Charlie Neibergall / AP file
Barack Obama listens to Dr. Mark Anderson while touring a University of
Iowa cardiology lab in 2007 during the presidential campaign. Obama has
pledged to make scientific integrity a priority for his administration.
Whatever happened to the war on science? During the Bush administration, many scientists felt as if they were on the outs when it came to issues ranging from global climate change to stem cell research and even evolutionary biology. President Barack Obama came into office pledging to "restore our commitment to science" - and some of the scientists who were once on the outs suddenly found themselves in the inner circle.
"The war is not over," says Chris Mooney, author of "The Republican War on Science" and co-author of a new book titled "Unscientific America." The gap between scientists and society at large may have shrunk, but there's still a disconnect that transcends political parties. That comes through loud and clear in "Unscientific America" as well as a new 98-page study analyzing how scientists and the wider American public view each other.
Fortunately, there are some prescriptions for shrinking the gap further - although history suggests that skirmishes over science will be as perennial as death and taxes.
The study, based on surveys of 2,001 adult Americans and 2,533 scientists, was released today by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in collaboration with the American Associationfor the Advancement of Science. "Unscientific America," co-written by Mooney and marine scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum, is just now hitting the bookstores. Both works take a fresh look at the "Two Cultures" concept advanced a half-century ago by British novelist C.P. Snow.
Back in Snow's day, the issue was the divide in academia between the sciences and the humanities. Today, it's not so much a question of physics profs vs. the literati. Rather, the divide is between scientists and technologists on one side, and politicians and voters on the other. And it's not that one side is truly at war with the other. In fact, the Pew study points out that most Americans really like science and think it's deserving of support.
Pew's numbers show that the situation is more complex:
"It's a great set of data, and it basically shows that we've got scientists looking at the world one way, while the public thinks about it in a very different way," Mooney observed. "That is the problem."
But how big of a problem is it, really? Does it really matter that people don't know the relative sizes of electrons and atoms?
"That's not as clearly important as knowing what the science is behind global warming," Mooney said. "And that's something people also get wrong, in large numbers."
The impact of the scientific disconnect pops up in several ways: Efforts to control greenhouse-gas emissions will attract less political support if voters don't think the problem is that serious. If you don't think childhood vaccinations should be required (which is the way 28 percent of the public sample and 17 percent of the scientists felt), that affects public health policy.
"The problem is not the lack of knowledge, the problem is the policy," Mooney said.
And in fact, more knowledge doesn't always lead to better decision-making. "When people go to college and they learn a smattering of science, that does not mean they're necessarily going to be protected against misinformation," Mooney said. "Higher education can make you less accepting of science, not more. ... Politics is more powerful than education on some of these issues, and I would argue that culture, broadly speaking, is more powerful than education."
So what is to be done? In a commentary on the survey, AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan Leshner gives a boost to outreach efforts such as the Science and Entertainment Exchange. "Engaging with the public on scientific issues, rather than lecturing to them, requires listening to their perspectives, encouraging mutual learning and finding new ways to leverage popular culture, new media, journalism and civic channels to facilitate dialogue opportunities," he said.
In their book, Mooney and Kirshenbaum call for a dramatic increase in funding for interdisciplinary training programs such as the National Science Foundation's IGERT initiative. "The scientist who can write, or design a Web site, or understand patent law, or speak Spanish, will be better equipped to face the competition than a scientist who only knows his or her discipline - not to mention being a better science communicator," they write.
Rather than merely complaining about the sorry state of scientific literacy, scientists should value the communicators in their ranks - such as the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who was as comfortable in front of a camera as he was in a lab. (One could say much the same about astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is currently hosting a summer season of "Nova ScienceNOW.")
Mooney and Kirshenbaum run the numbers on the Ph.D. pipeline and find that many of tomorrow's scientists will have to look for gainful employment outside the lab. Mooney even suggests taking a page from the AmeriCorps playbook and creating a "ScienceCorps" that can go out and help the public do the scientific things out there that need to be done.
"Honestly, it's incumbent on universities to give people in graduate-level science more diverse skills, because most scientists are not going to end up in 'real' research jobs," Mooney told me.
What real-world problems will those scientists be working on? To get some insight into that question, I'll recommend another book: "Science Next," a collection of essays edited by Jonathan Moreno and Rick Weiss. Google executive Vinton Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, suggests a post-Sputnik-scale initiative to develop green energy technologies. Other essays tout anti-aging research, or anti-bioterror measures, or upgrades in science education.
There's no shortage of issues that need to be addressed, by scientists as well as an interested electorate. What scientific agenda would you set, and how would you sell that agenda to the public at large? Feel free to leave your comments below.
Update for 7:15 p.m. ET: One of the nice things about "Unscientific America" is that it starts out with the controversy over Pluto's status in the solar system. As you might recall, the International Astronomical Union reclassified the icy world as a dwarf planet three years ago and declared that dwarf planets were not planets. That sparked a spirited debate between Plutoclasts and Plutophiles that continues to this day.
Mooney and Kirshenbaum point to the case as "a particularly colorful example of the rift today between the world of science and the rest of society," and half-jokingly state that the aim of their book is to save Pluto as well as to update the "Two Cultures" debate over science and society.
Of course, Pluto isn't in any need of saving, but the personalities and cultural angles behind the planethood debate also figure in my forthcoming book, "The Case for Pluto." So I couldn't resist asking Mooney to expand upon the theme of Pluto's reclassification:
"It's not a purely scientific question," he said. "It was clearly done with insensitivity to a reaction that should have been obvious and predictable. It's a great case of failure to understand on both sides."
The interesting thing about the planethood debate is that the ultimate outcome doesn't make any difference in the lives of the public - unlike the outcome of other scientific debates such as the response to climate change or the ethics of stem cell research. For once, no lobbyists or pressure groups were involved. Nevertheless, Pluto's plight captured the attention of the public as well as politicians and pundits (and planetary scientists).
"It's a big deal," Mooney said, "because how often does something happen in science that most people are aware of? It is exceedingly rare that they hear something [about a scientific issue] that they know as well as they know who's winning 'American Idol.' So when Pluto was demoted, we thought that was one of those moments."
In fact, this was one of the questions included on Pew's science quiz. Sixty percent of the respondents identified Pluto as the world no longer considered a planet by most astronomers. (Was the answer "correct"? I hesitate to say.) That's not a bad showing if you're comparing it with the question about electrons and atoms. But it's sobering to see that more people (66 percent) correctly identified the surprising singing star of "Britain's Got Talent" (Susan Boyle, no relation).
Other views and reviews:
NASA / JPL-Caltech
After commanding a test rover to drive forward through a sandbox filled with fake
Martian dirt at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, rover driver Paolo Belluta
measures how much the rover slipped sideways during the maneuver.
An earthbound rover is finally spinning its wheels in fake Martian dirt - marking one small step in NASA's efforts to get the real thing out of a Red Planet sand trap.
The first wheel-spinning test took place on Monday at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where engineers have filled a slanted sandbox with fake Martian dirt. A test copy of the Mars Exploration Rover was buried in the stuff up to near the top of its wheels, with a rock sitting underneath.
The Spirit rover is in a similar fix on Mars, in a patch of slippery soil known as Troy. Spirit has roamed over almost five miles of Martian terrain in the five and a half years since it bounced to its landing - but it's had to tarry at Troy for more than two months.
Engineers at JPL are carefully considering the best method for freeing up the six-wheeled scientific star. One of those six wheels is no longer working - so to simulate the situation more accurately, the engineers are using only five of the test rover's wheels. NASA says they're also making accommodations for the fact that the rover on Earth is three times as heavy as the machine on Mars.
In this week's first test, the engineers tried out the simplest scenario for getting Spirit out of the sand: driving forward with all five wheels. The wheels made enough revolutions to go tens of yards if they could have found traction, but all the rover did was move slightly forward as well as sideways down the sloping sand.
Engineers' dilemma, scientists' delight
Over the weeks to come, engineers will be trying out a variety of other scenarios, an exercise that will eventually help them choose the best path for setting Spirit free. In the meantime, scientists are intrigued by the sandy layers they're seeing at Troy - so intrigued that they may be sorry to see Spirit go.
The evidence suggests that Martian winds have sorted the sand grains into those layers, and that they've been cemented into place by thin films of water. It was just the engineers' bad luck, or the scientists' good luck, that Spirit broke through the crusty top layer and got caught up in the disturbed soil beneath.
Speaking of good luck, Martian winds have swept off Spirit's solar arrays so well that the rover has more electrical energy at its disposal that it has had in years. To keep the batteries healthy (and keep the rover from overheating), Spirit has been burning off some of that energy at twilight and at night.
Universe Today highlights one of the astronomical images that Spirit captured, showing the star Canopus in the night sky. You'll also find plenty of views of a Martian sunset among the raw images being sent down by Spirit. All these observations are designed to gather more data about the Red Planet's dust-filled atmosphere.
Speaking of sunsets, one of the top atmospheric scientists on the Mars rover team, Mark Lemmon, explained why Martian sunsets can look blue in an explainer we published 11 years ago, based on Mars Pathfinder data. A similar phenomenon is behind the blue moon that is currently visible from dust-swept Tehran. You'll find further details and imagery at SpaceWeather.com.
What about Oppy?
Spirit's mechanical twin, the Opportunity rover, has also captured blue sunsets during its five-plus years of operation. Right now Opportunity is making its way toward 14-mile-wide Endeavour Crater, the biggest crater ever targeted by the rover. But it's had to make its way somewhat more slowly than expected, JPL spokesman Guy Webster told me.
Engineers are starting to see electrical problems relating to the rover's right front wheel - the very same wheel that went out on Spirit. As a precautionary measure, Webster said the rover drivers are giving Opportunity more rest periods and also mixing up its travel modes. The rover might go on a series of short drives rather than one long haul, for example, or turn itself around and drive in reverse. Which all goes to show that you can teach an old rover new tricks after all.
Update for 1:35 a.m. July 9: You've gotta see this! Venus and Earth, as seen from Spirit's vantage point on Mars. The good folks at UnmannedSpaceflight.com have put together the rover's sky imagery to create a movie of our tiny, pale gray dot moving relative to brighter Venus. (Venus is closer to Mars than Earth is right now, and that's why our planet looks dimmer, as explained in this blog posting.)
If you scroll down the UnmannedSpaceflight forum page a little farther, you'll see a dandy little movie of a Martian sunset as well.
Mark Lemmon, the expert on Martian skies who is now based at Texas A&M, basically pointed me toward these gems when he sent this e-mail late Wednesday:
"...We have continued with the night imaging as described earlier. Earth shows up passing by Venus during the observations we made. Earth is faint, but distinguishable, and Venus is brighter. The UnmannedSpaceflight.com forum has an animation made from uncalibrated images. The are a few other star fields we've imaged, but last I checked they were still in the queue to downlink.
"We are going to slow down the night campaign since we have to juggle many resources, not just energy. In this case, the plan complexity has increased too much, and we need to balance using energy efficiently at night with the need to come up with safe plans every day. That won't stop night ops, it just means we cannot do too many complex things in any given plan."
Thanks to Mark for the pointer, and thanks to UnmannedSpaceflight.com for their good works.
Update for 9 p.m. ET July 9: The rover testing team has worked its way through four of the nine scenarios for getting Spirit out of the sand trap, according to Sharon Laubach, integrated sequencing team chief for the Mars Exploration Rover project at JPL. Among those strategies are driving forward, straight out; driving backward; making a crablike motion forward and uphill (to push away from a potential obstacle); and turning downhill in place.
Has the test rover popped out of its sandbox using any of those strategies? "I wish!" Laubach told me.
"While we do see progress, it is very small progress with high slippage," she said. "We are seeing motion, and it is promising. But from what we see on Earth, we still believe it is going to take a while once we start the extraction process on Mars."
As for Spirit's twin on Mars, Laubach said that Opportunity was due to hit the road on Friday after two weeks of rest. Actually, that's two weeks of rest for the wheels - but the rover team has been keeping Oppy's robotic arm and scientific instruments quite busy in the interim. "We stop in scientifically interesting areas so we can make the best use of Opportunity while she has to rest her wheel," Laubach said.
That reference to "her" is not a typo, by the way. For years, the rover team has thought of Oppy as female ("Little Miss Perfect," in the words of principal investigator Steve Squyres).
Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. If you really want to be friendly, ask me about my upcoming book, "The Case for Pluto." You can pre-order it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Borders.
An influential panel has issued a new long-range prescription for what ails NASA, and the space agency is testing a next-generation Internet protocol on the international space station. Meanwhile, the Rocket Racing League announces a new round of investments and a shift in its top management. Read on to glimpse the future of the final frontier:
More from the space frontier:
Clemens Bilan / AFP - Getty Images
Fans of Michael Jackson weep in the German city of Cologne on Tuesday as they
watch the public memorial service for "The King of Pop" on large video screens.
Chastened by Inauguration Day's online video breakdowns, Web sites bulked up their capacity to handle the crush of traffic for pop star Michael Jackson's memorial service on Tuesday - and statistics showed that the bits flowed at mostly manageable levels.
When President Barack Obama took office on Jan. 20, so many people were watching online that some sites couldn't keep up with the flow. The benchmark number for that day was 7.2 million active streams, as recorded by Akamai, a Massachusetts-based company that handles high-traffic events for a long list of Web sites, including msnbc.com.
Tuesday's active-stream count passed the 2 million mark shortly after the 10 a.m. PT service began, and rose as time went on. What's more, those video viewers shifted their focus from recorded clips ("on demand") to the live streams.
The count surpassed 2.5 million at 11 a.m., and hovered around 2.77 million at 11:50 a.m. After the service ended and the mourners moved on, the count drifted down to 2.5 million at 1:15 p.m and sank below 1.7 million just before 2 p.m. PT. By that time, the on-demand video streams outnumbered the live streams.
Celebrities from the entertainment world were clearly the draw during the Webcast: Akamai's real-time video-stream count slumped slightly when the Rev. Al Sharpton took the stage (OK, he's a fiery orator, but can he sing?), then rebounded when singer/songwriter/guitarist John Mayer took his place. The ups and downs could serve as an instant rating service for a particular star's appeal. (Sharpton at -20 per second, Mayer at +40. Brooke Shields started out at +10 but fell to -20 as her tribute went on. Martin Luther King III came in at -80.)
Whether it was Stevie Wonder or Sharpton, Mayer or Shields, the Webcast was clearly the draw on the Web: Akamai's tally of traffic to the news sites in its network peaked at 3.9 million visitors per minute just before the service started, then dropped off - suggesting that Web users were passing up static Web pages to focus on the pages that offered video. In comparison, Akamai said the peak visitors-per-minute rate for June 25, the day Jackson died, was 4.2 million.
Massive media convergence
The overall Web traffic figures for the Michael Jackson saga have generally fallen short of the peaks registered during last November's election coverage, Inauguration Day and prime sports events such as the NCAA basketball playoffs.
But when it comes to Michael Jackson and his legacy, the real action is in the convergence of cable TV, online video, blogs and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. The flurry of tweets about #MichaelJackson on June 25 put a heavy load to Twitter's 140-character-at-a-time social network (which was also humming with #iranelection tweets).
Facebook reported that its users were averaging 6,000 status updates per minute during the memorial service - which was roughly 2,000 more per minute than the average for the Inauguration Day ceremonies.
In addition to the online action, big screens around the world carried the video signal from the service, Michael Jackson fans gathered around television sets to share the experience, and Cinedigm Digital Cinema Network beamed the event to more than 80 movie theaters nationwide.
Alan Wurtzel, chief of research at NBC Universal, told The Associated Press that the Michael Jackson coverage represented "the first multiplatform-significant culture event." (NBC Universal is a partner in the msnbc.com joint venture.)
No big impact on the intertubes
As the day proceeded, Akamai tweeted its traffic statistics on a regular basis. California-based Keynote Systems, which monitors mobile-device and Internet performance, was also watching the flow of data traffic closely. Keynote's senior director for external operations, Shawn White, told me in an e-mail before the service that he wouldn't be surprised if some of the video streams suffered degradation because of high traffic.
But there was no major impact on the Internet's overall performance. "So far we are seeing some slowdowns on The Keynote News Web Site Performance Index," Keynote spokesman Dan Berkowitz said in an e-mail just after noon PT Tuesday. "Overall, the Internet is performing OK (that is based on The Keynote Business 40 Web Performance Index)."
Although the overall Internet easily handled the load, data monitors cautioned that individual network users might experience slowdowns because of localized traffic jams - for example, on your company's computer network. "The IT folks in my office are blaming our slow processing speed on the online streaming," one of my Facebook friends told me.
On the mobile-phone front, Verizon Wireless reported that attempts to connect with the company's voice network between 10 a.m. and noon PT Tuesday were up 10 percent over Monday's comparable levels, and data attempts (for texting and Web use) were up 86 percent. "The networks worked perfectly normally," Verizon's Debi Lewis reported in an e-mail.
Early Tuesday, Keynote's White said Michael Jackson's memorial service would likely rank just behind Inauguration Day on the list of significant online news events. (The 9/11 terror attacks of 2001 ranks third on White's list - in part because they took place when Web-based media, and particularly online video, weren't as mature as they are today.)
"With the inauguration, there was so much expectation and hype, anticipation and excitement," White said in his e-mail. "Also, most schools throughout the country, from elementary school through college, had their students watch the inauguration - much of it online. For Jackson's memorial service, it was something completely unexpected and more of a somber event."
It was also an event taking place during midsummer, when folks tend to minimize the time they spend peering at a TV or a computer screen.
Generally speaking, the video traffic figures confirmed White's one-two prediction, although there were some extra twists. Msnbc.com, for example, delivered a little more than 3 million live streams of the service (compared with more than 9 million live streams reported for Inauguration Day). However, msnbc.com said the total streams (including on-demand video) added up to about 19 million - which surpassed the 18.2 million reported for Jan. 20.
The NewTeeVee blog said CNN registered 9.7 million live streams (vs. 25 million live streams claimed for Inauguration Day). Yahoo said Tuesday's 5 million total streams outdid Inauguration Day's 1.8 million, making the memorial service the "most streamed" event in the company's history.
How did you experience (or not experience) today's events? Feel free to leave a comment below.
Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about my upcoming book, "The Case for Pluto." You can pre-order it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Borders.
Eric Thayer / Reuters
Michael Jackson fan Leandro Lapagesse of Brazil clutches a handful of
memorabilia outside the Forest Lawn Mortuary in Los Angeles on Monday.
Why do celebrities such as pop star Michael Jackson exert such a pull, especially when they've just passed away?
For decades, psychologists have been studying the one-way relationships we create with celebrities. Some researchers say such connections are merely a fact of life in a media-saturated age. Others suggest that celebrating dead celebrities offers a way to come to terms with our own mortality - and reach for a kind of immortality as well.
The public fascination with Jackson is certainly beyond dispute: When word of his death circulated on June 25, it almost broke the Internet. Hundreds of thousands of mourners are expected to converge on downtown Los Angeles for Tuesday's memorial service. Sales of music and memorabilia have spiked so high that some speculate Jackson is worth more dead than alive.
Even Gayle Stever, a psychology professor at Empire State College who studied the Michael Jackson fan phenomenon 20 years ago, is amazed at the response she's been seeing on her Facebook page. "Fans that I haven't heard from in 15 years are finding me on there," she told me.
Jackson's fans sparked Stever's first research project, and since then she's been studying the relationships that fans have forged with celebrities ranging from singer Josh Groban to the stars of the "Star Trek" and "Lord of the Rings" on-screen sagas. The way Stever sees it, such ties, known in the trade as "parasocial relationships," can be just as real as your ties with family and friends.
"We are biologically programmed to be attracted to human faces and human voices," she said. "In the last 100 years we've been able to 'know' people through media that normally we wouldn't know ... and I think our human brains don't always know the difference."
That means the grief felt by Michael Jackson's fans can be as deep as the grief one feels over the death of a family member. "The key to why people are affected by the death is to ask why we are affected by any death. I don't think it's any different, whether it's a parasocial attachment or a person we saw in real life," Stever said.
Stever said the intensity of that feeling doesn't necessarily depend on how big the star is. As an example, she points to Craig Parker. Craig who? He's the guy who played one of Orlando Bloom's elven pals in the "Lord of the Rings" movies.
"That actor has a fan base of devoted, die-hard, attached fans, and the attachment to someone like that, who you've never heard of, is just as intense, just as personal, just as important as the attachment to a Michael Jackson, or my current study, who happens to be Josh Groban," Stever said. "The magnitude of the star doesn't correlate to the intensity of the attachment."
Celebrity action at a distance
Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. In a series of studies published last year in the journal Personal Relationships, the University of Buffalo's Jaye Derrick and her colleagues found that some college students viewed their favorite celebrities as being more similar to the way they saw themselves, while others saw celebrities as being more similar to the way they'd like to be. The first group tended to have high self-esteem; the second group was judged to have low self-esteem.
"Basically, we found that with low self-esteem people, these celebrities embodied their ideal selves," Derrick told me. "High self-esteem people saw them more like their actual selves."
One of the more interesting outcomes was that once the low self-esteem subjects reflected on their favorite celebrities, they tended to rate their own self-image higher. In fact, thinking about celebrities was more of a mood-brightener than thinking about their own partners - which led the researchers to conclude that "parasocial relationships can have self-enhancing benefits for low self-esteem people that they do not receive in real relationships." (They hastened to emphasize, however, that celebrities can't replace real friends.)
In a follow-up study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Derrick and her colleagues found that merely watching television can give some people a sense that their social needs are being met.
A kind of immortality?
Psychology professor Chi-Yue Chiu and Pelin Kesebir of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found even deeper meaning in a series of studies presented last year at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. They found that our feelings about the legacy left behind by celebrities could be affected by reflection upon our own mortality.
In an e-mail from Istanbul, Kesebir explained the point behind the research:
"Famous people, at their best, are sacred heroes who reflect what we hold to be the best of our culture and society. As such heroes they are considered less mortal than ordinary humans, both symbolically and literally. My research shows that this perception of cultural heroes as imperishable serves to alleviate death anxiety.
"After being reminded of their mortality, for example, people think that famous people will be remembered for a longer time in the future, attesting to people's desire to see these celebrities as symbolically immortal. And the more celebrities represent cultural values, the more is the desire to see them as everlasting.
"In research I conducted two years ago, I had participants answer the hypothetical question of how long Michael Jackson (among other celebrities) will be remembered after he dies, after making them write either about their mortality or some other control topic. Participants reminded of their mortality on average thought that he'll be remembered for 104 years, whereas participants in the control group thought that he'll be remembered for only 60.71 years.
"That study revealed that to the extent that famous people represent cultural values, they are perceived to be symbolically immortal, and this perception intensifies after reminders of mortality. In another study, I showed that people think that if they board the same plane as a famous person, the plane is less likely to crash, to the extent that the famous person on board represents cultural values.
"As also suggested by the expression 'celebrity worship,' parallels between religion and the veneration shown to certain celebrities are plentiful. Iconic stars like Michael Jackson occupy the status of a demi-god, if not a god, in the eyes of their fans (incidentally, a word that has religious origins) and thereby provide meaning and existential stamina to them the way religions provide to their believers. Michael Jackson's death will therefore be very hard on his die-hard fans.
"They will experience the shock of seeing the annihilation of something they inwardly deemed to be imperishable (just like a god). In a way, they have lost one of their bulwarks against existential anxiety, and they are in a vulnerable state now. With time, though, they will come to accept his literal death and derive a similar sense of stamina from his symbolic immortality."
What do celebrity fans seek?
Some might say Kesebir is taking her conclusions too far. It's unlikely that any of Michael Jackson's fans ever seriously regarded him as a literal god (although there's already a not-completely-serious effort to deify him). And Stever pointed out that hard-core, borderline pathological fans make up a small proportion of the typical celebrity fan base (although some studies suggest that a larger number of people engage in milder forms of celebrity worship).
"Fan bases are made up of just as diverse a group of people as any other group," Stever said. You can find zealots in any population sample of significant size, whether you're talking about a celebrity fan club or the local fraternal lodge, she said.
Stever said that, in her experience, most fan clubs are all about "appreciating true talent, and seeing the fan base as an opportunity for social networking." So when thousands of people show up at the Staples Center, or go online to share their feelings about the King of Pop, the experience might be as much about connecting with a community of like-minded fans as it is about immortalizing the silenced celebrity. That funerary tradition is as old as any mythology.
What do you think? Is the mourning of Michael Jackson a throwback to ancient religious rites, a media-generated spectacle or a healthy catharsis for millions of fans? Feel free to leave your comments below.
Derrick's co-authors for the self-esteem study, "Parasocial Relationships and Self-Discrepancies: Faux Relationships Have Benefits for Low Self-Esteem Individuals," include Shira Gabriel of the University of Buffalo and Brooke Tippin of Detroit. Her co-authors for the television study, "Social Surrogacy: How Favored Television Programs Provide the Experience of Belonging," include Gabriel and Kurt Hugenberg of Miami University.
I'll be taking a few days off over the Fourth of July weekend, and that means I'll be staying away from the keyboard as much as possible. As always, blog postings may pop up if there are news developments, and if I have enough time and bandwidth to follow through. I'll be resuming the regular schedule on Tuesday, just in time to gear up for the shuttle Endeavour's next launch attempt. In the meantime, here's an extra dose of Web links (some serious, some not) to see you through the long weekend:
NASA / GSFC / ASU
This image shows a cratered region near the moon's Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds)
region, as photographed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera. Click on
the image for a larger version from NASA's Web site.
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, was launched on June 18, along with another probe destined to crash into the moon's south pole - known as the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS.
LRO entered lunar orbit just last week, on the same day that LCROSS transmitted its own first imagery of the moon. Mission managers had figured it would take longer for LRO to send back higher-resolution images worth sharing. However, when they activated the orbiter's cameras for a test on Tuesday, they were surprised to find that the pictures they got back were real stunners.
"Our first images were taken along the moon's terminator - the dividing line between day and night - making us initially unsure of how they would turn out," Arizona State University's Mark Robinson, the principal investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, said in today's image advisory.
"Because of the deep shadowing, subtle topography is exaggerated, suggesting a craggy and inhospitable surface," he said. "In reality, the area is similar to the region where the Apollo 16 astronauts safely explored in 1972. While these are magnificent in their own right, the main message is that LROC is nearly ready to begin its mission."
Later today, Robinson explained why the mission team had such low expectations for Tuesday's pictures. "The point of that test was not to take pictures of the lunar surface," he told me. "It was to collect engineering data to make sure that all of our settings are correct for Friday."
Starting Friday, LRO's cameras will be in operation for two and a half days, snapping pictures of some of the lesser-known areas of the moon's far side, Robinson said. Then the cameras will be shut off again for further commissioning. "We still are not completely finished baking out the moisture from the telescope," he said.
By next month, LRO will be in full picture-taking mode, acquiring much sharper views of the lunar surface. The orbiter's camera should be able to make out some of the traces left behind by the Apollo moon missions four decades ago, including lunar module leavings and rover tracks. "I promise you we will get spectacular images of all the Apollo landing sites before all is said and done," Robinson told me.
It's been a whole decade since the last U.S. moon probe smashed into the lunar surface, but it's not as if the moon has been terra incognita over the past few years. Several international spacecraft have been sending back pictures of our nearest celestial neighbor - including Europe's SMART-1, China's Chang'e 1, India's Chandrayaan 1 and Japan's Kaguya probe.
Nevertheless, LRO is a big deal: Its pictures and other data will be used to plan NASA's future push to the moon, designed to climax in a manned lunar landings sometime around 2020.
This month, the world will be remembering the Apollo 11 lunar landing and the explorations that followed between 1969 and 1972. The pictures coming from LRO should remind people that the best is yet to come.
NASA / GSFC / ASU
This image shows another cratered area near the moon's Mare Nubium region, as photographed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera. The region pictured is about 1,400 meters (0.87 miles) wide. The bottom of the image faces lunar north. Click on the image for a larger version from NASA's Web site.
Here's more about LRO's progress from the NASA news release issued today:
"... The satellite also has started to activate its six other instruments. The Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector will look for regions with enriched hydrogen that potentially could have water ice deposits. The Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation is designed to measure the moon's radiation environment. Both were activated on June 19 and are functioning normally.
"Instruments expected to be activated during the next week and calibrated are the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter, designed to build 3-D topographic maps of the moon's landscape; the Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment, which will make temperature maps of the lunar surface; and the Miniature Radio Frequency, or Mini-RF, an experimental radar and radio transmitter that will search for subsurface ice and create detailed images of permanently shaded craters.
"The final instrument, the Lyman Alpha Mapping Project, will be activated after the other instruments have completed their calibrations, allowing more time for residual contaminants from the manufacture and launch of LRO to escape into the vacuum of space. This instrument is an ultraviolet-light imager that will use starlight to search for surface ice. It will take pictures of the permanently-shaded areas in deep craters at the lunar poles.
" 'Accomplishing these significant milestones moves us closer to our goals of preparing for safe human return to the moon, mapping the moon in unprecedented detail, and searching for resources,' said LRO Project Scientist Richard Vondrak of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
"While its instruments are being activated and tested, the spacecraft is in a special elliptical commissioning orbit around the moon. The orbit takes less fuel to maintain than the mission's primary orbit. The commissioning orbit's closest point to the lunar surface is about 19 miles over the moon's south pole, and its farthest point is approximately 124 miles over the lunar north pole.
"After the spacecraft and instruments have completed their initial calibrations, the spacecraft will be directed into its primary mission orbit in August, a nearly circular orbit about 31 miles above the lunar surface.
"Goddard built and manages LRO, a NASA mission with international participation from the Institute for Space Research in Moscow. Russia provides the neutron detector aboard the spacecraft."
Still more about LRO imagery:
Update for 12:55 a.m. ET July 6: The Web address for the YouTube video has changed, so I corrected my Web link accordingly. Check out this YouTube channel for more about Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
This item was last updated at 12:55 a.m. ET July 6.
Chad Mirkin / Northwestern University
Click for video: Nanoscale rods of gold can be coaxed to assemble themselves
into spheres, as seen in this photomicrograph. The gold nanospheres, developed
by Northwestern University's Chad Mirkin and his colleagues, are used in medical
testing devices. Click on the image to launch a video about Mirkin and his work.
What do tiny circuits, medical tests and a $500,000 prize have in common? They all fall into the domain of one of the world's foremost nanotech researchers. Last week, Northwestern University chemist Chad Mirkin received this year's $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for "his revolutionary discoveries and sizable contributions" in the field of nanotechnology.
The prize is one of the richest rewards given to inventors, but by no means the only honor listed on Mirkin's Web page. The 45-year-old head of Northwestern's International Institute of Nanotechnology received the Feynman Prize in 2002, the Sackler Prize in 2003 and a long paragraph's worth of other awards.
|Chad Mirkin is the head of
International Institute of
Mirkin is the co-founder of two companies - NanoInk for lithography applications and Nanosphere for medical testing and treatment. He serves on President Obama's Council of Advisers for Science and Technology. He's the author of more than 380 manuscripts and more than 350 patent applications. He ranks No. 1 on the list of oft-cited nanoresearchers and No. 3 on the chemistry list.
Not everything that Mirkin touches immediately turns to gold nanoparticles: The companies he founded haven't generated huge profits just yet, and the nascent nanotech field is still facing questions about environmental and health effects.
But the technologies Mirkin pioneered are already being put to use: The diagnostic device that Nanosphere developed has been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration and might eventually be used to detect the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. NanoInk's molecular-scale printing technique is being used to make printed circuits, fight drug counterfeiters and further stem cell research.
Mirkin thinks the Lemelson-MIT Prize will give his work - as well as nanotechnology in general - a big boost. "It draws a lot of visibility to us, and I think it is going to facilitate the development of the next set of technologies," he told me by telephone Tuesday night (or Wednesday morning in Singapore, where he was lecturing at a conference on materials science).
Here's an edited transcript of my Q&A with Mirkin:
Cosmic Log: How is it that a guy like yourself can be involved with nanolithography as well as medical testing? Does that say something about the breadth of nanotechnology?
Mirkin: It says something about the core premise of nanotechnology, and that is that one can learn how to build on the nanometer length scale. You can begin to build materials that have properties that can be used in any application, ranging from nanolithography in the semiconductor industry to molecular electronics to molecular diagnostics and ultimately therapeutics. So, one of the core challenges in nanotechnology is learning how to build on this scale.
The tool that we adapted to nanolithography is one that allows you to do that. The medical diagnostics are based upon nanomaterials that we were studying for a very different purpose. We were trying to develop a fundamentally new way for building materials out of DNA, and we discovered that these materials had spectacular properties that made them very attractive for medical diagnostic purposes.
Much of what we do derives from the core ability to work with matter, much like Tinkertoys but on the nanometer length scale.
Q: Are the same tools involved in nanolithography as well as the diagnostic tool?
A: No, they're two core tools that we developed in the 1990s. One was this patterning method that uses a short tip probe to deliver molecules to a surface like a pen delivers ink to paper. That's the nanolithography. The other tool was a chemical tool that used DNA as a construction worker to assemble nanoparticles into higher-order structures. The basic idea was to tag particles of DNA, using the base-pairing schemes of DNA – the fact that A recognizes T, and G recognizes C – to build structures that literally assemble themselves into architectures that are preconceived. We can control the size and shape and the composition of the particles. The diagnostics derive from that capability.
Q: One of the things that I've noticed about nanotechnology is that it's sometimes hard to wrap your hands around it. I don't know if a lot of people understand exactly what nanotechnology represents as a separate technology. Do you find that to be the case?
A: Well, it's all relative. People seem to find it a lot easier to wrap their hands around nanotech than they do around the core disciplines like chemistry and physics. If I talk to somebody on a plane about my work in the context of chemistry, they'll often turn to me and cringe and say, "That was the worst class I had since I went to college!" If I talk to that same person in the context of nanotechnology, there's something about it that is very user-friendly. They're more interested, they ask more questions, they learn more about it. So I think it's the opposite. Nanotech has been a gift to science and laypeople. It bridges the gap.
Q: Why do you think that is? Is it because nanotechnology is about building things rather than trying to explain chemical reactions?
A: I think it's that, and I also think there's been the popularization of nanotech. They've seen it used in movies, in both a positive and negative light – and because of that connection with pop culture, there's a curiosity that makes the subject a little more approachable.
One of the appealing things is that you can make things small just for the sake of making them small, for miniaturized devices. But the really interesting thing about the science and the technology is that when you make things small, they become different. What we do with gold is a beautiful example. You know what bulk gold looks like, right? Well, you can miniaturize gold to the nanometer length scale to make these little particles. And at that scale, gold is red. In fact, in the Middle Ages they used gold particles as red dots in stained-glass windows.
If you change the shape of the gold on that scale, you can completely control the optical properties, you can make it any color in the spectrum you like. That's a neat concept: that one material can have completely different and tailorable properties when you can build it on the nanometer length scale. When you miniaturize things, they're different.
There's a lot of neat science there to figure out why that is, and to create the rules for explaining why it is. And there are a lot of neat applications for that architecture. We use it to create particles, and labels, and medical diagnostic systems. We tag the particles with DNA and proteins and use them to seek out markers for disease. We're creating highly sensitive and selective tools that have a chance to revolutionize the medical diagnostics industry, by making tests simple and affordable and capable of being used at the point of care.
Q: What does winning the Lemelson-MIT Prize mean for your work? How will this change the way you do what you do?
A: I don't know if it will change the way we're headed. Certainly it's incredible validation. This is not an ordinary prize. It's really one of the premier prizes, if not the premier prize, in invention. Being selected for this is an incredible honor. I'm humbled and blown away by the fact that some group of people thought that the work that we've done is important enough to be recognized by such an award. It draws a lot of visibility to us, and I think it is going to facilitate the development of the next set of technologies – which I think will ultimately lead to the commercialization and widespread use of nanotechnology in the field of therapeutics.
Q: That anticipated my question: What do you think is in store for nanotechnology in the future? Maybe you could tell me a little bit more about the therapeutic applications.
A: We're moving heavily in that direction. It turns out that nanomaterials can play a huge role in many areas of therapeutics. One example is HDL [high-density lipoprotein], the "good" kind of cholesterol. That's a nanostructure. We have statins that allow you to lower the levels of LDL [low-density lipoprotein, which is "bad" cholesterol]. To be healthy, what you really like is a good HDL-to-LDL ratio, so you'd like to learn how to raise HDL levels.
We've learned how to build nanostructures based on gold particles that mimic the properties of natural HDL, and we think that will lead to a whole new class of therapeutics that will be the complement to statins. If you think about what that can do for cardiovascular disease, the impact could be enormous. And it's not just cardiovascular disease. HDL is implicated in a lot of different diseases, as a positive thing to battle inflammation. Being able to raise effective HDL levels could be quite important. We're now testing particles that mimic the properties, the size and structure of HDL, and the ability to bind cholesterol and transport it. So we're really excited that this might lead to a whole new class of therapeutics designed to raise HDL levels and have an impact on cardiovascular disease as well as a wide range of diseases that involve inflammation.
Gene regulation is another promising technology for battling lots of diseases, including cancer, by being able to go into cells and correct genetic malfunctions. It turns out that we've got particles now that we've learned how to make, which are related to some of the particles we've used in diagnostics and are spectacular intracellular gene regulation tools. They can be designed to go into cells and turn switches that convert an unhealthy cell into a healthy cell, or cause cancer cells to selectively die.
We're finding a whole new suite of nanostructures that can lay the foundation for a new class of therapeutics. They could do intracellular gene regulation in a non-toxic, relatively low-cost manner. The implications there are enormous. You're talking about being able to cure or treat some of the most important diseases that are out there.
These materials are far from being actual therapeutics right now, but they're exceptional leads.
Q: It sounds as if folks who want to get into nanotechnology really have to be biochemists.
A: We have all sorts of different areas represented. I find biochemistry to be one of the more interesting areas, but the beautiful thing about nanotech is that it takes in all types of science, all types of engineering, all types of medicine.
People ask whether they should get trained specifically in nanotechnology, or should they get trained in chemistry or physics or biology or medicine first. I recommend the latter strategy. Get really smart in one core discipline, and then become smart in a lot of the nanotech approaches – rather than spreading yourself a mile wide and an inch deep.
Q: Is that the secret of your success?
A: Yeah, the reason I was successful is because I was a chemist by training. I learned how to do synthesis. I can make any reasonable molecule that I can draw on the board. That allows me, then, to make designer constructs that can be put on nanoparticles and nanostructures to give them the extraordinary functions that I've been describing. If you can't make those structures, then it doesn't matter what you write on the board.