned for inspection in a doctor's office. "It's 3-D imagery, but it could be displayed on something you could look at only two-dimensionally," he said.
Air-breathing batteries, or no battery at all: Next-generation electronic devices are being designed to do more with less power, and next-generation batteries are being developed to store more power with less weight. Lithium metal-air batteries and zinc-air batteries, for example, use oxygen from the air in their electrodes. Some devices may not even need batteries in the traditional sense, but instead would generate power when they're shaken. Some wristwatches use this trick today: They require no winding, but get charged up by "scavenging" the energy from your arm movements. "This isn't going to power the big devices, but it could conceivably power mobile phones in the future," Holley said. Is there a "shake-and-dial" phone in your future?
Everyone's an observer: Sensors and cameras in your car, your phone and your wallet can be used to produce a real-time, wide-angle picture of the environment. "Snap a photo, maybe the app prompts you for a few quick questions, and then you can send it off," Holley said. All those readings could be aggregated by computers to track seismic events, monitor the rise and fall of rivers, pass along tsunami alerts or even conduct scientific studies. "You'll be able to contribute this data to fight global warming, save endangered species or track invasive plants or animals that threaten ecosystems around the world," IBM says. "In the next five years, a whole class of 'citizen scientists' will emerge, using simple sensors that already exist to create massive data sets for research."
Your commute will be personalized: Mathematical models will draw upon real-time data to figure out not only where highway traffic is gnarly right now, but also what the situation will be when you're on the road. As we discussed six months ago, IBM researchers are already quantifying which factors are the most painful for commuters, and using those findings to develop traffic flow prediction systems. Such a system has already been put to the test in Singapore — so I'd say this is one of those sure-fire forecasts.
Computers will help power your city: Computer data centers are sometimes seen as energy hogs that give off lots of heat, requiring heavy-duty air conditioning systems to cool off all that circuitry. But what if that waste heat could be used to keep buildings warm in the winter and cool in the summer? This year, IBM delivered a water-cooled supercomputer to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich that consumes up to 40 percent less energy than a comparable air-cooled machine. This is probably the geekiest prediction of the bunch, but IBM says the cooling system reduces the computer's carbon footprint by 85 percent.
How much of this is blue-sky thinking, and how much of this is just common sense? Four years ago, I passed along a couple of five-year, five-tech forecasts, and it's instructive to see how those shaped up. First, here's IBM's "Five in Five" list from late 2006:
3-D Internet: The Internet will become a seamless virtual world that you explore through 3-D computer graphics, like one great big Second Life with open borders. Second Life and other virtual worlds haven't been as successful as some forecasters may have thought, and as a result, this prediction has fallen flat. Who knows? Maybe the same thing will happen to this year's dream of a holographic world.
Mind-reading cell phones: Mobile devices will be aware of your surroundings and let you know what's on special at the nearest pizza place. You'll be able to take a picture of a landmark and have the mobile network tell you everything it knows about what you're seeing. Four years later, this prediction looks like a sure thing, thanks to GPS-aware smart phones and augmented-reality apps.
Nanotech for energy and the environment: Advances in nanomaterials will lead to new types of water-filtering and desalination systems as well as lower-cost solar power systems. Because engineers were already looking into these technologies four years ago, this was a pretty solid prediction. Just this summer, Stanford researchers announced the development of a water-purifying filter that works 80,000 times faster than existing filters, thanks in part to nanotubes and silver nanowires. And several companies are working on printable thin-film solar panels that will be far less expensive to produce than the solar cells that were available in 2006.
Telemedicine: Patients' vital signs will be beamed directly to your doctor's office, and care providers in remote areas will transmit medical images and data to specialists thousands of miles away for instant review. RFID technology and telemonitoring systems have made this sort of thing possible, although I don't think the practice is quite as inexpensive and widespread as IBM expected it to be. In the future, portable medical scanners could make a big difference in the developing world.
In early 2007, I took a turn at the five-tech, five-year prediction game. Here's a review of my picks almost four years later:
Energy independence through ethanol: "We'll become less dependent on foreign fossil fuel, thanks to advances in cellulosic ethanol production and other energy technologies." Unfortunately, energy independence still seems as far off as the 3-D Internet. Much of the luster that surrounded the ethanol dream in 2007 has disappeared, due to a food-vs.-fuel controversy as well as questions about the efficiency of the current production process. Researchers are still looking for workable ways to turn wood waste and other cellulosic sources into biofuels. But nowadays the big buzz is about electric cars rather than biofuel power.
Cyborgs and cyberhumans: "Researchers will develop better prosthetic devices and perhaps even fiber-optic nervous systems, knitting humans and their machines more closely together." Prosthetics have indeed become much better in the past four years, but you didn't need to be a techno-prophet to see that. Among the examples: more lifelike artificial body parts, artificial skin with a sense of touch, nano-sized circuitry that could be used in brain-computer interfaces, and yes, fiber-optic nerves. But there's still a long way to go, and I might have to keep this one in the next five-tech forecast.
Commercial spaceflight: "By 2010, there might well be two or three companies offering quick rides to outer space and back, with a price tag of $200,000 or so." Virgin Galactic and othercompanies are indeed willing to take your money for future suborbital space trips, but in the six years since SpaceShipOne flew, no other private-sector spaceships have yet brought humans to the final frontier. That may change in 2011 or 2012 — so I still have a shot at partial redemption.
How close do you think these predictions came? And what do you think the next five years will bring? Feel free to critique all these forecasts or offer your own "Five in Five" prognostications in the comment section below.
The ocean in Devonian times: Is the past prologue when it comes to biodiversity collapse?
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
A long, long time ago — between 378 million and 375 million years ago — about half of all species on the planet vanished. The trigger for this mass extinction, one of five known in Earth's history, was a lethal combination of sea level rise and invasive species, according to a new study.
"The basic processes that normally result in new species forming were blocked," study author Alycia Stigall, a paleobiologist at Ohio University, told me today.
In normal times, species are always going extinct, but as they die off, new species arise. That keeps the planet's number of species relatively constant. "When you take some species away but don't replace them, the overall result is a collapse in global biodiversity," she said.
The findings suggest that the planet's current ecosystems, which are experiencing loss of biodiversity, could meet a similar fate.
How species rise and fall One path to the rise of new species starts when a population is split in half due to a geological event, such as the rise of a mountain chain that prevents the two halves of the population from interbreeding. Over time, the two groups develop into new species.
During the Late Devonian period that Stigall studied, most of Earth's creatures lived in shallow sea basins. As sea levels rose due to warming temperatures and shifting land masses, these basins were connected — that is, the barriers that kept them separate disappeared. New species stopped forming.
"The other thing that happens when you raise sea level is some species move into that basin that didn't previously live there, and that's the invasive species," she added.
Some of these invasive species fail to carve out a niche for themselves and die off, but others — typically generalists that can eat almost anything and survive in a range of environments — outcompete the natives. "They basically take over and stop the ability of new species from forming," Stigall said.
Lessons for today Many scientists say that we are in the throes of a sixth great mass-extinction event. The two main reasons are habitat loss — land converted to human use is less available to other critters — and the fact that we are moving species around the planet.
"What we can expect in the long term is that because we have this global movement of invasions, we can expect speciation rates to be very low, but we also know that because of habitat loss, the extinction rate is very high. So we are really looking at a very bad combined effect," Stigall said.
Knowing this, conservationists may be smartest to focus their efforts on generalist-type native species, she added.
"Things that are very narrowly adapted, specialist species, are unlikely to survive. They are unlikely to speciate in the future, and they are also unlikely to survive the habitat loss," she said. "So things like polar bears that are really cute — there's just not much we are going to be able to do for them."
Stigall's findings were published today in the journal PLoS ONE.
Members of the Maryland State Police take a dip in the icy Chesapeake Bay on Jan. 30, 2010 to raise money for the Special Olympics.
By Kristin Kalning
While the rest of us are bleary-eyed and horizontal on New Year’s Day, 56-year-old Tom “Iceman” McGann of Brooklyn, N.Y., plans to charge into the frigid Atlantic Ocean wearing nothing but a bathing suit.
McGann and hundreds of other (totally insane) people will gather at the boardwalk on Stillwell Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y., for the annual Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge. It’s one of many similar dips taking place on New Year’s Day and throughout the winter. Most raise money for charity, and most usually draw plenty of “are they crazy?” media coverage.
Immersing your scantily-clad body in ice-cold water may give you serious bragging rights. But does it pose any risks -- or offer any benefits -- for your health? The Finns (and Norwegians, and Russians) sure think so. All over Northern Europe, folks like to finish off a stint in the sauna with a plunge in any icy lake, touting the benefits the cold water has on the immune system, the complexion --even the libido.
Dr. Alan Steinman, one of the country’s foremost experts on hypothermia and cold-water survival, is dubious about those claims. “I don’t know of any definitive medical studies that have been done to measure the health benefits of cold-water swimming,” he says.
What’s more, plunging into cold water has some real risks, says Steinman, who served as the Coast Guard’s director of health and safety from 1993 to 1997. When the body is suddenly immersed in icy water, there’s a sudden gasp, an inhalation, rapid breathing and the inability to hold your breath, “which can be a problem if your head’s underwater,” he says. For that reason, it’s better to “plunge” gradually, from shallow water, and not off a dock or a boardwalk.
Physiologically, he explains, your body responds to a cold plunge in three ways: First, the small blood vessels constrict on the surface of your body as a defense mechanism, so you don’t lose heat. That means that a whole lot more blood is being squeezed into the same amount of blood vessels, which “serves to increase the effect on blood pressure,” he says.
Next, blood rushes from extremities to the core, chilling the limbs and leading to weakness and impaired motor coordination. That's why people rescued from accidental plunges into icy water have trouble grabbing life rings or ropes from rescuers.
Finally, true hypothermia sets in, typically after more than 30 minutes of immersion. That's when core body temperature plunges below normal. If it falls far enough, hearbeat may be disrupted and breathing may fail, causing death.
The early stage of the process, cold shock response, happens to everyone -- even “Iceman” McGann, who admits, “you never get used to it.” But the danger comes if you have heart disease, and are prone to irregular heartbeat or cardiac arrest. “The potential medical problems are relatively infrequent, but it’s possible,” says Steinman.
In the 14 years since its inception, the Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plungefest hasn’t had a single medical incident -- which is pretty astounding when you consider that the event drew 12,000 participants last year.
“We have a very solid safety plan in place,” says event spokesperson Kelley Schniedwind, who adds that they’ve partnered with the world-class Johns Hopkins emergency medical team for support at the event. Participants are also not allowed to stay in the water longer than five minutes, which is enforced by the 75-some-odd divers that patrol the waters at Sandy Point State Park, in Annapolis.
The event raises money for the Special Olympics, so there’s definitely a feel-good aspect about feeling the 35-degree chill of the Chesapeake. The Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge, which McGann will tackle for the 20th time on Saturday, asks participants to donate to Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children with life-threatening illnesses.
But “Iceman” McGann doesn’t just dip for charity -- he dips throughout the winter, as his nickname might suggest. “It’s exhilarating, it’s refreshing, it’s a rebirth. I just like doing it. I like being outside,” he explains. “It’s fun to do alone, but it’s more fun to do with other people. You can yell and scream, and where else can you yell and scream in today’s world?”
From 2008: Bernann McKinney shows off five cloned puppies.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
The inside story behind the costly quest to clone dogs reveals at least as much about human nature as it does about copying man's best friend.
"It says a lot more about the human condition, actually," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Woestendiek, author of the book "Dog, Inc.," told me this week. Woestendiek became involved in the saga back in 2005, when he was covering the pet beat for the Baltimore Sun. That was the year that marked the birth of the world's first cloned dog, Snuppy, in South Korea.
During the years that followed, Woestendiek became more engrossed in the economics and the emotions that drove the international efforts to create (and, not incidentally, market) cloned pets. When the commercial pet-cloning market notched its first sale in 2008, the South Koreans set a list price of $150,000. "It's $100,000 now, and they've said all along that as they get better at it, the price will keep dropping," Woestendiek said. "Maybe it'll be $25,000 someday. But it'll still be a lot."
The main characters in "Dog, Inc." include scientists and entrepreneurs as well as pet lovers who scraped together the cash to buy carbon copies of their animal companions. And these folks aren't mere puppy dogs. There's a lot of bite to this tale:
The top researchers behind the dog-cloning experiments, Woo-Suk Hwang and Lee Byeong-chun, got into the field knowing that there was money to be made — and for a time they were involved in competing ventures. However, both of them had to deal with disgrace and criminal charges related to South Korea's stem-cell scandal. Ultimately, Hwang and Lee both distanced themselves from the business side of pet cloning.
Maverick billionaire John Sperling put an estimated $20 million into dog-cloning research, specifically to clone Missy, the mixed-breed dog owned by his longtime friend and lover, Joan Hawthorne. Hawthorne's son Lou got "Project Missyplicity" started with the aid of Texas A&M researchers. The project led to the first cloned cat in 2001, but Texas A&M withdrew from the race to clone dogs. In the end, Missy's clones were produced not by Texas A&M, but by Hwang's team in Korea.
The first paying customer for a cloned dog, Bernann McKinney, received a $100,000 discount from RNL Bio, the South Korean company that was headed up by Lee Byeong-chun. She still had to arrange for the sale of family property to help pay for having her dear, departed pit bull, Booger, cloned from tissue samples. McKinney benefited from a Booger bonanza: five genetically identical clones that landed her on network TV. But it wasn't long before her past caught up with her. Follow-up reports focused on a sex-abduction scandal from the 1970s as well as burglary charges from 2004.
Woo-Suk Hwang via AP file
In this 2005 photo, 2-month-old Snuppy, the world's first cloned dog, appears at right alongside the 3-year-old male Afghan hound whose skin cells were used to clone him
Woestendiek, who watched Hwang at work in Seoul as part of his research for the book, provides ample evidence that cloning isn't the smooth, high-tech operation some folks might think it is. The failures greatly outnumber the successes. To produce Snuppy, for example, eggs had to be extracted from about 115 dogs. More than 1,000 cloned embryos were implanted into 123 dogs — but only three pregnancies resulted, and Snuppy was the only cloned offspring that lived more than a few weeks.
Identical genes, but not the same Some folks might also think cloned animals are identical copies of the original cell donor, but "Dogs, Inc." dispels that myth as well. Woestendiek tells how the birth of the first cloned cat, CC (for "Carbon Copy"), angered Lou Hawthorne because the cloned kitty didn't look anything like its genetic twin. (The reason is a phenomenon known as X-linked inactivation.) Even if the animals look the same, they don't act the same, as Joan Hawthorne found out when she finally took delivery of a Missy clone, MissyTwo.
"They're not at all alike," she was quoted as saying. "Missy was robust and completely calm. Missy wouldn't come through my home and knock over every wine glass."
Woestendiek writes that "the flabbergasting fact was — after 11 years of research on two continents; after all the trials and errors; after all the testing, harvesting, micromanipulating, zapping, implanting and legal wrangling; after an estimated $20 million of her friend's money was poured into creating a clone of Missy — Joan Hawthorne didn't want the dog."
That outcome carries a lesson for anyone who might be contemplating human cloning — or might believe that cloning a human would create an eerie doppleganger or a soulless robot. In fact, the procedure would merely create a time-delayed twin who would lead his or her own life.
"A lot of people have the impression that if you clone someone or something, it's the same being back again — which is probably the result of too many science-fiction movies," Woestendiek said.
'Close to folly' There's deep irony in the fact that some people have spent tens of thousands of dollars in hopes of re-creating one special dog, while thousands of other dogs are being put to death every day in America. And that irony isn't lost on Woestendiek. After spending five years researching a book on the subject, Woestendiek has come to the conclusion that pet cloning is not that hot of an idea.
"You're sort of capitalizing on people during a time of grief,," he told me. "Most often, the whole quest to clone a dog, and the subsequent marketing, is pretty close to folly, in my opinion. But I tried not to be too opinionated in the book."
The venture that Sperling's money created, Genetic Savings & Clone, went out of business four years ago. Today, the South Korean company RNL Bio is the only outfit offering to clone dogs for a price. RNL says it plans to be cloning 500 dogs a year by 2012, but Woestendiek wonders just how realistic that projection will prove to be.
"It hasn't grown by the leaps and bounds that they anticipated, partly because cloning's kind of trial and error, not an automatic thing," he said. "I don't know whether it will become a huge thing. I doubt it. It'll be a thing that rich people do."
It's definitely not a thing Woestendiek plans to do, even though he says his dog Ace is "totally cloneworthy."
"Doubling, tripling or quadrupling my dog would be an insult to his uniqueness," he explained in a Q&A provided by his publisher. "And it would lead to such high expectations for the copies that they could probably never live up to it."
American Christmas tree growers regularly prune back their trees' branches and top to give a dense appearance. Someday in the future, the used trees could be burned as a green fuel.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
It's the time of year when millions of us admire that Christmas tree one last time before we strip it of decorations and drag it unceremoniously to the corner with the rest of our holiday trash. But what if instead of filling up a landfill, our trees could be used to generate electricity?
New Scientist reports that Jenny Jones and fellow engineers at the University of Leeds in Britain are working on precisely that what-if. They're developing a process called torrefaction that makes biomass — including pine and spruce trees — suitable for burning alongside coal.
Torrefaction is already used to create biochar, which is added to soils to improve agriculture and avoid emissions of carbon dioxide that would have occurred if the plants were allowed to decompose. The team has proven the concept with willow and Miscanthus grass and is now working with electric utilities to test other sources of biomass, including trees. Findings are reported in Dec. 12 issue of the the journal Fuel.
It will be a while before torrefaction becomes a post-Christmas tradition, but in the meantime, there are other things to do with the tree besides taking it to the dump. Click into this story from the Tampa Tribune for some of the options. And for more about the science of Christmas trees, check out the stories below.
The arsenic-DNA study, published in the journal Science, was announced at a NASA news conference on Dec. 2 that was hyped in advance as an opportunity "to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life."
What's groundbreaking about the find is it suggested that salt-loving bacteria gathered from California's Mono Lake could be coaxed to substitute atoms of arsenic, which is toxic to life on Earth, in place of the usual phosphorus atoms in DNA and other parts of their cellular machinery.
If that's possible on Earth, then it's also possible that such alternate forms of life could be thriving elsewhere in the universe. This, in turn, might expand the definition of "life" and require a broadened search for extraterrestrial organisms.
Since the study was published, a number of microbiologists and chemists have questioned whether the experiments actually proved the researchers' point.
Among their criticisms are concerns that inadequate care was taken in purifying DNA samples from the bacteria in the arsenic-rich medium, and that the arsenic found in the DNA was merely contamination. They said that the bacteria might have been using trace amounts of phosphorus left as impurities in the growth medium.
As these criticisms played out in the media and on the Internet, the researchers behind the original paper issued a statement responding to their critics — and said more would be forthcoming in Science.
So that's the story so far. Has this high-profile airing of claims, counterclaims and counter-counterclaims hurt the credibility of the scientists involved? Not at all, Real Climate's bloggers say. Instead, they contend that the controversy "has demonstrated the credibility of scientists, and should promote public confidence in the scientific establishment."
Climate scientists are keen to point out the scientific process at work, in part to counter their own critics. Such critics say many researchers are afraid to go against the scientific consensus that human activity is a driving factor in global climate change because it might staunch their flow of funding from agencies such as NASA.
Real Climate flagged a comment on the Watts Up With That blog, a hub of climate skeptics, that reads:
"It’s amazing how fast the scientific community came out to attack NASA for what they claim is plainly flawed science. Then again, NASA isn’t funding any of the attackers.
"In the Climategate mess, however, we still have heard very little from an awful lot of so-called scientists who should have been saying a lot more about flawed science but are too afraid to lose their grant money."
The reality is more complex: Science writer Carl Zimmer has done the work to show that many of the arsenic-DNA study's critics are indeed NASA-funded, including Norman Pace at the University of Colorado, extremophile expert Hazel Barton at the University of Northern Kentucky, and John Roth at the University of California at Davis.
Real Climate notes: "Scientists offer opinions based on their scientific knowledge and a critical interpretation of data. Scientists willingly critique what they think might be flawed or unsubstantiated science, because their credibility — not their funding — is on the line."
While the Real Climate bloggers have mixed feelings about the arsenic-DNA controversy playing out in the blogosphere and media, rather than strictly within the confines of the peer-review process, they are far from alone in using the controversy to help explain the merits of the scientific process.
"The commenter is confusing being fair with being nice. The self-critical aspect of science is not nice. It’s brutal – necessarily so. But it is still fair and professional, just not politically correct.
"This is one critical aspect of science that I feel the public needs to better appreciate. This is also a fun and dramatic aspect of science — real-world mud fights where scientists go at each other’s throats. The mass media needs to appreciate this real drama more so that they will rely on their hackneyed Hollywood cartoon of science less."
In USA Today, science columnist Dan Vergano recaps the controversy and notes that the back-and-forth is likely to continue, though it will eventually be settled via the peer-review process.
What do you think about the way in which the "weird life" controversy has been playing out on blogs and in the media, rather than strictly through the peer-review process? Is it actually a shining example of science at work? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Gerard Liger-Belair and his colleagues at the University of Reims used infrared thermography to track how much carbon dioxide was released from champagne under a variety of pouring conditions. They reported that the traditional technique, which involves pouring the wine straight down into the bottom of a champagne flute, may make a splash — but also releases a lot of the CO2 before the glass can be brought to your lips.
Studies have shown that the release of dissolved CO2 in the mouth is what's behind the pleasurable taste and feel of champagne. Thus, pouring a stream of wine down the side of the glass preserves more of the bubbles, so that they can tickle the palate as you drink. It's not just that fewer bubbles pop: A less turbulent slide into the glass cuts down on the invisible diffusion of dissolved CO2 into the air, which accounts for most of the loss of effervescence. (This is also why narrow flutes are preferred over the wide-bowl glasses of the old days: less surface area for CO2 loss.)
The CO2 loss can be twice as much for a down-to-the-bottom pour as it is for a down-the-side pour, depending on the circumstances, the French researchers found.
Temperature also plays a big role in preserving the bubbly. Storing the champagne at a temperature of 39 degrees Fahrenheit (3.8 degrees Celsius) seems to be the best way to go. If you pop open a bottle at 64 degrees F (18 degrees C) ... well, at that temperature, you might as well slosh the stuff into a paper cup.
In a 2006 study published in the same journal, Liger-Belair's team listed some other tricks to control how your sparkling wine sparkles after you've poured it into the glass. They found that more bubbles are sparked if there are minute fibers or scratches in the glass. Thus, older, scratched-up glasses release bubbles more quickly than newer, slicker glasses.
If you want bubblier champagne in the glass, you can try wiping the flutes vigorously with a towel to leave some fibers behind. If you want to tone down the bubbles (and let them pop on your palate instead), wash the flutes and let them air-dry on a rack, sans toweling.
But Liger-Belair says the bottom line for maximizing your bubbly is to angle your glass and pour your champagne in a "beer-like" fashion — down the side.
And speaking of beer ... experts do agree that you should start pouring your winter brew down the side, to minimize turbulence and maximize the liquid volume. But at the end, you should pour enough of the beer into the center of the glass to create an appropriate head of foam. This video from How Stuff Works shows you how the two-part pour is done with Guinness stout.
By the way, cans of "draft" Guinness nowadays contain capsules of pressurized nitrogen that maximize the beer's frothiness. The folks at My Science Project (already renowned for their research into the mysteries of Jell-O shots) have conducted some experiments aimed at analyzing the effects of various foam-producing technologies.
And we all know why the bubbles in a properly poured Guinness sink down the inner wall of the glass, don't we? You may have to do that experiment yourself on New Year's Eve. Ah, the sacrifices we must make in the name of science!
Imagery from the Digitized Sky Survey shows a blue splotch (nicknamed the "cosmic wiener") that was wrongly identified as an alien spaceship.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
If you repeat UFO fiction often enough, does it eventually get reported as fact? Yes ... especially if you add in a 2012 doomsday angle and some dodgy astronomical imagery. Fortunately, an Internet truth squad finally knocked down this alien invasion.
Claims that we're about to be visited by alien spaceships are generally a dime a dozen (or a quatloo a dozen?), but for some reason one particular urban legend about "Giant Spaceships Heading Towards Earth" kept itself alive for more than a year, mostly by metastasizing on UFO forums. From the very beginning, the reports pointed to three eerie blue-green shapes on Sky-Map.org's archived imagery from the Digitized Sky Survey. "Trust me you will be very amazed. I WAS FOR SURE!!!!" one commenter wrote in February.
As the story was passed along, another forum commenter (who claimed to be a SETI investigator writing "at great threat to myself") said the spaceships were on a trajectory that would bring them to an area near Washington, D.C., on Dec. 21, 2012 — just in time for the Maya apocalypse. Later versions of the story incorporated the 2012 doomsday angle as well as the attribution to a SETI astrophysicist. Some even gave the researcher a name: Craig Kasnov.
Those are all the elements of a good UFO tale: a supposed insider, sharing seemingly legit evidence about an impending alien invasion with a well-known doomsday deadline. It's clear that thousands of folks wrote about the tale, based on an Internet search of key terms in the text. Sky-Map.org said it recorded nearly 100,000 Web visits on Dec. 2, when the tale was picking up speed on the Internet.
The truth squad finally caught up with the story around Dec. 9, when level-headed forum participants noted that the blue-green shapes were clearly flaws in the photographic plates that were digitized for the sky survey. In each of the three cases, emulsion problems showed up in one of the color-coded plates but not the others — which explained the bluish color. Craig Kasnoff (with a double-f) also weighed in: He wrote that he was indeed involved in the genesis of the SETI @ Home alien-searching project — but he denied that he was an astrophysicist, and denied making any comments about approaching alien spaceships.
"This post may, or may not have, made any contribution to the discussions of 'objects flying towards Earth,'" he wrote. "But I hope it clears up any question regarding my involvement [in] this announcement."
To recap: The weird shapes on the astronomical pictures were nothing more than photographic flaws. The UFO claims had no authority behind them. And the 2012 date merely capitalized on the Maya apocalypse hype.
Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait provides a detailed smackdown of the UFO tale. Discovery News' Ian O'Neill, a charter member of the 2012 truth squad, weighs in as well. O'Neill also provides a handy B.S. detector for the seemingly scientific claims you might come across in the social media mix.
The Christmas spirit didn't bypass the six-man crew confined to an isolation chamber for 520 days to simulate a grueling round-trip flight to Mars. Nope. They built themselves a green Christmas tree out of cardboard boxes, and decorated it with paper ornaments printed on their onboard computer.
After the tree was put together and decorated with a garland, French crew member Romain Charles said, "Now it is really Christmas."
The all-male crew — including Charles as well as three Russians, an Italian-Colombian and a Chinese space trainer — are part of an experiment to find out how a crew would handle the stress, claustrophobia and fatigue that real astronauts would face in long-term interplanetary travel.
A little holiday spirit, it appears, is helping them get along fine.
Their 20,000-cubic-foot "spaceship" is safely parked inside the Moscow-based Institute for Medical and Biological Problems. The crew's only contact with the outside world is through an Internet connection — which experiences delays and spotty service by design, to imitate the effects of space travel.
The crew is a bit over six months into their virtual journey, currently high in Mars orbit spiraling slowly down to the point where their lander can be dispatched to the simulated Martian surface in February. They'll return to Earth — that is, get out of confinement — next November.
This is an image of a classic snow crystal viewed under the power of an electron microscope. May it serve as a reminder that snow is beautiful. Really.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
With the gripes and groans piling up in the aftermath of the East Coast's first major blizzard of the season, let's remember that snow has a beautiful side, especially when studied under the power of magnification.
That's what the folks at the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Electron Microscopy Unit do in the service of science and improving our daily lives. They've made these images of snowflakes available for our viewing pleasure. Above is a classic image, showing what we often think all snow crystals look like ... but magnified 162 times. Below are needle crystals, which are often associated with heavy snowfall in the Northeastern United States.
Needle crystals are often associated with heavy snowfall in the Northeastern U.S.
The up-close imagery may leave you asking that perennial question: Is it true that no two snowflakes are alike? As we explained in our list of 10 wonders from a winter wonderland, the answer depends on how alike "alike" is, and the definition of a snowflake.
Researchers at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility relax after creating a new color of laser:
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
A new laser light color that shines 100 times brighter than any other laser could lead to a new method for determining the age of materials between 100,000 and 1 million years.
The color is called "vacuum ultraviolet" because it is absorbed by molecules in the air, requiring its use in a vacuum, according to the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, where the color was created.
The ultraviolet laser would be used to create so-called metastable atoms for use in this dating method. Targets for dating include the polar ice cap. Carbon dating, the most familiar method, peters out at about 62,000 years. Potassium-argon dating is a widely used technique to date more ancient materials — including fossils representing extinct branches of humanity's family tree. Radio-krypton dating could serve as another method for documenting dates in this key geologic era.
Greg Adams / Jefferson Lab
Jefferson Lab's free-electron laser produces laser light by accelerating electrons through these cryomodules and then into a wiggler, where electrons give off photons of light.
Researchers used the lab's free-electron laser facility to create the "vacuum ultraviolet" laser light. According to the lab, this is how it works:
In the FEL, electrons are stripped from their atoms and whipped up to high energies by a linear accelerator. The electrons are then sent into the ultraviolet beamline, where they encounter the UV wiggler. A wiggler is a device that uses magnetic fields to shake the electrons, forcing them to release some of their energy in the form of photons. As in a conventional laser, the photons bounce between two mirrors in the optical system and are then emitted as a coherent beam of light.
Scientists will spend the next few months getting the laser ready for experiments, which they hope to begin conducting in March.
Which videos from 2010 are getting good ratings from a science standpoint? The end-of-the-year spotlight is focusing on subjects that range from a Batman-like device that taps electricity from power lines, to a robot that can fold and stack towels fresh out of the dryer, to a "Crittercam" confrontation between a sea lion and an octopus.
The video about the Bat Hook, shown above, was the most viewed on the "Armed with Science" website. The gadget, technically called the Remote Auxiliary Power System, or RAPS, was created by an engineer at an Air Force research lab in Dayton, Ohio. When tossed over a power line, a blade cuts through the insulation and completes a circuit that brings electricity down to the user.
RAPS was designed to help special ops forces recharge and power up their devices in the field, though it seems like a must-have for any would-be superhero.
The team at New Scientist is counting down their best videos of 2010. No. 7 is the video story about a game of Tetris played on sheets of cascading water droplets, one behind the other, to give a 3-D effect:
Over on National Geographic News (where I'm a frequent contributor), an Australian sea lion outfitted with a Crittercam filmed itself hunting, and eating, a large octopus to win honors as the most viewed news video of 2010:
Science360, a daily news service put together by the folks at the National Science Foundation, doesn't track the most viewed videos per se. But Science360's multimedia editor, Michael Minvielle, told me that the staff does keep tabs on which of the website's roundups (or "issues") are most viewed, and each issue contains a link to a video of the day.
Its most-viewed issue includes a video of a towel-folding robot that takes advantage of groundbreaking vision technology to inspect a towel from all sides, estimate its shape, pick out borders, detect corners and get to the task of folding:
Another popular issue includes a handy video explaining, visually, just how small a nanometer really is. Think in terms of all the people in the world crammed into a teeny tiny toy model of a Mini Cooper.
Here are some of our favorite videos from the past year. Feel free to weigh in with a comment about your favorite, either from msnbc.com's offerings or from elsewhere on the Web.
Update for 2 p.m. ET Dec. 28: A Cosmic Log correspondent has pointed out the "Symphony of Science" videos, which uses auto-tune magic to set the cosmic pronouncements of science guys (and gals) to music. If you watch only one, watch "A Glorious Dawn," starring Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. But why watch only one?
Update for 2:10 p.m. ET Dec. 29:Discovery News has come out with its "top 10 grossest, coolest, weirdest videos of 2010":
A whole yeast cell (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is viewed by X-ray microscopy. Inside, the nucleus and a large vacuole (shown in red) are visible.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Researchers say they've used genetic engineering to create a strain of yeast that can cut the time needed to make ethanol from cellulosic sources in half. It's the latest twist in efforts to fine-tune microbes for "frankenfuel" production.
Like Frankenstein's monster, these ethanol-producing organisms draw upon genetic combinations not found in nature. The scientists reporting their results today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences started out with common brewer's yeast, then adapted a few tricks used by a different strain of yeast as well as a cellulose-loving fungus.
The original yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is quite good at fermenting glucose, which is currently the primary sugar converted to ethanol in the industrial fermentation process. This is the process by which yeast makes bread rise, and by which yeast turns fruit and grain into wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages. But energy companies would rather make ethanol from cellulosic materials (such as wood waste and switchgrass) rather than from edible products (such as corn and sugar cane). So anything that raises the efficiency of cellulosic ethanol production makes biofuels look more attractive as a long-term energy solution.
One of the big problems is that glucose is only one of the sugars contained in cellulosic material. Brewer's yeast can't ferment the other major type of sugar, known as xylose. "Xylose is a wood sugar, a five-carbon sugar that is very abundant in lignocellulosic biomass but not in our food," Yong-Su Jin, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois, said in a news release. "Most yeast cannot ferment xylose."
Even if a yeast strain can handle xylose fermentation, it won't start in on the xylose until all the glucose is gone. "It's like giving meat and broccoli to my kids," Jin explained. "They usually eat the meat first and the broccoli later."
Jin and his colleagues — including researchers from the University of Illinois, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California at Berkeley, Seoul National University and the energy company BP — inserted genes from a xylose-converting yeast to give S. cerevisiae the power to turn xylose into ethanol. They also added the capability of a fungus known as Neurospora crassa to work with a precursor of glucose known as cellobiose.
The combination of those two tricks, plus some extra tweaks, enabled the franken-yeast to ferment cellobiose and xylose at the same time. That avoided the glucose vs. xylose, meat vs. broccoli problem.
"If you do the fermentation by using only cellobiose or xylose, it takes 48 hours," Suk-Jin Ha, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois and the study's lead author, said in today's release. "But if you do the co-fermentation with the cellobiose and xylose, double the amount of sugar is consumed in the same amount of time and [the process] produces more than double the amount of ethanol."
The new yeast strain is at least 20 percent more efficient at converting xylose to ethanol than other strains, Jin said.
He said the potential cost benefits are significant: "We don't have to do two separate fermentations. We can do it all in one pot. And the yield is even higher than the industry standard. We are pretty sure that this research can be commercialized very soon."
This approach builds upon research published in September on the journal Science's website — and one of the researchers involved in that earlier study, Berkeley's Jamie Cate, played a role in the newly published study as well. As I noted back in September, other researchers are working on different ways to use yeast for producing biofuel. Bottom line? If cellulosic ethanol ever becomes a major part of America's energy equation, it's sounding as if genetically modified yeast will be the key that turns the ignition.
But what do you think? How will biofuel fit in alongside fossil fuels, solar and wind energy, nuclear power and other options? Feel free to discuss America's energy future in the comment space below.
On Monday, December 27 at 1731 UTC (12:31 p.m. EST) the GOES-13 satellite captured this visible image of the powerful low pressure system that brought snows from Georgia to Maine along the U.S. east coast. Some of the snowfall can be seen over South and North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and southeastern New York. The clouds of the low obscure New England in the image.
December 2010 Blizzard Timelapse from Michael Black on Vimeo.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Watch the snow from this week's blizzard build up in a backyard in Belmar, N.J., courtesy of photographer Mike Black. He took one frame every five minutes for about 20 hours, then put them together into one of the coolest time-lapse videos I've ever seen.
The Vimeo video was seen more than a million times today. Black says he's received e-mails from NBC and the other TV networks asking to show it off. Keeping the clock visible amid 32 inches of snow is a particularly nice touch.
This Dec. 24 picture from the Cassini orbiter shows a huge storm on Saturn as a bright-colored whirl on the planet's disk. The raw, unprocessed image, which was received and released today, also shows the dark shadows of Saturn's rings on the disk.
So you think this week's East Coast snowstorm is a biggie? Get a load of the monster storm system that astronomers are seeing on Saturn. Some astronomers have suggested that this is shaping up as a "Great White Spot" — a rare occurrence on the ringed planet — and now the Cassini orbiter has gotten its first good look at the phenomenon.
"Just down on the ground today ... our cameras on Cassini have captured sight of a gigantic storm recently erupted in the northern hemisphere of Saturn," the Space Science Institute's Carolyn Porco, who leads Cassini's imaging team, wrote in an e-mail advisory. "This storm has been sighted by the amateurs in recent weeks, but Cassini was finally in a position to take a splendid series of pictures of it. And what a storm it is! ... It only goes to show: It pays to have a sophisticated observatory in orbit around Saturn."
Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley was among the first to catch sight of the storm, and shared a picture of it last week. Another accomplished amateur, Chris Go, sent in a picture from the Philippines. And still more pictures are coming in to UnmannedSpaceflight.com's Saturn forum.
In her report for Universe Today, Nancy Atkinson quoted Wesley as saying that this is the "brightest Saturn storm in decades."
"If you get a chance to see it visually, then take it," Wesley said in his forum post, "it may be one of the rare 'Great White Spot' outbreaks on Saturn. Personally, I think it's just jealous of its big brother for taking all the attention lately."
If this flare-up on Saturn really does qualify as a Great White Spot, that could add a fresh twist to a long-simmering mystery: Why and when do such storms arise? The "Spot" storms are thought to be caused by an dramatic upwelling of material from lower levels of Saturn's atmosphere, perhaps related to thermal instability. They can become so powerful that the spot stretches into a stripe, lengthening enough to encircle the planet.
The current thinking is that classic Great White Spots occur roughly every 27 to 30 Earth years, in sync with Saturn's seasonal cycle. The last major occurrence was recorded in 1990, although "Spot" phenomena have also been seen in 1994 and 2006.
Based on that schedule, some astronomer weren't expecting another classic GWS until 2016 or so. In the weeks to come, Saturn-watchers will be watching this mega-storm to see whether it turns into a great ... or a not-so-great ... white spot. You can follow along by checking in with the Cassini imaging team's website, NASA's Saturn Web portal, and UnmannedSpaceflight.com.
Get out those 3-D glasses — the ones with red and blue lenses stuffed into the junk drawer — and check out this view of a Martian crater made by NASA's Opportunity rover. The crater, informally named "Santa Maria," is almost the length of a football field (295 feet) in diameter.
The mosaic of images taken by Opportunity's navigation camera on Dec. 16 shows the crater's sharp rim and rocks ejected from the impact that excavated the crater. We're presenting just part of the panorama here. The full 1.2-megabyte view is presented as a cylindrical-perspective projection. South is at the center, north is at both ends. If you look closely at the full-resolution version, you can spot Opportunity's tracks leading back into the distance.
For those who misplaced their 3-D glasses — how could you? — click here for a 2-D version of the image.
The NASA Mars Exploration Rover team plans to use cameras and spectrometers to examine rocks exposed at the crater for the next several weeks. Once the investigations at Santa Maria are complete, Opportunity will resume a long-term trek to Endeavour Crater, which is about 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. The agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft has detected clay deposits on the Endeavour's rim, which are an indication for the past presence of water.
Before you put those 3-D glasses back in the junk drawer, check the links below for more 3-D view of Mars.
Since the beginning of the month, our Advent calendar has presented pictures of Earth from space going back more than four decades — but today's offering is as fresh as fallen snow on Christmas morning. In fact, it's a picture of our blue planet that incorporates image data from this morning.
Back in 1968, the "Earthrise" picture served as a reminder of Earth's beauty and fragility. Today, near-real-time Earth images such as this one remind us that the legions of satellites in outer space bring good things to all of us here on this good Earth. May the new year bring us still more good things, from Earth and from space.
Click on the links below for a recap of this year's Cosmic Log Advent Calendar, plus other Advent calendar offerings with space themes:
Thousands of pictures of Earth have been taken from space, but few have had as much impact as the picture taken by Apollo 8's crew exactly 42 years ago. The "Earthrise" photograph, showing our planet hanging in a black sky, was taken as the mission's three astronauts swung around the moon on Christmas Eve 1968. It's considered the first color photo of the full Earth made from deep space. The late photographer Galen Rowell called it "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken."
The view from the moon fosters the realization that this one planet is our one home — a home that must be protected and treasured. In fact, such views are said to spark a phenomenon called "the overview effect," a feeling of spiritual transcendence and universal connection that's often experienced by astronauts during spaceflight.
During the Apollo 8 astronauts' Christmas Eve broadcast, the astronauts took turns reading from the Book of Genesis — and commander Frank Borman ended with this wish: "From the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth."
Such are our wishes for you on this Christmas Eve.
One more picture of Earth from space remains to be revealed in our Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar — a final treat for Christmas Day. Click on the links below to see the previous pictures in this series, as well as images from other space-themed Advent calendars:
"Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o'er the plains..." This view from the shuttle Atlantis, captured during a 1996 mission to Russia's now-defunct Mir space station, shows what the angels from the Christmas carol might have seen if they were more than 200 miles above the Holy Land. The Dead Sea is just to the right of Atlantis' tail in this photograph, which was taken looking back from the space shuttle's cabin.
This view takes in all the key spots in the Nativity story, including Bethlehem on the Palestinian West Bank, where the Gospels say Jesus was born; and Nazareth in northern Israel, where he is said to have grown up. The shuttle's resolution isn't fine enough to make out those present-day cities, however. Even Jerusalem is hard to spot. For higher-resolution views, check out the satellite images of Nazareth and Bethlehem from the Sacred Destinations website, or this false-color image of Jerusalem captured by the ASTER instrument on NASA's Terra satellite.
Today's space shuttle view is one of the final visual treats in our Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar. For additional views of Earth from space, check out these past offerings. We've also included links to other online Advent calendars that have been serving up space images daily since the beginning of the month:
The Na'vi, a blue-skinned species in the 2009 movie "Avatar." were created with the help of computational physics.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Remember the Na'vi – the blue-stripped humanoid species with pointy ears and a powerful bond with nature in last year's biggest sci-fi epic, "Avatar"? They were created in a physics lab.
In fact, the entire movie "stands out for the amount of physics that was involved," Robert Bridson, a computer scientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, told me in an e-mail. "A lot of the environments, and of course the characters, were completely computer-generated."
Bridson is an expert in the physics of computer-generated animation and co-author with Christopher Batty of a review of the state of the art and the challenges facing the field, published this week in the journal Science.
"Compared with more traditional animation methods that rely chiefly on artists' efforts, numerical solutions to the equations of physics allow computers to calculate realistic motion, such as that of smoke, fire, explosions, water, rubble, clothing, hair, muscles and skin," they write.
This, in turn, results in animated films with amazingly realistic scenes. For example, when "Avatar" was made, New Zealand-based Weta Digital used physics to simulate how the muscles and skin of the Na'vi worked, how their clothing moved, and how the trees and plants on Pandora moved as well, Bridson noted.
"I also helped write the Naiad software they used to simulate a lot of the water in the film, from the river Jake Sully falls into at the start to the ocean waves pounding the coast near the end, and the water drops in the leaf that Neytiri drinks from," he said.
Routines and challenges Water, Bridson noted, is one of the biggest current challenges in computer animation, given the complex geometry involved.
Some aspects of making digital characters are becoming routine, such as making clothing ruffle, flames flicker and smoke billow realistically. (You can check out animations on Brison's website.) But really large-scale explosions, as well as scenes with multiple size scales — such as a boat on stormy seas — remain a challenge.
And then there's hair.
"Long hair or curly hair is still a huge problem," Bridson said. "It's difficult enough to get hair to behave in real life for action scenes."
Other challenges include getting computers to work fast enough to appease demanding directors. Filmmakers are also looking for methods to judge the quality of an animation. These are largely problems in transferring the technology from the lab to the movie studio.
"The scale at which studios want to do things is almost always a lot greater than what academics can tackle," Bridson noted.
He noted that most audiences may not even be aware how much of the action in the movies they see is already computer-generated. For example, rather than getting a yacht, camera crew and actors out in a real ocean to shoot a scene, it's actually cheaper for a studio to build a model of the boat, simulate the ocean around it and then put in the actors who were shot in front a green screen.
Coming attractions In the coming years, advances in the algorithms used for computer-generated animation should lead to subtle improvements in the quality and creativity of visuals, and allow directors to achieve their vision with shrinking budgets, Bridson noted.
"'District 9' from 2009 is an important harbinger of what's going to be coming," he said. "With a relatively modest budget of $30 million, and from outside the traditional Hollywood blockbuster network, they made a gorgeous, visually compelling work of art with a bit of a risky and very intriguing idea."
Just don't get your hopes up for feature-length films made by amateurs, a la YouTube, he added.
"Even if all you were to need on the technical side was a computer — no cameras, no sets, no actors — the artistic challenge of creating a film remains, and will still require a huge amount of dedication, time and talent."
Bridges told the Daily Mail that he could imagine a day when he could appear in movies without really acting by simply leasing studios his image. Parent said maybe, but not anytime soon.
"With removing the actor completely, now you've got a whole different problem of building those body motions, those facial motions, the speech — which is a whole other problem. Building that essentially from scratch … that's a whole other level of complexity, and we are not there at all."
Check out the links below for more stories on computer animation.