More than two weeks after being launched and lost, a capsule containing mortal remains from "Star Trek" actor James Doohan, pioneer astronaut Gordon Cooper and 200 others has been located, more or less, in the rugged mountains of southern New Mexico. Tracking experts are converging on the site for a beefed-up recovery effort due to start Wednesday.
The April 28 suborbital flight was the first true space shot for Connecticut-based UP Aerospace, which fired its SpaceLoft XL rocket from New Mexico's Spaceport America. The idea was to send capsules containing small samples of cremated remains above the 62-mile boundary of outer space and back - thus providing a posthumous taste of space.
The headliners for the flight were Doohan, who played Chief Engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott on the popular "Star Trek" TV show and movie series; and "Gordo" Cooper, who in 1963 became the last astronaut to fly in the Mercury program (and the first American to snooze in space). Cooper passed away in 2004, Doohan in 2005.
|A photo taken by a helicopter-borne
recovery team shows the
mountainous area where the
SpaceLoft XL payload fell.
The up part went superbly for UP Aerospace, but the down was something of a downer. The rocket sections floated down on parachutes into rugged mountain terrain in the White Sands Missile Range. The bottom section was recovered last week, thanks to radio transmitters mounted on the rocket. But the top section, containing the "memorial spaceflight" payload, is still out in the wilderness.
The good news is that the transmitters on the top section are still beaming out signals. Radio surveys have narrowed down the search area to a radius of about 1,300 feet, said Eric Knight, UP Aerospace's co-founder and chief executive officer.
"It's in tough terrain," he told me today. "They've done helicopter flyovers with directional antennas to pinpoint an area that they're going to go in to look at much more closely."
UP Aerospace President Jerry Larson told me that a team of tracking experts would fly into the area via Army helicopter as early as Wednesday. Trackers have been over the area before, but this time they will be using more precise sensors to narrow down the origin of the radio signals.
You'd think searchers would have been able to spot the parachute by now, but Larson said "it's not surprising" that the chute hasn't yet been located.
"It's on the north face of a mountain that has heavy vegetation and trees," Larson said. "It's obviously not laying out, screaming 'Here I am.' ... It must be wadded up under a tree."
Larson is confident that the payload can be quickly airlifted out by helicopter, once the trackers find it. "That'll be the easy part of it," he said.
The hardest part might well be coping with the area's mercurial weather. Monte Marlin, a public affairs specialist for White Sands Missile Range, told me that this has been an unusually active year for thunderstorms in the mountains, and Knight said that's one reason why the payload hasn't yet been recovered.
"Between where it landed, and the weather, and the terrain, it's made things extra challenging," Knight said.
"We actually had a tornado touch down," Larson said.
For what it's worth, the weather at White Sands was "beautiful" today, Marlin said, but the chance of thunderstorms is expected to rise later in the week. Larson said his team plans to fly in the morning, when the skies tend to be clearer.
Larson said the tracking team - which includes representatives from Idaho-based Merlin Systems, which made the micro-transmitters - will be on standby at least through Saturday to continue the search. Merlin Systems specializes in transmitters that can be attached to hunting falcons and wildlife - and Knight said the gadgets are designed to send out signals for 30 days or significantly longer under rugged conditions.
"They're the perfect complement to what we're doing," Knight told me.
This won't be the last UP Aerospace launch from New Mexico: Both Knight and Larson said the landings to come should go much more smoothly, now that they have their first data point for judging real-life trajectories. There have been rumblings that last month's launch trajectory was changed at the last minute, but UP Aerospace had nothing to say on that score.
Knight and Larson are just looking forward to returning those samples of Scotty, Gordo and the others to their families. Once the payload is recovered, Larson expects to airlift it directly to a waiting truck, several miles from the landing site. Then UP Aerospace would send the package of memorial capsules back to Houston-based Celestis, which organized the memorial spaceflight. "I suspect we'll probably mail it back," Larson said.
Celestis has said it will send the capsules back to the families along with mementos of the flight. The final leg of the journey may not be as thrilling as a rocket launch - but if there's a heaven for space travelers, Scotty, Gordo and the others will no doubt be up there breathing a sigh of relief.
Sunday was a big day - and not just because of Mother's Day: It also marked the fifth anniversary of Cosmic Log's founding.
Back on May 13, 2002, a Google search for "Cosmic Log" brought up just 18 arcane entries - and there was only one MSNBC.com Web log, the one you're reading now. Today, there are upwards of 250,000 Google entries.
Just in the past year, we've added more than 500 items and more than 10,000 comments to the archive. For what it's worth, the most read posting was "UFO in the clouds," and the posting drawing the most comments was "Sympathy for the Kims." I've always thought that the most valuable thing about the log was how it attracted a great community of commenters - and that's why I'm wishing everyone a "happy birthday to us."
To review some of the high points of our five-year history together, check out the month-by-month archive elsewhere on this page, which also goes back to previous incarnations of the log. You can also sign up to get e-mail alerts when new items are posted. If you've been with us for the whole five years, you should have no trouble taking the quiz included with last year's birthday posting. And to mark this year's occasion, here's your traditional daily dose of science on the Web:
Where do the presidential candidates stand on technological innovation? Questions like that tend to get lost in the shuffle - while the Iraq war, abortion and religion get much more of the spotlight. However, it's not too early to start paying attention to what the candidates are saying about science, technology and engineering, for two big reasons.
First of all, energy and the environment are rapidly becoming key issues in the campaign: As the realities of a warming world take hold, more and more people are recognizing that energy policy affects national security, and that environmental policy affects international relations. The bottom line for all those issues has to do with science (what is happening to the world and its resources?) and technology (what can we do about it?).
Second, this campaign cycle's winnowing process could unfold relatively quickly. Even though Election Day is 18 months away, the fact that the primary season is front-loaded means that voters will have to be paying attention to their key issues sooner rather than later.
Thus, if energy policy is important to you, it's worth knowing that Republican John McCain as well as Democrat Barack Obama are in favor of instituting California's low-carbon fuel standard scheme on the national level. And that Democrat John Edwards envisions a $13 billion fund for energy innovation, primarily funded by the sale of greenhouse-gas pollution permits. And that McCain as well as Democrat Hillary Clinton have been softening their stance against ethanol subsidies.
It's even more important for the second-tier candidates to come up with some fresh solutions to technological challenges. And that's why it's good to see that one of the GOP hopefuls, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, was quick on the draw with comments about the Grand Challenges for Engineering.
Randy Atkins, who is riding herd on the Grand Challenges in his capacity as senior media relations officer at the National Academy of Engineering, told me that all the declared candidates were asked to send in statements a couple of weeks ago. Huckabee was the first to respond, and Atkins hopes that the other candidates will participate in the weeks and months ahead.
In his comments, Huckabee suggests an innovation that he says could "revolutionize not just the energy industry and how we power our machines, but also the recycling and waste disposal industries, environmental conservation, and the design and production of future products that would benefit society":
"If engineers could design and build a prototype of a universal bio-fuel conversion machine that was affordable, capable of mass production, and space-efficient enough to be on every farm, and perhaps in every home, it would truly be an invaluable wonder....
"If it also was possible to design a machine so efficient that the average household could use it to convert their waste into bio-fuel for personal use or to sell to an energy supplier, the impact on our economy and natural environment would be even greater...."
The beauty part is that such machines already exist: Manure digesters for family farms have been around for years, and now it's only a question of making the devices more affordable. There are even methods for turning cow poop into particleboard.
Meanwhile, an innovative system for turning household food waste into biogas for cooking is on the rise in urban India. The nonprofit manufacturers of the compact digester plants, which are made from two water tanks and sell for about $150, won a $370,000 Ashden Award last year.
It all goes to show you that bargain-basement innovations in appropriate technology can contribute as much as multibillion-dollar development funds to the solution of global energy and environmental problems.
For further reflections on the state of science policy, check out the American Association for the Advancement of Science's recently released analysis of the coming fiscal year's federal budget for research and development. And if it's space policy you're interested in, you can't do much better than Jeff Foust's Space Politics blog.
Are you in the mood to discuss where your candidate stands on science and technology policy? Have you come across other promising avenues in energy engineering? Feel free to add your comments below.
Some astronomers would be delighted if a super-bright supernova blast like the one reported this week were to occur in our own galaxy. One says it could be "the best star-show in the history of modern civilization." But if the blast was pointed right at us from close quarters? Well, that would be bad.
How so? And how bad? For the answers to those questions, you can turn to some cool Web sites, a few good books ... and a couple of bad movies.
When astronomers reported that a new breed of supernova had been detected millions of light-years away, they also noted that the star involved in that explosion appeared to be similar to Eta Carinae one of the biggest and intrinsically brightest stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. Eta Carinae is a mere 7,500 light-years from Earth - and although astronomer Mario Livio said he didn't think the star posed any danger, MSNBC.com users naturally wanted more detail:
Harald Jensen, Guatemala City, Guatemala: "Would you please be so kind as to enlighten us with the calculations for if and when Eta Carinae explodes? I would like to know how much time we would have to 'run away' from the shock wave caused by such an explosion? Naturally, I'm not worried about running away, but I know that interstellar sightings are not as easy as 1, 2, 3. Can you explain (in kindergarten terms please), depending on what kind of telescope first saw the explosion, how fast the shock wave would expand, and therefore, when would we feel it at home, here on Earth? Or is it as easy as 7,500 years (and that is the answer), with the shock wave traveling at the speed of light, and it would not make much of a difference when we saw it?"
Mack: "If Eta Carinae went supernova, how long would it take for the effects to be seen and/or felt on Earth, specifically any gamma ray effects? Or, put another way, if it goes supernova, how long would it take the gamma rays to travel the 7,500 light years to Earth if the energetic jets emanating from the star were pointing our way?"
Kenneth: "Let's see if I understand this. Dear Eta is 7,500 light years away, so what we are observing occurred 7,500 years ago. So [Livio's observation that a supernova] "could happen tomorrow or it could happen 1,000 years from now" is in need of editorializing. What is technically more accurate, is that Eta may blow or has probably already blown its top. But it's so far away that the light and other energy particles of that event have not yet reached us. We wish that we might live to experience it in the next 7,499 years. I'd like to 'see' it. The riddle that may be answered in this unfolding epoch, is why, thankfully, the magnificent supernovae exist in light-wave form. And the distance being so far, and the size so massive, that it would appear to be of original ejecta from the first big bang. Is it such that the beginning of time is coming to an end? Godspeed, earthlings."
Harry and Leslie: "Could any supernova that occurs in space ever reach Earth, and what could the effects of such an event be on planet Earth?"
The questions about timing are easy to answer: When Livio was talking about "tomorrow," he meant that the effects of such a supernova could be observed in the sky starting tomorrow - which of course means that the event itself would have occurred 7,500 years ago back at Eta Carinae. That's a long time ago, and the supernova that was first observed last September in the constellation Perseus took place much, much longer ago - about 240 million years ago.
However, you couldn't say that represented the "original ejecta of the big bang." The big bang is thought to have occurred around 13.7 billion years ago - and that involved the explosive inflation of the space-time continuum itself, rather than an explosion in the supernova sense.
Mack correctly put his finger on the supernova's gamma-ray burst as the main thing to worry about. That would be the likeliest cause of a supernova nightmare, and there wouldn't be much we could do about it. That is, unless astronomers learn enough about stellar evolution to predict when a dangerously close star could blow up in spectacular fashion - giving us enough time to build, say, underground cities.
|An artist's conception shows a gamma-
ray burst sweeping over Earth's
atmosphere, depleting ozone and
creating smog in the process. In reality,
the gamma radiation would be invisible.
A couple of years ago, astronomers took a close look at the potential effects of a nearby gamma-ray burst directed at Earth. The results weren't pretty. Research published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters proposed that a burst lasting just 10 seconds could have caused the Ordovician mass extinction, 440 million years ago.
As the invisible gamma radiation swept over Earth, it could have depleted half of our planet's protective ozone layer, leaving the surface vulnerable to the sun's deadly ultraviolet rays for five years or so. That could have killed off much of the life on land as well as plankton and other organisms near the ocean surface, disrupting the marine food chain in the process. Such a scenario matches up with what seems to have happened during the Ordovician extinction.
This NASA feature provides a summary of the research, as well as one animation that shows what a killer gamma-ray burst might look like from an earthly vantage point, and another animation that shows which areas of Earth would be affected the most.
The Ordovician extinction may have had different causes, of course. Some have pointed to climate change as the killing blow - an unusual kind of "icehouse effect." But even then, there could be a link between a gamma-ray burst, ozone depletion and global cooling.
"I'm researching this for my next book. There are two bad things that happen if you get enough gamma rays smacking into you:
"1) They dissociate ozone molecules. Bad. Worse, they also zap nitrogen molecules, which then go out and zap ozone molecules. Either way, a lot of ozone goes away. It depends on how close the supernova or gamma-ray burst is, of course, but some studies have shown that a gamma-ray burst ... could eradicate 30 percent of ozone globally, with some local places dropping by more than 50 percent. In technical terms, that would suck.
"2) Those nitrogen atoms go on and make NO2 molecules, which is a reddish brown toxic substance. Not enough would be made, most likely, to hurt folks, but it's dark and absorbs sunlight, so they can contribute to global cooling. The Ordovician event may have been from a nearby supernova or gamma-ray burst, as there is evidence of increased UVB [ultraviolet light B] hitting phytoplanktons and also cooling at the same time.
"There is a third thing: cosmic rays, atomic nuclei accelerated to relativistic speeds, may also be sent our way by supernovae or gamma-ray bursts. No one is really sure. But there is a lot of evidence (and this shocked me) that the cosmic rays affect our weather by seeding clouds (I am unclear how this works in detail but I'll know better as I read more). More clouds means more cooling, so more cosmic rays could trip an ice age. Seriously.
"All of this depends on how close a supernova gets, and there is evidence that in the past few million years a few have exploded within a few dozen parsecs. Fe60 is a radioactive isotope of iron, and is created in supernova explosions. An excess of Fe60 has been found in ocean floor samples dated to a few million years ago. Cool, huh?
"The big SN 2006gy was 240 million light years away, so it won't hurt us. But Eta Carinae is only 7,500 light years away..."
Fortunately, as Livio pointed out during this week's news conference, the poles of Eta Carinae's hourglass-shaped structure appear to be pointed away from Earth. That has led astronomers to assume that the highly focused flash of a gamma-ray burst would also miss our planet.
"Right now, there are no supernovas close enough to hurt us," Plait told me in a follow-up phone call. "There are no gamma-ray sources close enough to hurt us. We think."
One possible cause of gamma-ray bursts is the merger of two dense celestial objects - say, neutron stars or black holes. And we might never see that coming.
If all that's not enough to throw a scare into you, there's a large pile of movies and books that address the supernova nightmare scenario. On the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's Web site, Foothill College astronomer Andrew Fraknoi lists seven supernova-themed tales that reflect "good astronomy and physics." Two are particularly worthy of note:
Both books appear to be out of print - but used copies are available online, and you might find them as well at your local library or used-book shop. That qualifies the two books as a dual selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that aren't necessarily brand-new.
Unfortunately, supernova stories on the silver screen haven't fared as well. There was a "Supernova" movie starring James Spader and Angela Bassett, as well as a "Supernova" made-for-TV movie with Tia Carrere and Luke Perry - but neither made much of a scientific or a critical splash.
In the semi-documentary category, the Sci-Fi Channel's "Countdown to Doomsday" addressed the gamma-ray threat, with an assist from Plait. Gamma-ray flares also play a role in the "Nova" documentary "Monster of the Milky Way," but that show (which you can watch online) has more to do with black holes than supernovae.
So I'll have to turn to you for guidance: If you have any recommendations for gripping supernova tales, or even deliciously bad movies about supernova nightmares, by all means pass them along in the comments section below.
Update for 10 p.m. ET May 17: I added a reference to Fraknoi as the author of the excellent book recommendation list on the ASP Web site, in the interest of giving credit where credit is due.
Two years after it was created as a NASCAR-style venture for open skies, the Rocket Racing League is still revving up for its first honest-to-goodness race. But the past couple of days have brought a roller-coaster sequence of downs and ups: On Monday, the first team to sign up for the league said it was pulling out. Then, to balance that bad news, the league announced the formation of a team that it will own and operate, complete with a corporate sponsorship and a pilot.
Reflecting on the good and the bad, the league's president and chief executive officer told me today that his venture is on track to demonstrate its rocket-powered Mark-1 X-Racer and run its first races next year. "We're about five or six months behind where we thought we'd be … but that's a great margin of error," Granger Whitelaw said.
So when can we expect the league's first flame-spitting, kerosene-fueled rocket plane to make its debut?
Whitelaw said the testing schedule and the business deals should come together by September or so. "We'll be flying well before" the X Prize Cup festivities planned in New Mexico in October, he said. The precise timing depends on the league's sponsors and media partners, he said.
The X-Racer is based on the airframe manufactured by Florida-based Velocity, which has furnished the league with a piston-powered trainer aircraft. The rocket-powered version is being developed in cooperation with California-based XCOR Aerospace. Once the first X-Racer has gone through a gantlet of flight tests, it should take only about five months for the plane-building process to enter the production phase, Whitelaw said.
It's no coincidence that the first league-owned team, Thunderhawk Racing, has Velocity as its corporate sponsor. Thunderhawk's pilot will be Nick Mowery, a seasoned young pilot from Arizona who graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Whitelaw, a veteran of the racing-car circuit, said he selected Mowery as the Thunderhawk pilot after watching his performance – including a lights-out landing in the Velocity trainer.
"The guy is phenomenal," Whitelaw said. "And I'm pretty good at picking winning drivers – I've done it for two Indy 500s."
Whitelaw said Thunderhawk Racing would be joined by a second league-owned team, with as many as six other teams filling out the field for the 2008 race season.
One of the teams that will be missing out is Arizona-based Leading Edge Rocket Racing, which told the league in a letter on Monday that it was parting ways.
"After working with Rocket Racing League for the past 17 months, we have concluded that our vision, business practices, and communication standards are incompatible with those of the league," the team's president and chief executive officer, Robert Rickard, said in a written statement. "We had very high hopes for this enterprise and tried very hard to find a common way forward."
Leading Edge's chief operating officer, Don Grantham, said that the team hadn't had a working relationship with the league for some time, and that it was time to "move on."
"It's time to focus our resources on something more compatible with Leading Edge's goal of being the premier operators of high-performance rocket-powered aircraft," Grantham said in the team's statement.
Whitelaw e-mailed me his own statement in response:
"Teams will expectedly come and go as the league develops, though all must meet baseline requirements. They, Leading Edge Rocket Racing, are welcome to race in the league when they are properly structured, funded and in accordance with our rules and regulations."
The next couple of months should provide a reality check for Whitelaw's plans, when we find out whether the flight tests, team signups and marketing deals are meeting his expectations. Gentlemen (and ladies), start your search engines.
Generating cleaner energy and producing cleaner water are among the grand challenges facing engineers over the next century, according to the leaders of the profession. Over the next few months, experts will draw up an official list of Grand Challenges for Engineering - following in the footsteps of projects ranging from the Manhattan Project and the Apollo moon effort to the Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight and the DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous vehicles.
Although the list isn't yet fully set, it's becoming clear that the grandest challenges ahead will be as hard as those past challenges - not just because they're technically difficult, but also because they require societal shifts as well.
The National Academy of Engineering's Grand Challenges project began last July, and for months the academy has been soliciting suggestions for endeavors worthy of thrusting into the public eye. Although there are no guarantees, the challenges on the list could spark future initiatives - analogous to the projects previously mentioned, or perhaps efforts such as the Archon Genomics X Prize, the Automotive X Prize or the DARPA Urban Challenge.
Representatives of several engineering societies presented a progress report on the Grand Challenges campaign on Monday during the National Academy of Engineering's annual convocation in Washington. Randy Atkins, a public affairs officer at the academy who is spearheading the effort, said the ideas are flowing in from the profession as well as the general public. Here are some of the broad topics under consideration:
Terry Shoup, the president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, focused his attention on an Energy Grand Challenge. "We must move toward a balanced mix of energy sources that make it possible for global economic development without environmental degradation," he said.
Addressing the growing concern over energy supplies and climate change looms as "the defining challinge for our generation and the next generation of engineers," he said.
Shoup drew a parallel to America's space program, which was energized by President Kennedy's "We Choose to Go to the Moon" speech in 1962 and yielded a Cold War payoff in 1969 with the Apollo 11 landing. The payoffs kept coming long after that landing, in the form of technological spin-offs that benefited taxpayers back on Earth.
"The Energy Grand Challenge ... is going to require mobilizing talent and mobilizing resources on a scale even grander than what we saw in the Apollo program," he declared.
William Marcuson III, the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, touched on trends in transportation. Each century has seen a tenfold speed-up in the pace of travel, from the horses of 1800 (6 mph) to the trains of 1900 (60 mph) to the airplanes of 2000 (600 mph). Can we expect to go 6,000 mph by 2100? Will the world's transportation infrastructure handle the load placed on it by new generations of conveyances?
"Transportation is such a huge topic that it intersects with energy policy, the environment, the economy, even water resources and national security," Marcuson said.
Speaking of water, the need to supply drinking water for a growing global population could well loom as a challenge every bit as critical as global energy resources.
"We already have a billion people who lack access to potable water every day," Marcuson said. "Two billion people lack access to proper sanitation. Will water in the 21st century be as oil was in the 20th century? Will water mean war?"
Safe drinking water is actually "an engineered product without which we cannot survive," he said.
"Regardless of whether we use high-, medium- or low-tech engineering solutions to provide this basic resource, we must recognize that doing so will be the grand challenge of the next century," Marcuson said.
Dale Keairns, president-elect of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, seconded the emphasis on energy and sustainable resources. But he said the methods that were used for the Manhattan Project and the Apollo moon effort might have to be updated for the new crop of challenges.
"These 'Grander Challenges' we are facing are more societal-based and less easy to frame in a technical systems context," he noted. Many of the challenges are interrelated and multidisciplinary - for example, energy relates to sustainability, which relates to health, which relates to poverty, which relates to terrorism.
Merely allocating billions of dollars in federal funds to a cadre of smart folks won't do the job: International partners and the private sector will have to be enlisted, and engineers will need to draw upon the know-how of other types of professionals as well as the general public.
What will it take to enlist all those people for the cause?
"It's very hard to think about what the iconic moment is going to be, when we talk about energy, or water, or health care," said Leah Jamieson, president and chief executive officer ofthe Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
One thing it's going to take is leadership at least as strong as we saw during the space effort, when engineers were seen as heroes on the Cold War's farthest frontier. "Leadership was key to that particular grand challenge," Shoup said, "and will be key to these [future] grand challenges."
Another thing it's going to take is money. One of the most famous (and funniest) sayings of the early space effort was "No bucks, no Buck Rogers." Marcuson referred to that aspect of the grand-challenge game as he reflected on the Apollo program.
"I don't know that going to the moon was what brought me into engineering," he said. "It was money."
If political and corporate leaders are really serious about addressing the grand challenges of the 21st century - whether that has to do with energy, the environment, global health or space colonization - they'll have to "generate the enthusiasm, and the money, that went into going to the moon," Marcuson said.
Based on the response to Monday's item about engineering's image, I have a feeling that the engineers out there will agree. What specific challenges are on the top of your list? And how would you stir up the brainpower and the bucks to address those challenges? Feel free to add your comments below.
The nation's best and brightest engineers are gathering in Washington this week to figure out how to add some youthful zing to a profession that makes many kids think of slide rules and pocket protectors. As a result of their efforts, engineering's image will be getting a marketing makeover in the months ahead.
How much is that makeover needed? You'd expect engineers to come up with the data to back up their case, and these folks did not disappoint. In one survey of career preferences among 440 college-bound students aged 14 to 18, engineering was ranked last on a list that also included teaching, medicine, law and business. And in a 2006 Harris Poll on occupational prestige, the profession came in No. 10 out of 22 - well behind doctors and scientists (but well ahead of lawyers and, ick, journalists).
One big problem is that engineers are perceived as being - how shall I put this? - too geeky. Kids just don't see engineering as a thrilling profession where you interact with people, help others and do important things. "Many of the kids feel that we are 'desk jockeys,'" said Patrick Natale, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
To be sure, lots of engineers do slave all day over a hot desktop. But F. Suzanne Jenniches, vice president and general manager of Northrup Grumman's government systems division, argued that the work of an engineer is as important as a doctor's.
"The operating rooms where people's lives are saved are the result of engineering," she said. In fact, engineers played a part in developing every material we touch in daily life, she added.
So what is to be done? At this week's convocation of professional engineering societies, taking place at the National Academy of Engineering, several data-driven projects came to light.
One market research project, funded by the National Science Foundation and carried out by an NAE committee, tested a variety of slogans with focus groups. Among the favorites: "Engineers make a world of difference" ... "Turning ideas into reality" ... "Because dreams need doing."
Keep your eyes out for the bumper stickers. The NAE estimates that a focused marketing campaign should cost about $12 million to $25 million annually for the next two to three years. That may sound like a lot, but the engineering profession is thought to spend about $400 million a year on outreach right now, with little to show for it.
"It's like Brownian motion," said the academy's president, Wm. A. Wulf. "Everybody is going in different directions, and it seems that the net vector is zero." A more focused marketing campaign - encompassing all the sectors of the profession - should make all that outreach more efficient.
Another effort, called the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project, targets girls in middle school and high school. In recent years, female representation in the field has been something of a disappointment: Women enrollment in college engineering programs peaked at about 20 percent in 1999 and has dipped since then.
The academy has set up an "Engineer Girl" Web site to address that interest gap on the middle-school level, and in September a new "Design Your Life" site for high-school girls will be unveiled, Jenniches said. For updates on that front, keep your eye on the Engineers Week Web site. The "Try Engineering" Web site is another resource for kids, parents and teachers.
The Business Roundtable has been looking into yet another engineering-awareness campaign, modeled after the "Intel Inside" campaign for computers. Susan Traiman, director of public policy at the Business Roundtable, said the idea is to add something like a "Powered by Brainwave" tag to products ranging from sneakers to computers, to show that engineers are providing the brain power behind those products.
Quoting a market-tested tagline from the campaign, Traiman said, "Math and science powers virtually everything meaningful in your life."
Purdue University's Leah Jamieson, president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, said the outreach should extend beyond just building another Web site. "How many of us are putting stuff on YouTube?" she asked her colleagues. "Are we doing podcasts?"
Then there's the academic part of the equation: Engineers themselves tend to add to the perception that their work is too hard for mere mortals - and that's a turnoff for the kids. "We can unprogram [the claim that] 'it's hard, but if you work really hard, you might become an engineer' into something more appealing," Jenniches said.
Of course, sometimes the classes really are hard - maybe too hard. The professional engineers said professors may have to dial it down a notch, particularly in the freshman year, in order to promote retention of engineering students.
"It's that freshman calculus course that's weeding the kids out," Traiman said.
"The electromagnetic physics course is a tough weeder-outer," Natale added.
In addition to cool slogans and kinder, gentler courses, the profession could benefit by having more role models for the kids. "There is no 'public face' of engineering," Natale said.
Greg Pearson, senior program officer for the NAE, said there should be a diverse set of role models - to show that women and minorities as well as white guys can excel in engineering. "It's going to be public faces," he said, emphasizing the plural.
Personally, the most public faces that come to my mind are those of Dilbert and his co-workers - and although they're great for a laugh, I'm not sure they're in the same league as the TV stars you see on "Law and Order" and "E.R." Who would you nominate as the celebrity spokespeople for engineering? Bill Gates? Steve Jobs? Hedy Lamarr? MacGyver? Add your picks - as well as your general observations on the state of engineering and the profession's public image - in the comments section below.
What does a Y-chromosome sound like? Now you can answer that question for yourself, using a novel molecule-to-melody conversion scheme that could open up new frontiers in biomedical research as well as computer-generated music.
Rie Takahashi and Jeffrey Miller of the University of California at Los Angeles describe the system in the open-access journal Genome Biology. They set up a system is to translate amino acids - the building blocks for human protein sequences - into musical chords.
This isn't the first time someone has tried to represent protein sequences musically, but Takahashi - an accomplished musician as well as a microbiologist - worked with Miller to come up with a more artful way to represent the standard 20 amino acids with the standard 13-note scale.
"The challenge was to find a way to be completely faithful to the science ... but also make the music more dimensional and add rhythm," Miller told me.
Takahashi added some extra twists: For example, similar amino acids are represented by the same chord - say, G-major for tyrosine and phenylalanine - but the arrangement is different. Also, more frequently encountered amino acids get longer notes than the less common ones.
With the aid of a colleague at UCLA, Frank Pettit, the researchers devised a Web-based program that can take the three-base code for each amino acid in a sequence, triplet by triplet, and turn it into a playable MIDI file.
Miller said the resulting music is completely determined by the protein sequence rather than tunefulness. "There are no fudge factors at all," he said.
The examples on the researchers' Gene2Music Web site range from horse hemoglobin to human thymidylate synthase A. "In principle, one could take the entire human genome and have it translated into 30,000 different protein sequences," Miller said.
Just for fun, I took a sequence from one of the markers on the human Y-chromosome and fed it through the converter. You can hear the MIDI result here - and it doesn't sound all that bad, if I say so myself. But you'll notice that there's a section where the same note sounds over and over. And that hints at the scientific application of the system.
The repeated notes are caused by repeating triplets in the protein code. In most cases, those repeats are harmless. But triplet repeats can also be associated with genetic neurodegenerative disorders such as Huntington's disease. Takahashi said one expert on Huntington's is already interested in using the musical system with his patients.
"It's a great way of explaining to the patient why the protein is dysfunctional," Takahashi said. "You can hear that through the repeated glutamines, over and over like a broken record."
The system could also be used to compare protein sequences by playing them together. A sharp-eared researcher should be able to hear the difference between a normal and abnormal protein. "What you'll hear is basically a dissonance or a difference in the chords," Takahashi said.
Miller said the technique might eventually be used to help vision-impaired researchers hear rather than see genetic code. "Admittedly, that's a future direction," he said.
The researchers' main goal is to use Gene2Music as a way to bring the joy of science to a generation raised on iPods and MP3 players.
"Music is a universal language and a bridge, and a way of making things interesting," Miller said. "For example, when I was a kid, 'Peter and the Wolf' was the way that young people got interested in classical music, because it had a different instrument for each character and it had a story. So that was a goal, to find ways to use music as a teaching tool."
I can imagine a day when getting your genome done will be as easy as getting your colors done - and when having a theme song based on your personal genetic code will be a musical status symbol.
Takahashi is already looking into tweaking some of the raw molecular melodies into polished musical compositions. "Ideally, I would like to complete a set of variations of different proteins, and ultimately make a CD of that," she said.
Whenever we come up with a fresh slide show of space sights, users generally want to know where the pictures come from - and some want to know where they can get bigger versions of the images. Now that our latest installment of "Cosmic Sightings" has made its debut, here are links to some of the sources we've used:
"Ghosts in the Sky" and "Liftoff From India" are from commercial photo services, so I can't help you on those two. But there are lots of great aurora images at SpaceWeather.com. Stay tuned for the next installment of Cosmic Sightings in a couple of weeks.
Walter Isaacson's 704-page, 2.4-pound biography of Albert Einstein may not provide a solution to the great question that nagged the physicist to the day he died – but thanks to Isaacson's access to a treasure trove of letters released just last year, "Einstein: His Life and Universe" provides the most definitive word yet on Einstein's personal puzzles.
Simon & Schuster
"Einstein: His Life and
You'll get the latest take on the inner sources of his genius, the "triangular geometry" of his sex life and the ambiguities of his religious beliefs. And you just might learn something new about relativity, too.
Isaacson isn't a professional scientist, but he ranks among the heavyweights in literary circles (though not in a literal way - he's still pretty trim for a soon-to-be 55-year-old). His past biographical subjects include Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Franklin, and he worked his way up to become managing editor of Time magazine.
It was in that capacity that he helped select Einstein to be the magazine's "Person of the Century" in 2000. Even before then, Isaacson had the German-born physicist on his short list of potential book subjects. While he was writing the Franklin book, he also was researching Einstein's life and legacy - and waiting patiently for the release of more than 3,500 pages of correspondence and photos, sealed away two decades earlier by his stepdaughter Margot.
After a long stint with Time and a shorter stint with CNN, Isaacson is now the chief executive officer of the Aspen Institute and a touring author. Isaacson's tome has been hailed as the "most comprehensive English-language biography of Einstein for a general readership," and it's No. 1 on The New York Times' best-seller list for hardcover nonfiction.
During a Q&A session with Isaacson on Tuesday, just before a Town Hall Seattle talk, he told me his aim wasn't to capitalize on the zingers within the newly released files - for example, the kiss-and-tell details of his dalliances, which Einstein jokingly called "triangular geometry." Rather, he wanted to draw upon the best information available to put the great man's life in the broadest perspective possible.
Einstein was fond of saying that "imagination is more important than knowledge." And in a letter to Elsa Lowenthal, the lover who would later become his wife, he declared that impudence was his "guardian angel in this world." Isaacson concluded that it was Einstein's imagination - as well as his impudence - that set him apart from his contemporaries and allowed him to enter the scientific pantheon alongside Galileo and Newton.
"I wanted to try to explore the roots of his imagination ... For Einstein, it really is a question of creativity, of creativity born of rebelliousness," Isaacson said.
It was once said that only three people in the world could understand Einstein's theories of relativity (which famously led astrophysicist Arthur Eddington to wonder who the third person was). But Isaacson's view is that human relations pose harder puzzles to crack.
"If you can understand 'Hamlet,' you can understand relativity," he said.
In Tuesday's Q&A with science writers, Isaacson touched upon Einstein's human foibles as well as his scientific triumphs. The conversation started out with a puzzle that's quite familiar to Cosmic Log readers: the role of Einstein's first wife, Mileva Maric, in developing the special theory of relativity. Here's an edited transcript:
Isaacson: The Mileva controversy is absolutely astonishing. And of course, I've gotten the most recent personal papers that were released last year, which is the final blowup of the marriage. ...
My theme about her in the book is basically that she overcomes most, but not quite all, of the obstacles facing a woman physicist. My second great thing, which is the key question on Mileva, is how much she was a collaborator with Einstein. I try to take it step by step.
You want it to be a collaboration, because that's more explosive. But unfortunately, most of the concepts of special relativity come from Michele Besso being Einstein's sounding board - including the relativity of simultaneity, which is the key step.
Mileva helps check the math. But I think the PBS documentary ["Einstein's Wife"] is wrong in saying that her name is on an original draft of the special-relativity paper. The more you go through the archives, the more you see that's just not the case. The one person who said it was the case was a Russian writer who doesn't fully agree with himself anymore.
Having said that, she was a big helpmate. You don't have to exaggerate her accomplishments to be totally awed, blown away, respectful of the pioneering role she played in physics for women. People who try to exaggerate her role probably do her a disservice rather than a service.
The blowup of the marriage is also interesting. The contract, you probably know about. [Einstein's list of conditions for staying married to Maric included these demands: "You make sure . . . that I receive my three meals regularly in my room," and "You are neither to expect intimacy nor to reproach me in any way."] It's totally brutal.
As far as I can tell, she almost signs the contract. She talks to Fritz Haber [a family acquaintance and mediator], Einstein sends another note, but she finally decides not to sign it. They do make a contract where Einstein says, "You'll get the Nobel Prize money if I win" [as part of a divorce settlement]. They go through a lawyer who is a neighbor, and he draws up the contract, and they even go into the possibility that he won't win the Nobel Prize. ... I have a footnote that goes into the entire thing about who got the money, how she got sick, how she put some of the money under a mattress. ... There must be 200 letters that are disputes over money, all in German.
Q: Did you come across anything about Einstein having affairs while he was married to Mileva - other than his affair with Elsa [who became Einstein's wife after he divorced Maric]?
A: No. He does have an affair with Elsa. He has affairs while married to Elsa, with four women, while living in Caputh. I don't dwell on it, but I have a paragraph on each of his girlfriends. And then of course he has girlfriends after Elsa dies, up to the very end. I don't know to what extent they were sexual, but I'm sure they were intimate relationships.
Q: Did his affairs tend to be with colleagues?
A: No, Mileva was the only really brilliant woman he was in love with.
I am respectful to Elsa. She's usually considered the motherly, not very smart, just doting on Einstein type. But I think she was smarter than people gave her credit for. She had a lot of savvy and common sense. They both had a great sense of humor. And I think they had a solid relationship.
Q: In the course of writing the book, were you looking for "zingers," or were you looking for a complete picture of Einstein?
A: This is just supposed to be a pure narrative, a complete picture - especially about the way his mind worked. It's about the rebellious nature of his personality - even when it came to things like his marriages, but especially about other things, such as making the leaps in science. It's about the source of his genius.
Q: It seems as if one of the themes you came up with was that he, unlike some of his contemporaries, was willing to throw out the Newtonian view of the universe.
A: He was incredibly rebellious - rebellious as a kid. He gets thrown out of school, for example. Imagination and rebelliousness ... that's the source of him being slow in learning how to talk, being a visual thinker, being creative.
Max Planck comes up with the constant that you need to explain black-body radiation. It makes the equations work - something that nobody's been able to do before. And Planck is academically more knowledgeable than Einstein by about twentyfold. I mean, Einstein is a patent examiner, third class. In some ways, Planck is just as smart as Einstein, and smarter in math. So Planck comes up with this constant. And yet Planck, Lorentz, Poincare, all these people think it's basically some mathematical contrivance.
Einstein looks at the formula, and he realizes that light is a particle. It's that ability to sense the particle nature of light that shows him to be so much different from the others.
Q: The willingness to take the extra step?
A: Or just visualize. As a 16-year-old, he's looking at Maxwell's equations, and he realizes something that even the greatest physicists haven't figured out. A light wave has to travel at a constant speed, 186,000 miles per second. Maxwell's equations don't allow the wave to travel at any other speed. But if you're traveling near the speed of light, wouldn't you see the wave as stationary compared to you, as if you were on a Jet-Ski right next to an ocean wave? Well, Maxwell's equations don't allow for that.
At the age of 16, Einstein is totally freaked by this. He says his hands start sweating, he's so worried. You think back to all the things that were causing your hands to sweat when you were 16, and they're not Maxwell's equations!
But he can visualize this and nobody else can. Every single thing he does comes from taking a visual and imaginative leap, not from being smarter than other people. Quantum theory. Special relativity. General relativity. The EPR experiment. They're visual, imaginative, rebellious leaps as opposed to hard-crunching science.
And that ties into his personal life as well. Everything he does is rebellious, defying convention, defying authority. He has a contempt for what he calls "Zwang" - which is the German word for bonds or commitments - which is why he's not exactly "Husband of the Year."
Q: Was there any sort of visualization tool you came across that was particularly important?
A: The lightning striking both ends of the train is the most important stuff. He and Michele Besso, his best friend from the patent office, were taking a walk one day and trying to define what it meant for events to be simultaneous. Peter Galison tells the story very well in "Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps." They got 70 patent applications involving how you use signals to synchronize clocks - so that when it strikes 7 in Bern, it strikes 7 in Zurich. That's the big visualization: If you're moving, you have a different definition of what's simultaneous than if you're not moving. That's all special relativity.
One interesting thing about Einstein is why he failed so miserably in the last part of his life...
Q: When he was looking for the unified field theory, the theory of everything?
A: Right. ... One of his collaborators at Princeton, Banesh Hoffmann, said that they had no ground lines. Einstein had been able to visualize everything up until then, but in the end they were just doing pure mathematical formalism. Which is the problem with string theory now. It's absolutely the most elegant thing you can imagine, but it's just mathematical formalism. It doesn't have a ground line to say here's where it connects with reality. I'm not a string theorist, but even string theorists will tell you they haven't yet found a way to say "here, let's test it," or "let's visualize it, what's the underlying physical reality to string theory."
And that's where Einstein fails on the unified field theory. He doesn't have that imaginative image: "Oh, light's a particle" ... "Oh, if you're synchronizing clocks, it's relative when you're moving" ... "Oh, acceleration and gravity are equivalent if you're in an enclosed chamber." All these are totally cool ideas that my 16-year-old daughter can perfectly understand. "Oh, yeah, you're in an enclosed chamber, you're accelerating upward, it feels just like gravity." From that springs the equivalence principle.
A: A deist, a determinist. He's sort of a pantheist, although I don't know quite what a pantheist is. He says he believes in Spinoza's God, a God whose spirit is manifest in the harmonies of the universe. He deeply believes in God. He gets really mad when people call him an atheist.
I've avoided getting into a debate with [evolutionary biologist] Richard Dawkins, who starts his book by claiming that Einstein was an atheist, and that when Einstein says "God," he just means the laws of nature, he doesn't mean God. Dawkins knows so much more about science than I'll ever know, but I do happen to have read a lot more of Einstein than he's read.
|Virtual-reality rocket-builder Jimbo Perhaps takes Rocketeer students to his secret
Second Life hangar to show them a space shuttle under construction.
"Can anyone tell me what is the rocket equation?" the teacher asks. "That's a hard one," one of the students says. Then the teacher starts giving hints: "I use force to power my rockets. Force depends on the mass of the rocket."
Finally, another student types out the answer: "Thrust equals dM/dt (-vrel)."
I can already tell that I'm out of my depth. Thank goodness that most of the class time is taken up in rocket rides, launch-pad tours - and levitating from one cool spaceship to another. Levitating is the easiest way to go on a class field trip when you're in the virtual world known as Second Life.
During today's first class, Second Life's most prolific rocket-builder showed us many of his computer-generated creations - including a space shuttle taking shape at his secret hangar - and taught us a little real-life rocket science along the way.
In this virtual world, users are represented by online avatars that may or may not look like your real-life persona. To talk to others, you just type your comments into an online chat window. And if you want to whisper to a classmate, you can send an instant message that no one else can "hear."
Second Lifers convert real money into virtual dollars to purchase clothes, hairstyles, homes - and yes, even the occasional launch vehicle. (I have yet to spend a single Linden dollar, although I really must do something about my generic jeans-and-T-shirt look.)
If you've been by Second Life's International Spaceflight Museum, you've probably seen one of Jimbo Perhaps' creations. He built more than half of the 100 or so historic spacecraft on display, ranging from the Soviet N-1 moon rocket to the space shuttle.
Right now, Perhaps is working on the piece de resistance: a space shuttle model with engines that fire, payload bay doors that open and hundreds of other moving parts. The virtual contraption is being constructed in Perhaps' floating hangar from more than 1,000 "prims," or virtual building blocks. That makes the shuttle so heavy in Second Life's computer universe that it can't actually fly.
You can blast off on many of the other rockets, however, simply by counting down to zero. And that was part of today's lesson as well: Students were invited to sit right on the top of a rocket's nose cone, ignite the engines and see how far they could rise.
"The apogees will differ because each of you is a different size and is wearing a different number of prims," Perhaps explained.
Even though Second Life is a completely make-believe world, the physics can be real if you write the code that way. And that's the educational point behind Perhaps' exercise.
In real life, Jimbo Perhaps is Jim Botaitis, a 45-year-old Canadian civil engineer and model decal designer. He may not be a rocket scientist, but he has enough model rocketry, engineering and scripting under his belt to create rockets that soar the way the real things do - even to the point that they're affected by the wind direction in Second Life.
Tsiolokovsky's rocket equation is built into the coding for the rockets, and Perhaps also sprinkles his space-tourist spiel with references to other rocket resources. As the four-week class proceeds, Second Life's "Rocketeers" will be learning more about how to build Second Life spaceships and animate them with First Life physics. Classes are conducted on Tuesdays and repeated on Thursdays.
If you're a Second Life user, you can link up with the class by searching for "The Rocketeers" among the virtual world's groups (Edit > Search > Groups > Search for "Rocketeers"). But if dM/dt isn't exactly your cup of T, there are plenty of other educational opportunities in virtual reality.
The science-related opportunities in Second Life are on the rise as well: On Saturday, the 46th anniversary of NASA's first manned spaceflight, Spaceport Bravo, is due to have its grand opening at the International Spaceflight Museum. There'll be lectures on astronaut Alan Shepard's historic flight as well as Mars exploration, dark matter and dark energy.
Also in Second Life, SciLands, a recently created mini-continent devoted to science and technology, is ramping up with participation from the space museum as well as NASA's Ames Research Center, the Exploratorium and other research and educational groups (PDF news release).
The University of Denver's Jeff Corbin (a.k.a. Zazen Manbi), a co-founder of SciLands, said that Second Life can serve as "a spectacular supplement" to the educational process. He's already talking about setting up a virtual tour to the creation of the universe, and he's looking into using Second Life simulations to teach students about real-life nuclear physics.
"It's a little safer," Corbin told me, "and you don't have to get an avatar badged to do an experiment."
Second Life's simulated world gives Jimbo Perhaps' real-life alter ego a way to follow through on the interest in astronomy and space he's had since he was a child - without having to bend real-life metal or grind real-life mirrors.
"I'm not messing with wiring or sheet metal," Jim Botaitis told me in a telephone interview today. "I'm just doing it all through programming."
Jimbo Perhaps may know more than anyone else about building rockets in Second Life. But Jim Botaitis knows that Second Life will have to give way to real life someday - maybe next year, maybe a few years from now. That's why teaching the Rocketeers is so important.
"I'm aiming to find people in Second Life who can surpass me, who can do better than I can do," Botaitis told me. "Real life takes over eventually. I'm hoping to pass all this on to the younger folks who might have the same kind of enthusiasm for the space program."