Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner is funding multimillion-dollar prizes for fundamental physics.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner inaugurated his new prize program for fundamental physics today with a big bang: awards of $3 million each to nine of the world's best-known theorists.
Among the honorees are MIT's Alan Guth and Stanford's Andrei Linde, who developed the theory of cosmic inflation that currently stands as the most widely accepted model for the expansion of the universe.
In a Stanford news release, Linde said he could hardly believe what he was hearing when a telephone caller told him about the prize. At first, he told the caller that he'd have to think about accepting the money.
"Then I realized that I was making the most stupid joke of my life, and said that I would of course accept it," he said. "It's a huge prize. It's unbelievable."
The newly minted Fundamental Physics Prize is now the world's richest academic award, eclipsing the $1.2 million Nobel Prize as well as the $1.7 million Templeton Prize for science and spirituality.
Milner, 50, is himself a trained physicist who began his business career as an banking specialist and built up his fortune through a string of Internet investments, including stakes in Facebook, Zynga and Groupon. This year, Forbes estimated his net worth at $1 billion.
The $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize is to be awarded annually by the nonprofit Milner Foundation to recognize "transformative advances in the field." The $3 million prize may also be given at any time outside the formal nomination process "in exceptional cases," according to today's announcement from the foundation.
"I hope the new prize will bring long overdue recognition to the greatest minds working in the field of fundamental physics, and if this helps encourage young people to be inspired by science, I will be deeply gratified," Milner said in the announcement.
Promising junior researchers will be eligible for a different $100,000 annual award known as the New Horizons in Physics Prize.
To kick off the program, nine $3 million prizes were awarded today, and the nine recipients were invited to help select future honorees. In addition to Guth and Linde, the recipients include four string theorists at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton: Nima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg and Edward Witten. The three other honorees are Caltech's Alexei Kitaev, who focuses on quantum computing; Russian mathematician Maxim Kontsevich; and Indian string theorist Ashoke Sen.
When it comes to Trek vs. Trek, it's usually Kirk versus Picard — but a brand-new pair of NASA videos previewing the Mars Curiosity rover's landing offers a different study in constrasts. Kirk versus ... Wesley Crusher?
NASA is following up on the $2.5 billion Mars mission's wildly successful "Seven Minutes of Terror" movie trailer with two versions of a video titled "Grand Entrance": one voiced by William Shatner, who played Captain James T. Kirk with classic swagger on the original "Star Trek" series; and the other by Wil Wheaton, who played kid genius Wesley Crusher on "Star Trek: Next Generation" and went on to become a geek icon (for example, as Sheldon Cooper's nemesis on "The Big Bang Theory").
Wil Wheaton, best-known for his roles on 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' and 'The Big Bang Theory,' narrates a video about the Curiosity rover's mission to Mars.
Team members at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory share the challenges of the Curiosity Mars rover's final minutes to landing on the surface of Mars.
The script for both four-minute-plus Mars videos is pretty much the same: They both begin with shots of Curiosity's assembly and move quickly through the Mars Science Laboratory mission's launch last November. They both spend a lot of time on the rover's entry, descent and landing, which is set for 10:31 p.m. PT Sunday night (1:31 a.m. ET Monday). They both marvel at the unprecedented sky-crane operation that will lower Curiosity to the surface from a rocket-powered platform.
Both Shatner and Wheaton end up addressing the main aims of the rover's two-year primary mission: How habitable was Mars in ancient times? What chemical clues remain detectable today? "This nuclear-powered, 1-ton rover will take us ever closer to examining deep layers of history, and perhaps closer to an answer to the ancient question: Was there ever life on Mars?" they say.
NASA says there's room for both videos.
"Shatner and Wheaton are mavericks in inspiring film, TV and social media audiences about space," Bert Ulrich, NASA's multimedia liaison for film and TV collaborations, said in a news release. "NASA is thrilled to have them explain a difficult landing sequence in accessible terms that can be understood by many. Thanks to their generous support, Mars exploration will reach Tweeters, Trekkies and beyond!"
But the dueling videos cry out for a totally unscientific popularity poll: How do you prefer your "Grand Entrance"? A la Kirk, or with a dash of Wesley? Or do you think "Seven Minutes of Terror" beats them both? Feel free to cast your vote in the poll above, and weigh in with your comments below.
Sending balloons into the stratosphere for final-frontier views is a feat that's now within reach of thousands of do-it-yourselfers, but the flight conducted on Monday by a team of high-school students and mentors participating in the University of New Hampshire's Project SMART was something completely different.
After the balloon's launch from Brattleboro, Vt., the cameras mounted on the scientific platform recorded pastoral panoramas of the New England countryside. Meanwhile, a miniature Geiger counter monitored radiation levels, and other instruments kept track of temperature and pressure. The scientific aim of the summer-session experiment was to see how the flux of cosmic rays varies with altitude.
By the time the balloon reached the 105,900-foot level, almost two hours after launch, the cameras were catching amazing views of the curving Earth beneath the blackness of outer space. That height is less than a third of the way to the internationally recognized boundary of space, at 100 kilometers or 62 miles, but the sight is nevertheless impressive.
Then the balloon popped. And that's when things got really interesting.
First of all, it's unusual to get such a clear video frame of the balloon actually popping. But more importantly, this mission tested a novel method for the recovery of payloads from that high up. Usually, recovery relies on a parachute landing. This time, the payload's descent was slowed by a 3-foot-wide (meter-wide), aerodynamically shaped disk made out of pink plastic foam and cardboard. No parachute was attached.
Over the course of 30 minutes, the four-pound re-entry package drifted downward to a spot 40 miles southeast of the launch point, in rural Massachusetts. When the students located the payload, it was intact.
"The re-entry vehicle was just sitting there as if someone had gently placed it on the ground,” Andrew Mahn, a senior at Sant Bani School in Sanbornton, N.H., said in a UNH news release.
A frame from the video captured during Project SMART's balloon flight shows the high-altitude balloon in mid-pop.
The successful landing proved the validity of the vehicle's plastic-and-cardboard disk design, said Louis Broad, a physics teacher at Timberlane Regional High School in Plaistow, N.H. "This represents a paradigm shift for the whole small ballooning community. I've never seen anybody else use anything but parachutes,” Broad said.
Broad and another physics teacher, Scott Goelzer of Coe-Brown Northwood Academy, were the students' guides during the four-week space science module for the Project SMART summer program at UNH. The balloon's rise and fall provided a fitting climax for the summer — and gave the students valuable experience for the future.
"It’s a simulated satellite project, from design through construction, launch, flight and recovery," Goelzer said. Building and launching the experiment cost reportedly less than $1,000. That super-low price tag suggests that the Project SMART made a super-smart investment.
Where in the Cosmos The picture of the popping balloon served as this week's "Where in the Cosmos" puzzle on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. Three of the Facebook followers — Gabrielle Wolf-Stahl, James Sloan and Kit Watson — took no time at all to identify the picture correctly. To reward their quick wits and fast fingers, I'm sending them pairs of 3-D glasses in the mail. Want to get in on the fun? Click the "like" button for the Facebook page and stay tuned for the next"Where in the Cosmos" challenge on Aug. 11.
The Olympics is a time to celebrate the world's fastest and strongest humans, but you can rely on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to put the best of human performance in perspective. They've just come out with their list of Olympians for the natural world — champions that range from the fleet cheetah to the humble fungus.
"While celebrating the achievements of talented athletes across the world this summer, we should also take the time to appreciate these incredible species," the IUCN says in today's Olympian roundup. Here are some of the conservation group's medalists for 2012:
Sprint: Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) can bolt at 70 mph or more for short bursts, making them the world's fastest land animals. In comparison, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is credited as the fastest human, with a top running speed of 27.79 mph. Theoretically, humans could reach velocities of 40 mph — still short of the cheetah's personal best.
High jump: To even things out, cross-species-wise, the IUCN is measuring jumping ability in terms of body length. By that measure, a lowly insect known as the common froghopper (Philaenus spumarius) gets the high-jump crown. It can jump 115 times its body length, while the record for humans is just a little over 8 feet (2.45 meters). That's about 1.25 times the height of the record-holder, Cuba's Javier Sotomayor (6-foot-5 or 195 centimeters).
Joelle Dufour / IUCN
The rhinoceros beetle can lift 30 times its own weight.
Weightlifting: The IUCN's winner here is the rhinoceros beetle (Megasoma elephas), which can lift more than 30 times its body mass. In comparison, the IUCN notes that the heaviest individual weight lifted by a human in an Olympic competition was 580.9 pounds (263.5 kilograms), a record set by Iran's Hossein Rezazadeh. His weight as of 2007 is listed as 340 pounds (152 kilograms), which means the poor guy couldn't even lift a mass twice his own weight.
Archery: The smallscale archerfish (Toxotes microlepis) can shoot down land-based insects (flying insects or insects on branches) and other small animals with water shot from their specialized mouths.
Boxing: The mating season for the European hare (Lepus europaeus) peaks in the spring, during a time called “March Madness.” Females choose their partners according to their strength by "boxing" with them — when females and males stand on their hind legs and hit each other with their paws. As females are slightly larger than males, only the strong males impress the females and get the chance to mate. Survival of the fittest: the true gold medal.
Gymnastics: In the animal world, it's hard to beat the agile gibbon (Hylobates agilis).
Agile gibbons are monkeying around at Thailand's Chiang Mai Zoo.
Shooting: The fruits of the Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) open explosively with a popping sound, "shooting" their seeds to distances of 23 feet (7 meters) or so. A prolific seed producer, each plant produces about 2,500 seeds, and its dispersal technique helps the plant colonize new areas. Native to the Himalayas, but naturalized in Europe and elsewhere, it tends to become an invasive species and outcompete other plants.
Shot put: The Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), also known as a bearded vulture, is one of the largest of the Old World vultures. This bird wins the IUCN's medal for shot put because it drops large bones from great heights in order to shatter them and eat the marrow inside.
Opening ceremonies: If there's any guest you'd want to have on hand for the Olympics' opening ceremonies, it'd be Zeus olympius. That's a species of fungus that makes its home on Mount Olympus, the mythical home of the Greek gods (including Zeus, the star of the show). It's found growing on the dead branches of pine trees. The IUCN notes that Zeus olympius has recently been found in one other location on Earth: an area of southwest Bulgaria, near the Greek border.
The fungus known as Zeus olympius has been found only on dead branches of pine trees on Greece's Mount Olympus - and recently at a spot in Bulgaria.
Anyone who's looked at the "Seven Minutes of Terror" trailer for next month's Mars landing might have wondered whether the planners behind NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission really knew what they were doing — and although the planners insist they're confident, they also say they're nervous.
"There's not a whole lot we can do about it at this point, except just be nervous," said Dave Beaty, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Directorate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
You can test the mood for yourself by tuning in our "Virtually Speaking Science" talk show at 9 p.m. ET tonight, via BlogTalkRadio or the Second Life virtual world. Beaty and I will be talking about the buildup to the Aug. 5 landing, and taking your questions through Second Life, Twitter (use the hashtag #askvs) and the phone lines. If you can't make it, don't worry: You'll be able to listen to the hourlong podcast via BlogTalkRadio's archive or iTunes.
Experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory share the challenges of the Curiosity rover's landing plan.
Falling into place All the pieces are falling into place for the Mars Science Laboratory's landing sequence, aimed at putting the subcompact car-sized Curiosity rover down within Gale Crater. On Tuesday, NASA maneuvered its Mars Odyssey orbiter into the correct trajectory to pass over the landing site just in time to pick up telemetry from the probe.
The MSL spacecraft is currently within 2.2 million miles (3.6 million kilometers) of Mars and closing in fast. The big nail-biter is scheduled for just after 10 p.m. PT on Aug. 5 (1 a.m. ET Aug. 6), when the spacecraft is supposed to blaze through Mars' atmosphere, spring a parachute, pop off its heat shield and let loose a rocket-powered sky crane platform that will hover about 66 feet (20 meters) above the Martian surface and lower Curiosity on cables. Then the cables will cut loose and the sky crane will fly itself out of the way, leaving Curiosity to get down to business.
Dave Beaty is chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Directorate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
"I've met with the engineers," Beaty told me. "I've seen their presentations, and they can be very convincing. But you have to hold your breath a little bit and trust that they know what they're doing."
This multibillion-dollar mission depends on everything working right — and there's even more at stake than just the mission. If next month's landing fails, that could spark even more questions about the future of NASA's troubled Mars exploration effort. The failures of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999 led to years of rethinking and retrenchment, and the soul-searching would probably go far deeper in this current age of tightened budgets and downscaled ambitions.
On the other hand, a successful landing would set a sunny tone for what's likely to be years of exploration by the most capable interplanetary robot ever created. During tonight's talk show, Beaty will probably be a lot more willing to talk about that type of scenario, just as he was when I interviewed him on Monday. Check out this edited transcript, and bring your follow-up questions to "Virtually Speaking Science" at 9 p.m. ET.
Cosmic Log: So, there's less than two weeks before the big Mars landing — what's going on there at JPL?
Dave Beaty: We're getting very nervous. There's not a whole lot we can do about it at this point, except just be nervous. But this is a significant thing. It's one of these points in history that may change the trajectory of things that happen afterward, whether we end up with a successful landing or an unsuccessful landing.
Q: What do you see as the outcome for failure, and the outcome for failure? What would that mean to the Mars exploration program?
A: Well, just having a successful landing, by itself, is of course huge good news. It enables the scientific return from the mission to happen, which will play out over the next Mars year — that's two Earth years, more or less. Once the rover lands, it has to raise its antenna, do some checkouts, get moving, and then drive over to this mountain that has the stratigraphy we're interested in.
It's sort of like the Grand Canyon way of looking at rock. You get this beautiful exposure of stratigraphy because of the erosion of this mountain. We want to climb up the side of the mountain and check the layering, like John Wesley Powell did just after the Civil War when he went one-arming up and down the Grand Canyon. That was one of the great geological expeditions of all time, as far as I'm concerned.
The site we want to look at is great. It's a little hard to predict exactly what we're going to see inside those rocks if we end up on the success pathway. We know what we're looking for: What are the rocks? What is the nature of the layering? Are there signals that the layers were "habitable" — i.e., had the potential for a life form to have lived there, had a life form been present. If there's a positive outcome on that, then we would definitely want to send another mission — either back to the same place, to check out whether there's any sign of something actually there; or potentially to another place that has the same kind of layering, but some other kind of characteristic.
Here on Earth, one of the big issues we face is that the preservation of the signs of life is very uneven. We know that there's life everywhere on Earth, right? And it's been here in sort of the form that we see it when we look out our windows, back to the time of the Cambrian, which is 600 million years ago. But if you look at the sedimentary rocks, they don't all contain fossils, they don't all contain pollen. You've got to look carefully to understand what has happened to the rock since its formation, and whether it would have included the signs of life, and whether those signs would have survived through all the subsequent things that happened to the rock.
It's not a guarantee that we would go back to exactly the same place, but we would certainly want to go back somewhere if we received this encouragement.
Q: And the implications of failure?
A: If it's a bad landing, the question would be, what is the reason why? In my experience, the public and Congress and all the people surrounding us would be accepting of a failure that was just a bad weather day, or if you land sideways on a rock, or some other sort of bad luck that happens because of what Mars has done to us. They tend to be less forgiving of a mistake made by a human being here on Earth. So, those are two very different kinds of scenarios. Just the fact of a bad day doesn't tell you enough to know what the implication might be.
Seven minutes of terror is what NASA is calling the waiting period to find out whether the Curiosity rover has survived what could be the trickiest landing ever attempted. NBC's Tom Costello reports.
Q: A lot of people wonder about how the sky crane is going to work, or whether the heat shield will work properly — the "seven minutes of terror." Is that what you have in mind? Everything that could be done has been done, of course, but if something goes wrong, I suspect people will want to focus on the process for doing something that's never been done before.
A: Almost everything we do at Mars has never been done before. That's what makes this exciting from the point of view of the engineers. They're here to do the impossible. That sky crane landing has some very powerful advantages, if it works. I've met with the engineers, I've seen their presentations, and they can be very convincing. But you have to hold your breath a little bit and trust that they know what they're doing.
Q: If everything works nominally, will we see the sky crane become the main method for getting large payloads down to the surface of Mars?
A: I absolutely think so. For the robotic exploration missions, the bigger question is, do we want the payloads to keep getting bigger? We know for sure that the pathway to eventual human missions has to involve bigger and bigger payloads, because the humans and all their support systems are heavy. This particular landing system will land a payload that's bigger than can be landed with airbags. The airbag would not survive. So it is heading in the direction that we need to follow if we believe in eventual human exploration. Whether the next robotic mission needs to be the same size as MSL — that's an interesting question. We may want to get it smaller, in part to bring the cost down.
Q: What's your role going to be on the night of the landing?
A: I just got my assignment. I will be at Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, with an audience of 1,136 people, which is the auditorium's capacity. I'll be standing in front of them with the NASA feed on the screen behind me, and my instructions are to narrate it like a tennis match. You can interject a little bit of commentary, but you don't want to detract from the main show, which is what's on the screen.
Q: So when will you know if the landing's been successful?
A: The landing itself is at 10:32 p.m. Pacific time, and we've placed both orbiters [Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter] so they will be in position to watch the descent as it comes down. By 10:32 or 10:33, they should have the data to know whether the landing was successful. They may get an ambiguous answer and not know for sure whether it was successful or not successful. That may take a little while longer to sort that out. It's hard to end up with a for-sure crash scenario quickly, because the signals are likely to be less than obvious. But if it's successful, we'll know very quickly.
Former astronaut Sally Ride, left, and her partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, discuss the role of women in science and how the earth's climate is changing during a 2008 American Library Association conference in Anaheim, Calif. Ride and O'Shaughnessy collaborated on several children's books on science.
In life, Sally Ride became famous as America's first woman in space — and in death, she's now added to her fame as the first acknowledged gay astronaut.
The revelation came in a low-key way: Monday's obituary from Sally Ride Science, the educational venture she founded a decade ago, referred to Tam O'Shaughnessy as "her partner of 27 years." A spokeswoman for Sally Ride Science, Terry McEntee, said Ride and O'Shaughnessy, who is the company's chief operating officer and executive vice president, worked out the phrasing of the announcement before Ride's death.
In an email today, Sally Ride's sister, Bear Ride, explained why the former astronaut kept quiet about her sexual orientation.
"In her inherent Norwegian reticence — in this and so many aspects of her personal life (wrestling with pancreatic cancer, for example) — she just didn't talk much (see Norwegian comment, and add to that the typical tight-lipped scientist thing)," Bear wrote. "If you read interviews from years and years back, you'll see that there was always a major frustration that she didn't comment much on 'how it feels to be the first American woman in space' — she just didn't think that way. She wanted to get the job done. Her personal feelings were just that: personal. Not right or wrong — simply Sally. Everyone who knows her well really got that about her."
Bear, a gay Presbyterian minister, takes a different approach.
"I'm a rather out-there advocate for LGBT [lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender] rights — my partner and I have even been arrested a couple of times in public protest!" she told me. "But that's me, and not Sally."
Here's the essay that Bear Ride has been sending around as a tribute to her sister:
"Sally Ride was the first American woman to go into space and she was my big sister. Sally died peacefully on July 23rd after a courageous 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. I was at her side. We grew up in Encino, CA. Our parents, Joyce and Dale Ride, encouraged us to study hard, to do our best and to be anything we wanted to be. In 1983 Newsweek quoted our father as saying, 'We might have encouraged, but mostly we just let them explore.' Our parents encouraged us to be curious, to keep our minds and hearts open and to respect all persons as children of God. Our parents taught us to explore, and we did. Sally studied science and I went to seminary. She became an astronaut and I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister.
"Sally lived her life to the fullest with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless. Sally died the same way she lived: without fear. Sally's signature statement was 'Reach for the Stars.' Surely she did this, and she blazed a trail for all the rest of us.
"My sister was a very private person. Sally had a very fundamental sense of privacy, it was just her nature, because we're Norwegians, through and through. People did not know she had pancreatic cancer, this is bound to be a huge shock. For 17 months, nobody knew, and everyone does now. Her memorial fund is going to be in support of pancreatic cancer.
"Most people did not know that Sally had a wonderfully loving relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy for 27 years. Sally never hid her relationship with Tam. They were partners, business partners in Sally Ride Science, they wrote books together, and Sally's very close friends, of course, knew of their love for each other. We consider Tam a member of our family.
"I hope the pancreatic cancer community is going to be absolutely thrilled that there's now this advocate that they didn't know about. And, I hope the GLBT community feels the same. I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them."
Sex has always been a tricky topic for astronauts: In the old days, they worried that if they didn't conform with the "Right Stuff" stereotype, they wouldn't be picked for spaceflights. Issues such as alcohol abuse or marital problems often were swept under the carpet. Is it any surprise, then, that no active or former astronauts have publicly announced that they're gay? Michael Cassutt, the author of "Who's Who in Space," is quoted on Space.com as saying that such an announcement would be a "career-wrecker."
Men and women have been working together on U.S. spacecraft since Ride's history-making flight in 1983. Why not straights and gays? Maybe Sally Ride's low-key way of coming out will represent one small step toward greater acceptance and acknowledgment of the LGBT contribution to the space effort. (I'm using the term "gay" here as admittedly inadequate shorthand for the LGBT community. The fact that Ride was married to fellow astronaut Steven Hawley from 1982 to 1987 complicates any effort to categorize Ride's perspective, based on the public record. And Buzzfeed's Chris Geidner quotes Bear Ride as saying "Sally didn't use labels.")
Ride's legacy lives on Ride would no doubt be uncomfortable with a public discussion of her sexuality. She was uncomfortable enough with the celebrity that surrounded her as the first American woman in space. Based on the comments from her family and co-workers, Ride's main concern in the last days of her life was making sure that Sally Ride Science survived her passing.
"I was very fortunate to spend time with her right before she passed away," said Karen Flammer, a research physicist at the University of California at San Diego and one of the founders of Sally Ride Science. "We were able to talk about what she envisioned for our company, and our legacy and her legacy."
Ride's status as a former astronaut wasn't uppermost in her mind, Flammer told me. "Her true passion really was science education, and inspiring more young people, particularly girls, to follow a career path in science and technology," she said.
Since Ride's death, Sally Ride Science's donors have confirmed that they "want to continue funding and supporting our programs," Flammer said. "The transition will be hard, but we want to keep going as a tribute to her."
Those programs include science camps as well as global outreach efforts such as EarthKAM, which lets middle-school students request pictures of Earth to be taken by a digital camera aboard the International Space Station. "We've engaged hundreds of thousands of middle-school students, not only in this country, but around the world," Flammer said.
A similar program, called MoonKAM, lets kids select targets for pictures taken by NASA's GRAIL lunar probes.
Sally Ride, the first US woman in space, captured the nation's imagination with her historic journey into space. NBC's Rehema Ellis looks back at the intrepid astronaut's life and legacy after she lost her battle with pancreatic cancer.
Flammer said there will be a new chief executive officer for the company: a woman who has had experience running other educational companies and "who is going to share all of our passions." However, Flammer said it's still too early to announce the CEO's name.
And speaking of names, Flammer and her colleagues are looking into somehow putting Sally Ride's name in space. "Right now, we're in the process of working with NASA on what types of things we can do in her honor. ... Her tribute statement always was 'Reach for the Stars.' That's how she ended the talks she gave to students, or to adults. So we're keeping that in mind with whatever we come up with."
But the most valuable tribute to her memory will be Sally Ride Science.
"She never wanted the celebrity status," Flammer told me. "What she really wanted was for her legacy to continue. This is what she wants to survive her and live on: her name, and her science education company."
In memoriam Sally Ride Science's Terry McEntee said the memorial service would be private, but if you want to pay tribute to America's first woman astronaut, here's what the company's website suggests:
"In lieu of flowers, you may wish to make a gift in memory of Sally to the Sally Ride Pancreatic Cancer Initiative (Fund 4191). Checks should be made out to: UCSD Foundation. Also, in either the memo line or in an enclosed note, please state that the gift is made in memory of Sally Ride or to the Sally Ride Pancreatic Cancer Initiative (Fund 4191).
"Gift mailing address: Pam Werner, Executive Director of Development, UCSD Health Sciences Dev., 9500 Gilman Dr. #0853, La Jolla, CA 92093-0853."
"If you prefer using a credit card, please call Pam Werner at 858-246-1556. Please note that 94 percent of donations will go toward pancreatic cancer research at UCSD Moore's Cancer Center."
An artist's conception shows a microbrain reactor being developed at Vanderbilt University. The bioreactor is aimed at reproducing the brain's microenvironment in a device about the size of a grain of rice.
By Devin Coldewey
Many medications and treatments, even after years of research, fail in the final phase of review — when they're actually tested in humans. Despite having performed well in the lab, in mice, and perhaps in closer human analogues like monkeys, drugs occasionally turn out to be ineffective or toxic when used by the humans they're meant to help. To improve this process, and limit the risks to human testers, the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are together pledging up to up to $132 million for creating "organ-on-a-chip" systems, with the eventual goal of simulating the entire human body.
The tissue-chip project is a natural outgrowth (so to speak) of existing lab testing on human tissue. Each of the projects being funded is aimed at isolating a small, living piece of a human being. It may be just a few cells, but those cells would grow and function as if they were in their native habitat, the human body. And surrounding those cells would be sensors for detecting microscopic changes in the test environment.
Each type of cell and organ must be approached differently: Brain cells exist in an environment vastly different from muscles or the liver. Consequently, the funding is spread over a number of institutions and programs, some of which are specializing in just one type of tissue or organ.
Vanderbilt University, for instance, will be receiving up to $2.1 million from the NIH's $70 million allocation, for the creation of what they call a "microbrain reactor." It would put human brain cells into an artificial environment that not only keeps them alive, but simulates the physiological barriers that protect the brain from contaminants in blood and other fluids. John Wikswo, who is leading Vanderbilt's effort, is enthusiastic about the research:
"Given the differences in cellular biology in the brains of rodents and humans, development of a brain model that contains neurons and all three barriers between blood, brain and cerebral spinal fluid, using entirely human cells, will represent a fundamental advance in and of itself."
Much more information on the project and its multidisciplinary lineup of researchers can be found in Vanderbilt's news release.
Other institutions are undertaking much larger efforts. Harvard University has received a similar amount from the NIH, but Harvard's Wyss Institute could also get more than 10 times as much — up to $37 million — from DARPA to develop a device that integrates as many as 10 organs on a chip. It would be a closer and more complete representation of the human body than has ever been created — a veritable homunculus that could open the way to cheaper, quicker and safer drug testing. It would also reduce the number and variety of animals used in testing, and enable widespread, standardized techniques requiring less training.
This video of experts explaining the Wyss Institute's lung on a chip gives a more specific idea of the context and purpose of this technology:
Researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute explain how "organs on a chip" can improve drug testing.
Another double-barreled dose of funding is heading toward the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT and the Draper Laboratory, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, are set to receive up to $6.25 million from NIH to model cancer thereapies using engineered human tissue constructs. Up to $26.3 million more will be provided under an agreement with DARPA to create an "organ-on-a-chip" platform, through a new program called BIO-MIMETICS. (That's not only a word in itself, but also a mouthful of an acronym standing for "Barrier-Immune-Organ: Microphysiology, Microenvironment Engineered Construct Systems.")
If everything goes as planned, the MIT-led work with human tissue would be adapted for the BIO-MIMETICS platform. MIT's news release provides more details.
The NIH, DARPA, and the Food and Drug Administration are working in concert, but their funding is separate. (The description of DARPA's proposal is here). In addition to the grants given to Vanderbilt, Harvard and MIT, the NIH has awarded funding to 14 other projects, adding up to a potential total of $70 million over five years.
The FDA isn't kicking in any money for the researchers right now, but the fact sheet for the initiative says the FDA "will help explore how this new technology might be used to assess drug safety prior to approval for first-in-human studies."
Ten awards are aimed at investigating or creating systems by which organs are simulated on an extremely small scale. The terminology differs but they are largely working in the same sphere. We've already touched on the funding going to Vanderbilt, Harvard and MIT. Here are the other seven projects:
Microphysiological systems and low-cost microfluidic platform with analytics (Cornell University - Michael Shuler and James Hickman)
Circulatory system and integrated muscle tissue for drug and tissue toxicity (Duke University - George Truskey)
Human induced pluripotent stem cell and embryonic stem cell-based models for predictive neural toxicity and teratogenicity (University of Wisconsin, Madison - James Thomson)
Disease-specific integrated microphysiological human tissue models (UC Berkeley - Kevin Healy and Luke Lee)
An integrated in vitro model of perfused tumor and cardiac tissue (UC Irvine - Steven George)
A 3-D biomimetic liver sinusoid construct for predicting physiology and toxicity (University of Pittsburgh - D. Lansing Taylor and Martin Yarmush)
A tissue-engineered human kidney microphysiological system (University of Washington - Jonathan Himmelfarb)
Seven awards are for exploring stem/progenitor cells as sources for the tissues to be used in such microsystems:
Generating human intestinal organoids with an enteric nervous system (Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center - James Wells)
Modeling complex disease using induced pluripotent stem cell-derived skin constructs (Columbia University Health Sciences - Angela Christiano)
Human intestinal organoids: Pre-clinical models of non-inflammatory diarrhea (Johns Hopkins University - Mark Donowitz)
A 3-D model of human brain development for studying gene/environment interactions (Johns Hopkins University - Thomas Hartung)
Modeling oxidative stress and DNA damage using a gastrointestinal organotypic culture system (University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia - John Lynch)
Three-dimensional osteochondral micro-tissue to model pathogenesis of osteoarthritis (University of Pittsburgh - Rocky Tuan)
Three-dimensional human lung model to study lung disease and formation of fibrosis (University of Texas - Joan Nichols)
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News. His personal website is coldewey.cc.
If Sally Ride could have flown in space without the hubbub over being the first American woman to do so, she'd have done it in a heartbeat. Celebrity wasn't her thing. The final frontier was.
That comes through loud and clear in Ride's own reminiscences of her selection as NASA's first female space traveler. She recalled getting a "little chat" from Chris Kraft, the head of NASA's Johnson Space Center, just to make sure "I knew what I was getting into before I agreed to be on the crew."
"But I was so dazzled just by the opportunity to be on the crew and go into space that I really don't remember very much of what he said," she said.
Ride had to deal with the full force of the media hoopla surrounding her history-making spaceflight in 1983. One questioner asked whether she'd wear a bra in space. "There is no sag in zero-G," she famously answered. (By some accounts, NASA research since then has led to the development of better sports bras.)
Eventually, Ride found it easier to avoid the celebrity spotlight. "I'm the sort of person who likes to be able to just walk into the supermarket and not be recognized," she told The Associated Press in 2003. "I can do that most of the time now. A lot of people recognize the name. Very few recognize my face. That's very good."
Now that Ride has passed away at the age of 61, after battling pancreatic cancer for 17 months, there's going to be another posthumous surge of celebrity. Once again, there'll be chatter about Ride's illness, which she reportedly asked NASA not to publicize, as well as her personal relationships. But for now, the focus should be squarely on her contribution to space exploration — as the woman who broke the space barrier, who helped investigate two of NASA's toughest tragedies, who helped shape America's space vision, and who fostered the next generation of explorers through such ventures as Sally Ride Science, EarthKAM and MoonKAM. That's the legacy that comes through loud and clear in the tributes from the White House and NASA, as well as the tributes from these other luminaries:
Eileen Collins, NASA's first woman shuttle commander: "I am surprised and saddened by the news of Sally Ride’s passing. She was such a wonderful role model and source of inspiration to me. People around the world still recognize her name as the first American woman in space, and she took that title seriously even after departing NASA. She mentored me several times during my astronaut career, leaving me with many cherished memories. She never sought media attention for herself, but rather focused on doing her normally outstanding job. Her Sally Ride Science programs have reached thousands of middle-school girls, giving them the confidence to stay focused on math and science, even when the mass media message was otherwise. She also played a notable role in both the Challenger and Columbia accident investigations. Sally left us too soon. Godspeed, Sally, you will be greatly missed."
Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate; former Massachusetts governor: "Today, America lost one of its greatest pioneers. The first American woman in space, Sally Ride inspired millions of Americans with her determination to break the mold of her time. She was a profile in courage, and while she will be missed, her accomplishments will never be forgotten."
Bill Nye (the Science Guy), executive director, Planetary Society: "Sally Ride changed the world. We are very sorry to hear of her recent death after a nearly two-year battle with cancer. Dr. Ride was an excellent astronaut, a remarkable educator, and a longtime Planetary Society friend and adviser. Her particular passion was to get girls excited about science. She did just that. Her Sally Ride Science programs, which include camps, academies, educator institutes and festivals, will carry her legacy into the future. I encourage everyone to take a moment over the next few days and honor Sally Ride by giving a young person a reminder that she or he could pursue a career in science and change the world just as Sally did. She will be missed."
Nancy Conrad, founder and chairman of the Conrad Foundation; widow of Apollo moonwalker Pete Conrad: "The Conrad Foundation and our students and partners are saddened to hear of Sally Ride’s untimely death. Sally was a great physicist, astronaut, educator and American hero. She dedicated her life to bringing the world of science to girls with her Sally Ride Science Academy and Camps. She was a wonderful role model for young women and girls and will be sadly missed. We salute her contribution to our nation and to our future."
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Science and Space Subcommittee: "Sally Ride was one of the great pioneers as the first American woman in space. The whole nation was with her when she launched, lifting her up on a chorus of 'Ride, Sally, Ride.'"
U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, chairman, House Science, Space and Technology Committee: "I am very saddened by the news that my friend Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut to fly in space, has passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. Sally was an inspiration to all, and her historic flight into space showed aspiring young women that they too could be successful in fields such as physics and engineering that had historically been dominated by men. Generations to come will reflect on Sally as an individual who broke barriers, demonstrated brave leadership, and taught the world to think a little differently. Sally’s legacy will be reflected in all of the young girls she inspired to pursue careers in science and engineering."
Neil deGrasse Tyson, director, Hayden Planetarium: "Space programs create unique portfolios of heroes — in life and in death. US Shuttle astronaut Sally Ride 1951-2012, RIP."
Doug King, president and CEO, Museum of Flight: "We are saddened by the news of Sally Ride’s death and send our deepest condolences to her family. Many of us clearly remember in 1983, watching her board the space shuttle Challenger as she literally blazed a trail as the first woman in space. She touched all of our lives and in particular was an incredible role model for young women everywhere, demonstrating that a career as an astronaut could be reality. We have a great deal of respect for her accomplishments as an astronaut and an educator and her lifelong dedication to STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math). She will be missed."
Lon Rains, chairman, Coalition for Space Exploration: "Today, the Coalition for Space Exploration is saddened to say goodbye to our dear friend and colleague Sally Ride — physicist, astronaut, educator and American hero. After her trailblazing career in space, Sally dedicated her life to the mission of opening the world of science to girls, with the Sally Ride Science Academy and Camps. She was a role model, a mentor and one of our most effective champions for STEM education. Our sorrow in her passing is only exceeded by our deep respect and gratitude for her contributions to our nation and our future."
Elliot Pulham, CEO, Space Foundation: "The space community, teachers and students around the world have lost a great friend and role model. Sally was more than a trailblazing astronaut and brilliant scientist. She was deeply concerned about the state of education in the United States, and worked tirelessly to reach students, especially at-risk young women, with programs filled with hope and inspiration — to enable our next generation of explorers. Whether on board a space shuttle, inside a corporate board room, or with students at one of her Sally Ride Science events, she was a motivational and inspiring leader. She was a friend to all explorers, and she will be deeply missed."
Scott Parazynski, chairman, Challenger Center for Space Science Education: "We are deeply saddened to hear of Sally Ride's passing. Her passion brought STEM education to the forefront and for that we will be forever grateful. She will continue to be a great source of inspiration for students around the globe. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and loved ones."
Forty years ago today, the first in a string of Landsat satellites was launched to keep continuous track of our planet — and on the 40th birthday, Landsat's handlers demonstrated that satellite observations are the gifts that keep on giving. But for how much longer?
"Landsat has really become the gold standard of remote sensing from space," Anne Castle, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for water and science, said during a birthday celebration at the Newseum in Washington. "It's provided an invaluable, indelible record of the recent history of our planet."
From the beginning, Landsat was designed as a system that would provide freely available data about Earth's condition — documenting agricultural shifts, urban development, deforestation, floods and the impact of climate change and natural disasters. On the flip side, Landsat has chronicled the planet's ability to bounce back from disaster.
The Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980 serves as a perfect example: The time-lapse video below shows how the blast created a dead zone around the volcano in Washington state, and how Mother Nature slowly crept in to reclaim the gray terrain. You'll also see how Landsat tracked the rise of Beijing, the shrinkage of the Aral Sea and other "top 10" changes in our planet's landscape.
Castle said Landsat has provided a "thoroughly objective, continuous look at ourselves in the mirror since 1972," when the first Landsat satellite was launched into polar orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base on July 23. In a NASA news release, she went even further, calling Landsat's data archive "the world's free press, allowing any person, anywhere, to access vital information without charge."
The Interior Department's Anne Castle traces 10 important environmental phenomena documented by the 40-year-old Landsat satellite constellation.
Landsat's past and future This "free press" is paid for by the federal government, at an estimated cost of 80 cents per person per year. The seven-satellite Landsat project is the result of a long-term collaboration between NASA and the Interior Department's U.S. Geological Survey as well as the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"Landsat has given us a critical perspective on our planet over the long term and will continue to help us understand the big picture of Earth and its changes from space," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in the news release. "With this view we are better prepared to take action on the ground and be better stewards of our home."
The eighth satellite in the series, now known as the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, is due for launch from Vandenberg in February 2013. Once it's in orbit, LDCM is to be renamed Landsat 8, joining the 28-year-old Landsat 5 and the 13-year-old Landsat 7 spacecraft on the job.
And then what? That's the problem. The most important benefit of the Landsat program is the continuous, long-term monitoring of the planet's ups and downs — and some observers worry that not enough money or attention has been devoted to what comes after Landsat 8. If, heaven forbid, one or both of the other satellites should go on the blink before LDCM is launched, a 40-year-plus chain would be broken. And Landsat 5 is already faltering.
In May, the National Research Council issued a report saying that U.S. earth observation systems were in an increasingly precarious position due to budget shortfalls, launch failures and shifts in mission plans. "The projected loss of observing capability will have profound consequences on science and society," University of Washington atmospheric scientist Dennis Hartmann, the chair of the committee that wrote the report, warned at the time.
Even during today's Newseum celebration, concerns about the future cast a bit of a pall over the party. Tom Loveland, a USGS senior scientist at the Earth Resources Observation and Science Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., acknowledged during the press briefing that LDCM was currently cast as the last of the Landsat line.
"We still are on a tenuous path, in which we don't know when the next mission takes place," Loveland said.
New ways to use the data Amid Landsat's midlife crisis, scientists keep finding new ways to use the database that's been built so far. Waleed Abdalati, chief scientist at NASA Headquarters, touted the NASA Earth Exchange, or NEX, which can help scientists easily put together mosaics of satellite imagery "like a giant jigsaw puzzle."
Google is in on the celebration as well: On its Lat Long Blog, the company highlighted its work with USGS and Carnegie Mellon University to create a monster series of interactive time-lapse videos. "With them you can travel through time, from 1999 to 2011, to see the transformation of our planet ... whether it’s deforestation in the Amazon, urban growth in Las Vegas or the difference in snow coverage between the seasons," Google's Eric Nguyen and CMU visiting scholar Randy Sargent wrote.
Google video traces the history of the Landsat program.
The Google Earth Engine is among the new tools being developed for mining the quadrillions of bytes of data in the Landsat archive.
Will Landsat still be going 40 years from now? Maybe there'll be a whole new approach to Earth observation that will make the current system and data set look laughably obsolete. But for at least the next couple of decades, if we're going to chronicle the effects of climate change on Earth's surface in a methodical manner, we're going to need Landsat.
"I don't think it's an overstatement to say the success of humanity hangs in the balance," NASA's Abdalati said. Do you agree? Feel free to weigh in with your views, or birthday wishes, in the comment space below.
Like König's compilation, Myers' four-minute odyssey wraps in multicolored auroral displays, glorious night passes over the world's cities, flashes of lightning and the heavenly whirl of the stars above. Far from detracting from the scene, the space station's solar arrays and other hardware add a sense of perspective in the foreground. As with any time-lapse video, this one shows to best advantage when it's at highest resolution and full-screen display — whether you go with YouTube or Vimeo.
We might have to rethink that earlier "best of" verdict. But really, is there any point anymore in declaring a time-lapse winner?
Michael Konig's video is also based on NASA imagery. See it on You Tube or Vimeo.
Rather than declaring a winner, I'm just going to point to some of the favorites — and declare that all the folks who work with imagery from space, and all the folks who enjoy that imagery, are the real winners here.
If the Lowell Observatory's Discovery Channel Telescope were a Discovery Channel documentary, it'd be a blockbuster: an extravaganza that was a decade in the making, at a cost of $53 million. That's twice as much as it cost to produce the "Planet Earth" TV series.
For any big telescope, first light is the equivalent of a premiere party, and the three images released this weekend are certainly worthy of the star treatment. My colleague at Discovery News, Ian O'Neill, provides the big pictures for M109, a barred spiral galaxy that's 84 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major; the Sombrero Galaxy, also known as M104, which is 30 million light-years away in Virgo; and the Whirlpool Galaxy, M51, 23 million light-years away in Canes Venatici.
This is just the start of the show: The 14-foot (4.3-meter) DCT, built at a site 45 miles southeast of Flagstaff, Ariz., ranks as the fifth-largest telescope in the continental United States. The telescope's naming rights went to the Discovery Channel thanks to a multimillion-dollar contribution from the family of John Hendricks, founder and chairman of Discovery Communications.
As nice as the current 16-megapixel images look, the view will get even nicer once the 36-megapixel Large Monolithic Imager, funded by the National Science Foundation, comes on board. Structured scientific research is due to begin in 2013 or 2014, after commissioning and testing.
The DCT is designed to be a flexible astronomical instrument, well-suited for extragalactic observations as well as the hunt for worlds on the icy rim of our own solar system. That latter task is particularly fitting, because it was at the Lowell Observatory that the first object in the solar system's icy Kuiper Belt was discovered in 1930. The object was none other than Pluto, the dwarf planet that everyone's been fussing over for the past few years or so.
People hold a prayer vigil for the victims and first responders as police investigate an overnight shooting that killed 12 people at a midnight premiere of the new "Batman" movie in Aurora, Colo., on July 20.
Why did a dozen people die in this week's "Dark Knight" shootings? What was going on inside the head of James Eagan Holmes, the former neuroscience student who's suspected of killing those people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.? Questions about Holmes and his motives are the big unanswerables right now — but some folks are already suggesting that higher powers are at work. Higher powers like ... Charles Darwin?
"When students are taught they are no different from animals, they act like it," Rick Warren, the mega-church pastor and inspirational author, observed in a Twitter update just hours after the shootings.
That tweet came amid a flurry of homespun aphorisms and Bible quotes, so it's not fully clear that Warren was specifically blaming the violence on the teaching of evolutionary biology in schools. But the comment stirred up a hornet's nest among the theory's champions, including the University of Chicago's Jerry Coyne.
"I doubt that religion had anything to do with these murders, but religion is so quick to point the finger at science and evolution when they happen," Coyne wrote on his "Why Evolution Is True" blog. "So much for Rick Warren, the man Barack Obama chose to give the invocation at his inauguration in 2009."
'Where was God in all of this?' Warren's comment wasn't the only one that seemed to touch on the link between godlessness and divine retribution. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, brought up the link when he was asked about the Colorado shootings on the "Istook Live" radio show:
"We have been at war with the very pillars, the very foundation of this country ... and when ... you know ... what really gets me as a Christian, is to see the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs and then a senseless crazy act of terror like this takes place," Gohmert said, according to a transcript on his House website.
"You know, when people say, where was God in all of this?" he said. "Well, you know, we don’t let ... in fact, we’ve threatened high school graduation participants that if they use God’s name that they’re going to be jailed, we had a principal of a school, and a superintendent or a coach down in Florida that were threatened with jail because they said the blessing at a voluntary off campus dinner. I mean, that kind of stuff ... where is God? Where, where? What have we done with God? We told him that we don’t want him around. I kind of like his protective hand being present."
"Rep. Louis Gohmert truly tortures logic when he concludes that this violence had something to do with perceived attacks on majority faith in America," said Roy Speckhardt, the association's executive director. "At a time when families are mourning in the wake of this tragedy, Gohmert used it as an opportunity to push a religious agenda."
Christian? 'What a scary thought' On the flip side, some atheists suggested that Christianity was to blame, capitalizing on reports that Holmes came from a Presbyterian family. On the "Debunking Christianity" blog, Cathy Cooper argues that Christian belief encourages the idea that all people are sinful, but that all believers are saved by faith alone. "Christianity provides believers with a basis for the belief that they are absolved from taking responsibility for their own bad behavior," she writes.
"Yes, James Holmes was a 'normal Christian boy' — what a scary thought," Cooper says.
Comments like that cause P.Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris who describes himself as a godless liberal, to hang his head in shame.
"Christianity is piss-poor at doing more than providing lip-service against violence, but it’s at best a passive enabler." he wrote on his Pharyngula blog. Myers said the blame should instead be directed at a culture that glorifies violence, at laws that make it easy to acquire deadly weapons— and most of all, at the person who did all the shooting.
"Anything else is a distraction from correcting the real causes," he wrote.
As Ecclesiastes says... There's nothing new under the sun when it comes to blaming God or godlessness for a disaster. Here are a few recent examples:
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay once said that the 1999 Columbine school shootings in Colorado happened “because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial mud."
After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, Alabama state Sen. Henry E. "Hank" Erwin Jr. observed that the region has "always been known for gambling, sin and wickedness. ... It is the kind of behavior that ultimately brings the judgment of God."
Evangelical preacher and one-time presidential candidate Pat Robertson blamed a number of disasters on God's wrath — including 2010's catastrophic Haiti earthquake, which he attributed to that country's "pact to the devil."
Later that year, when an oil spill hit the Gulf of Mexico, Christian doomsayer Hal Lindsey cited the environmental catastrophe as "evidence that when you turn your back on Israel, especially when you've been a supporter, you're gonna see judgments come from God."
Natural catastrophes, and especially human-caused catastrophes like the one that took place this week, do pose a huge challenge for believers: Why does God allow the existence of seemingly senseless evil? If the power of prayer can save some believers, why would He be so cruel as to leave others unsaved? Do believers really think that the dead were more sinful than the living?
God doesn't own a gun Marie Isom has a unique perspective on these questions: Not only is she a Christian and a blogger — she's also a survivor of the theater shootings. In a gripping post to her blog, "A Miniature Clay Pot," she recounts how she and her daughters were caught up in the chaos, threw themselves to the floor, and scrambled out of the theater when there was a break in the gunfire.
"Let’s get something straight: the theater shooting was an evil, horrendous act done by a man controlled by evil. God did not take a gun and pull the trigger in a crowded theater. He didn’t even suggest it. A man did.
"In His sovereignty, God made man in His image with the ability to choose good and evil.
If you're looking for some appropriate Sunday reading after a horrendous couple of days, you couldn't do much better than Isom's essay and her follow-up posting. I realize there's not much science in it, but that's why we call it Cosmic Log rather than Science Log.
Feel free to leave your comments and condolences in the space below.
Update for 1:15 a.m. ET July 22: There's more blame to go around. Jerry Newcombe of Truth in Action Ministries said in a commentary on the shootings that "we're reaping as we're sowing in this society."
"We said to God, 'Get out of the public arena,'" he wrote. "Lawsuit after lawsuit, often by misguided 'civil libertarians,' have chased away any fear of God in the land — at least in the hearts of millions." The result, Newcombe said, is that young people no longer dread the loss of Heaven or the pains of Hell.
"I don't think people would do those sorts of things if they truly understood the reality of Hell," he wrote.
The news director of the American Family Association, Fred Jackson, followed up with Newcombe on the "AFA Today" radio show. About 10 minutes into the show, Jackson said this:
"In the community there were community standards that reflected biblical principles, whether people knew it or not, the standard in the community was based on scripture. In that short period of time, roughly 40 years, we have seen such a transformation in values in our communities, whether it’s rural or whether it’s big city. I have to think that all of this, whether it’s the Hollywood movies, whether it’s what we see on the Internets, whether it’s liberal bias in the media, whether it’s our politicians changing public policy, I think all of those somehow have fit together — and I have to say also churches who are leaving the authority of scripture and losing their fear of God — all of those things have seem to have come together to give us these kinds of incidents."
Later in the show, around the 44-minute mark, Jackson added to the list of contributing factors:
"I think the source of this is multifaceted, but you can put it all, I think, under the heading of rebellion to God, a rejection of the God of the Bible. I think along with an education system that has produced our lawyers, our politicians, more teachers, more professors, all of that sort of thing, is our churches, mainline churches. ... The AFA Journal has been dealing with denominations that no longer believe in the God of the Bible, they no longer believe that Jesus is the only way of salvation, they teach that God is OK with homosexuality. This is just increasing more and more. It is mankind shaking its fist at the authority of God."
The Right Wing Watch and Gawker websites both picked up on these observations, and Right Wing Watch helpfully provides audio excerpts of the relevant quotes. (However, you can listen to the whole 54-minute show on iTunes for free.) Gawker's Louis Peitzman writes that "this message isn't just offensive: it's impossibly muddled," and he wonders whether anyone believes this sort of thing anymore. I think there are a lot of people who do. But what do you think?
For a completely different take on the questions surrounding the "Dark Knight" shootings, God and even Batman, check out Paul Asay's essay on The Washington Post's website. Asay is the author of "God on the Streets of Gotham: What the Big Screen Batman Can Teach Us About God and Ourselves."
Tip o' the Log to my colleague at NBCNews.com, Bill Dedman.
An enhanced close-up of the Apollo 11 landing site from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the descent stage as a bright spot, with smaller bright spots representing the experimental packages left on the moon. The enhancement brings out the tracks that the astronauts made during their moonwalks.
Forty-three years ago today, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on the moon for just 21 hours and 36 minutes, but thanks to a new NASA website, you can see how the lighting at their landing site changes over the course of the two-week-long lunar day.
This week, the team behind the camera on NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter unveiled an online viewer that combines imagery at different sun angles for each of the Apollo landing sites, from sunrise to sunset. Such images have been released regularly for the past three years, but it's way cooler to see them presented with a slider that lets you see the shadows shorten and lengthen as the day wears on. You can also click buttons to add labels for the artifacts left at each site, to trace the paths of the astronauts' moonwalks, or just to get your bearings.
A murky view of the Apollo 11 site, captured by LRO just before lunar sunset, served as this week's "Where in the Cosmos" picture puzzle on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. I thought it was interesting to see the last rays of the day reflected off the very top of the Eagle lunar module's descent stage, producing a bright spot at the very center of the image. You can also see how the lunar module's shadow hitting the rim of the crater to the east of the landing site.
NASA / GSFC / ASU
This view of the Apollo 11 landing site was captured by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter just before sunset on the moon.
The 43rd anniversary of any event is not usually that big of a deal, but today's "Dark Knight" shootings in Colorado left a lot of people looking for something positive to balance out all of the day's negativity. Apollo 11 provided that positivity, in 1969 and in 2012. I particularly liked the Twitter update from John Ryan: "News out of Colorado is grim, but today's also the anniversary of the first moon landing. Take heart, humanity can do amazing things, too."
No one knew that better than the late astronomer Carl Sagan. In Sagan's reflections on the Apollo missions, which endure in his book "Pale Blue Dot" as well as the Sagan Series of videos produced by Reid Gower, the sage marveled at the rare opportunity afforded by the Cold War space effort: "Once upon a time, we soared into the solar system. For a few years. Then we hurried back. Why? What happened? What was 'Apollo' really about?"
I can't watch the video without tears coming to my eyes. But at least they're not tears of grief.
"Gift of Apollo," featuring the words of Carl Sagan, is part of Reid Gower's Sagan Series of videos.
NASA is closing out one chapter in the multibillion-dollar effort to create new fleets of spaceships, and getting ready to open the next one. Sometime in the next month or two, the space agency will pick up to three teams of companies to receive hundreds of millions of dollars worth of funding for their spaceship development efforts. That's a lot of money — but it's important to keep all those expenditures in perspective.
Cargo transports NASA's push to commercialize transportation services to low Earth orbit began in 2006, a couple of years after the White House decided that the space shuttle fleet had to be retired, when SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler were awarded almost half a billion dollars to support the development of robotic cargo spacecraft capable of resupplying the space station in the post-shuttle era. "If it doesn't work, I've frankly made the wrong bet," said Mike Griffin, who was NASA's administrator at the time.
In Rocketplane Kistler's case, the bet didn't pay off. NASA paid the company $32.1 million, but Rocketplane failed to win enough private backing to keep going. The company lost its NASA funding and ended up declaring bankruptcy. Orbital Sciences Corp. was selected as a replacement.
With May's successful demonstration flight of the Dragon cargo capsule, SpaceX has virtually completed all its objectives for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS. It should soon get the last of the $396 million in COTS money that NASA has set aside for the company. Orbital Sciences, meanwhile, is gearing up for key flight tests of its Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule, and at last report has received $266.5 million of its $288 million in COTS money.
Even as the development program nears its end, SpaceX and Orbital are getting ready to begin routine cargo flights to the space station under a follow-on program known as Commercial Resupply Services, or CRS. SpaceX is due to get $1.6 billion for 12 flights scheduled through 2015, while Orbital gets $1.9 billion for eight flights. Citing NASA figures, NBC News' Jay Barbree says SpaceX and Orbital have each received $337.6 million in preparation for the CRS flights.
May 31: SpaceX's Dragon cargo craft returns to Earth from the International Space Station.
Space taxis So far, we've been talking about unmanned flights to the space station, but NASA also needs U.S. spaceships capable of carrying astronauts to and from the station. Because these "space taxis" will be carrying people rather than mere stuff, the safety standards will have to be higher than they are for cargo craft. In 2010, NASA started setting aside funds to support the development of such spacecraft by private-sector partners. In the first phase of the program, NASA awarded $50 million to five companies for work on future spaceships or safety systems: $3.7 million to Blue Origin, $18 million to the Boeing Co., $1.4 million to Paragon Space Development Corp., $20 million to Sierra Nevada Corp., and $6.7 million to United Launch Alliance.
Last year, four companies won funding for the development of potential crew vehicles: SpaceX is getting $75 million for work on a crew-capable version of the Dragon. Boeing is getting $112.9 million for its CST-100 capsule. Sierra Nevada is getting $105.6 million for its Dream Chaser space plane, and Blue Origin is getting $22 million for its Orbital Space Vehicle. Three other companies are getting technical advice from NASA, but no money. Those three are ATK, Excalibur Almaz and United Launch Alliance.
Over the past few weeks, NASA has been making a string of announcements to the effect that the companies are meeting their milestones for the current phase of development. Just this week, for instance, the space agency said that it's wrapped up reviews with ATK and United Launch Alliance.
The next phase of the program will extend until May 2014. During this phase — known as Commercial Crew Integrated Capability, or CCiCap — NASA is expected to provide support for up to three teams that are offering complete systems for human spaceflight, including the launch vehicle, the space taxi and the infrastructure for ground and recovery operations. "By the end of the base period, you need to have an integrated design that you have talked with the government about," Ed Mango, program manager for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, told me.
Mango said NASA will announce who gets the CCiCap money sometime in the next 30 to 60 days. Exactly how much money is at stake? Mango won't say until the announcement is made, in part because negotiations are in progress. Each of the teams in the competition was asked to submit a confidential proposal for $300 million to $500 million in support, but NASA has been working with the teams to pare down the price tags if possible.
"It's similar to if you want modifications done to your house," Mango explained. "You can either buy the estimate as is, or you can negotiate on that estimate."
An artist's conception shows Boeing's CST-100 crew capsule approaching the International Space Station. The CST-100 is one of several "space taxis" being developed for potential use by NASA.
Last month, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., worked out a deal under which two teams would get a full award, while a third backup team would get a partial award. The Obama administration requested $830 million for CCiCap in fiscal 2013, but it looks as if Congress is instead focusing on a funding level around $525 million.
The 2013 funding will be supplemented by extra money that NASA has been holding onto in the current fiscal year, as well as funding yet to be proposed for fiscal 2014, Mango said.
"The plan in fiscal year 2012, when we put our budget together, was always to use a large amount of the funds from fiscal year 2012 to be used for the next activity," he said. "There are hundreds of millions of dollars for FY12 that we will be putting into CCiCap once CCiCap is awarded."
There may be bonuses as well. "We have asked companies to give us optional milestones that we may or may not approve on the government side, that will bring each of the partners all the way through a crew demonstration mission," Mango said.
He doesn't expect any U.S. commercial spaceship to be ready to fly astronauts by mid-2014. "The state of the industry today is not ready to go through that in that amount of time," he said. But if a team is nearing the point at which it can send people safely into space — say, in 2015 or 2016 — there'd be an incentive for them to go for the optional milestone as part of the CCiCap phase of the program.
SpaceX and Boeing, as well as the team behind the Liberty launch system (which includes ATK, Astrium and Lockheed Martin), have said they could have their spacecraft ready for manned flights by late 2015, assuming that adequate funding is available. Sierra Nevada Corp. has said the Dream Chaser could send people into orbit in 2016, and Blue Origin is aiming for a similar time frame.
NASA wants to have U.S. commercial vehicles flying to the space station by 2017. In the meantime, the space agency will be paying the Russians as much as $63 million a seat for orbital rides. The teams vying for CCiCap money say they can beat that price. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, for example, has been quoted as saying the target launch price for crewed Dragon flights is $140 million, which works out to $20 million per seat for seven astronauts.
Mango emphasized that flying astronauts into space isn't just a question of dollars and cents: "Our No. 1 mission is to create a safe capability," he said.
He also noted that the Commercial Crew Program had two "separate but equal" goals. "We have a public need to create a U.S. capability to get folks to low Earth orbit ... and to the International Space Station," he said. The first goal could conceivably encompass scientific research flights or voyages to private-sector space stations, while the second goal is focused specifically on NASA's obligation to support space station operations through at least 2020.
"It's similar to when you look for a car," Mango said. "You buy a car, and then you decide where you want to go with it."
Exploration vehicles When you count up all the money that NASA has set aside for commercial spaceships, the total comes to several billion dollars over the course of several years. That may sound like a lot of money, but it's far less than what's being spent on NASA's more ambitious effort to build space vehicles for exploration beyond Earth orbit.
As of 2010, roughly $10 billion was spent on Constellation, NASA's now-canceled project to send astronauts back to the moon. Another $2.5 billion was allocated to close out the Constellation contracts. The expenditures included $455 million for a suborbital Ares 1-X test flight that wasn't followed up on, and $500 million for the construction of an Ares 1 Mobile Launcher that was never used and now sits idle at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
That launch platform could still get a workout from the Liberty launch system, which incorporates elements of the Ares 1 rocket. It could also serve as the liftoff point for NASA's Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket that's being developed to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid in the mid-2020s, and perhaps to Mars and its moons sometime in the 2030s.
Sept. 14, 2011: NASA unveils the design of its next-generation rocket.
Last year, Congress and the White House agreed on a plan that calls for spending $18 billion on the SLS rocket and the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle through 2017. That's when the first unmanned test flight is scheduled. About $10 billion would go to designing and building the rocket; $6 billion would go to the Orion development effort, led by Lockheed Martin; and the other $2 billion would go to launch pad construction at Kennedy Space Center.
After 2017, NASA projects that spending on SLS and Orion would amount to $3 billion a year, with the first crewed launch scheduled to take place in 2021. The further out you go, the squishier the numbers get.
In coming years, new rockets such as SpaceX's Falcon Heavy will probably be in the mix as well, and may even be flying commercial payloads to the moon and Mars. It'll be interesting to see how the next chapters of the spaceship saga play out. Do you have any guesses about future plot twists? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Time-lapse is one of the hottest trends in photography nowadays, thanks in part to the wider availability of high-end cameras, high-resolution video and high production values. But you need some high-class talent behind the lens as well.
It doesn't hurt that the past year has been a gold mine for the glories of the night sky, especially the northern lights. We've featured quite a few time-lapse videos of the aurora, as seen from Earth and from space, and you can click through a few of our favorites below. The latest stunner to surface comes from Pacific Northwest photographer Brad Goldpaint, whose work we featured just a few days ago.
Goldpaint's three-minute time-lapse, titled "Within Two Worlds," features three years' worth of sky imagery collected from a variety of locales — including Tumalo Falls, the Three Sisters Wilderness, Crater Lake and Sparks Lake in Oregon, as well as the High Sierra, Mono Lake and Mount Shasta in California.
"I discovered my passion for photography shortly after my mother’s passing while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail three years ago," Goldpaint writes. "This time-lapse video is my visual representation of how the night sky and landscapes co-exist within a world of contradictions. I hope this connection between heaven and earth inspires you to discover and create your own opportunities, to reach your rightful place within two worlds."
Koby Barhad's concept for an installation called "All That I Am" suggests creating genetically engineered mice that reflect some of the traits associated with Elvis Presley. It's important to note, however, that no mice have yet been Elvisized.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
A British artist’s plan to create a mouse with Elvis Presley’s DNA has set websites buzzing over the past week, but right now it’s nothing more than an art-school concept. And it's not clear whether the concept will ever go any further, due to ethical and legal concerns about blending human and animal DNA.
"The purpose of the work was to raise those almost frightening issues," artist Koby Barhad told me. Mission accomplished, Koby.
Actually, celebrity DNA is quite the commodity. A few years ago, a venture called MyDNAFragrance marketed several perfumes that supposedly reflected the DNA coding of Elvis as well as Michael Jackson and other dead celebs. (Sorry, those celebrity-themed fragrances, including "Blue Suede," are no longer available.) The DNA for that project came from University Archives' collection of historical hair. The Elvis hair that Barhad used came from another source: an eBay vendor who was selling strands for $22. (He says he also bought strands of hair attributed to Princess Diana and President John F. Kennedy.)
Barhad, a 35-year-old MFA student at London's Royal College of Art, said he didn't actually submit the Elvis strands for DNA sequencing. Instead, he conducted a practice run with the aid of a couple of researchers from Imperial College. The scientists analyzed DNA extracted from their own strands of hair, as well as from cheek swabs, to confirm that it would be possible to get some sort of genetic reading from the hair alone.
Barhad was particularly interested in seeing whether the DNA tests could identify a variant of the human ACTN3 gene that has been associated with athletic performance. "We proved that those particular scientists didn't have that gene," he told me. Theoretically, then, the DNA tests might be able to identify the genetic signatures of particular traits in Presley's DNA — although realistically, there's some question about how much the DNA might have degraded over the decades.
The next step in the concept would be to breed mice that reflected that genetic signature. Theoretically, you could insert a string of code from the Elvis genome into the desired mouse gene, through a procedure similar to that used to create lab animals with specific mutations. Barhad said another option would be to identify a genetic twist in the mouse genome that parallels the twist in the Elvis genome. For example, if Presley had a particular mutation of the ACTN3 gene, mice could be bred with a similar mutation.
Koby Barhad / RCA
Koby Barhad's concept envisions a stacked series of mouse cages that reflect different aspects of Elvis Presley's life.
The final step in Barhad's art project, titled "All That I Am," would put the Elvis-themed mice in a variety of postmodernistic cages that reflect phases of the rock star's life: One cage might have a funhouse mirror to enlarge the mouse's image, just as Presley's ego was enlarged by fame's mirror. Another would put the mouse on a treadmill, calling to mind how "Elvis worked himself to death" in his final years.
It's worth emphasizing that the Elvis mice do not exist, despite what some websites initially reported.
"I guess the project created a space to imagine a scenario we are all afraid of and want to experience at the same time," Farhad said in an email, "and that was the reason all the news [sites] published it as if I produced this specific mouse, instead of just suggesting it. The funny, or actually scary, thing is that a place in the U.S. ... already contacted me to buy the specific mice. So I think it kind of proves that it is much more real than I even imagined it would be. I'm still writing emails to everyone saying I didn't actually go as far as producing the clones."
In today's follow-up Skype voice call, Barhad said he had no intention of creating an Elvis mouse. "The thing I'm thinking of doing is having my own mouse" that would reflect his own genetic code, he said.
However, Barhad said he'd have to do some more research before going forward with that part of the art.
"Humanized" versions of genes, such as the FOXP2 gene that's associated with speech, have been inserted in mice for research purposes for years. But it's one thing to do that sort of thing under the stringent guidelines that govern genetic studies, and quite another to do it for an art exhibit — even if it's an exhibit designed to call attention to the controversy over transgenic DNA.
"I'm actually going over the law on that," Barhad told me.
Would it be wise for him do it? Or would Elvis observe that when it comes to splicing celebrity DNA, "only fools rush in"?
Tooth scrapings from tens of thousands of years ago suggest that Neanderthals chewed on medicinal plants to soothe their upsets.
That's the conclusion drawn by an international team of researchers who conducted a chemical analysis on dental calculus from five sets of Neanderthal remains that were excavated inside El Sidron Cave in northern Spain. The calcified crud contained microscopic bits of plant material as well as chemicals associated with wood smoke.
The analysis indicated that the Neanderthals ate cooked plant food that was high in starch, and perhaps also nuts, grasses and green vegetables. One case was particularly intriguing: The scrapings from an individual known as Adult 4 contained chemicals known as azulenes and coumarins. Those are the sorts of chemicals that are found in yarrow and chamomile, two types of herbal remedies.
Yarrow is an astringent that's long been used to cleanse wounds when used externally, or counter internal bleeding when ingested. Chamomile may be best-known today as a soothing tea, but that's because it has a settling effect on colds, headaches, intestinal distress and menstrual cramping. Both plants have anti-inflammatory properties.
The researchers say this is the first molecular-scale evidence supporting the idea that Neanderthals ingested medicinal plants. Their findings — which are based on a high-tech method of analysis known as pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, plus the study of plant microfossils — were published online today in the journal Naturwissenschaften.
Neanderthals had a varied diet "The varied use of plants we identified suggests that the Neanderthal occupants of El Sidron had a sophisticated knowledge of their natural surroundings, which included the ability to select and use certain plants for their nutritional value and for self-medication. While meat was clearly important, our research points to an even more complex diet than has previously been supposed," the study's lead author, Karen Hardy, said in a news release from the University of York.
Hardy is a research professor at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona's Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies as well as an honorary research associate at the University of York.
Neanderthal teeth are among the remains found in Spain's El Sidron Cave.
One of Hardy's colleagues, Stephen Buckley of the University of York's BioArCh research facility, said the team was surprised to find evidence that this particular Neanderthal was chewing on plants that had no nutritional value. "We know that Neanderthals would find these plants bitter, so it is likely these plants must have been selected for reasons other than taste," Buckley said in the news release.
"We have identified these plants ... we feel the most likely use is for self-medication," Hardy told me in an email. "In fact, I would find it harder to argue that they did not use medicinal plants than that they did, particularly as this fits so well with the extensive evidence for self-medication among higher primates and many other animals. So we have a behavioral context for this use."
Where's the beef? Previous research has suggested that Neanderthals ate a meat-heavy diet, but Hardy and her colleagues found no evidence of meat consumption in the tooth crud they analyzed. That doesn't necessarily mean these particular Neanderthals were vegetarians. The lack of evidence could be due to the way chemicals in the crud were preserved, or it could suggest that Neanderthals shifted their diet due to seasonal changes or migratory habits.
The findings released today hint at even closer kinship between modern humans and our Neanderthal cousins, who first settled in Europe at least 300,000 years ago but went extinct about 24,000 years ago. The Neanderthals whose teeth were examined for the study were part of a community of at least 13 individuals who lived in the El Sidron Cave somewhere between 47,300 and 50,600 years ago.
"El Sidron has allowed us to banish many of the preconceptions we had of Neanderthals," said Antonio Rosas of the Museum of Natural History in Madrid-CSIC. "Thanks to previous studies, we know that they looked after the sick, buried their dead and decorated their bodies. Now another dimension has been added, relating to their diet and self-medication."
The star of the "Mr. Wizard" science TV programs, Don Herbert, is usually thought of as a kindly old soul who guided kids through the intricacies of math, physics, chemistry and more. But science can be a tough taskmaster, and so could Herbert — as shown in a three-minute YouTube video compilation put together by Onion alums Diane Bullock and Mike Schuster. "Sounds logical, doesn't it? Well, that's wrong," Herbert tells one poor kid. Mr. Wizard also forces the boys and girls to listen to loud noises, strain against a ninja finger applied to the forehead, and stop spelling words out loud as they type them.
Herbert, who passed away in 2007 just shy of his 90th birthday, won the Peabody Award and a lab bench full of other honors. You can be sure he'd look kindlier (and smarter) if you saw the full shows in context. But who said video clips (or science, for that matter) had to be fair? And by the way, if Mr. Wizard were to try to do the things today that he did back then, he might be labeled a terrorist.
The London Olympic Games don't start until next week, but if you're a science fan, the programming has already begun: Engineers, athletes and TV types have teamed up for a 10-part video series that delves into Olympic-size subjects ranging from biomechanics to split-second timers.
"Science of the Summer Olympics" is the latest collaboration involving the National Science Foundation, NBC Learn and NBC Olympics. (Like those other NBC units, NBCNews.com is owned by NBCUniversal.) The series builds upon earlier batches of educational videos that focused on the sports of the Winter Olympics as well as football and hockey.
This time around, engineering is squarely in the spotlight.
"The work of engineers not only affects Olympic sports, it also helps us perform ordinary activities in better ways," Thomas Peterson, NSF's assistant director for engineering, said in a news release. "This series will illustrate how engineers can impact both sports and society, and we hope it will inspire young people to pursue engineering."
"I watch what she's doing, and it blows me away." said Brian Zenowich, a robotics engineer at Barrett Technology. To lift the huge weights in an Olympic-style snatch maneuver, Robles instinctively takes advantage of the barbell's momentum to flip her body from a pulling-up position to a pushing-up position.
"You're moving your body more than you're moving the bar," Robles explains in the video. Zenowich programmed his company's WAM Arm to do something similar, but with a 5-pound weight rather than a huge barbell. For now, Robles has nothing to fear from that particular robot, but the biomechanical tricks learned from athletes could conceivably lead to more humanlike dexterity on the part of future machines.
Someday, genetic code may be as downloadable and potentially shareable as email, thanks to devices that can translate biological material into digital files, and vice versa. That's the vision that J. Craig Venter, a pioneer in the field of synthetic biology, laid out last week at Trinity College Dublin as part of Euroscience Open Forum 2012.
Venter's talk — titled "What Is Life?" — was intended as a follow up on physicist Erwin Schrödinger's 1943 lecture in Dublin on the same topic. That earlier lecture was seen as foreshadowing the age of genetics and the discovery of DNA's double-helix structure a decade later. Venter's talk sketched out a 21st-century vision in which the code of life is seen as merely another kind of software.
"All living cells that we know of on this planet are 'DNA software'-driven biological machines comprised of hundreds of thousands of protein robots, coded for by the DNA, that carry out precise functions," New Scientist quoted Venter as saying. "We are now using computer software to design new DNA software."
Venter said he and his colleagues are now designing the software for three different types of microbial organisms. Once the digital designs are finished, they'll be fed into DNA sequencing machines to create the corresponding chemical code. The genetic software would then be inserted into hollowed-out cells to kick-start the machinery of life. "I am hoping it will happen this year," the Irish Times quoted Venter as saying.
His aim is to produce microbes that are custom-designed create biofuel, foodstuffs or pharmaceuticals. Using today's technology, researchers can collaborate on genetic design by converting the four-base code of a DNA molecule into a standardized digital file and then sending the file to another lab, where it's converting back into DNA molecules. Venter talked of developing a miniaturized digital-biological converter that could do the trick, Forbes India reported. The concept could lead to technologies that streamline the creation of synthetic organisms, just as 3-D printers are streamlining the creation of synthetic shapes.
"This is biology moving at the speed of light," Venter said.
Can policymakers keep pace? A progress report from the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars suggests that's debatable. Today the project updated its "Synthetic Biology Scorecard," saying that federal agencies have started taking steps to address a set of policy recommendations issued 18 months ago — but haven't yet fully addressed any of those recommendations.
On the plus side, federal officials have set up an interagency working group on synthetic biology, have participated in international meetings on the issues surrounding synthetic biology, and have drawn up a National Bioeconomy Blueprint. But the project says there's been no federal activity to review public funding for synthetic biology research, assess the risks associated with releasing synthetic organisms outside the lab, or evaluate moral objections to the technology.
Will synthetic biology open the door to a brave new world? An ethical and environmental morass? Both, or neither? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
The solar storm that swept past Earth over the weekend didn't disrupt any power grids, but it did turn on the auroral lights for skywatchers over a wide swath of North America, extending at least as far down as Arkansas.
SpaceWeather.com cataloged stunning photos from the usual places in northern climes, including Canadian provinces as well as the northern tier of the United States. But this particular solar storm — sparked by last Thursday's big coronal mass ejection, or CME — didn't stop there. Photographers sent in pictures from Arkansas as well as Ohio, Nebraska, Utah, California and other locales well south of the usual places. There were auroral images as well from Scotland, Hungary, and yes, from New Zealand, Tasmania and the South Pole at the other end of the world.
Observers knew they were in for something big, due to the fact that the flare associated with the solar eruption reached an extreme level of X1.4 on the classification scale for solar outbursts. The radio blast from a sunspot region known as AR 1520 resulted in a strong radio blackout for some high-frequency communication systems, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center.
The sun is heading toward the high point of its 11-year activity cycle, with the maximum expected next year. That means this weekend's storm could just be a foretaste of what's ahead for aurora-watchers and space weather forecasters over the coming months. In the meantime, check out this gallery featuring the latest pictures from the world's greatest light show:
Photographer Brad Goldpaint snapped multiple frames of the northern lights on July 15. "I had an incredible experience last night capturing the aurora borealis over Sparks Lake in Central Oregon," he said in an email sent on Sunday. For more of his work, check out the Goldpaint Photography website.
Photographer Brian Emfinger captured this time-lapse video view of the auroral display over Ozark, Ark., on July 15. "There was a very faint red glow off and on most of the night, but around 2 a.m. CDT it began increasing. Around 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. there were pretty good outbursts," Emfinger told SpaceWeather.com. For more from Emfinger, check out RealClearWx.com.
The subtle glow of the aurora competes with the glare of a signal light at the Ojibway Bay Marina, as captured over the weekend by photographer Robert Snache of Rama First Nation in Ontario. For more of Snache's pictures, check out Spirithands Photography's Facebook page.
Randy Halverson / Dakotalapse
Rare pinks and blues glow in the skies over Kennebec, S.D., in a picture of the northern lights captured by Randy Halverson on July 15. "It was bright to the eye at the time this was taken," Halverson told SpaceWeather.com. "Clouds made it difficult to get good pictures, though." More of Halverson's imagery can be seen on the Dakotalapse website.
The pawprint of a cosmic cat comes into sharper focus in this week's featured picture from the European Southern Observatory. This image of the Cat's Paw Nebula, released on Monday, combines data from the 2.2-meter MPG/ESO telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile with 60 hours of exposures from a 400mm telescope manned by expert amateur astronomers Robert Gendler and Ryan M. Hannahoe.
ESO says the additional color information from the amateurs brings out the faint blue nebulosity at the center of the "paw," while the ESO imagery fleshes the picture out with more detail. "The result is an image that is much more than the sum of its parts," the ESO team says in an image advisory. The nebula lies in the constellation Scorpius, 5,500 light-years from Earth. The Cat's Paw is considered one of the most active star formation regions in our galaxy. Let's just hope some astronomical image enhancement engineer doesn't try to airbrush out the cat.
Where in the Cosmos The Cat's Paw Nebula served as today's "Where in the Cosmos" picture puzzle on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. Every week, I've been posting a picture to the page and asking Cosmic Log followers to guess the cosmic location. This week, the first folks to identify the nebula were Bob Conway, Dave Smith and Neal Patel. To reward their sharp eyes, quick minds and fast typing fingers, all three are eligible to receive a pair of 3-D glasses, provided courtesy of Microsoft Research. Hit the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page and get ready for next week's "Where in the Cosmos" contest.
Striking the right balance between scientific plausibility and dramatic flair is one of the keys to a successful superhero movie, says James Kakalios, who teaches physics at the University of Minnesota and also serves as a consultant for movies such as "The Amazing Spider-Man."
"Hollywood creators appreciate our contributions, for they realize that when the audience is questioning the physics of what they are watching or the authenticity of the laboratory set, that's a moment when they are not paying attention to the story," he wrote in a commentary we published on msnbc.com earlier today.
Here's another angle related to science and technology: Superheroes get extra points on the fan scale if they handle high-tech gadgetry like the EMP Blaster and flying Bat vehicle featured in "The Dark Knight Rises." (We can gloss over the fact that electromagnetic pulses wouldn't be as well-behaved as they appear to be in the movie, or that the kind of propeller-driven Bat shown in the movie is pretty much aerodynamically impossible. And don't get me started on Wayne Enterprises' "clean-energy" fusion reactor.)
Over the past four years, the National Academy of Sciences' Science and Entertainment Exchange has been bringing scientists together with screenwriters, producers and other folks in the entertainment industry to make movies and TV shows more plausible on scientific grounds, if not 100 percent accurate.
Some gaffes slip through — ranging from the constellations in "Titanic" to the distance calculations in "Prometheus" — but the prime directive is to make a connection between real-life science and movie magic. The scientists probably derive more benefit than the filmmakers, because they can use those movies and TV shows as teachable moments. Even the gaffes provide grist for the mental mill.
In an email exchange, Kakalios delved into some of the issues he deals with as an adviser on superhero physics. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:
Cosmic Log: Do you find that the spate of superhero movies is sparking scientific studies like the recent one about Batman's cape? Are people more questioning of superpower science because they're seeing more such movies, or have they become inured to the fantasy? Can scientific believability make the difference between a good superhero movie and a bad one?
James Kakalios: "There certainly have been a lot of superhero movies in the past few years — a Golden Age for Geeks!
"The studios have a vested interest in making sure that the general public is very familiar with these heroes — which opens the door for scientists to leverage this interest and promote real science. David Marshall's article is a good example of using the interest in the new 'Dark Knight Rises' film as a platform to discuss classical mechanics, which typically will not make it into the mainstream press. I also liked the argument from a few years ago which suggested that Superman's powers can be accounted for by a single miracle exception from the laws of nature, involving an ability to manipulate inertia.
"Interestingly enough, Hollywood has been coming to scientists more and more, and early in the scriptwriting process. They will sometimes use the 'real' science behind the characters as the basis for story lines. The goal is not to make the films 100 percent scientifically accurate, which is beside the point of a fantasy film, but to make it accurate enough that the audience is willing to maintain their suspension of disbelief and become engaged in the story."
University of Minnesota physicist Jim Kakalios talks about the "Decay Rate Algorithm."
Q: You describe the process of translating real science into a "Decay Rate Algorithm" for the latest Spider-Man movie. Are there other aspects of "The Amazing Spider-Man" that you had a hand in enhancing, or at least steering clear of some of the things that strain plausibility?
"Materials scientists would love to be able to mass-produce such webbing, for then we would be able to make lightweight clothing that is stronger than Kevlar. In the past, scientists have crossed a spider's web-making genes with goats, and have raised goats that synthesize spider's silk in their milk. A real-life example of cross-species genetics!"
Q: Are there typical challenges to scientific believability that are associated with specific characters? What would be Spider-Man's scientific Kryptonite?
A: "Spider-Man would have to worry about Teflon surfaces — they would be non-stick for him as well! Geckos cling to walls through a weak electrostatic force called the Van der Waals attraction. using millions of microscopic fibers in their toes (called setae). Fluctuating charges in these fibers induce oppositely charged fluctuations in the wall. As opposites attract, the fiber is pulled towards the wall. The closer to the wall, the better — which is why the fiber is so small, in order to enhance its surface area-to-volume ratio. The force is very weak, which is why there are millions of fibers to provide sufficient force to hold the gecko up.
"But if the molecules in the walls are such that they resist inducing such fluctuating charges, then the force is inhibited. While artificial gecko tape does stick to Teflon, the van der Waals force is weaker than for other surfaces, and may not be strong enough to hold Spidey up. Whether this is the case or not, it is a great opportunity to discuss real, cutting-edge research in the context of a superhero movie!"
Q: Could you touch on any superpower-like technologies that you've come across in the most recent round of superhero movies?
A: "The first thing I can think of is Captain America's shield, which is a unique alloy of steel and ... Vibranium! The steel gives it rigidity and strength, and the Vibranium is a made-up mineral in Marvel comics. Found in the African nation of Wakanda, it is extraterrestial in origin, and absorbs all vibrations!
"That makes it the ultimate shock absorber, capable of deflecting even a blow from Thor's hammer, as seen in this summer's 'Avengers' film. The clang we hear when Cap bounces his shield off an opponent thus answers an age-old question in science: What would it sound like if you struck an object which absorbs all vibrations?"
For more insights into superhero science, check out Kakalios' book, "The Physics of Superheroes" — and use your powerful vision to take in the videos and Web links below:
Asap Science delves into the science of "The Amazing Spider-Man."
Several space ventures have reported a variety of seemingly small steps that are moving them closer to giant leaps in spaceflight — including the rise of new made-in-the-USA spaceships and commercial missions to the moon.
Here's a smorgasbord of space developments:
NASA is expected to announce sometime this summer which companies will go on to the next phase of its Commercial Crew Program, which is aimed at supporting the development of U.S.-made spaceships capable of carrying astronauts to the International Space Station. The way things are shaping up right now, two teams would receive about $200 million from the space agency to work on an integrated launch system over the course of 21 months, while a third team would be given about $100 million. Blue Origin, the Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX are receiving funding during the current phase of the program and are close to finishing up their milestones.
SpaceX has completed a concept baseline review for the crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft, NASA reports. A robotic Dragon had its first hookup with the International Space Station in May, and California-based SpaceX is working to upgrade the craft to fit NASA's safety standards for astronaut flights. SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said the completion of the review places his company "exactly where we want to be — ready to move on to the next phase and on target to fly people into space aboard Dragon by the middle of the decade." (Details: NASA news release)
Artist's conception shows Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser landing on a runway.
Sierra Nevada Corp. has successfully tested the nose landing gear of its Dream Chaser prototype space plane, NASA says. That leaves one last milestone for the current phase of Sierra Nevada's agreement with NASA: an approach and landing test, which is due to take place later this year at NASA's Dryden Research Center in California. (Details: NASA news release and NASASpaceFlight.com)
Excalibur Almaz Inc. has completed its unfunded partnership with NASA's Commercial Crew Program, involving the exchange of technical information but no exchange of money. The Houston-based company is developing a launch system that capitalizes on Russian-legacy space technology and would be capable of transferring astronauts and cargo between Earth and the International Space Station. CCP's manager, Ed Munro, said that during the partnership, "NASA learned valuable information about how the company plans to upgrade the existing capsule with modern flight capabilities." (Details: NASA news release)
The International Space Station's robotic arm extracts the Liberty Logistics Module in this artist's concept.
ATK, the company leading the development of the Liberty launch system, says it intends to offer an expanded crew and cargo capability — in the form of a pressurized pod that could carry up to 5,100 pounds of cargo to the space station. The pod, known as the Liberty Logistics Module, would ride into orbit along with the crew spacecraft, protected by a lightweight shroud. Once the launch vehicle gets beyond the atmosphere, the shroud could be jettisoned, and the LLM could be grappled by the station's robotic arm for a hookup to a docking port. ATK and its partners, including Astrium and Lockheed Martin, are aiming to get in on the next phase of the Commercial Crew Program. (Details: ATK news release)
Moon Express says former Google executive Jimi Crawford has joined the company as chief technology officer and software architect. Backed by dot-com entrepreneur Naveen Jain, Moon Express aims to put a lander and rover on the lunar surface by 2015 to win a share of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. Crawford has most recently served as Google Books' engineering director. Among the other lines on his resume is a stint as the leader of the robotics program at NASA's Ames Research Center. "With Jimi's combined space mission and software experience, our technical team just took another giant leap forward," Bob Richards, Moon Express co-founder and CEO, said in a news release. (Details: Space.com)
The Stalker unmanned aerial system is a 13.2-pound (6-kilogram) craft with a wingspan of 10 feet (3 meters) that's equipped with a camera and communication equipment. It typically operates at an altitude of up to 400 feet above ground.
LaserMotive has demonstrated a power system that can keep Lockheed Martin's Stalker unmanned aerial vehicle going for more than 48 hours with laser light — but that's not the most amazing part. What's even more amazing is that the drone could have stayed in operation basically indefinitely, feeding off those frickin' laser beams.
"We've demonstrated to ourselves, and to our partners, that the technology works," LaserMotive President Tom Nugent told me last night. "Our Lockheed Martin Skunk Works partners realize how valuable wireless power via laser will be to the future of aerospace."
Nugent said the June 25-27 test, conducted at LaserMotive's headquarters facility in Kent, Wash., was done with the Stalker mounted inside a wind tunnel. But it won't be long before the kind of laser-beaming power that Dr. Evil could only dream about will be put to the test under real-world conditions.
"We will be taking it out of the wind tunnel very soon," said Melissa Dalton, a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin.
The Stalker is a camera-equipped, hand-launched unmanned aerial system that's been used by U.S. Special Operations Forces since 2006 to perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. It's also been tested for domestic applications such as border patrol and pipeline surveillance.
A Lockheed Martin shows the Stalker mini-UAV in operation.
One of the craft's limitations has to do with how much time it can spend aloft. A battery-powered Stalker can stay up for more than two hours, and last year a Pentagon-funded project used propane-powered fuel cells to extend that hang time to eight-plus hours. But that's nothing compared to the laser system. During the test, laser beams sent energy over a distance of about 30 feet (9 meters) to a photovoltaic receiver on the Stalker. That energy was then converted into electricity to power the Stalker. At the end of the two-day test, the Stalker's batteries carried more of a charge than they did when the test began, Lockheed Martin said in a news release.
"We're pleased with the results of this test," said Tom Koonce, Stalker program manager at the Skunk Works. "Laser power holds real promise in extending the capabilities of Stalker. A ground-to-air recharging system like this allows us to provide practically unlimited flight endurance to extend and expand the mission profiles that the Stalker vehicle can fulfill."
Nugent said wireless power transmission via laser is a good way to keep devices like the Stalker going for days at a time — in fact, it may be the only way.
He expects that the real-world aerial testing will be done over a military base or range that offers controlled airspace. In some circumstances, it can be a challenge to send a laser beam through the atmosphere for long distances, particularly during inclement weather, but "over the ranges we're talking about, atmospherics are not an issue," Nugent said.
LaserMotive made its first big splash in 2009 when its laser-powered robo-climber won a $900,000 prize in NASA's Space Elevator Games.
"Since the NASA competition, we have viewed UAVs as the most compelling first application of wireless power transmission," Nugent said. He declined to say how much LaserMotive was being paid for its work on the Stalker, but he said he expected progress to come rapidly in the wake of last month's wind-tunnel test.
"We think it's basically a one-year process to get this to a field-ready system," Nugent said. "It's something that could be fielded in the next year."
We already have sharks with frickin' laser beams, to quote Dr. Evil, and now we're going to have laser-powered robo-planes. What's next? Feel free to share your high-tech dreams or nightmares in the comment space below.