Patterns like the leopard's rosettes evolve in cats that live in forest habitats.
Researchers have followed up on Rudyard Kipling's classic tale to investigate why some leopards got their spots — and why others are spotless.
In one of his "Just-So Stories," Kipling suggested that the leopard scrounged up his distinctive rosettes because he had to stalk his prey undetected in a "great forest, 'sclusively full of trees and bushes and stripy, speckly, patchy-blatchy shadows." Biologists think Kipling wasn't far wrong: The leopard-spot camouflage helps the cats move stealthily through the shadowed forest. But why aren't all big cats spotted?
Researchers at the University of Bristol have developed a mathematical model that links the patterning of the leopard and 34 other species of wild cats to their different habitats. A paper about their research is being published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The model suggests that cats living in the trees within dense habitats, with high activity at low light levels, are the most likely to have complex color patterns in their fur. The cats that spent their time in well-lit and uniform environments, such as plains and grasslands, were more likely to have small spots or plain coats. The analysis supports the view that different patterns of camouflage reflect adaptation to different environments -- and it also suggests that those patterns can change relatively quickly.
The findings would explain why black leopards (also known as black panthers) are common, while black cheetahs don't exist. As explained in a news release about the research, leopards live in a wide range of habitats ... and some of those habitats offer lighting conditions and behavioral patterns that would favor black leopards over spotted cats. Cheetahs, however, live in a more limited range of habitats.
The research does raise a few questions, however: The mathematical model generally associates spots with closed environment. But cheetahs are spotted even though they favor open environments, and the bay cat and the flat-headed cat have plain coats despite their preference for closed environments. Why doesn't the model hold true in those cases? (It could be that the cheetah is so fast it doesn't need to rely on camouflage.) And why is the tiger the only species among the 35 studied to have vertically elongated stripes?
One thing's for sure: The researchers aren't stopping with leopards. Like Kipling, they're gearing up to address other questions of coloration. For example, why do zebras have stripes? Some researchers have suggested that the zebra stripes aren't meant to serve as camouflage, but rather as a cooling system or an insect repellent. Mathematical modeling could provide further evidence for or against such hypotheses.
"The method we have developed offers insights into cat patterning at many levels of explanation, and we are now applying it to other groups of animals," the University of Bristol's Will Allen said in the news release.
The Internet has made it easier for reports of UFO sightings to make it into the media mainstream, but it's also easier to track down the truth that's out there. The past week's X-Files from New York and El Paso are two classic cases that demonstrate how perfectly natural phenomena can lead to way-out interpretations.
The likelier explanation, however, is that the lights were actually party balloons glinting in the sun. The New York Daily News went so far as to pinpoint the source of the balloons: a party held at a suburban New York elementary school in honor of a teacher's engagement. A parent bringing 40 of the iridescent pearl balloons lost a bunch of them on the way in to Milestone School in Mount Vernon, N.Y., about an hour before the sightings began. The wind would have taken the balloons southward at just the right time.
"UFOs? They're crazy -- those are our balloons," Angela Freeman, the head of the school, told the Daily News.
The local TV report shown above embellishes the balloon report with a shot of a bright blip in the evening sky, surrounded by a few smaller blips. "Was that anything? Was it what people saw earlier? I don't know, I can't tell you," the reporter says. But what's on the video is a classic close-up of Jupiter and its largest moons. Jupiter happens to be about as close to Earth as it ever gets, which means the planet would be big and bright in the skies over New York. That seems to prove the point that planets are often mistaken for UFOs. Or does it?!
Just a couple of days later, the UFO buzz picked up again, with claims that strange lights had been seen in the skies over El Paso. The video at the very top of this item presents a report from KTSM-TV about the sightings. It looks as if a bright spot breaks into three teardrops of light that float earthward. Britain's Daily Mail gushed over the incident, showing a picture of three shining specks over New York as well as the three specks in Texas. "They said the 'UFO' over New York was just balloons ... so how do they explain the mirror image over El Paso?" the Mail asks in its headline.
Here's how: It didn't take long for folks to recall that there was an air show in El Paso over the weekend, and that one of the featured attractions was a nighttime parachute show by the U.S. Army's Golden Knights. The YouTube video below, captured a year earlier, shows three members of the parachute team falling through the skies with flares blazing, a sight very similar to what was seen in El Paso over the weekend.
The Golden Knights themselves link to the TV report from their Twitter page with this commentary: "Black Team causes panic in El Paso." And there's this: "Wow, GK blog is crashing due to Black Team's jump in El Paso. For the record we are not aliens in disguise."
If the El Paso lights look as if they're floating in the air, that may simply be because of the way the video camera was held. But what about the "mirror images" of the three New York lights and the three El Paso lights? In order to achieve that mirror effect, the El Paso video frame had to be turned 90 degrees clockwise. Whenever you have video of three things floating through the air, chances are you'll always find a frame in which that triad forms a triangle of some sort.
On Monday, KTSM broadcast a follow-up report that went along with the air-show explanation.
So does this close the case? Or are the Golden Knights and KTSM in on the alien conspiracy? Either way, the UFO hit parade just keeps rolling along. Now there's talk of a sighting in Florida, as well as the "God in Google Maps." Trust no one...
It's hard to imagine a more glorious galaxy than NGC 3982, a face-on spiral that's swirling like a pinwheel 68 million light-years away in the northern constellation Ursa Major. It's a classic target for high-powered telescopes. This picture of the galaxy, released today by the Hubble Heritage team, was assembled from near-infrared and visible-light data captured by the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 between 2000 and 2009.
The colors have been adjusted to emphasize star-forming regions, rich in hydrogen gas (in pink), as well as hot young stars (in blue). Older stars are concentrated in the galaxy's white-yellow nucleus. This earlier rendering from Hubble shows the pinwheel in natural colors.
NGC 3982 is more than just a pretty face: Observations of a special kind of star inside the galaxy, known as a Cepheid variable, were used to fine-tune astronomers' best estimates of the Hubble constant -- a number that describes the universe's expansion rate. For what it's worth, the current value of the Hubble constant is judged to be somewhere around 73 kilometers per second per megaparsec. But don't worry: There won't be a quiz.
The curious nebula NGC 6210 has been compared to a "turtle in space," based on the shape of its colorful clouds of glowing gas. This image, released Monday by the European Space Agency's Hubble Space Telescope team, looks inside the turtle to chart the nebula's inner region in unprecedented detail. You can see a delicate bluish bubble of gas, enclosing an amorphous, reddish gas formation with pillars and filaments sticking out. Up toward the top, there's a red blurp that's part of a jet of material stretching out from the scene. (In the earlier Hubble view, that blurp represents one of the turtle's appendages.)
NGC 6210, discovered in 1825 by the German astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve, is a fine example of a planetary nebula. The nebulae were called "planetary" because they looked like planetary disks through the small telescopes used in the olden days. But they actually represent the death throes of a sunlike star nearing the end of its life. When the star's fusion fuel runs out, it becomes unstable and starts throwing off its outer layers of gas. You can make out the remnant of the star as a bright spot in the middle of the colorful clouds. Astronomers say our own sun will meet a similar fate, in 5 billion years or so.
In an artist's conception, a Mars explorer surveys one of the Red Planet's grand canyons.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Will the first explorers to visit Mars come back to Earth? Or does it actually make more sense to leave them there? The idea of sending the Red Planet's first settlers on one-way trips has been kicking around for years, and now two researchers have published a paper in the Journal of Cosmology laying out how such missions could play out between now and 2035.
"It is important to realize that this is not a 'suicide mission,'" Washington State University's Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Arizona State University's Paul Davies write. "The astronauts would go to Mars with the intention of staying for the rest of their lives, as trailblazers of a permanent human Mars colony."
In a WSU news release, Davies said the concept follows the model set by past human settlements of new lands. "It would really be little different from the first white settlers of the North American continent, who left Europe with little expectation of return," he said.
Back in the mid-1990s, rocket scientist and Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin pointed out that "colonization is, by definition, a one-way trip," and since then experts have debated the best way to do one-way. Four years ago, X Prize co-founder Peter Diamandis suggested setting up a private-sector "Mars Citizenship Program," with volunteers kicking in from $10,000 to $1 million each, About 100 candidates would be chosen by lottery to take the trip to a Red Planet colony prepared for them by robots. (Scroll down through this Cosmic Log archive for details, plus reader reaction.)
Davies' colleague at ASU, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, caused a stir last year by reviving the idea of one-way trips to Mars. Because much of the anticipated cost of a voyage to Mars was wrapped up in getting the voyagers back home again, eliminating the return trip would make the mission much more affordable. What's more, he suggested that the Mars voyagers might not be fit enough to make the return trip, due to radiation exposure. "As cruel as it may sound, the astronauts would probably best use their remaining time living and working on Mars rather than dying at home," Krauss wrote in his New York Times op-ed.
Schulze-Makuch and Davies don't think life on Mars would be so bad, judging by the scenario they lay out:
First, robots would identify a suitable location for a colony, based on the availability of a natural shelter (such as a lava tube cave) and the availability of water (in the form of ice, of course) as well as minerals and nutrients. Robo-construction crews could make the place habitable for humans.
The first one-way missions might involved two spaceships, each with a two-person crew. One of the astronauts should be a trained physician, and all of them should have scientific and technical know-how as well as a passion for research and exploration.
Those first colonists should be beyond reproductive age, due to the concerns about radiation as well as reduced life expectancy in a frontier environment.
With time, a series of cave-centered biospheres could be built for the growing Martian community, with beefed-up radiation protection. "Probably several decades after the first human mission, the colony's population might have expanded to about 150 individuals, which would constitute a viable gene pool to allow the possibility of a successful long-term reproduction program," the researchers write. "New arrivees and possibly the use of genetic engineering would further enhance genetic variety and contribute to the health and longevity of the colonists."
Schulze-Makuch and Davies say the Mars colony would provide a long-term base for exploring the Red Planet and looking for traces of ancient or extant life. It would serve as an insurance policy for the species, just in case a killer asteroid or a killer virus endangered life on Earth. And it also could "offer a springboard for human/robotic exploration of the outer solar system and the asteroid belt."
The researchers don't delve into the costs or the detailed logistics for one-way missions, but they do note that NASA's space vision calls for just the kinds of heavy-lift rockets and robotic capabilities that would mesh with future voyages to Mars. "We estimate that a reasonable time line for establishing a permanent unmanned base with robots would be 20 years, with the first human contingent arriving shortly thereafter," they write. "The main impediment is the narrow vision and the culture of political caution that now pervades the space programs of most nations."
Would you agree? Or would it be even tougher to find intelligent, healthy volunteers willing to spend the rest of their lives on a frozen, radiation-blasted world? Whenever we've posed this question before, a fair number of people say they'd definitely go. Four years ago, 374 of the 1,169 msnbc.com users who responded to a Live Vote said they'd be willing to "pay a substantial price" for a one-way trip, assuming that the risk was acceptable. This time around, I'd love to hear your reasons for taking the one-way trip. (Or not taking it!) Just leave a comment below.
Mike Miller writes: Pepperdine's Keion Bell doesn't care for Sir Isaac Newton. Gravity? Who needs it?
The guard stands just 6-foot-3, yet is known as one of college basketball's high fliers, capable of throwing down nasty dunks and jaw-dropping moves at any moment. (He also can play a little; Bell's 18.5 points per game led the Waves last season.)
Tech-savvy amateurs have been capturing video from the edge of space for more than a year, using cameras lofted into the stratosphere by weather balloons. But now it's gotten to the point that a Brooklyn cinematographer and his 7-year-old son can pull off the stunt.
After eight months' worth of experimentation and low-altitude test runs, Luke Geissbuhler and his son Max sent up an instrument package with an HD video camera and an iPhone from Newburgh, N.Y., to the 100,000-foot level (19 miles high, or 30.5 kilometers). From that height, you can see the curving Earth and the atmosphere's glow beneath the black sky of space.
What goes up must come down, however: At the end of a 70-minute ascent, the balloon burst - and the parachute-equipped, foam-cushioned craft hurtled back to Earth. That's where the iPhone came in. Thanks to its GPS capability, the Geissbuhlers could track their "Space Balloon" experiment and find it in the dead of night, 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the launch point. The rest is near-space history, as you can see from the video above and from the Geissbuhlers' website. Next up: a how-to book written for kids and parents.
A screenshot shows the Google Sky program with a pop-up featuring imagery from Slooh's virtual-telescope users.
Google and the Slooh virtual-telescope company have announced a deal to integrate tens of thousands of pictures captured by Slooh's members automatically into Google Earth's astronomical database. The arrangement could bring scientific crowdsourcing to a whole new level.
Millions of Internet users have already been participating in space-themed projects such as SETI @ Home, Galaxy Zoo and Moon Zoo, but those projects mostly involve sifting through data collected by the professionals. The collaboration announced today immediately puts images of more than 35,000 celestial objects into a Google Sky layer within the free Google Earth standalone program. New Slooh pictures will be added as soon as they're taken.
Slooh's members go on five-minute missions that put them in control of robotic telescopes in the Canary Islands, Chile and Australia. The remote-control "Space Camera" system allows them to snap pictures of the celestial objects they're seeing over the Internet. Now any Google Earth user will be able to see those pictures by clicking on a link in a data bubble, as illustrated in the screenshot above.
Slooh offers membership packages for "Mission Commanders" that range from $5.95 per month to $49.95 per year. There are also card sets for kids (available from Radio Shack and Toys 'R' Us) and a free membership level that lets you tag along on someone else's mission.
In a news release, Slooh founder Michael Paolucci said he was "thrilled" to announce the deal with Google. "Sharing the view through a live telescope is a powerful experience, one we are pleased to now share with Google's worldwide audience," he said.
In addition to serving up the pictures, Google plans to "broadcast" Slooh astronomy missions and special events such as lunar eclipses.
"Slooh's 'map the universe' layer brings a powerful educational component to Google Earth," Noel Gorelick, technical lead for Sky in Google Earth, said in the news release. "Not only does the ability to explore space live bring a totally new active dimension to the experience, but also gives Google users a deeper awareness of the positions of a myriad of celestial objects."
In a follow-up phone interview, Gorelick said the collaboration with Slooh was an example of Google's Web 3.0 philosophy. "It's live distributed content, with the ability to mash it up in ways that people have not thought of before," he told me. "That's the way Google in general is going. I'm looking forward to more projects along this vein."
Not every Slooh snapshot would go into Google Sky, he said. "Images that are blurry or have clouds in them won't make it through the process. That process will filter out bad images," Gorelick told me.
Agence France-Presse provides the latest take on the suggestion that time itself has a 50-50 chance of ending within the next 3.7 billion years. The claim is contained in a paper submitted to the arXiv.org website by Berkeley's Raphael Bousso and colleagues, and discussed last month in Technology Review's arXiv Blog. In the long run, we're all dead, and in much less than 3.7 billion years. Nevertheless, it's sobering to think that Earth might actually still be around when the end comes. The caveat is that many physicists say Bousso's suggestion arises only because of a mismatch in statistical and theoretical assumptions. For more on the planet's demi-doom, check out the perspectives from New Scientist and Australia's ABC News.
Physics professor James Kakalios' latest book, "The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics," blends pulp-fiction cultural references with up-to-date science and technology — as does Michael Koelsch's illustration for the book cover.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Physicist James Kakalios is famous for looking at the science behind comic-book superpowers, but his latest book is grounded in real-world science that can be as bizarre as anything the Watchmen could come up with: quantum mechanics.
In "The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics," Kakalios lays out his case that quantum physics is what makes real-life superpowers possible — such as the ability to watch a movie on your mobile phone or have your purchases tallied on a supermarket laser scanner.
Kakalios, a professor at the University of Minnesota, promises that his telling of the story is "math-free," and he mostly holds to that pledge. However, you do have to wrap your mind around Fermi-Dirac statistics, wave functions and Cooper-paired electrons. Fortunately, Kakalios leavens his scientific prose with examples drawn from pulp fiction and comic books. For instance, Kakalios points to Dr. Manhattan of the "Watchmen" graphic novel when explaining matter waves. How can Dr. Manhattan zip from Earth to Mars in an instant? By extending his de Broglie wavelength over 36 million miles, of course. Duh!
The bigger point behind the pulp-fiction references is that over the past century, discoveries in quantum physics have redefined the future. "Here we are in the 21st century," Kakalios told me. "We were promised jetpacks and flying cars, and we got cell phones and laptop computers instead. What did they miss? The writers of science-fiction pulp thought we would get a revolution in energy, but what we got was a revolution in information. That information revolution was made possible by semiconductors and solid-state physics, which in turn were made possible by quantum mechanics."
During an interview this week, Kakalios and I discussed the significance of quantum mechanics' amazing story, the science of superpowers and more. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:
Cosmic Log: Why does the world need another book about 'quantum mechanics made simple'?
Kakalios: There are many excellent books about quantum mechanics, the theory and the philosophical implications ... many books about the history ... not that many books about how useful quantum mecahanics is. One of the most amazing things about quantum mechanics is how practical it is. Back in the 1920s, scientists developed quantum mechanics because they were trying to understand how atoms interacted with light. A generation later, using the insights provided by those scientists, another generation of scientists developed the transistor and the laser. Now we have iPods, DVDs, cell phones, laptops, computers, television remote controls, pretty much everything without which life is not worth living. None of those are possible without the transistor and/or the laser, neither of which are possible without quantum mechanics.
Univ. of Minn.
My book does not get into all sorts of theories about Schroedinger's cat, or questions about what's called the measurement problem, but it really shows how quantum mechanics can be applied in day-to-day life. How it helps explain how your computer hard drive works, how MRI lets doctors see inside you without the cut of a knife. It explains the difference between CDs and DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. It explains how your USB drive works.
I explain the three key ideas you have to accept — not so much to understand the details of quantum mechanics, but to understand how that quantum mechanics is applied in things like lasers or transistors. ...
Q: When you mention that there are three key ideas, I have to ask you what those three ideas are.
A: Right. Basically, it's that light, which is typically treated as an electromagnetic wave, actually is composed of discrete particles, namely photons. That matter, which is made up of discrete solid particles, actually has a wavelike nature. And that everything, matter and light, has an intrinsic momentum or spin. This last part is important to understand how electrons interact with each other, or how beams of light interact with each other. It makes the difference between understanding chemistry, understanding the periodic table of the elements, solid state physics and also understanding lasers. Without understanding that intrinsic momentum, we wouldn't get those last bits.
Q: Why should ordinary civilians like me need to know about this? What good does it do? After all, people can drive a car without knowing in detail how an internal combustion engine works.
A: That is of course true. Well, there are several reasons. One is that it really is an amazing story: how the work of a handful of scientists. driven just by their curiosity to understand how atoms and light behaved, led to developments that underlie the world we live in. There were certainly computers before transistors. They were large. They had vacuum tubes. They were bulky. They were expensive. If we still had vacuum-tube computers, to make them more powerful we would have to make them bigger. Only the federal government and a few large corporations would have them. So there would be no reason to link them together. There would be no World Wide Web, and hence no msnbc.com. It really is the foundation for our lifestyle, and many people don't realize how often they come into contact with quantum mechanics in their day-to-day life.
There's another important reason. My book is not a textbook, and you're not going to read the book and suddenly become a scientist or an engineer. But I think that nearly everyone who reads my book will be a citizen and a potential voter. As citizens, we're being called upon more and more to have informed opinions about science and technological issues — whether it's alternative energy, or nanotechnology, or the next generation of devices we should put our research efforts into. The more we understand the basic principles that underlie our lifestyle, the better able we'll be to make informed decisions.
Q: Are there aspects of this that you feel are particularly important for voters, considering that we have an election season upon us?
A: The bottom line is, when you see all of the benefits that have accrued to us through these applications of basic scientific research, you get a sense that basic science really matters. Recently there's been a tendency to denigrate scientists. People take the titles of certain research grants out of context and ridicule them. But people will explore different things for very different reasons. These are usually peer-reviewed proposals. Many proposals get rejected, but the ones that get accepted are projects where other scientists see true value.
The world is a knowable place, and science is a way of providing that knowledge. The philosophy that guides my book is the idea that science is not "just another opinion." You can argue about, say, the age of the earth, but science provides an answer. We may have to improve on the answer and refine it, but we all agree on the criteria for the answer. It's not just an opinion. It provides you with something you can really depend on. If you don't believe in science, that's fine, but at least put the cell phone down.
Q: You're well-known for your earlier book, "The Physics of Superheroes," and so I'm wondering whether there are some new trends in superhero movies or comics that are interesting from a scientific point of view.
A. Well, yes, it's interesting that Hollywood has been reaching out to scientists, both in films and television, trying to get the science correct. Ultimately, they want to tell an interesting story, and I certainly want that as well. When I go to the movies, I don't go with a pen and paper and a calculator and say, "My physics sense is tingling!" But anytime when an audience is looking at something and realizing that the science is wrong, or that the portrayal of the scientist is inaccurate, is a moment when they're not paying attention to the story. So the creators of shows in Hollywood realize they have a vested interest in getting the science right.
In addition, for us as scientists it's interesting because we can leverage the public's interest and use it to promote science and the scientific approach. So you have 14 million people watching "The Big Bang Theory," and you can argue about whether they're just presenting nerd stereotypes, but basically everyone on that show is smart, and they're respected because they're smart. There was a great line in an episode from last season where they bounced a laser beam off the moon ...
A: ... And they said, "We are thereby proving that 60 years after the Wright Brothers' first flight, man put manmade objects on the moon." They left those laser reflectors up there. And, wow, that happened just within two generations. I never really made that connection before. It makes me proud to be a person, not even just an American. It makes me proud to be a human. This is our superpower. We are not super-strong. We can't fly. We can't turn invisible. Our superpower is our intelligence, and we should use it every day — because the forces of evil are always waiting.
An assembly of French artist Elisabeth Daynes' reconstructions serves as a "family portrait" for living and extinct hominids. Two australopiths, nicknamed Lucy and Lucien, are in the foreground at right. A representation of the first Homo species to leave Africa raises a rock in the foreground at left. A Neanderthal family is in the far background, and Homo sapiens is represented by the bearded figure stretching out his left hand in the background at right.
The PaleoArt Prize, one of the top honors for artwork related to paleontology, was established in 1999 by art collector John J. Lanzendorf. This year's prize was awarded to Daynes at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Pittsburgh. The artist was born in the south of France, began her career as a theater makeup artist and has been creating "hyper-realistic" reconstructions of ancient creatures for more than 20 years.
The photo above gathers many of Daynes' masterpieces together for a group portrait. To learn more about the figures, check out the Atelier Daynes website, and particularly the "Reconstructions" gallery.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera speaks with the last miner to be rescued, Luis Urzua, with the Phoenix rescue capsule in the background. NASA helped with the capsule's design and would love to hear from the Chileans how it worked out.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Drawing upon the lessons learned from decades of space missions, experts from NASA helped Chilean authorities work out ways to keep 33 trapped miners healthy and sane during 69 days of confinement. They also helped design the capsule that finally brought the miners to safety. Today, they're sharing in the celebration —and hoping that the Chileans will share their experiences with the space agency once the dust settles.
"It would be very interesting to hear from our colleagues down there what the problems were, what things about our suggestions worked or didn't work, what they learned in managing this group of people for this prolonged period of time. And I think it would be very valuable to be able to talk to the miners, if they were willing and the Chileans were wanting to invite us down," Michael Duncan, deputy chief medical officer in NASA's Space Life Science Directorate at Johnson Space Center, told me today.
"There were 33 of them, and on space station there's six. You wonder sometimes, do the same kinds of techniques that we teach our astronauts in a group of six apply to a group of 33, and vice versa," he mused. Although NASA has no immediate plans for putting 33 people at a time into orbit, the study of group dynamics in an enclosed space is clearly something that's relevant to operations on the International Space Station as well as future habitats beyond Earth.
Duncan was part of the NASA team that traveled to Chile in the wake of the Aug. 5 cave-in to advise the rescue team. Among the suggestions: Have the miners boost their vitamin D intake to compensate for the lack of sunlight. Phase in an exercise program. Set up a lighted community area and a darkened sleeping area to keep the miners on a 24-hour biological cycle. Provide flu shots to boost the miners' weakened immune systems. Watch out for pneumonia and out-of-control skin irritation.
The advice even extended to the kind of socks the miners should wear while they were being hoisted up to the surface. "Support hosiery was used, as we do in astronauts, to compress the venous blood, making it push more into the central circulation — kind of like a G-suit would be used in a fighter aircraft, in order to keep the blood flowing to the brain," Duncan said. "We were concerned about the risk to the miner, especially if the extraction time was going to be prolonged."
NASA also suggested that the miners load up on fluids before their extraction, just as returning astronauts do, to reduce the risk of dehydration once they're back on the surface.
"The physiology of returning from space and the physiology of a miner returning in this case are a little bit different," Duncan said, "but the point of the applications are the same — to maintain blood pressure and prevent fainting."
Now that the miners are back topside, Duncan expects that their biggest challenges will be to reintegrate with their families, regain their health — and cope with the crush of attention coming their way. He says the situation is similar to that faced by returning astronauts, who are briefed on how to deal with the news media in the course of a space mission and its aftermath. He was glad to hear that the miners got a similar briefing on coping with sudden fame, and is looking forward to hearing how the rest of the story turns out.
In a YouTube video, NASA experts discuss their role in the Chilean mine rescue.
NASA also would love to hear how the Phoenix capsule turned out. Clinton Cragg, a principal engineer for NASA's Engineering and Safety Center in Virginia, put together about 75 design recommendations for the Chilean Navy to consider when they built the 13-foot-long, 21.5-inch-wide, 924-pound contraption. Each miner had to take a turn riding in the Phoenix as it was pulled up the 2,040-foot-long, 28-inch-wide shaft leading from the mine to the surface.
Cragg and his NASA colleagues pointed out that the capsule had to be built in such a way that a miner could get in by himself. "The rationale was that at some point, there's going to be one guy left," Cragg told me today. The NASA engineers said the capsule had to align itself correctly in the shaft without hitting protrusions. And they said it should have an emergency oxygen tank, a two-way radio, Teflon rollers, fail-safe latches and an escape hatch in case the capsule got stuck.
"They accepted most of our suggestions," Cragg said.
Before joining NASA, Cragg spent 26 years as a Navy submariner, which gave him extra familiarity with the requirements for moving through tight quarters like the rescue shaft. It also gave him an instant "in" with one of the leaders of the Chilean rescue effort, who was also a former submarine commander. "We had a rapport right from the beginning," Cragg recalled.
One of these days, Cragg hopes to hear the details surrounding the repeated rise of the Phoenix — but he emphasizes that he doesn't expect design features from the torpedo-shaped capsule to show up in NASA spacecraft anytime soon.
"We didn't go down there to get data for our own program," Cragg said. "We went down there to help them. But I think the thing that this whole episode points out is that we have a lot of very talented people within NASA, and there's not a lot you can throw at them that they can't figure out."
Other reactions from the space agency struck a similar note of congratulations to the Chileans ... and pride over NASA's contribution:
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden praised Chile "for their steadfast determination" and thanked Americans who helped out, including the NASA team: "For decades, the people of this agency have learned to live, work and survive in the hostile environment of space. Our expertise in maintaining physiological and psychological health, and our technical and engineering experience in spacecraft design all proved to be valuable in a situation that is far from our traditional scope of work.
Space station commander Doug Wheelock congratulated "the heroes both above and below the ground through this whole crisis," and tipped his space helmet to the Chilean miners. "From outer space, we just wanted to let you know how proud we are of you, and how much we admire your courage and tenacity," he said.
Cosmonauts gather to have some cognac on the Mir space station in 1997, hours after a flash fire nearly killed them. Alexander Lazutkin is at far right. The picture was taken by NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger, who passed up the opportunity to imbibe.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
A retired cosmonaut says Russian doctors have sent alcoholic beverages along with spacefliers for years to keep them "in tone" and neutralize tension.
This week's comments from Alexander Lazutkin, who lived aboard Russia's Mir space station during one of the tensest episodes in space history, confirm what most observers have long known about Moscow's space effort. The Russians have looser standards than NASA when it comes to drinking alcohol in orbit — and if there's cognac or vodka aboard the International Space Station, they've been able to hide it pretty well.
It was a different story on Mir, however. There, the Americans were guests, and stood by while their Russian colleagues imbibed the occasional stress-reliever or New Year's toast. (Click over to this archived item and scroll down to "Do Astronauts and Alcohol Mix?" for further background.)
On Monday, Lazutkin discussed the history of drinking in space with journalists at Moscow's Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, where he's the deputy director. "During prolonged space missions, especially at the beginning of the Space Age, we had alcoholic drinks in the cosmonauts' rations," the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying Monday. "This was cognac, which the doctors recommended for use. We used it to stimulate our immune system and on the whole to keep our organisms in tone."
Later, a type of ginseng liqueur (literally, "liqueur from the eleutherococcus") was occasionally consumed, he said.
During Lazutkin's stint aboard Mir in 1997, an unpiloted supply vehicle collided with one of the space station's modules, opening up a leak that almost forced an emergency evacuation. Lazutkin said he and his crewmates definitely opened the liquor cabinet after that incident.
"Yes, we resorted to alcohol during our flight. But this was by authorization of the Ministry of Public Health," he said. RIA Novosti quoted Lazutkin as saying that alcohol was "recommended for neutralizing the harmful effect of the atmosphere" — though it's not clear whether he was referring to the air or the working conditions.
NASA says its astronauts have not used alcohol in space, although the agency found itself in the middle of a controversy back in 2007 when an independent panel passed along concerns about pre-flight drinking. At the time, NASA said it was not able to confirm any flight risks linked to alcohol consumption. Since then, NASA has tightened up its policies on alcohol and drug use even more. Such prudishness may well leave Russian doctors, and Lazutkin as well, shaking their heads.
"How can you greet the New Year without champagne?" Lazutkin asked.
The reason for Lazutkin's session with reporters was not to discuss the cosmonauts' drinking habits, but to announce the winner of a passenger ticket on Armadillo Aerospace's suborbital spacecraft, arranged through the Virginia-based Space Adventures travel company. Evgeny Kovalev of St. Petersburg won the ticket in a contest sponsored by the Efes brewery, and became Armadillo's first confirmed passenger.
Space Adventures' Russian representative, Sergei Kostenko, said the current plan called for Armadillo's craft to have its first piloted test flight in 2012. Passengers would be put on board after five or six additional test flights, he was quoted as saying in a RIA Novosti report. He also said about 200 applicants are on the list for the $102,000-per-person space tour packages.
So will Kovalev and other suborbital spacefliers be sipping cognac to celebrate flying on Armadillo's spaceship? Don't count on it.
"No alcoholic drinks will be consumed during the Armadillo Aerospace/Space Adventures’ suborbital spaceflights," Stacey Tearne, Space Adventures' vice president for communication, told me in an e-mail.
Would you go along with having a no-alcohol policy for spaceflight, or would you agree with Lazutkin that there'd be little harm in drinking a slightly intoxicating toast while you're taking your six-figure ride into space? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Update for 2:30 p.m. ET Oct. 15: NBC News space analyst James Oberg sends along this photographic footnote:
"A delicious backstory to this article is how the lead photo of the medicinal cognac party ever reached the public. When Jerry Linenger returned from Mir in mid-1997, his photographs were processed into the NASA internal archive system, and I became aware of the scene (one of two shots) by means I still need to protect. But when I formally requested a copy for publication, from the NASA Public Affairs Office, the request was denied — reportedly on direct orders from astronaut Frank Culbertson, then the head of NASA's Shuttle-Mir office while angling for a future spaceflight of his own (which he did get, on ISS, in 2001). But my subsequent formal request via the Freedom of Information Act eventually shook the photos free — only because I was able to cite the exact photo ID numbers [if I hadn't originally known the photos existed, I doubt they'd ever have been released]. I used the photo in my 2002 book "Star-Crossed Orbits," and provided this particular image to MSNBC as well. I'm not sure the photo is even yet available to the general public on NASA's website — can anybody check?"
A 20-inch-high crocheted space shuttle, created by Ms Premise-Conclusion for the Etsy crafts website, has detachable sections "for easy playability."
NASA is going where no space agency has gone before — the Etsy online crafts market — with a design contest to celebrate the space shuttle era.
Etsy is an e-commerce website specializing in handcrafted goods that blend quality and quirkiness, an "eBay for the artisan crowd," as my colleague Helen A.S. Popkin described it. There are already quite a few space-themed products for sale, ranging from a $5 patterns for a crocheted space shuttle to a $2,000 galaxy quilt. The NASA-backed contest may well add to the selection.
NASA is hoping the contest will spark some spacey ideas from Etsy's 5.5 million members, 96 percent of whom are women, with the majority under 35 years old. Word of the contest has already sparked more than 100 responses to Etsy's call for entries.
"The contest reaches an important audience NASA would like to better engage to help share the excitement that is America's space program," Doug Comstock, NASA's director of partnerships, innovation and commercial space, said today in a space agency announcement. "These craftspeople will bring new perspectives that can help communicate NASA's mission and inspire our next generation of explorers in new ways."
Entrants can submit two-dimensional original art, including paintings and collages as well as computer graphics and photographic prints ... or they can submit three-dimensional creations, including wearable art and soft sculptures. The creation should be inspired by NASA and NASA's programs, such as the space shuttle and human spaceflight, aeronautics or space science and exploration.
The galaxy M64, also known as the Black Eye Galaxy, is immortalized in a quilt for sale on the Etsy craft website.
The grand-prize winner $500 in credit for an Etsy shopping spree, plus an all-expenses-paid trip to Florida to attend the launch of the shuttle Endeavour next February as a VIP. Three best-in-category winners will receive $250 plus goodies from Etsy and NASA.
Printed designs, artwork or photos may be eligible to fly on the space shuttle. But the deadline is coming up quick: By Nov. 2, the creation has to be listed in an online Etsy craft shop. Entrants have to be legal U.S. residents aged 18 or older. The entries will be voted on by visitors to the Etsy website. A panel of crafters and designers will narrow down the field and pick the winners. Winning entries will be selected on Feb. 1.
Check the Etsy "Space Craft Contest" Web page for the official details and answers to frequently asked questions. And may the creative force be with you.
Can you imagine anything trickier than cutting the heart out of a mosquito? How about making an award-winning picture of that heart? Jonas King, a graduate student in biology at Vanderbilt University, has managed to pull off both those tricks.
King's image of the mosquito's tubular heart, supported by thin webs of muscles, was judged the first-place winner in this year's Nikon Small World photomicrography competition, one of the world's most prestigious contests for aesthetically pleasing pictures of microscopic subjects.
King and the professor in charge of his lab at Vanderbilt, Julian Hillyer, knew that the otherworldly green-and-blue image was a keeper as soon as they saw it.
"We weren't really sure how well it was going to work. ... We were both just amazed at how cool it looked," King told me.
Preparing and photographing a mosquito's heart is an incredibly exacting job. A slit has to be cut into the bug's abdomen. Its stomach and other organs have to be removed. Two types of stain have to be applied to the heart and its surroundings: fluorescent green phalloidin for the muscles, and blue Hoechst stain that binds to the DNA in cell nuclei. Then the specimen is put under a microscope, and filtered light zeroes in on the stained cells.
King said it takes skill to carve up the mosquito for study. "I don't know if it's from playing guitar for all these years, but I'm good with my hands," he said.
The resulting pictures provide insights into the workings of the mosquito's open circulatory system. Muscles surrounding the long tube of the heart help pump the bug's blood, known as hemolymph, from one end of the body to the other. The circulatory system has some bearing on how malaria is spread, because it's a vital link in the chain of transmission for the Plasmodium parasite that causes the disease.
"Plasmodium will exit the stomach [of the mosquito], and it has to make its way to the mosquito salivary gland," King explained. "This basic understanding of how the mosquito hemolymph flows can be applied to how Plasmodium and other pathogens can move to the salivary glands. ... It helps us understand a fundamental process in the life cycle of malaria, and I think that's a really great achievement."
Other photographs in the Nikon Small World lineup highlight other achievements in scientific imaging. Among the top 20 pictures selected by the judges are:
Tomas Cabello / University of Almeria
A 40x view of a black bean aphid shows the offspring inside her body. The photo won the "Popular Vote" in the 2010 Nikon Small World contest.
An image of the different cells inside the head of a 5-day-old zebrafish, created by University of Utah neurobiology researcher Hideo Otsuna.
An unusual view of crystals nestled within traditional Chinese soy sauce, offered by Beijing screenwriter Yanping Wang.
A picture of two human cancer cells in the process of dividing, from Scottish biology researcher Paul D. Andrews.
In addition, visitors to the Nikon Small World website could vote for their favorite image. This year's "Popular Vote" winner was a 40x view of a female black bean aphid, with offspring visible inside her body. The picture, shown at right, was entered by Tomas Cabello of the University of Almería in Roquetas de Mar, Spain.
We took the Chevy Volt to the streets of San Francisco for a final road test.
By Jim Seida
That's how I replied to a text from my brother-in-law, also a car enthusiast, who knew I was driving a Chevy Volt from Seattle to San Francisco.
That's the problem with the Volt: It's just OK. And for me, just OK isn't enough for a car that costs over $40,000.
Don't get me wrong. The Volt packs some interesting technology into its five-door hatchback frame, and it really has no direct competitors. Unlike the Toyota Prius, the Volt can be plugged in to charge the onboard batteries, then driven solely on battery power. Unlike the Nissan Leaf, the Volt has a gas-powered, onboard generator that produces electricity to power the car once the batteries are depleted.
The ideal customer for this car is someone who commutes to work about 20 miles each way or less (which can be done on battery power alone) but wants the freedom to drive America's interstate highways, as we have over the past two days.
The Volt has some terrific features, such as keyless entry and keyless ignition with the key fob. It's got power windows and a five-star safety rating. It's got a USB port and a 30GB hard drive for storing your music collection. It shifts effortlessly between battery and generator power. It's smooth, relatively quiet and easy to drive on the highway ... which is really the only place I've driven it. All in all, it's a competent, uneventful car that feels pretty average.
For me, though, the strikes against it are substantial. The Volt's two rows of bucket seats accommodate only four people. The Prius, the Leaf, even the Honda Fit and Mazda 2 seat five adults. Why in the world would they make a car that seats only four? Chevy engineers say it's to accommodate the T-shaped layout of the batteries. It doesn't really matter why. It should seat five, just like almost every other car its size.
Jim Seida / msnbc.com
There's lots of information in the Volt's two LCD displays, and lights reflect off the glossy center stack. Note the parking brake control, lower right on the center stack.
On the center stack, the bright blue "Power" button that you press to start the car is sexy — but if the battery in your key fob dies, guess what? There's no ignition slot that accepts a key. You can unlock the doors with the key on the fob, but you can't start the car with one.
When you do start the car, two LCD screens greet you with what looks and sounds more like a science-fiction movie trailer than a car starting. I understand that this gee-whiz might excite customers in the lot, but it gets tiring after the 15th showing.
Speaking of the center stack, it's one of the worst features of the car. It's a mess of flush-mounted, touch-sensitive studs that are labeled with nothing more than white text on a glossy-body-colored surface. Big and shiny is not good for surfaces that are in front of the driver. Two more oddities on the center stack: The door lock/unlock feature for the whole car is on the passenger side, as is the parking brake switch. This brake switch is actually the closest control to the passenger, and it can be activated by gently pulling on it with one finger. From the passenger seat, I pulled on the switch at about 30 miles per hour. Sure enough, the parking brake engaged, and the car slowed to a stop. I'd move the button to the driver's side.
The front cowl is so high that the tallest of drivers still can't see the front corners of the car, meaning some guesswork might be required for parking lot maneuvers.
The low-rolling-resistance Goodyears at the corners are the main source of noise entering the cabin at highway speeds, which isn't so bad, because if it was any quieter, the sound of the generator spinning up and down, seemingly with its own agenda, might get tiresome.
Generally speaking, the Volt is a competent car. It starts, it goes. Everyone who got behind the wheel commented on how smooth and quiet it was. There are no surprises in the turns, as the car settles into a predictable stance and body roll is not excessive. The brakes, which provide regenerative power to the batteries, are up to snuff, albeit with more nose dive than I would have predicted.
Aside from not being able to start it with a key, the four-person capacity and the curious layout of some of the controls, this car is pretty much what you'd expect from Chevrolet.
But for my $41,000 ... OK, $33,500 after federal tax credit ... I expect more.
Jim Seida is senior multimedia producer at msnbc.com — and he loves to drive cars. Check out the full series of blog items, Twitter tweets, pictures and videos from this week's "Electric Road Trip."
Msnbc.com's Alan Boyle lingers in the back seat of a Chevy Volt to finish a blog posting at San Francisco International Airport.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
We've fielded hundreds of questions and comments in the course of our "Electric Road Trip" between Seattle and San Francisco in an electric-powered Chevy Volt, but some of the most interesting questions require answers from a real expert. So during the last 150 miles of our odyssey, we fired questions at Tim Perzanowski, a senior project engineer at GM, as he took his turn behind the Volt's wheel. Here are the paraphrased questions and answers:
Q: Why didn't they make a diesel version of the Volt? Wouldn't that be more efficient than a gasoline-fueled car?
A: New rules on vehicle emissions would make the production of a diesel-powered Volt prohibitively expensive, but the idea of developing a diesel Volt for European markets has been under discussion. And looking ahedad, Perzanowski says a new technology called HCCI would bring diesel-like efficiency to gasoline-fueled engines.
Q: How can an electric drive system that draws energy from a relatively small (1.4-liter) gasoline engine produce 40 mpg fuel efficiency, considering that energy would have to be lost in the conversion process? Here's the flip side of the question: What's so great about a gasoline-fueled system that produces 40 mpg fuel efficiency, considering that my Prius or diesel-powered Volkswagen gets as good or better mileage?
A: If you're impressed by the engine's performance, it's because of a) magic, b) good engineering, or c) advanced software and electronics. If you're not impressed by 40 miles per gallon, just remember that the equivalent efficiency in battery-only mode can be 50 to 100 miles per gallon ... based on the assumption that a full charge of the battery costs $1.50, or about half the cost of a gallon of gas.
Q: How much luggage space does the Volt have?
A: Perzanowski says the Volt's luggage space is comparable to that of other small hatchbacks. Chevrolet says the Volt has 10.6 cubic feet of cargo space, compared with Toyota's claim of 21.4 cubic feet for the substantially larger Prius. The Volt's split back seats fold down individually to provide extra space.
Q: I heard that the Volt is not really an all-electric car, but is just a hybrid like the Prius, which costs less. So what's the big deal?
A: This relates to a controversy that arose over the past few days and was addressed in an earlier item, but Perzanowski said that the Volt's power system is substantially different from the Prius, and even from the after-market plug-in Priuses that are popping up nowadays. Of course Perzanowski thinks the Volt's system is much better, but that's the sort of thing you should judge for yourself. There'll always be folks who are hard-core Prius fans, or Leaf fans, or Volt fans — who will argue with each other just as Mustang and Corvette fans did a generation ago.
The Bay Bridge can be seen in the side view mirror as the Volt approaches San Francisco after 856 miles of driving.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
We've reached San Francisco International Airport, the end point of our two-day road trip from Seattle in a Chevy Volt electric-plus-gas vehicle. We've gone 873 miles, which is more than the direct-drive distance between the two cities just because there have been some extra drive-arounds and detours along the way. More than 95 percent of that driving was done while the gas-driven "range extender" engine was running. You could argue that this wasn't a fair test of the Volt, because we went far more than the 25 to 50 miles a day that Chevy says is the "sweet spot" for commuters.
If you consider just the battery-powered driving we did on the first day, our mileage was a pretty darn good 80-plus miles per gallon equivalent. Technically, it was 32.9 gasoline-free miles driven with less than $1.50 worth of electricity. That's the kind of performance a commuter might expect from the Volt. If you consider the total long-haul mileage, the figure comes down to about 40 miles per gallon. Sure, other cars can do better than that, but that's not really the point.
While we wait for our airplane to take off, we'll post a couple of summing-up items about our "Electric Road Trip."
A Chevy Volt tools down Interstate 5 with Mount Shasta in the background, as seen through the windshield of another Volt.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
We're back on the road in a Chevy Volt, driving the second half of our 800-mile odyssey from Seattle to San Francisco — and that meant we were back on all-electric driving, at least for nine miles.
Our car was fully charged during the overnight stay in Medford, Ore., and usually that would give you 25 to 50 miles of gasoline-free travel. Chevrolet figures that most people drive less than 40 miles a day most of the time, and thus the Volt could plausibly go without using a drop of gas for days on end. Some have even talked about an issue with unused gasoline sitting in the tank so long that it goes stale. Turns out that the Volt has a special mode that will turn on the gasoline engine occasionally in that scenario, just to verify that the fuel lines are fresh and clean.
That wasn't a problem for us this morning. For one thing, the Chevy team had to upload masses of data about the car's performance so far, which drained the battery after its overnight charging. For another thing, we were heading into the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon, and that meant we had to give up some of that low-cost electric rolling to provide hill-climbing oomph.
When the Volt goes up a steep grade, it draws electricity from the gasoline-powered generator, but even then, its performance can be a bit laggy. To increase the available power for the climb, extra juice comes from the batteries. But that means more of the battery power has to be held in reserve to start with. Normally, the Voltec drive train cuts over from batteries to gas-generated power when the battery reserve is drained to 20 percent of capacity. In mountain mode, that reserve is increased to 40 percent. But you have to hold onto that 40 percent to start with.
"That's why you have to put it in mountain mode 20 to 30 minutes before you hit a steep grade," Chevrolet Communications' Adam Denison told us. A lot of that power comes back during downhill costs, when the regenerative braking system captures electricity for the batteries. In fact, we were able to return to normal mode and resume all-electric driving after we went over Siskiyou Summit.
Mountain mode is the main reason why we drove for only 9.4 miles before the Volt's engine kicked in. That's got to be one of the shortest stretches of all-electric driving ever recorded with the Volt. One of the longest stretches was reported just this week, by AOL News auto writer Jeff Sabatini. He got 57 miles on the initial electric charge. But that's OK. He was probably driving on one of those sissy-boy roads in Michigan.
Follow msnbc.com's Alan Boyle and Jim Seida as they take an 800-mile "Electric Road Trip" in a Chevy Volt ... and file their dispatches from the road. Boyle is also tweeting about the trip as @b0yle on Twitter.
Msnbc.com's Alan Boyle and Jim Seida are in Northern Calif.
Chevrolet seems to be persnickety about insisting that the Volt is not a hybrid car, but an electric vehicle that just happens to generate some of that electricity with an onboard gasoline-powered engine. That's set off a months-long debate over the semantics of alternative-fuel vehicles — and in the past few days, some have even charged that General Motors has been "lying" about the car's status as a "true electric vehicle."
The charge stems from the recent revelation that, at high speeds, the Volt's 1.4-liter internal combustion engine doesn't just generate electricity, but contributes directly to driving the wheels through a set of planetary gears. That revelation ticked off automotive writers who had been told repeatedly that the gas-powered engine was connected to the car's Voltec drive system only indirectly. The New York Times' Wheels blog referred to the "controversy" in today's posting about the Volt's coming-out party, and The Car Connection's Nelson Ireson criticized the critics as interested only in "self-serving, tabloid-worthy headlines."
To an outsider like myself, this doesn't seem like much of a controversy to agonize over. Although I didn't realize it at the time, Volt spokesman Rob Peterson was referring to this back-and-forth last week when he told me that "in some instances, we haven't been able to go as deep as we would have liked" into the Volt's inner workings. He said some of the details about the electric-plus-gas system had to be glossed over while GM worked on the legalities of the patent process.
That patent angle also came through in the New York Times posting, as well as in discussions we've had with GM engineers as we drove a Volt from Seattle to Medford, Ore. (Sometimes the engineer was in the back seat, and sometimes he was in the driver's seat.)
Is it really worth hooking up the gas engine to the electric drive train? The engineers say yes. They say the arrangement produces a slight increase in efficiency, but they emphasize that it's not as if the gas engine takes over from the electric drive. The electric drive is indispensable, at high as well as low speeds, they say.
There may be still more secrets that GM is still keeping under wraps. (For example, exactly how much does the car weigh?) The way I see it, the fact that the gas engine might make a direct rather than an indirect contribution to the Volt's power under some circumstances is no big deal. And the fact that some people might want to think of the Volt as a hybrid rather than an all-electric car is no big deal, either. Am I wrong? Please let me know through your comments below.
Follow msnbc.com's Alan Boyle and Jim Seida as they take an 800-mile "Electric Road Trip" in a Chevy Volt ... and file their dispatches from the road.
Msnbc.com's Alan Boyle walks through the bushes outside an Oregon hotel, looking for a place to plug in the Chevy Volt.
Jim Seida / msnbc.com
Long after sunset, Alan finally plugs the Volt into an outlet. The car's batteries should be fully recharged overnight.
If you think trying to find an outlet for your laptop at the airport is a chore, wait until you have to find an outlet for your electric car at the hotel.
That's the quandary that faced us this evening as we rolled into Medford, Ore., our overnight stop on an 800-mile road trip in a Chevy Volt. Actually, our Volt was one of the four electric-plus-gasoline-powered cars making their way across the country as part of Chevrolet's "Volt Unplugged" tour. As the sun was about to set, we pulled into the TownePlace Suites' parking lot and headed into the hotel lobby.
Chevrolet Communications' Adam Denison asked the clerk at the desk where we should plug in the cars — and that's when the trouble began.
"I beg your pardon?" the clerk said. She hadn't heard anything about finding electrical outlets for four cars, and what's more, she didn't have any of our names on the registration list.
Actually, the clerk's quizzical reaction is probably what most electric-car drivers will face when they go on the road. To look into the issue of finding hotel plug-in power, I called around to seven Medford hotels in advance of this week's trip. The reactions ranged from "I'm sure there has to be an outlet somewhere" to "call back tomorrow" to the straightforward response I got from an establishment billed as Medford's finest hotel: "We do not have plug-ins available for hybrids."
Tonight, after working through the clerk's confusion, we found out that our reservations were actually at the TownePlace Suites' sister hotel across the parking lot, the SpringHill Suites. Both places are part of the Marriott hotel chain, one of the partners for the "Volt Unplugged" tour, so the SpringHill folks knew we were coming and had a sheet of instructions ready for us, listing the locations of electrical outlets on the building's exterior.
Simple, right? Wrong.
Looking for the outlets turned into a cross between an Easter egg hunt and a peeping-tom convention. We skulked around the perimeter of the hotel in the darkening twilight, walking through the bushes and under windows in search of places to plug in.
"If we can't plug in, we can't plug in," Denison said with a shrug.
I finally found one of the outlets near the disabled-parking places, and the other near the hotel dumpster. We decided it wouldn't be right to park our shiny new Volt in the disabled zone, so instead, the hotel let us park it right next to the front entrance. We laid out some red traffic cones, plugged in the Volt's specially designed 120-volt charging set and strapped the extension it down to the sidewalk with duct tape.
Two more outlets were found at the TownePlace, with the help of the SpringHill Suites' instructions and the TownePlace's maintenance crew. In the process, I found out that the Volt's charging cord set works best if it's the only thing plugged into an outlet, even if it's a double-socket outlet. If you try sharing an outlet with another device in the other socket, you have to cut back on the amps for charging, or risk blowing a circuit.
That's not all: The Chevy crew wanted the hotel to turn off the automatic sprinkler system for the night, just to make sure that an inconveniently placed cord set didn't get soaked. I just hope the expensive-looking set is still there in the morning when the 9- to 10-hour charging process is complete.
We spent the better part of an hour making the arrangements to plug in four cars, which made me wonder how hotels will handle the plug-in issue when there are thousands of electric cars on the road. If you're visiting your Aunt Rita, she'll probably let you run an extension cord out to your car from the front porch. But if you're staying overnight at a hotel, you might have to fight your way to an outlet — or just continue to fill 'er up at the gas station down the street. And even if the hotels are accommodating now, will they be so willing to give electricity away when 40 drivers are clamoring for overnight juice?
Am I making a mountain out of a 120-volt molehill? Or is this an electric-car complication that hasn't yet been thought completely through? Feel free to discuss this or other unintended consequences of the shift to electric vehicles in the comment section below.
Overnight mileage update: We went 490 miles today, with a gasoline top-off in Portland. 11.8 gallons of gasoline were burned, which translates to 41.5 miles per gallon. (The 32.9 miles of all-electric driving counts as a bonus in these calculations. If you subtract out those miles, that brings the mileage rating down to 38.7 miles per gallon.) If you assume that the Volt's gas tank holds 8.5 gallons, that means the car could have gone 350 miles or so without a fill-up or recharge ... which matches the range estimate that Chevrolet came up with.
Update for 10:25 a.m. ET Oct. 12: All the cars are charged up and ready to go for the second and final day of our road trip, less than 12 hours after they were plugged in. (Sorry, I didn't go out in the middle of the night to see exactly when they completed charging.) The hotel didn't have to turn off their sprinkler system. Instead, the Chevy team wrapped the cord set in plastic, just to make sure no moisture got into its electronic innards. I did the same thing a year ago with the extension cords for our Christmas lights. I guess great minds think alike. ...
Follow msnbc.com's Alan Boyle and Jim Seida as they take an 800-mile "Electric Road Trip" in a Chevy Volt ... and file their dispatches from the road. Boyle is also tweeting about the trip as @b0yle on Twitter.
Senior Multimedia Producer Jim Seida is working with an iPhone rig during this reporting trip. Seida is shooting, editing and delivering text, photos and videos using only his phone.
When my colleague Jim Seida wielded his iPhone on a stick as if it was a TV camera, Portland TV reporter Mike Galamanis was amazed ... so amazed that he took out his own iPhone and snapped pictures of Jim's rig.
Galamanis brought a tripod and a bulky TV camera to cover today's gathering of electric-car enthusiasts at the Intel corporate campus in Hillsboro, Ore. ... a gathering at which a gaggle of Chevy Volts were the special guests. Galamanis' objective was to shoot video about the electric car's coming-out party. That was what Jim was doing as well, with a video system that weighed just a tiny fraction as much as Galamanis' gear.
This is a task no mobile phone was meant to take on, and yet Jim was doing it. He clipped his iPhone4 into a machined aluminum frame called an Owle bubo, which added a wide-angle lens to the phone's tiny camera. He plugged a pint-sized shotgun mike into the phone's standard-issue jack, and mounted the whole thing on a monopod for extra stability.
But wait ... that's not all. Jim shot video with a $1.99 iPhone app called Almost DSLR, edited it with iMovie and uploaded it to Dropbox with the free Pixelpipe app. The videos about our 800-mile road trip, as well as the still photos, were all shot on the iPhone and sent back to msnbc.com's newsroom in a Seattle suburb from a bucket seat in our bullet-gray Volt.
It's not all been as smooth as an Apple commercial. Here are some of the issues we're still wrestling with:
Jim's iPhone has this nasty habit of going into "Voice Control" mode and ruining the shot. Do any iPhone geeks know how to disable Voice Control?
The videos have to be shot as standalone clips, with minimal editing of tracks once they're sent to the newsroom. So if the results aren't as slick as your typical msnbc.com videos, please understand that we're doing the best we can from the back seat of a compact car.
I brought along two fully charged battery packs for my laptop, but both have been exhausted, and we still have more than two hours of driving to go before we can stop for the night in Medford, Ore. Right now I'm using Jim's MacBook Pro. I realize it's ironic that I'm having battery troubles in a Chevy Volt. Now if only they made a gasoline-powered laptop. ...