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Robot Love

Imagine that you could order up a robotic boyfriend or girlfriend. Would you do it?

According to Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who studies the social impacts of science and technology, more people than ever are answering "yes" to this (still hypothetical) question. After all, human partners are fallible; they disappoint; they get angry and distracted. Robot mates, on the other hand, are endlessly attentive to our needs. They have no other demands on their time and attention. We cannot frustrate or disappoint them. They require no risk and no compromise.

At least, this is how we imagine them. You can't wander into RadioShack and walk out with a robot companion--not yet, and probably not for a while. But Turkle fears that we're getting closer to the day when robots will be able to meet these most human needs--and, more terrifying, when we will be happy to let them.

Here at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Turkle (who was also featured in NOVA scienceNOW's segment on social robots) declared that we have arrived at this "robotic moment not because we have built robots worthy of our company, but because we are ready for theirs." Researchers are currently testing bots that can help teach and tend to children and that can provide care for the sick, the disabled, and the elderly. But the real headline, according to Turkle, isn't rapidly-advanced robotics: It's that humans now accept or even yearn for the day when robots will be fully integrated into caregiving roles that were once considered uniquely human.


The PARO robot, which looks like a baby seal, has been used in therapeutic settings to improve the well-being of patients with Alzheimer's and other types of dementia.

Turkle has been studying human perceptions of robots since the 1980s and argues that she's witnessed a dramatic change over the past three and a half decades. The robots of the 1980s, she says, inspired us to place heightened value on the qualities that make us human: the ability to feel, to love, to grieve. Now she sees this romantic view on the decline. Today, when it comes to our most intimate relationships, fallibility is liability, not a tie that binds.

But are we really ready to forge these bonds with bots? Turkle cites the emergence of robo-pets like the Aibo dog as evidence that we are replacing living relationships with artificial ones. Parents once bought pets in part to teach their children about the cycle of life and death, says Turkle; now, these same parents are relived to choose instead an of-the-shelf pet that will never get sick and never die.


A promotional video for Sony's robotic pet Aibo

Yet it isn't clear that dog-lovers are turning out in droves to replace their flesh-and-fur mutts with metal and plastic. In fact, the American Veterinary Medical Association reports that (live) pet ownership has increased steadily since their first surveys in 1986, showing a dip only recently, a decline that is more likely due to the poor economy than the allure of robo-dogs. Indeed, Sony's Aibo, often considered the first consumer robo-pet, was reported to have sold fewer than 100,000 units worldwide in its first three years on the market, and it was discontinued in 2006. Meanwhile, there are 70 million pet dogs in the United States alone. These pets may be demanding--they need to be fed, watered, walked, and scooped-up after--yet we keep bringing them into our homes and even calling them family.

Will Turkle's dark vision of our future come to pass? I don't know. The technologies that have transformed our lives most dramatically are those that promise to enhance our human connections: Facebook allows us to keep up with friends and family in an encyclopedic play-by-play. Our go-anywhere mobile phones let us stay in touch with anyone, from anywhere--you can even videochat from the ladies' room, if that's your thing. These technologies may be exasperating, yet they--not robots like Aibo--are the innovations that have become ubiquitous.

What do you think? Are you dreaming of the day when you and your robo-spouse will spend the afternoon romping with your robo-dog? When you will be cared for in times of sickness by a robo-nurse and your children tended by a nannybot? Or will you choose to take your chances on other human beings?

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How to Land a Mars Rover (VIDEO)

Can't get enough of Curiosity? Neither can we. In this video, get a sneak peek at "Ultimate Mars Challenge," NOVA's upcoming look inside the Curiosity mission, as MSL Chief Engineer Rob Manning describes the feats of engineering required to land the Mars rover safely.

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Test Driving NOVA's First iPad App

Today I made hydrogen. I followed it up with some helium and a little carbon and oxygen. Tomorrow, if I have a little time on my hands, maybe I'll try for einsteinium.

No, I'm not doing tabletop fusion here at NOVA. I'm using NOVA's new iPad app, "NOVA Elements," which lets you create your own atoms and combine them to make the molecules in everything from a cup of coffee to a wristwatch. It's our first app for iPad and--though I may be a bit biased--I think it's very cool. Angry Birds cool. Complete double rainbow cool. Making your own atoms cool.

The app also includes an interactive periodic table loaded up with facts about each element--when it was discovered, what it looks like, where you'll find it in everyday (and not so everyday) objects--and video clips from "Hunting the Elements," our two-hour special about the periodic table. You can also watch the entire show through the app.

Just remember to turn on the sound: You will definitely want to hear those little Pew! Pew! Pew! sounds that the electrons, neutrons, and protons make as you fire them into your brand new atom. And you'll hear David Pogue, the host of the show and the face and voice of the app, guiding you through the menus and offering encouragement, kudos, and some tough-love commentary as you create your own atoms and molecules.

The app is totally free, and you can download it from the iTunes app store.

Have fun, and let us know what you think!

In "Why Ships Sink," NOVA looks at epic cruise disasters from the Titanic to the Costa Concordia, asking whether cruise ships are truly safe.

Meanwhile, twenty million vacationers take cruises every year--including David and Emily Singer, two friends of NOVA who were already booked on a cruise before the Costa Concordia accident. They volunteered to document their ship's safety features in this photo diary so that we could get a passenger's-eye view of safety on the seas. (Here's hoping they took some photos of their own as well!)

Muster drill: The drill is at 4:30 p.m. on day one, before we leave port. Crewmembers are outfitted in bright yellow vests and hold signs that point passengers in the right direction. The room key (which also serves as an onboard credit card and ID) has each passenger's muster station assignment clearly printed on it. Each passenger (including our infant niece) gets one; we are instructed to carry them everywhere.

Muster drill

Digital roll call at muster station: Arriving at our muster station, our room keys are scanned, checking us in. We're told to sit down in a particular location (a certain section of the small theater) and wait for further instruction. This is how it would happen in a real emergency. The staff are all knowledgeable and professional. A movie then plays (in English, but with instructions on how to obtain it in Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and a few other languages) showing us how we will be alerted to an emergency, and how we should proceed. Also, a TV channel constantly showed the safety movie--in case there was nothing good on TV?

Digital roll call

Safety instructions are posted in every room: The boat is so large that it's easy to get lost, so the instructions are helpful. During the muster drill, crewmembers are all over the ship holding up signs and pointing passengers in the correct direction. Because there are so many passengers, our muster station isn't actually at our lifeboat, but rather a designated meeting place where we would await further instruction, and be guided to our lifeboat if necessary. We also don't have lifejackets in our stateroom--if needed, we would receive them at our muster station. Our stateroom was on Deck 10--pretty far above the surface of the water--so it would make sense not to have lifejackets in our rooms. Unless they came equipped with parachutes...

Safety instructions

Lifeboats: The lifeboats seat 370 people, and there are 18 of them on the ship. They even have bathrooms! If you do the math: 18 lifeboats x 370 passengers = 6,660 seats. Well, the ship holds more than 6000 passengers and 2500-plus crew, so the numbers don't quite add up.

Life boats

Good things come in small packages: The difference is made up by the expandable life rafts held inside these plastic cylinders. But getting into them is not for the faint of heart. Here's why.

Life rafts

Just slide down the esophagus: Officially it's called the VIKING Evacuation Dual Chute, but we call it "the esophagus." We think you'll see why when you look at the diagram below, which is posted near the expandable rafts. The entrance point is on Deck 4. The exit point is water level (Deck 1). We're quite relieved that we don't practice using these devices at any point, although I guess that some people would find it fun. Probably the same people who think that the zip-line across the back of the ship is fun. Unfortunately, they don't ask you if you are afraid of heights before assigning muster stations and life rafts.

Esophagus

The Esophagus: Here are diagrams showing the "esophagus" in action. It's important not to wear high heels in the esophagus. Could make the trip a bit shorter. (We're relieved to learn that our muster station has us assigned to a "real" lifeboat.)

Esophagus instructions

Crew drill: On the second day of our trip, there is a drill for the crew. Over the ship's PA system, we hear "Bravo Bravo Bravo" and a location. This is code for a fire drill. Crewmembers in full fire-fighting gear head off toward the location announced. The ship's many water-tight doors seal. When the drill is over, the crewmembers let us take their photo. Bravo (fire) team members have red tags on their IDs; EMS-type team members have blue tags. (Our waiter had a blue tag.) The full muster drill we went through is done prior to each sail. There is an all-hands drill once every 2 weeks. On the intervening weeks, the crew is split into half, with the halves alternating drill weeks. The Bravo team practices weekly.

Crew fire drill

NOVA's "Why Ships Sink" premieres Wednesday, April 18 at 9 p.m. ET on most PBS stations. Check your local listings to confirm when it will air near you. Special thanks to David and Emily Singer.

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Neuroscience, Free Will, and the Law

As Chelsea Ursin's series on the neuroscience of free will continues this week, a morning session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference reminded me that the subject of free will is not of purely philosophical and scientific interest. It has deep implications for our legal system and for the way that our society thinks about how and why we punish. For some defendants, the sharp line between life and death may even be drawn by the neuroscientists, philosophers, and legal scholars who ponder the fuzzy question of free will.

If free will is an illusion--if our actions are elaborate reflexes pre-programmed by biology and experience--then an individual is not "responsible" for committing even the most heinous crime. Michael Zigmond, professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh, puts it this way: Our behavior is nothing more or less than our brain activity, and brain activity is a function of our genes and our environment. When we punish an individual, then, we're not reprimanding poor choices, we "are punishing electrical and chemical events in the brain."

Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Vanderbilt, rejects the notion that our choices can be reduced to such brain static. Brain science cannot absolve individuals of responsibility for their actions, says Farahany. Yet some discoveries from neuroscience are already making their way into the courtroom. Farahany estimates that, between 2005 and 2009, the number of judicial opinions making note of neuroscience doubled, and the rise has been even more dramatic since then. Drug and alcohol addicts argue that their addictions rendered them unable to exercise free choice; defendants claim that they were neurologically incapable of premeditating their crimes; serotonin levels are submitted as evidence of impaired impulse control.

But the biggest changes have come in the sentencing of young offenders, says Farahany. As neuroscience has given us greater insight into the brain's continuing development through adolescence and into adulthood, young people are found to have "less culpability" for their crimes. In the United States, the death penalty was abolished for juvenile offenders in 2005, and in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles could no longer be sentenced to life without parole, except in homicide cases.

How far should we take this? If "my brain made me do it" (or, "my brain didn't stop me from doing it") works for some defendants, why not all of them? As Richard Dawkins has written, "Doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not?"

Yet most of us cherish the notion of free will and the responsibility that comes with it. We value our sense that we are agents of our own destiny. (In fact, individuals who believe in their own free will are more likely to act ethically--more on that later this week from Chelsea.) So, can neuroscience shape our criminal justice system while keeping free will in the picture?

Peter McKnight thinks so. Neuroscience gives us tools to evaluate whether an individual is capable of reason, and the criminal justice system helps work the levers on that reasoning system by meting out punishments that (in some cases, at least) deter would-be criminals.

Most importantly, we can hope that neuroscience will one day give us the tools to rehabilitate offenders instead of serially imprisoning them. Perhaps we can even imagine a future in which we so deeply understand the interaction of nature and nurture that we can help rehabilitate at-risk individuals before they ever commit a crime.

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Bringing Up Baby's Brain

Search for "parenting" on Amazon and you'll turn up more than 65,000 books peddling dos and don'ts for raising healthy, happy kids. We seem to believe that the right early experiences will turn our children into superstars; the wrong ones will damage them. But is there really a formula for perfect parenting? And how do our early experiences shape who we become?

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, running this weekend in Vancouver, researchers came together to share their research on how our earliest experiences--experiences we can't even remember--"wire" our brains and bodies to succeed or struggle in adult life.

In the 1950s and 1960s, psychologist Harry Harlow performed a series of influential but unsettling experiments on baby rhesus monkeys. He separated infant monkeys from their mothers and placed them in isolation with "surrogate" monkey moms--dolls made of terrycloth or wire, equipped to dispense milk but nothing else.

The monkeys grew up disturbed. When they were finally removed from isolation, many went into a "state of emotional shock," Harlow reported. Some refused food; they clutched and rocked. They did not play with other monkeys and could not form relationships with their peers. "Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially," wrote Harlow.

Harlow's work has drawn sharp ethical criticism, and of course it is impossible to imagine performing any such experiment on human subjects. But, heartbreakingly, millions of children worldwide who are maltreated or abandoned or who lose their parents to violence or disease are unwitting "subjects" in just such a natural experiment. Many are ultimately raised in poorly staffed institutions where they receive little stimulation, follow fixed routines, and don't get compassionate care. These children typically have sharply lower IQ scores than their peers. Their growth is stunted and they struggle with language, social behavior, and forming attachments.

But how can we untangle nature from nurture in our understanding of these children? Were they "damaged goods" from the start, incapable of benefiting from compassionate care even if it were provided? And if a child should thrive after being adopted, would that be evidence of the reparative power of nurture--or evidence that adoptive parents naturally picked the most gifted and least impaired children?

This was the question the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, led up by Harvard professor Charles Nelson, set out to answer. More than one hundred institutionalized children in Bucharest were randomly assigned to either remain in their institutions or to live with foster families. (Foster homes were available for only half of the children, due to a cultural bias against adoption.) How would the fostered children fare compared to their institutionalized peers? And would they ever catch up with children who had never experienced life in an institution?

Nelson and his colleagues discovered that fostered kids could indeed thrive--their social skills improved, their IQs climbed--but the developmental window of opportunity did not remain open forever. The children saw substantive improvements only if they were placed in foster care before their second birthday, and the younger, the better.

This might seem obvious, but to policymakers in Romania, says Nelson, it was not initially so. The results of the study are informing how public health agencies worldwide will care for the estimated eight million children who are now living in institutional care.

Somehow, the conditions in institutions change the brains and bodies of young children. But how? At the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Mar Sanchez is studying this question with Harlow's old subjects, rhesus monkeys. But these monkeys are not caged and separated from their mothers. It turns out that between two and five percent of female monkeys are naturally "bad mothers"--they abuse their babies, dragging them screaming across the ground, or they simply ignore them when they seek attention and comfort. These abused and rejected infants spend more time screaming and throwing tantrums than warmly-mothered monkeys; they respond anxiously to new or stressful situations. And, their levels of the stress hormone cortisol are chronically high.

Not all monkeys respond equally--genetic vulnerabilities (or sensitivities, if you like) seem to amplify the damaging effects of abuse and rejection. And, contrary to what you might expect, rejection is actually more destructive than abuse: Rejection was linked to low levels of serotonin in the brain and was the strongest predictor of whether a monkey would perpetuate the cycle of bad mothering in the next generation.

Of course, human kids are not rhesus monkeys. But to those perusing Amazon's virtual aisles in search of the formula for perfect parenting--those who fret about too much discipline or too little, about whether baby is getting too much television or too little Mozart--maybe there is some comfort here: As in so many other endeavors, the better part of success may be simply showing up.

The Kepler mission has confirmed its first potentially habitable world, a planet 600 light-years from Earth in a 289-day orbit around a smaller, cooler version of our sun. The planet is a "super-Earth," with a radius that measures 2.4 times that of Earth, putting it about halfway in size between Earth and Uranus. The discovery is a major milestone for the Kepler team: the first confirmation of a Kepler super-Earth in that temperate sweet spot called the habitable zone, the range of orbital distances at which a planet might be the right temperature to harbor liquid water and, potentially, life on its surface.

The planet, dubbed Kepler-22 b (in the great poetic tradition that compels astronomers to name their quarries as if they were so many lines of tax code), is not the first potentially habitable world uncovered around another star. As Dennis Overbye recounts in this New York Times story, the search for the "Goldilocks planet" has turned up a string of contenders. But membership in this elite group changes as new data streams in. A planet once thought to be "just right" turned out to be too hot; another once-prime candidate may not, it turns out, exist at all. And though astronomers have a good gauge of Kepler-22 b's girth, they don't yet know its mass, which is necessary to calculate its density and to begin to make an educated guess about its composition: rocky, like Earth, or gaseous, like Uranus or Neptune. As far as we know, only rocky planets can harbor life.

So if Kepler-22 b isn't exactly the "first" that some headlines make it out to be, why all the attention? Remember the old adage that for every cockroach you see, there could be 100 more hiding in the walls? For the Kepler space telescope, Kepler-22 b is that first cockroach. Kepler has already identified 2,326 planet candidates--"candidates" because they have not all been confirmed and some will turn out to be false positives. Of those candidates, as many as 900 are less than two times the size of the Earth, 48 orbit within their star's habitable zone, and up to ten could have the magic combination of the two: both the right size and the right distance to be truly Earthlike.

Kepler-22 b shows that Kepler is doing just what is was designed to do: sniff out potentially Earth-like planets. There's every reason to think that Kepler-22 b is just the first of a deluge of discoveries in the years to come.

For Inside NOVA's coverage of the last "Goldilocks planet," see Someplace Like Home

For more on how extrasolar planets are discovered, watch NOVA scienceNOW's Hunt for Alien Earths

For a deeper look at habitability, check out NOVA's Finding Life Beyond Earth
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Seeking Signs of Life

Imagine for a moment that astronomers have finally discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting another star. After the papers are published, the headlines run, the tweets tweeted, one question will still be burning: Is anyone home?

Discovering a habitable planet is just the first tiny step toward discovering an inhabited planet. So how would astronomers begin to determine whether a newly-discovered Earth-like planet actually harbors life?

First, explains Soren Meibom, we must find out whether the planet has been around long enough for life to take hold. "On Earth it took roughly a billion years for the most primitive microbial forms of life to evolve and another three to three and a half billion years for animals and humans," says Meibom. "Therefore, as we look for life beyond Earth, and in particular beyond our own solar system, the question of time becomes highly relevant."

Because stars and their planets form together, to get at the age of a planet, all you need to know is the age of its star. Sounds easy enough. But in practice, determining a star's age is not so simple. After they are born, stars enter a middle age that continues until shortly before their death; over the course of that sustained middle age, which may last for billions of years, the star's appearance is essentially unchanged. Meibom compares a star to a person who emerges from infanthood as a fully-grown adult, then keeps her smooth skin and brunette hair for eight decades until, finally, she goes grey, gains a dowager's hump, and slips on some orthotics in the time it takes her to finish the early-bird special. (See Meibom's visual interpretation below.)


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If people aged as stars age. Image courtesty Soren Meibom.

To pin down stars' ages, Meibom and his colleagues are turning to one property of that does change over time: the rate at which a star spins. "A star's rotation slows down steadily with time, like a top spinning on a table, and can be used as a clock to determine its age," says Meibom. "We can measure a star's rotation period by looking for changes in its brightness caused by dark spots on its surface--the stellar equivalent of sunspots. Any time a spot crosses the star's face, it dims slightly. Once the spot rotates out of view, the star's light brightens again. By watching how long it takes for a spot to rotate into view, across the star and out of view again, we learn how fast the star is spinning." Meibom is now using the Kepler space telescope to do just that.

So if a star and its planets are "of age," then what? It might be possible to look for "biosignatures" in a planet's atmosphere. An alien astronomer looking toward Earth, for instance, would see oxygen produced by plants and bacteria, ozone from the interaction of ultraviolet radiation and oxygen molecules, and nitrous oxide from microbial reactions. If we could pick out similar signatures in the atmosphere of an alien world, we would have strong reason to suspect that life might be present there. As astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger told NOVA back in 2009, "If you have a look at our own Earth, you actually have CO2, you have water, methane, and you have ozone or oxygen...That's the golden fingerprint you're looking for" in the spectrum of a habitable exoplanet.

The most conspicuous biosignatures in Earth's atmosphere are products of tiny microbes, not the plants and animals that loom so large in our notion of "life," points out Harvard astronomer Dimitar Sasselov. Our own planet was transformed by microbial life over the course of more than two billion years; so an exoplanet with lots of oxygen in its atmosphere may not be carpeted in forests, but it may have oceans full of green algae. That algae could be paving the way for more complex, energy-hungry forms of life, says Sasselov.

Technology is only now catching up to this ambitious project, though. Measuring an exoplanet atmosphere directly is only practical if the planet is very large and sits far from its parent star--not a great recipe for a habitable world. If an exoplanet happens to pass in front of its star from the vantage point of our telescopes, astronomers can probe its atmosphere indirectly, by comparing starlight that has passed through the planet's atmosphere to starlight that meets our telescopes directly, when the planet is "behind" the star.

Habitable planets will also make juicy targets for SETI--that is, the search for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI usually means "listening" for radio waves produced, either incidentally or as a beacon, by an alien civilization. (Think Contact.) Some astronomers have also proposed looking for optical signals produced by high-powered lasers.

The discovery of a bona fide habitable world will bring us closer to finding life beyond Earth, but there is still plenty of work to be done before we know whether we have company in the cosmos--or whether we are truly alone among the stars.

For more information on Soren Meibom's work, check out his recent public lecture at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, or watch him explain his results at a press conference from last year's meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

NOVA's Finding Life Beyond Earth will premiere Wednesday, October 19 on most PBS stations. Beginning on Thursday, can also watch it online. Check your local listings to confirm when it will be airing near you.

Here is my list of Top Olde-Timey Things I Will One Day Tell My Incredulous, Hypothetical Grandchildren to prove how very old I am and how much life has changed:

  • We used to write letters on paper and put them in metal boxes, from which actual human beings (in uniforms!) gathered them up and helped deliver them to their destinations.
  • Telephones used to be bolted to the wall, with dials attached, and they couldn't give you directions or even tell you which sushi place made the best avocado rolls.
  • We used to think that that the expansion of the universe was slowing down; that empty space was, basically, empty space; and that we had the majority of the stuff in the universe pretty much figured out.

The discovery that the expansion of the universe is not slowing down--that it is, in fact speeding up, driven by a mysterious "dark energy"--happened when I was in my first year of college. My astronomy professor was so excited about the discovery that we got to have class outside, under a tree, so that we could be closer to this nature thing that was turning out to be so full of baffling surprises.

Now that Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess have won the Nobel Prize for this discovery, it seems inconceivable that that moment under the tree--the time when we discovered that more than 70% of the universe was a complete mystery--is barely more than a decade old. How amazing that such a profound revelation happened in such recent history.

So as we at NOVA congratulate the winners of this year's Nobel Prize in physics, let's also celebrate living at a wonderful time in the history of science: A time when scientists are still busily mapping out the boundaries of what we don't know, and when the universe is ripe with questions, just waiting to be answered.

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A Planet Like Home?

When you're homesick, you start seeing traces of home everywhere you look.

When I went away to college, my heart would skip a beat every time a particular Ford Escort drove by, because it was the exact same model my best friend from home drove--even though I knew she was five hundred miles and four states away.

At one of my first jobs after college, I felt a surge of affection for the building custodian just because he was a dead ringer for my dad--from thirty feet away, if you stood at the right angle, and if he was wearing his glasses.

And here on Earth, we see--or think we see--planets that look like home when we look out into the cosmos. In this case, "looking like home" means having a solid surface and the capacity to support liquid water. It doesn't sound like much to ask, but in fact finding such planets with today's technology is like reading the very last row of the eye chart at the optometrist's office--possible, but just barely. Of the 600 or so known exoplanets, only a handful could maybe, possibly, be capable of supporting life.

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An artist's impression of the potentially habitable planet orbiting the Sun-like star HD 85512. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

Now, astronomers have announced the discovery of a new planet that just might fit the bill. It's 3.6 times the mass of Earth and orbits at the inner boundary of the habitable zone--meaning that it is hot, but (with enough cloud cover) perhaps not so hot that water would vaporize. The planet, called HD 85512 b (because it is in orbit around the star HD 85512), was discovered using the HARPS spectrograph at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, which enables astronomers to track the gravitational wobbles that planets induce in their parent stars. It was announced along with a batch of 49 other exoplanets. (For more on how this technique works, see NOVA scienceNOW's Hunt for Alien Earths.)

Though scientists who discovered the planet are calling it "the best candidate for exploring habitability to date," it isn't the first potentially habitable planet we've found. Back in January I wrote about a planet called Gliese 581 g, which could be habitable--if it actually exists, which is controversial. And Gliese 581 g followed a string of other false alarms.

That's not to say that we shouldn't be excited about this new discovery--just that we should be cautious before, you know, running across the quad with our arms outstretched to give it a big hug, only to realize that it isn't quite who--or what--we thought it was.

Want to learn more about the search for worlds capable of supporting life, and the expanding definition of "habitability" itself? NOVA's Finding Life Beyond Earth explores the search for the ingredients of life within our solar system and beyond. It premieres at 9pm on Wednesday, October 19 on most PBS stations.

What happened to Air France Flight 447? More than two years after the crash that took 228 lives, a new interim report from France's air accident investigation agency (BEA), based on cockpit voice and data recordings recovered in May, reveals how a combination of faulty instrument data and pilot errors sent the plane into a stall from which it never recovered.

The problems began shortly after 2 a.m., a little over three and a half hours into the flight, when the autopilot and auto-thrust disengaged, probably due to bad air speed data from the plane's iced-over Pitot probes. According to the BEA report, the two copilots who were in the cockpit at the time had no training in manual aircraft handling at high altitude, and their choices showed it: They tipped the nose of the plane up, causing it to lose lift and speed as it climbed, instead of down, which would have increased the speed and prevented a stall.

lift-drag-in.jpg

For more on how lift and drag work, check out this interactive from NOVA's web site.

The BEA report bears out much of the expert speculation in NOVA's Crash of Flight 447, which focused on the failure of the airspeed-sensing Pitot probes and the ubiquity of autopilot, which has left many pilots without extensive hands-on training flying manually in challenging conditions. Yet, as the New York Times points out, "Investigators found that the loss of valid speed readings lasted for no more than a minute of the plane's terrifying four-minute descent." Even if the air-speed data had been lost entirely, the pilots could have saved the plane, BEA director Jean-Paul Troadec told reporters.

The BEA's full report will be out in early 2012.

Not to get all philosophical on you, but sometimes we at NOVA ask ourselves, what does science tell us about how to live our lives? What can it teach us about how to be better human beings? Better caretakers of our environment, our planet, each other? The best answer I know is captured in this excerpt from Carl Sagan's book Pale Blue Dot. A few months back, illustrator Adam Winnik set those words to his own animation, and the result is joyful, sad, sweet, and wonderful. Winnik writes that Sagan's words have changed his life. Check out the video, and let us know how science has changed your perspective.

Pale Blue Dot - Animation from Ehdubya on Vimeo.

In the days since our first blog post about the Osama bin Laden DNA identification, we've seen plenty of questions--and a little new information--on how the match was performed. We rounded up the latest news on the science behind the identification and got some expert insight from Robin Cotton, Associate Professor and Director of the Biomedical Forensic Sciences Program at Boston University.

  • Where was the lab work done? We don't know exactly, but Cotton points out that it is not at all unusual for DNA analysts and other forensic scientists to be working in Afghanistan and Iraq. For instance, this want ad for a "DNA Analyst wishing to be apart of a dynamic team to work in deployed forensic laboratories in Iraq and/or Afghanistan" was posted to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences job board just last month. A quick look at the preferred skills for the job--"Experience with the following: ABI 3130xl (or 3100), Identifiler, Yfiler, and/or Minifiler chemistries, ABI 7500 (or 7000), ABI GeneMapper ID software, and/or the EZ 1 robot"--suggests some of the equipment that could have been used in this case.

    Contrary to the television-CSI-induced assumption that DNA matches require enormous, gleaming laboratories, said Cotton, the Bin Laden DNA identification could have been performed in a mobile lab unit about the size of a trailer. "The equipment that you see doesn't take up a lot of space, it doesn't require extraordinary kinds of electrical power," said Cotton. "It requires a clean place--you couldn't do it outdoors in the sand--but it wouldn't be hard to have what you needed," provided it "has the physical design to prevent contamination."

  • Bin Laden's half-sister's brain? Everyone from the New York Times to yours truly has called up Massachusetts General Hospital hoping for a confirmation of the report, first carried on ABC News, that an MGH-held DNA sample from Obama Bin Laden's half-sister's brain had been used to clinch the DNA match. However, the hospital was not able to confirm the story, saying in a statement that its "policy is to not release patient information to law enforcement agencies without a subpoena or similar order, and that after a reasonable inquiry it could find no indication that it had received a subpoena regarding DNA for a relative of Osama bin Laden.''

  • So whose DNA did they use? We don't know exactly, though officials have said that the analysis involved samples from multiple different relatives. The more, the better, explained Cotton--especially if the samples came from half-siblings. Scientists expect full siblings to share, on average, 50% of their short tandem repeats (STR), sequences of "junk DNA" that are a standard for forensic identification, though the match for a particular STR region could be zero, half, or 100%. Things get murkier with half-siblings. "You would have to have a collection of half-siblings" to make a solid identification, said Cotton. In the case of half-brothers who shared a father, explained Cotton, researchers could also use Y-chromosome analysis. But the "virtually 100-percent" confidence level claimed by the government would be difficult to obtain using half-siblings alone. A sample from one of Bin Laden's children, some of whom are believed to have been in the Abbottabad compound when Bin Laden was killed, could produce a match at a higher confidence level. But, added Cotton, until officials tell us more about the sources of the samples, we can only guess at precisely how they arrived at the match.

  • It's not all about DNA By examining photos of the body believed to be Bin Laden's against existing Bin Laden photos, intelligence officials said, they "were able to determine with 95-percent certainty that the body was Osama bin Laden." We don't know exactly how the match was made (you're probably getting used to hearing that by now) but Spencer Ackerman at Wired's Danger Room speculated that a handheld biometric device called the SEEK (Secure Electronic Enrollment Kit) II could have done the job. According to Ackerman, the four-pound device "takes iris scans, fingerprints and facial scans and ports them back to an FBI database in West Virginia in seconds." The SEEK II can "talk" to the FBI database wirelessly or by linking up with a local computer, and it can also be preloaded with its own on-board biometric database.

The mystery of Air France Flight 447, the Airbus A330 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, may soon be solved. After a two-year, multi-million-dollar search, the plane's two "black boxes" have been discovered and brought to the surface. The flight data recorder, which archives measurements like altitude and airspeed from the plane's instruments, was recovered Sunday. Then, on Monday, the cockpit voice recorder was raised from the water.

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The flight data recorder, in a photo provided by the BEA. Photo: Johann PESCHEL/BEA/ECPAD

NOVA reconstructed the doomed flight's final moments in Crash of Flight 447, which premiered in February. Combing weather data, radio transmissions, wreckage analysis, and flight simulations, our experts pieced together a scenario in which Flight 447 unknowingly flew into a 250-mile-wide thunderstorm. That storm may have been carrying droplets of super-cooled water that froze on contact with the plane's speed-sensing pitot tubes, producing faulty airspeed data that set off a cascade of failures and ultimately caused the plane to stall out and, when the pilots could not regain control, crash. But without the black boxes, we could never know whether this scenario was absolutely true, or very plausible historical fiction.

We went back to some of the experts who helped us reconstruct the conditions of the crash to get their views on what the discovery of the black boxes means--and whether we will finally be able to close the book on this mystery.

"I must say that the recovery of both the FDR (Flight Data Recorder) and CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) memories in the AF447 circumstances is a great achievement," said Tony Cable, a former investigator with the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch. The task took a lot of tenacity and "a fair element of luck."

"Standard procedure after recovering a recorder from underwater is to store and transport it while immersed in fresh water, in order to minimize corrosion and salt crystal and mud deposition," said Cable. Once stabilized, the recorders will be transported aboard a French Navy ship to Paris for analysis. The journey will take a little over a week.

From there, an initial readout from the devices, which amounts to "replaying the flight" from takeoff to landing, should be available with 24 hours, said Captain John Cox, a veteran pilot now working as an air safety consultant. Captain Martin Alder, an Airbus training pilot, said that the recorder data can be replayed graphically, "not unlike watching Microsoft Flight Sim in the external view." Experts from Airbus, Air France, and France's investigation agency, the BEA, will work in two teams to pore through the data from each memory device. A complete analysis of the thousands of parameters archived by the flight data recorder will take several weeks.

Of course, added Alder, "It all depends on the data retrieved being usable or accessible." The flight data recorder was separated from its protective housing, causing some to question whether its data would be readable. "I'm very hopeful that there will be usable data in both recorders," said Cox, based on BEA photos which show the condition of the devices. The recorder data are stored on digital chips designed to survive immersion in deep water. "I have been pretty surprised at the impact and overheat abuse that memory chips will put up with and remain viable," said Cable.

When we heard that Osama Bin Laden had been positively identified using DNA, we wanted to know: How did they do that so quickly?

"Forensic DNA testing can be done very quickly--in a few hours," says George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Center for Computational Genetics. (Church also heads up the Personal Genome Project, which we covered on NOVA scienceNOW back in 2008.) "Typically the protocol is PCR"--that's polymerase chain reaction, a technique for making multiple copies of a piece of DNA--"from tiny amounts of sample, followed by gel separation of DNA size variants." These "size variants," which are DNA chunks of different lengths, together create a unique "fingerprint" that can be used to identify an individual.

For a blow-by-blow account of how this all could be accomplished in under five hours, check out Christie Wilcox's excellent guest blog at Scientific American.

One recent report suggested that the purported Osama Bin Laden sample was verified against tissue from his sister, which (according to the report) had been held at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) after her death in Boston last year. MGH has not yet been able to confirm any piece of that story. However, Church points out, "It had been known for years that samples of a Bin Laden relative's DNA were available."

The downside of PCR, says Church, is that it is vulnerable to contamination. "One (unlikely) way that this can go wrong is if someone accidentally or intentionally contaminates the sample with overwhelming amounts of another DNA sample."

For more on DNA and its use in forensic identification, check out this primer from the Human Genome Project.

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What's Your Big Question?

We know you're curious. Curious about the universe, the environment, technology, and nature. Curious about animal intelligence and space travel and the human brain. Now, our research team wants to harness the power of all that curiosity to discover new story ideas for NOVA scienceNOW. So, tell us: What's your big question?

Our NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW Facebook and Twitter followers have already taken on the challenge. They're curious about everything from the soul to nanotechnology to energy--especially energy. Here are their big questions in a Wordle:

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Some of the questions they've raised:

Tama Smith Filipas How does the variety of marine life living right on the thermal vents in the deep sea suvive and thrive?

Devon Kyle Why is there "something" rather than "nothing"... Has "nothing" ever even exisited???

Nicole Thomas I'd love to hear about the search for Earth-like exoplanets.

Leon Landry Is hydrogen a viable energy sources. Can we actually do artificial photosynthesis efficiently?

Robb Smith I'd like to see some segments on geo-engineering. Can we use it to control climate change? Can we use it to control extreme weather? Is terraforming Mars or an exoplanet even a remote possibility?

Ravi Narine Will we ever be able to leave our solar system?

Ryan Munkwitz Where happens to matter that enters a black hole?

Join the conversation: Let us know what your big question is, and you just might see it answered--or at least get to meet the scientists who are working every day to answer it--on NOVA scienceNOW.

Late last week, I was doing background research for a possible story on the future of nuclear energy. Has global warming tipped the risk-benefit scales in nuclear's favor? Can any of the next-generation reactor designs claim to be truly accident-proof--and terrorist-proof? Are we any closer to solving the waste problem?

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The Fukushima Daiichi power plant, photographed in 2002. Via the Wikimedia Commons.

This week, those questions feel a lot less hypothetical. The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on Friday damaged multiple reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 150 miles from Tokyo; since then, explosions and fires at the plant have released radiation to the atmosphere. With cooling pumps out of order, workers are struggling to keep the reactors cool using seawater, which requires venting radioactive steam. Tens of thousands of people living nearby the plant have been evacuated, and more than one hundred thousand in a larger danger zone are being asked to confine themselves to their homes. As the New York Times reported, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan "pleaded for calm, but warned that radiation had already spread from the crippled reactors and there was 'a very high risk' of further leakage."

Workers are attempting to bring the reactors under control, and to prevent spent fuel rods, which are kept submerged in water, from overheating and deepening the crisis. We don't know yet what toll this emergency will take on the people of Japan and on the environment. But policymakers are even now beginning to gauge how this nuclear crisis may affect the fate of nuclear energy in the United States, where the looming threat of global warming has elevated nuclear to the "lesser evil" in the minds of many, including some of its former foes.

For the first time in decades, new nuclear plants are in the works here in the U.S., with the blessing of President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. (Hear Steven Chu talk about nuclear power.) Though Slate's David Weigel reported on Tuesday that the crisis in Japan has not weakened Washington's support for nuclear, some top House Democrats are calling for an investigation and hearings on the safety of the United States' nuclear plants. Meanwhile, Switzerland is suspending plans for new plants, and Germany has put a temporary hold on extensions of current plants, according to the New York Times.

What can we learn from what's happening in Japan? Is it possible to compare the risks and benefits of nuclear energy with the risks and benefits of fossil fuels? Can we build a truly accident-proof reactor? In the coming days and weeks, we'll be using this space to bring you opinions on these questions from a number of nuclear and environmental experts. In the meantime, we invite you to share your thoughts on the crisis in Japan and what it means for the future of nuclear energy here in the United States and around the world.

Read more articles from Inside NOVA's "Nuclear After Japan" series.

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What's New With Hobbits

Take a creature that's just over three feet tall, with a brain the size of a grapefruit, oversized clown-shoe feet, and the ability to craft and hunt with stone tools. Is it another species? A sick or genetically defective human? Scientists have been arguing about this since the creature--dubbed Homo floresiensis, or "hobbit" to its friends--was first discovered in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores back in 2003.

When NOVA's Alien from Earth premiered in 2008, the jury was still out. In one camp were scientists who believed the hobbit was a previously undiscovered species, a new branch on the tree of human evolution. In the other camp were critics who argued that the hobbit's diminutive skull was evidence of microcephaly, a disorder that causes the head and brain to develop abnormally. That would explain why the hobbits were still alive and kicking a mere 18,000 years ago, when modern humans were already living in Australia and more primitive hominids had long-since disappeared.

Since that premiere, though, a flurry of new evidence has accumulated suggesting that the hobbit really is a new species. With a rebroadcast of Alien from Earth coming up this week on some PBS stations (please check your local listings to find out when it will air near you, or watch it streaming online), we've compiled some of the latest discoveries about the hobbits and their history.

First, the hobbits' arrival on Flores has been pushed back by nearly 300,000 years. When Alien from Earth first aired, the oldest evidence of the hobbits was a cache of stone tools dated to about 700,000 years ago. But in 2010, scientists led by Australian archaeologist Adam Brumm announced that they'd discovered more stone artifacts, this time buried beneath an ash layer deposited by a volcano that erupted a million years ago; ergo, someone was making tools on Flores before the volcano went off.

Second, a close examination of hobbit foot bones revealed that the hobbits walked upright on disproportionately large feet. (Their feet measured seven and a half inches long.) Those big feet suggest that the hobbits' ancestry goes back to an even more primitive species than was first thought.

How could a healthy animal end up with such a scrawny brain? Creatures on isolated islands are known to balloon up and shrink down over many generations, two phenomena known as gigantism and dwarfism. In fact, Flores itself is home to funhouse-mirror creatures like giant storks, monster Komodo dragons, and pygmy elephants. Yet island dwarfs often end up with heads that are disproportionately large for their shrunken bodies, so many scientists doubted that this kind of island dwarfism could explain the hobbit's oddball proportions. But in 2009, scientists at London's Natural History Museum used skulls from two types of dwarf hippos (both now extinct) to create a new model for the scaling of brain size and body mass in dwarf species. Their model suggested that the hobbits could indeed be healthy island dwarfs.

But to know for sure whether the hobbit represents a new species, scientists would like to look at its DNA. It has been tried before, by teams from Germany and Australia, without success. Now, Christina Adler and her team at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA are planning to give it another go, this time using a sample from a DNA-rich substance called cementum, which coats the roots of teeth.

Meanwhile, the Australian Research Council has funded more excavations on Flores. Archaeologists like Mike Morwood, one of the original discoverers of the hobbit bones, hope that these large-scale digs could turn up bones from hobbit ancestors one million years old--or even older.

Optical illusions and magic tricks can illuminate how the brain's visual systems are wired; NOVA scienceNOW's Magic and the Brain showed how. But can we learn about language processing in the same way? Colin Phillips thinks so. Phillips studies "linguistic illusions" to learn more about how our brains process words in real time. Here are a few linguistic illusions to try out, based on some that he shared with us at the AAAS. Skip to the continued link for explanations.


More people have been to Russia than I have.

The key to the cabinets are on the table.

While she was taking classes full time, Russell was working two jobs to pay the bills.

I'm not one to attribute every activity of man to the changes in the climate.

It is unlikely that Congress will ever pass that bill.

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New Planets, By Leaps and Bounds

Remember when we thought our solar system might be unique in the universe? When we had no evidence--other than maybe a gut feeling, a hunch--that there were other planets beyond our solar family? It wasn't so long ago. It was 1992 when astronomers discovered the first extrasolar planets, around a dead star called a pulsar. The first planet around a "living" star was discovered just three years later.

We've come far, fast. Though we often emphasize that science advances incrementally and not in great "Eureka!" leaps, going from zero exoplanets to more than 500 in less than two decades feels pretty, well, leapy. In the months and years to come, that number is going to keep leaping ahead thanks in large part to the Kepler space telescope, which is busy staring at stars and searching for telltale brightness dips that might indicate the presence of eclipsing planets. In fact, if you watched NOVA's Hunting the Edge of Space when it premiered less than a year ago, you heard this:

Kepler has already discovered several new exoplanets. It hasn't found an Earth-like planet yet, but astronomers believe it is only a matter of time.

A matter of time, sure--but not much time. Earlier this month, scientists announced that Kepler had spotted 1,235 planet candidates ("candidates" because most still must be confirmed using a second detection technique), including 68 candidates that are about the same size as Earth. Of those 68, five orbit in the "habitable zone," where the temperature could be right to support liquid water.

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How Kepler's planetary candidates break down by size. Image courtesy NASA/Kepler Mission/Wendy Stenzel.

At one of this morning's AAAS sessions, astronomer Sara Seager of MIT took us on an illustrated tour of some of these newly-discovered planets. There's Kepler-10b, "the first unquestionably rocky planet orbiting a star outside our solar system," which orbits so close to its star (more than 20 times closer than Mercury orbits the Sun) that lava oceans and rivers spill over its surface. This NASA animation captures an artist's conception of what it might be like to fly over Kepler-10b.

Then there's Kepler-7b, with the highest albedo of any known exoplanet. Albedo is a measure of reflectivity (you could say that Kepler-7b is the shiniest exoplanet), and this suggests that the planet is probably enveloped by highly-reflective clouds. Things get stranger still in the Kepler-11 system, where six confirmed planets orbit so tightly that they would all fit within Venus' orbit; five of the six orbit closer than Mercury. And in the yet-to-be confirmed system KOI-730, two planets share the same orbit like sprinters on a single lane of a track.

Kepler is turning up a "bonanza" of planets, as Harvard astronomer Matthew Holman put it, a weird and wild menagerie that is challenging our models of how planets form and bringing us ever closer to discovering a truly Earth-like world. So, if you catch a rebroadcast of Hunting the Edge of Space, in this small way it will already be out of date. We just can't keep up. And though it's part of my job as a researcher to make sure that our shows are up-to-the-minute, in this case, I think being out-of-date is something to celebrate.

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Less Than One Percent Human

There are 100 trillion microbes living inside of you. That's ten times the number of human cells in your body. And together, those microbes have more than three million genes--150 times the number of "human" genes in your body. If you assembled a genetic senate, your own DNA would have to fight for a single seat. Maybe we aren't quite as human as we thought.

I'm in Washington, DC, scouting for future stories for NOVA at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (That's a mouthful, so I'll just say AAAS from here on out). The AAAS brings scientists, policymakers, and journalists together for a long weekend of talks, public events, lots and lots of coffee, and--as I learned in one set of talks this morning--lots and lots of microbes. The AAAS attracts about 8,000 human attendees, so that makes eight hundred thousand trillion (80 quadrillion!?) microbes attendees.

But the human microbiome is under attack. Antibiotics, supplements, fad diets, fatty "Western" food, and behaviors and environmental factors we probably don't yet understand all put stress on the microbes that live in the human body. Scientists like David Relman (Stanford University) are trying to find out exactly what we're doing to our local microbes, and how quickly and robustly they bounce back from wallops like antibiotics.

Meanwhile, other researchers hope to develop new drugs that target microbiota instead of human cells. As Jeremy Nicholson of Imperial College London puts it: "Drug the bugs!"

Why are these engineers dropping their new Mars rover from the ceiling? In my last post on Vandi Verma and the state of the "old" Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, I mentioned some of the upgrades that are being installed on the next-generation rover, Curiosity. But I didn't mention one of Curiosity's wildest new features: its landing system. Check it out.


Spirit and Opportunity bounced onto the Martian surface encased in cushioning airbags. Curiosity, however, will be lowered wheels-down from a tether hooked to the upper stage of its spacecraft. The NASA folks call this system a sky crane, which makes it sound like something you might see on your average construction site--if that construction site was, you know, hurtling through an alien sky while urgently firing rockets to slow itself down. But if everything goes smoothly, right before the rover touches down, it will be falling at a gentle rate of about 0.75 meters per second, just like an enormous, 2,000 pound leaf fluttering softly to the surface. (Well, maybe not exactly like that.)

Before trying such a scheme on Mars, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have to test it here on Earth--and, of course, post the test to YouTube. Based on the engineers' reactions, I guess it worked. What will this all look like when it happen on Mars? That's on YouTube, too.

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Safe Driving, Mars-style

Drive safely!

As soon as I turned 16 and got my driver's license, my parents greeted my every move with these two magical words. I couldn't set my hand on the doorknob without hearing them. Heading to school? "Drive safely!" Going out for coffee? "Drive safely!" Tossing the empty peanut butter jar into the recycling bin in the garage? "Drive safely!" It's entirely possible that my parents wired the door to chime "Drive safely!" every time I turned the handle, like some kind of teenager-sensing reverse-doorbell.

Vandi Verma would get along really well with my parents. As a Mars rover driver at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Verma helps plan the Opportunity rover's route across the Martian surface. Opportunity is currently exploring a 90-meter-wide crater called Santa Maria, and on January 25, Opportunity will celebrate seven (Earth) years on Mars--pretty good for a mission that was only supposed to last three months. One of the big factors in Opportunity's long-term survival: The safe driving of Verma and her colleagues.

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The view from here: Opportunity's navigation camera looks out at the edge of the Santa Maria crater on January 10, 2001. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On NOVA scienceNOW's Can We Make It To Mars?, Verma explains how rover drivers manage to get the rovers to interesting places--boulder fields, steep-walled craters--while keeping them safe. As Verma told our producers (and as 16-year-old-me fruitlessly told my parents), "Safety's the biggest concern, but you can't be so risk averse that you don't go anywhere."

Last week, I checked in with Verma to find out where the rovers have been roving. The bad news: Spirit, Opportunity's near-twin, is stuck in the soft sand of a Martian plateau, and engineers on Earth haven't been able to communicate with it since March 2010. Why isn't Spirit answering our calls? Its dusty solar panels may not be gathering enough energy to keep it awake; if that's the case, engineers are hopeful that when the brightest days of the Martian year come around this March, Spirit might power back up. Power loss or cold-temperature damage may also have caused Spirit to "lose track of time," meaning that the rover won't know when to expect its scheduled calls from Earth.

Last summer, when Spirit was stuck in the Martian sand but still phoning home regularly, Verma helped build an Earthbound testbed in which engineers could test out rescue scenarios using a robotic Spirit body-double. (Check out this JPL video documenting how engineers plotted Spirit's escape.) With Martian winter on its way, the rover team was racing against time. They finally found an escape strategy that worked--on Earth, at least--but not soon enough. Before they could free Spirit, winter set in and the solar-powered rover's energy reserves dipped too low for it to continue to talk to Earth. Now that spring has sprung on Mars, the team has renewed attempts to talk to the rover.

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Catch the Total Lunar Eclipse Tonight

The eclipse is coming! If you live in North America, don't mind staying up past your bedtime, and have obligingly clear skies, tonight is your chance to see a total lunar eclipse--your last chance, unless you are up for some serious globetrotting, until April 2014. The moon will start passing behind Earth's shadow, or penumbra, at 1:33 am EST, and will be totally in shadow at 2:41 am EST.

The expert stargazers at Sky and Telescope have full pre-game (pre-eclipse?) coverage here, and NASA will be hosting a live web chat with experts from Marshall Space Flight Center until 5:00 am EST.

More evidence that this is the most social-media-savvy eclipse ever: Astrophotographers can post their photos to NASA's lunar eclipse flickr group, the forgetful can sign up for text-message reminders via the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's "I'm There" campaign, and Twitterers will be tagging their loony (get it?) tweets with #eclipse

Just be sure to lift your eyes from your smart phone long enough to actually see the eclipse!

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Giant Storks on Hobbit Island

In Alien From Earth, which premiered back in 2008, NOVA took viewers to the Indonesian island of Flores to meet the "hobbits"--or rather, the 18,000-year-old bones of the creatures formally designated Homo floresiensis. These diminutive hominids, which might or might not represent a lost human species, were not the only exotic fauna on ancient Flores. They shared the island with Komodo dragons, dwarf elephants called pygmy Stegodon, and, scientists announced earlier this week, giant, carnivorous storks.

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Care for a bite of hobbit? A contemporary Marabou stork. By Ltshears (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

To anyone who associates storks with the delivery of sweetly-bundled little babies, the whole carnivorous thing may come as a surprise. Yes, the 19 known species of stork eat worms and bugs, but many also dine on small mammals and other birds, and the Marabou stork, to which the new Flores behemoth is most closely related, has a particular taste for carrion. As the writers at the National Zoo point out, though, it's not picky: "Marabou Storks will eat just about any kind of animal, dead or alive."

Modern Marabous are nearly five feet tall, and their Flores cousins stood even taller: At six feet, they would have towered over the three-foot hobbits. Based on the heft of the bones, which were discovered in the same cave which held the hobbit remains, the birds probably weighed about 35 pounds and didn't do much flying.

Take vulnerable hobbits, throw in some giant meat-eating storks, give it all a good shake in the science-headline-machine, and what do you get? Frodo Eaten Alive By Storks! and Some Storks Deliver Babies, These Storks Eat Them! I'm exaggerating, but only a little. Since there is no evidence that these giant storks fed on the hobbits of Flores, the fact that almost every headline on the story screamed Hobbit-Eating Storks! seemed a little sensational.

I emailed Mike Morwood, the Australian archaeologist who headed up the team that discovered the hobbit bones, to get his take. To my surprise, Morwood sided with the hobbit-eaters: "Undoubtedly, Komodo dragons and possibly giant storks occasionally killed and consumed Hobbits. In fact, Komodo dragons still occasionally kill people."

But, says Morwood, the storks were probably more afraid of hobbits than the hobbits were of them: "There is clear evidence that Homo floresiensis was butchering and eating this stork--bones have cut marks on them and one skull had been smashed. This should not be surprising however, because other items of Hobbit diet included Komodo dragon, another formidable predator, and lots of pygmy Stegodon. All great accomplishments for a hominin just one meter tall. Despite her small brain, Hobbit was smarter than Big Bird."

As for the suggestion that the storks nibbled the hobbits to extinction, says Morwood, "We now have evidence that hominins, presumably of the lineage that culminated in H. floresiensis, were on Flores for at least a million years, so it is very unlikely that storks (or Komodo dragons) were responsible for their extinction."

Why are the creatures of Flores so weird? Animals on remote islands often grow or shrink over many generations, isolation being evolution's answer to Alice in Wonderland's magical cakes and mushrooms. Naturally big fellows like hippos and elephants are most likely to shrink down to pygmy proportions, perhaps so that they can survive on limited resources. Small fries, like rodents, swell up like hairy Hulks, perhaps to better defend their territory and devour larger prey. Peter Tyson, editor in chief of NOVA Online, examined on the history of this "island rule"--and its many exceptions--in Gigantism & Dwarfism on Islands.

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The Great Elevator Button Debate: Part II

Does the door close button in your elevator actually work? In Trapped In An Elevator, one expert said the button was a sham. But after viewers wrote to us disputing that, we decided to run a little citizen science experiment. Dozens of our blog readers and Facebook fans chipped in by putting their favorite elevators to the test, using stopwatches to time the elevator doors with and without a press of the door close button. (Catch up with Part I of this series.)

Here's our own contribution to the debate. Take a look.


So, is the button a total fake? Not necessarily. First, based on reports from our readers, some elevators really do have working door close buttons. Plus, we didn't consider every possible scenario in which a rider might press the button. What if she'd been holding the door open button for a while before pressing the door close? What if a stream of passengers had entered the elevator? What if she'd sent the elevator up to a new floor? What if the elevator was operating in a manual or emergency mode? We only tested one particular scenario in one particular elevator.

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Brian Marsden, Astronomer, 1937-2010

The NOVA team sadly notes the passing of Brian Marsden, Senior Astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and a longtime friend of NOVA. Marsden died on November 18 after a long illness.

As director of the Minor Planet Center from 1978 to 2006 and the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams between 1968 and 2000, Marsden served as a sort of celestial traffic reporter, broadcasting the bearings of comets and asteroids to amateur and professional astronomers worldwide. Thanks to his occasional predictions of (possible) asteroid collisions, the New York Times once called him a "cheery herald of fear," "a scientist so sanguine, so droll that he can make possible global catastrophe sound like good news."

Marsden was also a vocal advocate for the "demotion" of Pluto, which is how we convinced him to join Neil deGrasse Tyson in an unorthodox football game at Harvard Stadium for The Pluto Files earlier this year. Marsden faced off against astronomer colleague Mark Sykes, scoring (intellectual) touchdowns in defense of Pluto's classificiation as a dwarf planet. (Skip to 4:30 to see the astronomers take to the gridiron.)

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA.

The New York Times shared this story of Marsden's personal connection with Pluto:

For years he had proposed that Pluto, which was discovered in 1930, should be demoted from planet to asteroid. That proposal was not accepted. But in Prague in 2006, at their meeting held every three years, members of the International Astronomical Union created a new category of "dwarf planets," which included Pluto. Also at that meeting, Dr. Marsden announced that he was stepping down as director of the Minor Planet Center. "He was quite entertained," his son-in-law said, "by the thought that both he and Pluto had been retired on the same day."

All of us at NOVA are grateful to Dr. Marsden for his service to astronomy and for sharing his sharp wit and good humor with our filmmakers over many decades.

After Trapped In An Elevator premiered last week, we started hearing from viewers who disagreed with one of our on-screen experts about a quirk of elevator operation: the door-close button. Does it actually do anything? In the film, John Menville, an elevator technician with almost 50 years of experience maintaining elevators in New York City, said no:

John Menville: As you'll notice, there are a lot of buttons in the elevator. However, there's one button that doesn't work. The door close button will not close the doors no matter how many times you push it. "Door Close" button does serve a function: it lets people think that they have some control over the elevator, although that's not the case.

New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten said the same thing in his 2008 story on elevators, with a little caveat: "In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn't work. It is there mainly to make you think it works."

But some of our viewers--and some of our own staff--are convinced that their favorite door-close buttons are perfectly functional. It turns out there is a lively debate on the subject online, too. So, who's right? Are the pro-close-button folks delusional? Are anti-closers dour cynics so convinced of their own powerlessness that they won't accept responsibility for something as inconsequential as an elevator door?

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But then we realized that this isn't a question that can be answered on the internet. There's only one place to go to settle the issue once and for all: The elevator. Which actually means there are about 700,000 places to go, in the U.S. and Canada.

Seven hundred thousand is a lot. So, we need your help. Call it citizen science. All you need is a stopwatch and, naturally, an elevator. Hop in the lift, hit your floor button, and wait to see how long it takes for the door to start closing. Then try it again, adding a press of the door-close button. Repeat the whole thing a few more times, because that's what scientists do. Report your results in the comments section.

We'll do our own experiment on the elevators here at our One Guest Street headquarters. Stay tuned for the results!

So you watched Dogs Decoded last night and now you're in smart-dog withdrawal. Here's a hair-of-the-dog cure: Test your skills at deciphering the meaning of dog barks, hear from experts about their favorite smart animals, and discover why dogs and dogs alone come in so many shapes and sizes. Still jonesing for more incredible pups? This should do the trick:


You can learn more about goes into training a dozen dogs to dance around on Ikea furniture here. And if you missed the Dogs Decoded premiere, you can still watch the show streaming online. You lucky dog.

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Genetic Variants Hold HIV in Check

When NOVA viewers met Bob Massie more than a decade ago in Surviving AIDS, he was a medical mystery: Infected with HIV in 1978, Massie hadn't developed any AIDS symptoms. Now, scientists have identified the genetic variations that help Massie and other like him keep HIV in check.

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Controllers have a variant form of the HLA-B protein, pictured here, which helps flag infected cells. Credit: P. de Bakker

Massie is a member of an elite minority of HIV patients called controllers. Representing only one in 300 infected individuals, controllers have HIV, but their immune systems curb the virus' replication. Controllers don't get sick, and they are less likely to transmit HIV to others. For two decades, scientists have been trying to understand how controllers stave off AIDS. Their goal: New therapies that could help all patients defend against HIV.

Now, a genome-wide association analysis of nearly 1,000 controllers has homed in on minute variations in a protein called HLA-B. HLA-B is a "reconnaissance" protein; it flags virus-infected cells so that "killer" T cells can identify and destroy them. But controllers' HLA-B proteins are just a little bit different: Five amino acids that make up part of HLA-B's flagging mechanism frequently vary between controllers and the vast majority of HIV-infected individuals.

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Leave No Martian Behind?

Would you be willing to take a one-way trip to Mars? That's the question NOVA Online's Peter Tyson takes on in a new story on NOVA's Web site--and now that NASA and DARPA have teamed up on something called the 100-Year Starship study (a project whose evocative name belies the fact that its end product is a sheaf of paper, not the Enterprise), you might actually have an opportunity to volunteer--in a century or two.

What will the shakeup in Washington, DC mean for research budgets, energy and climate policy, and the future of NASA? We've collected analysis from bloggers and reporters around the Web, and hope you'll share your own predictions in the comments section.

Energy and climate


Research budgets


NASA and space exploration

Tech and telecom

Share your own opinions and prognostications in the comments!
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Water On The Moon? Yes, No, and Maybe.

Judging by the headlines, the weather on the moon is as capricious as the weather in Boston. First, it was wet. Then, in August, it was bone dry. This week, it's drenched again.

What's going on here? There's no real weather on the moon, so the true tempest must be in the headlines. Anthony Colaprete, principal investigator on NASA's moon-smashing LCROSS mission, helped me sort through the moon's moist mixed messages.

As Colaprete and his team reported last week in Science, water ice may make up more than 5% of the dust inside a shadowed lunar crater called Cabeus, which they excavated kamikaze-style last year by smacking it with an empty rocket and analyzing the dust and gas that they kicked up. Five percent might not seem like much, but it's twice what you'd find in the Sahara--pretty wet for a place with no atmosphere.

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Indian Ocean Tsunami Resources

This week's deadly Indonesian tsunami carries echoes of the 2004 wave that killed nearly a quarter of a million people in Sumatra, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The waves were triggered by earthquakes along different sections of the same fault line, part of a geologically active perimeter called the Pacific Ring of Fire. NOVA covered the 2004 tsunami just months after it happened in Wave That Shook The World.
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What We're Watching: Curiosity Cam

The birth of a Mars rover isn't so different from the birth of a baby: It's a long, painful process, everybody wears masks and gowns, and someone always wants to get it on tape. Yesterday, the proud engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California started streaming live video of the birth of their own bundle of joy, the next-generation Mars rover Curiosity, which is now under construction in a JPL cleanroom. Check it out here, or join the conversation on Ustream, where you'll also find a calendar of scheduled activity. (Word is that Curiosity's six wheels will be going on today.)

 
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Someplace Like Home

What kind of place is the fourth planet from the star Gliese 581? It's at least three times as massive as the Earth. It orbits its dim red dwarf once every 36.6 days, at a distance of about 14 million miles. And one more thing: It just might be the first truly habitable planet discovered outside our solar system. (For more on how scientists spot these alien worlds, check out NOVA scienceNOW's Hunt for Alien Earths. )

The fourth planet--also known as Gliese 581g--isn't the first exoplanet to lay a claim on that title. Two of Gliese 581g's neighboring planets have also temporarily held the mantle; one was eventually determined to be too hot, and the other likely too cold, to maintain the liquid water that astrobiologists believe is a critical ingredient for life. Figuring out the temperature of an alien world is tricky business. Without much hard data to go on, scientists must make educated guesses about how much sunlight an exoplanet reflects and how much it absorbs; how much extra warmth it gets from the greenhouse effect; and whether other heat sources, like a roiling interior or tidal friction, nudge up the mercury. (Of course, astronomers would love to be able to get this information--here's how they would use it to probe an exoplanet's atmosphere from afar.)

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And The Nobel Goes To...

NOVA congratulates Robert Edwards, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his role in developing human in vitro fertilization therapy. Since the birth of the first "test tube baby" in 1978, an estimated 4 million babies have been born with help from IVF. NOVA documented the development of IVF in the 2001 film 18 Ways To Make A Baby. Check out online resources associated with the film here, or head straight for the transcript.
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Is the Universe a Bad Sport?

In sports and in cosmology, the rules of the game aren't supposed to change as you go along. Athletes call this playing fair. Cosmologists call it the cosmological principle, and it means that the rules that govern atoms here on Earth also hold in every corner of the universe and at every point in time.

Imagine the universe as a basketball court: The hoop on one end of the hardwood is supposed to be the exact same height as the one on the opposite side. But what if the basket on the home side of the court always skews a few centimeters lower than the visitors' rim? It wouldn't be very fair. But now, cosmologists led by John Webb (University of New South Wales, Sydney) think they've spotted evidence that the rules of the cosmos might be similarly partisan.

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New Life For The Ghost In Your Genes

Is DNA destiny? NOVA's Ghost In Your Genes, which will be rebroadcast this Tuesday on many PBS stations (check local listings), provides fresh hope that our fate isn't inscribed in our genes. A "second genome," or epigenome, which has only recently caught scientists' attention, can switch genes on and off with chemical tags. And though you can't rewrite your genes, you just might be able to change your epigenome.

How? Diet and exposure to toxins, like those in cigarettes, probably play a role. But Moshe Szyf and Michael Meaney, scientists at McGill University in Montreal, wanted to find out if a person's upbringing could influence his epigenome. Would abuse, neglect, and stress leave an imprint? Meaney and Szyf thought so, and set out to test their hypothesis on rat pups.

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Tractor Beam Me Up

Have scientists created a real-life prototype of a tractor beam, that glowing shaft of green light that the folks on the Starship Enterprise use to seize hold of enemy vessels? I'm a sucker for any innovation that brings us a step closer to gallivanting around the universe, boldly going where no one has gone before. But this tractor beam won't be coming standard on next year's spaceships. That's because it works by heating up the air around the tiny particle it's trying to move. In the vacuum of space, that's a deal-breaker.

The new tractor beam was built by researchers at the Australian National University, and it can manipulate tiny (0.1 millimeter) carbon-coated glass beads from more than five feet away. Scientists have long been using devices called optical tweezers to move even smaller objects, right down to  the size of single atoms, but the new beam extends the maximum distance over which particles can be prodded a thousand-fold. It also operates in plain air, unlike optical tweezers. Compared to a delicate  tweezer, the new tractor beam looks like a pair of overgrown kitchen tongs.

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Recipe for a planetary system

Take one Sun-like star, two scant Saturns, one maybe-Earth, and combine over high heat, and you've got Kepler-9, the latest addition to our growing catalog of planetary systems and the first sample of 400 elite planet-candidates that the Kepler Space Telescope team has been keeping under wraps.

Scientists analyzing data from Kepler, NASA's flagship planet-hunter, announced earlier this week that they have confirmed two Saturn-sized planets in tight orbits around Kepler-9, one of more than 100,000 stars in Kepler's field of view. These gas giants create mini-eclipses each time they pass in front of their parent star--that's how Kepler spotted them. Now, follow-up observations from the Keck telescope in Hawaii have verified that these periodic blips really are planets. Just a bit smaller and less massive than Saturn, the planets orbit closer to their star than Mercury does to the Sun. Because their orbits bring them so close to each other, they exert a measurable gravitational tug on each other: The inner Saturn is speeding up and the outer one slowing down by a few minutes every go-round.

But what about that maybe-Earth I promised? Until its mass is confirmed by follow-up observations, it's just an "Object of Interest," but here's what we do know: It orbits every 1.6 days or so and is about 50% larger than Earth. It's not the smallest exoplanet discovered so far--earlier this month, a European team announced that a planet candidate with as little as 1.4 Earth masses could be the record-breaking seventh member of a planetary system only 127 light-years away--and it would be scorchingly hot. So while it might be "Earth-sized," it is definitely not "Earth-like." We'll have to wait a while for truly Earth-like planets to start appearing in Kepler data.

For more on the hunt for Earth-like planets, check out NOVA scienceNOW's Hunt for Alien Earths.

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The Lindsay Lohan Problem

Pop quiz: How many stylists did Lindsay Lohan have on call when she was released from jail earlier this month? Got it? Now, how many Energy Innovation Hubs will the Department of Energy pick to receive more than $300 million of funding over the next half-decade?

If you found the first question easier to answer than the second, don't worry--you're in good company. But as Paula Apsell, our boss here at NOVA, told a roomful of reporters at the Television Critics Association Press Tour last week, it sure would "be great to see one percent less attention paid to Lindsay Lohan and that much more to science."

The answer to Question #2, by the way, is three. Three is five less than eight, which is the number of Energy Innovation Hubs the DOE laid out in its 2010 budget request. Congress declined to fund the remaining five would-be hubs--more on that later. First, let's talk about the hubs they did fund.
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Seeking the Source of Blindsight

Remember Donald Rumsfeld's chestnut about the "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns?" Neuroscientists can add one more category to that list: unknown knowns, things we know without even realizing that we know them.

Or, things we see without realizing that we see them. Patients with a rare condition called blindsight are blind due to damage to the primary visual cortex, the part of the brain that consciously processes information from the retina. But when scientists probe deeper, it turns out that these patients do have access to some visual information after all--they just aren't conscious of it.

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Your Brain on Snakes

Picture this: You are confined in an MRI machine. Just beyond your head is a live snake, and every time you press a button, the slithering reptile inches closer. You cannot run. You cannot move. You must be absolutely still while the MRI scans your brain to reveal the neurological intricacies of your total freak-out.

Is this a page from Stanley Milgram's to-do list? A torture scene from some straight-to-DVD Indiana Jones movie? No. It is a real experiment led by scientists at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and published last month in the journal Neuron. The goal: To pinpoint courage in the brain. That's a tall order for a lab experiment-- most true acts of courage don't happen in controlled settings--but the investigators hit on a novel solution, as they explain in this video:

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Thinking Like An Octopus

If you follow soccer or marine biology, you've probably heard about Paul, the octopus who correctly predicted the winners of the 2010 World Cup games by selecting tasty mussels from boxes labeled with the flags of the victorious teams. Blame statistics, experimental biases, or simple luck of the draw; you won't find me arguing that any sea creature can see into the future. But if I had to take advice from a mollusk, an octopus would be my top choice: They are surprisingly intelligent, as the NOVA scienceNOW team found out while researching a story on these underwater eggheads for the show's upcoming season.


An octopus' brain makes up a big fraction of its total body weight--relative to its body size, the octopus has the largest brain of all invertebrates--and contains hundreds of millions of neurons. Structurally, the octopus brain looks more like that of a vertebrate than that of a clam. How did the octopus evolve so much brainpower? Without protective shells, octopuses need all the help they can get to outwit their predators. Experiments in the lab and in the field have shown that they can learn, remember, and even plan ahead. They navigate mazes and learn associations between symbols and treats. Some researchers even claim that octopuses have individual personalities, though critics disagree.

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The Spy Factory: Then and Now

The warrantless wiretapping controversy has taken a few twists and turns since The Spy Factory premiered last winter on NOVA. The show, which will be rebroadcast tonight on most PBS stations, reported on the National Security Agency's surveillance of vast streams of data--phone conversations, emails, faxes--from AT&T's regional switching center in San Francisco. But the biggest reversal came in March, when a federal judge ruled that domestic surveillance is illegal without court approval.

The National Security Agency (NSA) was first empowered to wiretap on American soil without a warrant just three weeks after the attacks of September 11, thanks to an executive order from then-President Bush. The Obama administration had sought to retain the NSA's surveillance privileges; the judge rejected the Justice Department's claim that pursuing the lawsuit would reveal state secrets.

What does this all mean? James Bamford, who wrote The Shadow Factory and wrote and produced The Spy Factory with producer/director C. Scott Willis, filled me in. "What it means is that the judge says what was done there--by both the NSA and AT&T--was illegal because it violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act." The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), enacted in 1978, requires court authorization for domestic wiretaps. But, Bamford points out, that doesn't mean the telecoms which cooperated with the NSA will be on the hook: "AT&T and the other telecoms were later given immunity by Congress."

The Spy Factory will be rebroadcast tonight on most PBS stations. Please check your local listings to find out when it will be airing near you.
Nuke it. Seal it with inflatable tubes. Stuff it up with the collected works of Ayn Rand. These are just a handful of thousands of offbeat oil-spill fixes which have been cooked up by average Joes and Janes, many at the invitation of the Unified Command and BP. With the oil leak continuing to spout disaster in the Gulf and BP running out of options, these rookie pitches are all starting to look a lot more appealing.

With due respect to crowdsourcing, how did it come to this? As a New York Times report pointed out back in May, drilling technology has advanced dramatically over the last two decades; spill mitigation, on the other hand, "has not changed much in 20 years."  So why didn't we throw all this brainpower at deepwater drilling safety at the same time engineers were developing the technology that allowed rigs to drill so deeply in the first place?
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Inside the "Synthetic Cell"

Scientists are a step closer to creating life from scratch, as J. Craig Venter and his colleagues announced yesterday that they have synthesized a complete bacterial genome and installed it in a "synthetic cell" capable of replicating itself.

So, what defines a cell as "synthetic?" Haven't scientists been tinkering with genes for a while now? What makes this new work so special? I checked in with the producer of NOVA scienceNOW's "Artificial Life" segment, Julia Cort, and biologist David Deamer, who is featured in that segment, to find out. Now, if you haven't watched the segment yet, I'll give you a sneak preview: You'll see a scientist programming a string of genetic code into a computer, while a machine stocked with little bottles of the chemicals adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, pops out artificial DNA to order. This segment ran back in 2005, so cooking up DNA from scratch is not a new thing.

But the scientists you'll see in the segment weren't synthesizing full genomes. They were whipping up a gene for this and a gene for that, and slipping them in to the "natural" DNA that lives in cells. Venter and his colleagues, on the other hand, have synthesized the whole shebang, creating a machine-made near-carbon-copy of a bacterial genome and stationing it inside a cell that's been wiped clean if its own DNA. That's no small feat, Deamer explained. Typically, synthesized DNA can only hold about 300 chemical "letters" before mistakes start to pile up. Venter and his team scaled that up to a million letters.

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New Orleans, Then and Now

As a new disaster bears down on the Gulf Coast, NOVA revisits a catastrophe from which the region is still recovering, Hurricane Katrina, with a May 18 rebroadcast of Storm That Drowned A City.

A lot has changed since Storm That Drowned A City premiered, just five months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. A lot has changed--and then again, a lot hasn't. I wanted to find out what new structural safeguards are protecting the region and whether New Orleans will be ready for the next hurricane season.

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The answer, it seems, is that "we're getting there." The Army Corps of Engineers is giving out almost $15 billion in contracts for new and improved levees, floodwalls, pump stations, surge barriers, and navigation gates under the Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System. The goal is to provide New Orleans with "100-year level protection" by the time 2011 blows in. That means that the city would be fortified against the kind of storm you'd expect to see only once every hundred years--or, to put it another way, the kind of storm which has a 1% chance of striking in any given year.

Some highlights of the new system:

Will it be enough? A report released last year by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council argues that 100-year protection just isn't sufficient. In fact, the authors argue, it is impossible to "make the city safe" from storms: Structural improvements can only make the city safer and, at their worst, can instill a false sense of security in those living below sea level.

But truly rebuilding the city is about more than just infrastructure--it's about restoring vibrant communities. City planners working in the region point out that safety improvements are necessary, but not sufficient, to bringing populations back to some of the city's hardest-hit neighborhoods, like the Lower 9th Ward, Gentilly, Florida and Desire. (The total population is hovering around 2/3 of its pre-Katrina count.) Here, city and neighborhood leaders must decide how and where to rebuild; what to do with abandoned and hazardous homes; and how to give residents that have dispersed to the diaspora confidence that they have a neighborhood to come home to.

Special thanks to Wade Habshey, public affairs officer at the Army Corps of Engineers Task Force Hope, and David Dixon, leader of Planning and Urban Design at Goody Clancy in Boston, for their insight on this post.

Image: The Inner Harbor Navigation Canal surge barrier, under construction. Courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Because it's Friday, and because some things are funny even when you're a grownup and you know you they shouldn't be funny anymore, here is a treat from NASA: A training video for the "space potty" that astronauts use aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. You'll never think about "alignment" and "docking" the same way. (Atlantis, incidentally, just blasted off on what will likely be its last mission. But that's another story.)


If you like Mike Massimino in this video--he's the one who isn't fidgeting uncomfortably--check him out in NOVA's Hubble's Amazing Rescue and NOVA scienceNOW's Saving Hubble
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Did Neanderthals mate with humans?

Modern humans and Neanderthals: Did they or didn't they? The sordid truth is out, and its not what scientists expected. The closest-ever look at the Neanderthal genome reveals that yes, we did interbreed. But scientists are still fuzzy on the where, the when, and the why.

If you watched Becoming Human when it premiered this fall, you might be feeling some scientific whiplash. At the time, genetic analysis suggested that modern humans and Neanderthals kept to themselves and didn't share their, ahem, genetic material. So why the sudden turnaround? The first time around, scientists based their conclusions on mitochondrial DNA. This time, researchers looked at nuclear DNA, which provides a more sensitive comparison to the DNA of modern humans.

So, our ancestors made babies with Neanderthals. But that's not the whole story: Only some modern populations have Neanderthal parentage. Africans don't seem to have any distinctively Neanderthal DNA. So what does that tell us about where and when modern humans and Neanderthals decided to commingle?

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Poll: Sharks versus asteroids

Which is more dangerous: A shark or an asteroid? If the magical Risk Fairy fluttered over with her sparkly wand and offered you a chance to cancel out one of these two risks, which would you choose?

Let's run the numbers. In any given year, sharks kill about half a dozen people. Last year, the tally of asteroid-related deaths was zero. The year before that, it was also zero, as it was the year before that, and the one before that--and so on. In fact, the total number of human beings who have definitively fallen victim to asteroid strikes in all of recorded history is, you guessed it, zero.

But before you sic the Risk Fairy on those bloodthirsty sharks, consider this: If a killer asteroid were to strike the Earth, it wouldn't just pick off a couple of luckless surfers. An asteroid with a diameter of 5 km could kill a billion people. Not to get all 2012, but it could mean the end of civilization as we know it.

Searching for exoplanets is like trying to spot the Invisible Man: Since you can't actually see him, you have to look for clues he's left in the spaces he passes through. Astronomers have gotten pretty good at this: With nothing but shadows and gravitational traces to go on, they've picked out more than 450 planets beyond our solar system.

Now astronomers are targeting an even slipperier quarry: all-but-undetectable Earth-sized planets orbiting near the Jupiter-sized ones they've already fingered. They've found the Invisible Man; now they're looking for his invisible dog.

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New doubts on killer anthrax?

The anthrax case is closed. Or is it?
 
Last summer, NOVA scienceNOW outlined the microbial detective work that led investigators to a single flask in Bruce Ivins' laboratory at Fort Detrick. As the Justice Department was preparing to indict Ivins, Ivins committed suicide, and the Justice Department declared the case closed.

Now, a former colleague is speaking out in Dr. Ivins' defense. Speaking before a National Academy of Sciences panel, Henry Heine argued that Ivins could not have produced the deadly spores without drawing attention from his lab technicians and without accidentally contaminating other lab spaces. Dr. Heine doesn't dispute that the killer spores were a genetic match with the spores in Ivins' lab, but he points out that Ivins was not the only scientist who had access to samples from that flask.

Would an innocent man have committed suicide upon learning that he was about to be indicted? Ask Steven Hatfill, who was also suspected--but later cleared--in the anthrax case. In the Atlantic this month, Hatfill describes the ordeal:

"It's like death by a thousand cuts," Hatfill, who is now 56, says today. "There's a sheer feeling of hopelessness. You can't fight back. You have to just sit there and take it, day after day, the constant drip-drip-drip of innuendo, a punching bag for the government and the press."

Science got investigators pretty far: It led them to one flask, in one lab, led by one scientist. But it didn't erase doubts from those who think that the Justice Department never really got their man.

Hollywood couldn't have scripted a more perfect scene: A nine-year-old boy, tagging along on his father's archeological expedition to Cradle of Humankind, South Africa, is chasing his dog through the grass one morning when he literally stumbles across some fossilized bones. But these aren't any ho-hum, add-them-to-the-pile bones: They represent an entirely new hominid species, almost two million years old, which walked upright like modern humans but still had apelike arms for climbing trees. 

The discovery adds a new twist to the story NOVA told in last fall's Becoming Human. As Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program, told the New York Times, "It reminds us of the combining and recombining of characteristics, the tinkering and experimentation, that go on in evolution."

Where does this new species, dubbed Australopithecus sediba (meaning "fountain" or "wellspring"), sprout on the tree of human origins? Lee Berger, who lead the science team, says that it probably descended from Australopithecus africanus. From there, it's not yet clear whether the species was a direct human ancestor or a "side branch" that budded and then petered out.
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Thick ice on the moon

Last summer, when NOVA scienceNOW ran a segment on LCROSS (the "Moon Smasher" spacecraft) and its search for lunar water, the LCROSS scientists didn't know what they might find: All the evidence from Apollo suggested that the moon was a bone-dry wasteland. But in a matter of months, that picture changed dramatically.

In September, scientists announced that three spacecraft had independently detected traces of water ice speckling the lunar surface. LCROSS added its assent in November, when its science team announced that the little spacecraft's crash landing had blasted about twenty-four gallons worth of water-ice out of a crater near the moon's south pole.

And now, things are getting even wetter: Sheets of ice, up to 10 feet thick, may be coating the depths of shadowed craters near the Moon's north pole. The total haul: at least 600 million tons of ice.

That's the word from the Indian Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft, one of the trio of probes that made the first discovery of lunar water. Chandrayaan measured the ice using its onboard radar. The science team's best guess is that the ice was dumped on the moon by asteroid or comet impacts. Because the north-pole craters don't get any sunlight, the ice would stick around indefinitely.

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Superdads or fishy cads?

I've been told that when you hit a certain age, a biological alarm clock goes off and you go gaga, absolutely bonkers, for babies. Me? Not so much. But I'm suddenly very, very interested in seahorses.

As you may remember from your class trip to the aquarium, male seahorses and their brothers the pipefish and seadragons do something the males of no other animal species can do: They get pregnant. Here's how it works: They court (or are courted by) their aquatic ladies, who deliver a clutch of eggs for the males to fertilize. The dads carry the eggs, providing them with nutrients, until they are ready to emerge as fully-formed mini sea creatures. Meanwhile, the moms are off advancing their careers and sipping pumpkin-spice chai with their girlfriends.

Where do new show ideas come from? Do they appear to us in dreams? Does the idea-stork drop them from the sky in adorable little idea-bundles? Or could they come from YOU?

Here's the thing: Our research team has been in overdrive thinking up story ideas for a new NOVA scienceNOW hour called "What's The Next Big Thing?" But the idea stork has been in a holding pattern, and our dreams haven't been so helpful, unless the next big thing is my husband and Shakira co-hosting the Grammy awards. So, we want to know what you think. What is the next big thing? Will it be a leap in medicine? Computers? Energy? Transportation? Something we haven't even thought of yet?

Put on your future goggles and let us know what you see. Next thing you know, you might be seeing your idea on NOVA scienceNOW!

Publicist Note: The fifth season of "NOVA scienceNOW" hosted by renowned astrophysicist, author, and Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, Neil deGrasse Tyson premieres in 2011. NOVA scienceNOW covers four timely science and technology stories per one-hour episode. The new season, each episode tackles one BIG question such as Where did I come from? How does the brain work? and What's the next big thing?

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Mind Over Money filming at Harvard

Why is NOVA wiring David Gergen--presidential advisor, Harvard professor, CNN analyst--with electrodes? That's easy: For science!

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Roll up those sleeves for science! David Gergen preps for his electrodes.

Yesterday morning at the Harvard Decision Science Lab, Gergen was among those who volunteered to be a subject in a study of how we make decisions about money. NOVA producer Malcolm Clark was there filming it all for NOVA's Mind Over Money (premiering Tuesday, April 27), which looks at how our brains may be wired to make just the kind of poor economic decisions that got us into our current money mess.

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What's next for science communication

Sunday morning, 8:30 am--the third full day of the AAAS Meeting--and it's NOVA's turn to step out of the audience and onto the podium. NOVA Senior Science Editor Evan Hadingham (aka my boss) is one of a panel of science communicators here to talk about how they are using a variety of media--everything from shiny new Twitter to those creaky old TV sets--to share stories of scientific discovery with the public.
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More from the AAAS: Hunting aliens

Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to talk about astrobiology. Life in space. Aliens. But when scientists talk about extraterrestrial life, what is the public really hearing?

At this morning's astrobiology session, scientists have no problem stuffing three dense hours with talk of how life got started, how our planet has been shaped by its inhabitants, and the next steps in our search for life on other planets. But one speaker, Linda Billings (George Washington University), wonders what non-scientists are really thinking when they read about the search for ET. While scientists are mooning over the possibility of spotting exotic microbes on other planets, is the public thinking Little Green Men? When astrobiologists talk about extremophiles, is the public getting ready for an alien invasion?

Billings wonders whether the public appetite for all things ET is really an outlet for a hard-wired xenophobia we're all too polite to express any other way. I've always thought that our enthusiasm for extraterrestrial life came from a good place: A place of curiosity, of seeking, and of wonder. But Billings forces me to ask whether the public interest in alien-hunting is actually more about the hunting--something violent, something you do with guns--than about the aliens.


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Managing the Exaflood

You already know that Google can track the flu, capture the zeitgeist, and make a mean guacamole. But did you know that Google has its virtual finger on the (feeble) pulse of the economy? Hal Varian, Google's chief economist, says that Google can track unemployment well enough to predict the end of a recession. All those searches for "unemployment benefits," "where's the nearest unemployment office," and "resume advice" add up to a remarkable likeness of the "real" number of new filings. And when those filings peak, says Varian, it means a recession is on the wane. 
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What's Next for the Net

At the next session on my AAAS Meeting agenda, What's Next for the Net, the speakers talk fast. Really, really fast. Alvin and the Chipmunks fast. And somehow this seems Important, as if in all their deep thinking about the future of the internet, what they've really discovered is that speaking aloud is hopelessly slow and old-fashioned--that opening our mouths and vibrating our vocal chords will soon be as obsolete as the floppy disk, as quaint as the phonograph. That soon we'll be Tweeting straight into each others' brains and won't that be grand.

But back to what the speakers are actually saying. Irwin Jacobs, co-founder and former chairman of Qualcomm ("Leave your cell phones on!" he says) sees cell phones tracking and transmitting patient health information to doctors via sensors implanted in the body. He sees cell phones replacing credit cards in our wallets. It was pretty weird carrying those little plastic cards around anyway, he says.

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Green mobility at the AAAS

It's not that I don't like my cubicle. I love my cubicle! The nubbly beige quasi-walls. The ghostly fluorescent lighting. The buzz of my tiny, tiny fridge. But every now and again it's nice to step out into the world and meet and greet other science journalists and scientists, and that's what the AAAS (that's the American Association for the Advancement of of Science) conference is for. So here I am at the San Diego Convention Center, joining about 8,000 scientists, policymakers, and journalists to find out what's new at the intersection of science and society.

First stop: A morning session on "green mobility," or how we'll (one day) plug battery-equipped cars into the grid to give and take energy--taking mostly, one hopes, from renewable sources like wind and solar. What surprises me is that the speakers aren't talking much about the environmental benefit of such a "V2G" (vehicle to grid) system, as NOVA did in Car of the Future. Instead, they're talking economics: If you plug in your car, how will the rise in your electric bill translate into dollars-per-gallon? If you car can feed energy back into the grid--and right now, most plug-in hybrids can't--what's the optimal moment to take advantage of that capacity from an energy pricing point of view?

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Get your NOVA ringtone!

Once upon a time, in those quaint, curious days between the Stone Age and the iPad Age, a telephone was a beige, boxy thing with a dial on the front and a bell inside.

Today, dials have given way to touchpads and rings have been ousted by ringtones. But I don't want to get all nostalgic. After all, your old phone couldn't ring the NOVA theme song, could it? I didn't think so! Now, at long last, your cell phone can ring with the sweet sounds of NOVA.

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You can right-click and download the NOVA theme (doo doo doo DEE doo doooo...doo!) as an mp3 and convert and upload it to your cell phone. (You're on your own there--here are a couple of how-tos.)

Being from the old beige-box generation, I was shocked to discover that ringtones are big business, estimated to bring in between half a billion and a billion dollars each year. (The total seems to be shrinking as consumers learn to make their own ringtones.)

But don't worry, the NOVA ringtone is totally free. So, give it a try, tell a friend, and let the NOVA love ring!

Click below to listen.




Image Courtesy Istvan Takacs and Wikimedia Commons
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Possibly Maybe Dark Matter

For weeks, the physics world has been buzzing with rumors that dark matter--the invisible, elusive stuff that holds galaxies together--had finally been detected. Scientists behind a dark-matter-chasing machine called CDMS (you might remember it from a trip NOVA scienceNOW took back in the summer of 2008) had set up simultaneous talks at physics labs around the world, promising to reveal something new and exciting on Thursday, December 17.

So now it's Friday, December 18. What happened?

The talks went off fine, but the big announcement was something less than the "Bring on the Nobel!" moment physicists had been salivating over. It turns out that the CDMS maybe, possibly, saw two specks of dark matter. But it's also possible that it accidentally picked up the background radioactivity of the half-mile-deep cavern where it sits.

The CDMS team puts the chances of a false positive at about one in four. Before they call out "Eureka!" scientists typically want to be 99.9% sure that what they've detected is "real" and not random noise. That means they're looking for one-in-a-thousand odds of a false positive. By that yardstick, the CDMS detection falls short.

So, what next? If bigger, more sensitive detectors like Xenon and SuperCDMS pick up similar hits at congruent rates, then it might be time to pop the champagne. Until then? We wait.
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Planet of the Schvitz

lores_mearth.jpgLast summer, Neil deGrasse Tyson made fun of David Charbonneau's "kind of puny" off-the-shelf telescopes in a trip to the top of Arizona's Mt Hopkins for NOVA scienceNOW. But no one is laughing now: Charbonneau and his puny scopes just discovered a hot, wet super-Earth, a steamy, 400-degree Fahrenheit sauna of planet that brings us even closer to spotting a planet like Earth elsewhere in the cosmos.

The new world is about 6.6 times as massive and 2.7 times as wide as the Earth. That's closing in on "Earthlike" territory, thanks to Charbonneau's unconventional approach of searching thousands of small, dim stars called M dwarfs for little dips in brightness. When those dips come at perfectly regular intervals--in this case, every 1.58 days--they are probably caused by the shadow of an orbiting planet.

So how do we know that the new planet has water? It's an educated guess based on the planet's density. But because the planet and its star are so close to Earth--a measly 40 light years away, which is basically around the block--scientists may be able to confirm their suspicions soon using more powerful telescopes.

In the search for planets like Earth, this water world is probably just the tip of the iceberg. (Or should I say water-berg? Maybe Earth-berg? You get the idea.) As Charbonneau's M dwarf survey and new space missions like Kepler hit their stride, scientists are optimistic that they will be turning up increasingly Earth-like planets. Or, as astrophysicist Alan Boss put it in Dennis Overbye's piece in the New York Times: "Give them a couple more  years and they're going to knock your socks off."

Note: Kudos to graduate student Zachory Berta, who first spotted the signal from the planet's shadow. 

Obligatory artist's conception: David A. Aguilar, CfA
Where did all the mammoths go?

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15,000 years ago, mammoths, sloths, mastodons, and their giant friends were lumbering around North America, munching plants and admiring each other's tusks. (Except the sloths--no tusks there.) Then, something killed them all off. In Last Extinction (watch online), which premiered last spring, NOVA took on the headline-grabbing hypothesis that a comet wiped out the beasts. But a new study of ancient dung fungus (who said science was glamorous?) suggests that the behemoths were on their way out the door thousands of years before the alleged comet slammed it behind them.

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All's fair in love and spiders

Gentlemen, please take a moment to be thankful that you are not an Australian redback spider.

Just one in five bachelor redbacks ever finds a lady redback to call his own. If he's lucky enough to get that far, just as his search comes to an end and mating begins, she eats him. Alive. While they are mating. NOVA scienceNOW covered this gruesome seduction, and explained its evolutionary utility, in a profile of University of Toronto evolutionary biologist Maydianne Andrade. After all, if you only get to mate once, you had better be sure the mother of your spider babies isn't going to go hungry.

Now, Andrade and her colleagues have uncovered a fiendish new detail in this strange romance. To earn the right to be devoured, the male redback has to perform a prolonged (100 minutes, minimum) courtship ritual. If his wooing isn't up to snuff, his would-be partner will eat him (are you sensing a theme here?) without mating and move on to the next suitor. 

The worst news of all for an upstanding male redback is that a nasty "sneaker" male who wants to skip the courtship rigamarole will sometimes shadow a stronger suitor, wait for him finish his romancing, then slip in and take the lady redback for himself. Kind of like Cyrano de Bergerac, but with spiders. And cannibalism.

Yet more proof that good guys never win--but at least they might not get eaten.

The folks at Nature have this all on video.

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520 Days of Solitude

I have a neat job. Reading about science, chatting with scientists, and generally getting to exercise the curiosity muscle until it's all big and beefy--this is about as good as it gets.

But. Sometimes there are days when my dream job would really be staying in bed past noon, watching Gilmore Girls reruns until all the witty repartee makes my head hurt, and reading those trashy magazines I only let myself pick up at the gym or in the doctors' waiting room--because if you're exercising or about to get poked with a needle, my reasoning goes, you deserve a little indulgence. My point: Sometimes the best kind of work would be no work at all.

If this sounds appealing--and not just for a day or two but for a few hundred days--then polish up your resume, because your dream job has arrived: Professional Pretend Astronaut.

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Arts and crafts and science

Thousands of scientists spend their lives studying things that are, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Viruses. Neutrinos. Black holes. Things that most human beings have never, will never, or can never see or touch.

But artists and scientists are finding new ways to make the invisible visible. Luke Jerram, a British artist, worked with glassblowers and virologist Andrew Davidson to create glass sculptures of viruses and bacteria, recently displayed in a London gallery. Watch the glassmaking in action:

 


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Biting Evidence

Here's a special guest post by Pamela King, a Northeastern University journalism student interning with NOVA's web team this semester. She'll take it from here!

He was known as the "snaggle-tooth killer." Ray Krone had been sentenced to death after an impression of his teeth in a Styrofoam cup was used to peg him as the murderer of a Phoenix bartender. The victim had been found with bite marks on her body, but at that time little other physical evidence was available. DNA testing later proved Krone could not have been the murderer, and he was released ten years after his conviction.



Of the many important life lessons I learned at 7th grade acting camp, one stands out: You only look ridiculous when you feel ridiculous. If you take yourself seriously while, say, pretending to be a fir tree swaying in the wind, or improvising an interpretive dance to the Dances with Wolves theme, your audience will take you seriously, too. Especially if they're your parents.


Of course, when it comes to not looking ridiculous, it also helps if you're Isabella Rossellini. The third installment of Rossellini's strange and wonderful video series with the adults-only title is now online at the Sundance Channel web site. In each video, Rossellini acts out the mating habits of a different sea creature. This time, her characters are edible, and marine biologist Claudio Campagna chimes in with environmentally-minded commentary on the sustainability of fishing each one.

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What We're Watching: Here Comes Science

When one of your once-favorite bands stops writing songs about love, sex, and James K. Polk and starts turning out educational children's albums, it feels like some cosmic musical signal that it's time to pack up the futon, move out to the suburbs, and start reproducing.

That isn't in the cards right now (sorry Grandma--we're just not there yet!), but I think I'm allowed to listen to They Might Be Giants' latest audio/video release, Here Comes Science (iTunes), even if the Chuck-E-Cheese people won't let me on the slide anymore. Hey, it's about Science!


Here's a sample of a song called "I Am A Paleontologist," which is about being a paleontologist. There's also "What Is A Shooting Star" (it's not actually a star!), "Meet The Elements"  and, for the kids who feel like taking the evolution debate out on to the playground, "My Brother The Ape." Along with the opener "Science is Real," it pretty much clears up that whole "it's only a theory" thing. Plus, it kind of makes you want to dance.

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NOVA scienceNOW in space!

No, I'm not being figurative or metaphorical here. A DVD of NOVA scienceNOW's Saving Hubble segment, which premiered last summer, actually flew in space thanks to astronaut and Hubble handyman John Grunsfeld

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A little light viewing. Image credit: Karinna Sjo-Gaber
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Do cockroaches get lonely?

It was just like Romeo and Juliet.

But with cockroaches. In the bathroom. And I was the one keeping them apart.

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How to make $2.09 last a lifetime

Have I mentioned how glad I am that WGBH's offices are directly across the street from a national coffee-and-donuts chain? Or how sipping icy, sugary coffee through a neon-orange straw at 3pm on a Tuesday makes my climate-controlled, gray-walled cubicle feel all bright and summery?

Okay, I'll stop the unpaid advertising. The point is: I like coffee. Good coffee, bad coffee, it's all the same to me, as long as it's caffeinated coffee. And because I'm a researcher, I like to collect evidence that this indulgence is good for me. (It is good for me, right?)

If My Little Ponies and Care Bears got together to run an experiment, they just might come up with something like this: A test to see whether babies can understand what dogs are feeling.

The researchers (who, incidentally, were actual human beings at Brigham Young University) wanted to find out whether the babies could match different barks--an "angry snarl," a "friendly yap"--with pictures of pooches in the corresponding emotional state.

Score one for the infants: They were spot on, especially the older ones. The moral of the story is that even before they learn to speak, babies can grasp the emotional content of a sound.

And because you read the whole post, here is your treat, courtesy of the My Little Ponies and the Care Bears:

 
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Bat Manners

If you ever wake up to find something dark and fluttery flying around your bedroom--
If you ever find that the dark and fluttery thing is shaped like a bat--
If you ever realize that the bat-shaped thing flying around your bedroom is A REAL, LIVE BAT--

DO  NOT, I repeat, DO NOT to try catch the bat. 

And please, please, DO NOT encourage your partner to try to catch the bat. In a pillowcase. While you run squealing out of the room.

Do not do any of these things. Trust me. I did them all, and what did I get? Rabies shots. Many, many rabies shots.
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Buzz Aldrin's Rocket Experience

Why do we love physics raps? Maybe it's the same sweet cringe that makes us devour sour lime popsicles and 8 am reruns of Saved By The Bell. Who knows?

In any case, Buzz Aldrin (yes, the astronaut), Snoop Dogg, Talib Kweli, and friends have teamed up to create the king of all physics raps. It's called Rocket Experience, and that's about all I have to say about it, except that you should really check out the "making of" video for some additional surreality.


As Buzz Aldrin says, "I have only two passions: Space exploration, and hip-hop."
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How Many Fingers Am I Holding Up?

Concussion science has come a long way since the bad old days when head injuries were diagnosed by finger-counting. But a new study finds that minor league hockey players have trouble identifying basic concussion symptoms and don't know when its safe to get back out on the ice after a knock to the head.

That's a sobering thought to anyone who watched Chicago Blackhawk Martin Havlat lying glassy-eyed on the ice after taking a major thump during one of last week's NHL playoff games. Okay, maybe not so many people watched that (except for Canadians, Chicagoans, and Detroiters like me), but here's the kicker: Two days later, Havlat was back in the game. Not for long, though: After taking a fresh hit, he made his way off the ice and didn't come back.

Concussions aren't harmless, especially when they come in pairs. NOVA scienceNOW talked about the long-lasting and frustratingly nebulous symptoms of concussion in a story that aired last year. Even more disturbing are results from the Boston University School of Medicine, where researchers are studying the brain tissue of deceased NFL players. Many of these players were in their 30s and 40s when they died, but their brains were mottled with the same tangles neuropathologists expect to see in elderly dementia patients.

Before they died, the players had reported crippling depression, memory problems, uncontrollable emotions, and debilitating headaches. Is this what we envision for our sports heroes' golden years?
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Old School

Is rap the ideal medium for spreading scientific knowledge? You be the judge:



Large Hadron Collider Rap Let the particles fly

Gregor Mendel Rap Rapping monks

Scientific Method Rap It all starts with a question

Chemistry Rap: (Gas) Laws of the Streets PV=nRT!

Respiration Rap Just breathe
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Rocking the Boat

Like music? Hate invasive species? Bret Shaw has some tunes for you.

Shaw, an environmental communication specialist, teamed up with three singer/songwriters to make rockin' instructional music about preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species. (Invasive species can travel from lake to lake on contaminated boats, bait, and bilge. I don't know what bilge is but it definitely sounds like something that should be properly drained.)

There's The Ballad of Aquatic Invasive Species, the rockabilly-inspired Clean Boats, Clean Waters, and my personal favorite, One Bait, One Lake.

Take a listen...and then take comfort knowing that, when they're not singing about draining bilge tanks and Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia, these guys all have day jobs.
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What We're Reading: Dread

Okay, college students, here's a simple way to freak out all of your classmates:

1. Buy a label-maker
2. Print out a bunch of labels that say "GERMS"
3. Stick them on every door handle on campus

I don't suggest you actually try this (unless, say, you own stock in antibacterial soap), and I can't take credit for the idea, either: I was actually a victim of this stunt back in my Bright College Years. I don't think I've ever washed my hands so many times in a 24-hour period.
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Batman's Secret

Bats have a PR problem, according to Boston University's resident bat expert, Tom Kunz. From Vermont to Virginia, bats are falling victim to a mystery illness, but does the public care? No. According to the Boston Globe,

The researchers say they are learning a harsh truth about the public's desire to save animals: Cuteness rules.
And to that, I say: Guilty as charged. Here at NOVA, our subjects are almost always easy on the eyes (adorable chimps, beautiful butterflies, and those baby seals and sea lions that make me want to get up and hug my TV). If they aren't cute, they're classic creepy-crawlies (ants, more ants, and swarms of rats). Poor bats just can't catch a break.

So biologists think that bats need a publicist, "a kind of public relations batman - to give bats an image makeover and educate people about the night creatures' ecological benefits." But I think one fact could change how people--or, women, at least--feel about bats, and here it is:

Male bats lactate.
Scorpion venom with nanoparticles slows spread of brain cancer. That's the irresistible headline topping a University of Washington press release out yesterday.

It turns out that researchers have known for a while now that scorpion venom--or, more precisely, a peptide called chlorotoxin which is contained in the venom--could be a cancer-fighter. It's in human trails right now.

But adding nanoparticles to the mix makes the venom peptide twice as potent, cutting the spread of malignant cells by 98%--at least, that's how it worked on lab-grown brain cancer cells. Nanoparticles aren't totally new to the cancer-fighting arsenal (they've also been combined with chemotherapy drugs), but this application is unique because it stops the spread of cancer rather than killing cells directly.

Next, the experimental treatment will be tested out on mice.
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What We're Watching: Tweenbots


Are they art? Are they science? Who cares when they're so darn cute!

Tweenbots are smiley little robots that need your help to complete a task. Kacie Kinzer, a grad student at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, sets her Tweenbots loose on the streets of New York to see if regular New Yorkers will help them reach their destination. (The destination is written on a "help me!" flag sprouting out of the Tweenbot. Like I said, adorable.)

In this video, watch New Yorkers come to the aid of a Tweenbot trying to cross Washington Square Park. It's like On The Street meets R2D2.

And if you're wondering how a paper bag on wheels got so cute, it's all explained here.
Sometimes, science fills us with awe and wonder.

Sometimes, it just creeps us out.

Remember when scientists grafted an ear on to a mouse's back? Or when a monkey operated a robot using only its mind?

It's not that these weren't great moments in science. But they carried some heavy heebie-jeebie baggage.

So, with that in mind, we're introducing a new feature called Creepy or not creepy? in which we present research that's walking that delicate line between forward-looking science and mad-scientist freak-out. Which is which? You be the judge.

Today's entry: Suppressing the compulsion to steal.

I think we're all in agreement that, aside from those Jean Valjean-stealing-a-loaf-of-bread-to-feed-his-starving-family-type situations, stealing is probably a bad thing. But it sure seems to make kleptomaniacs happy. Now, researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine have given self-described kleptomaniacs a drug called naltrexone, which kills the "rush" compulsive stealers get from a good pilfer.

So is this the sweet relief kleptomaniacs (and other addicts) have been waiting for, or something more sinister? And who gets to decide which "thrills" are acceptable and which should be medicated away?
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The Heart of the (Anti-)Matter

One of the pleasures of life as a researcher is that you can spend an afternoon curled up with a good book and call it work. Today's good read: Antimatter by Frank Close. It's a little book packed with big ideas about the nature of the "stuff" (and anti-stuff) that makes up our universe.

Despite his first-class credentials (Professor of Physics at Oxford, former head of Communications and Public Education at CERN), Close isn't above taking on the cultish conspiracy theories buzzing around antimatter, subjects I suspect other writers might deem unworthy their highly-educated attention. Good for him: That's the fun stuff, the stuff that makes readers pick up the book in the first place.

Plus, Close has sympathy for poor antimatter. Hopelessly outnumbered by normal matter, just-born antimatter particles are thrust into existence only to be annihilated split-seconds later when they have the misfortune to run in to ordinary matter.

Now, back to reading. I'll let you know if there's a happy ending.
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Ground Control to Stephen Colbert

It's a crazy, mixed-up world out there.

NASA held a contest to name a new "node" being added to the International Space Station next year. NASA tried to guide voters in the right direction:

The name should reflect the spirit of exploration and cooperation embodied by the space station, and follow in the tradition set by Node 1- Unity- and Node 2- Harmony.
But instead, two hundred thousand of the Colbert Report faithful voted for their own write-in nomination, "Colbert," over NASA's genteel suggestions, Earthrise, Legacy, Serenity and Venture.

Lesson learned: NASA's latest Name The Rover contest, which is running all this week, isn't taking write-ins.

Of course, NASA doesn't actually have to yield to the power of the people. We'll have to wait and see how they wiggle out of this sticky PR situation. And next time, perhaps they'll remember leave the big naming decisions in the capable hands of Siberian orphan children.

Basketball is a spectator sport. Mathematics is not.


Or is it? This month, hoops-loving statisticians get to ply their craft on the dunking, dribbling, alley-ooping data set which is the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Yes, mathematicians have the March Madness, too.

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Under the Sea

I was starting to think this whole "spookfish" thing might be a hoax. A deep-sea fish with a see-through head and tubular eyes? These marine biologists think we'll swallow anything!

But now I see that the spookfish--a.k.a. barrelfish--is as real as you and me. How do I know? It's on YouTube!

Prepare for some aquatic weirdness.
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Guns and Butter

And now, from the strange bedfellows department:

Scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, California, have their 500 trillion watt laser beam locked and loaded. Once it's in action this spring, the laser could be a first step toward harnessing fusion energy; a window into the ultra-high pressure environments inside gas planets; and a test lab where astrophysicists can experiment on "artificial stars." And, oh yeah, it will simulate the conditions inside a nuclear bomb. Its priorities, you may have guessed, are not necessarily in that order.

This isn't the first time basic science has piggybacked on research of a more weaponly persuasion. Captured V-2 rockets were the workhorses of post-WWII atmospheric science; gamma ray bursts were discovered by Air Force satellites designed to spot covert nuclear blasts.

So how do we talk about science at NIF while being upfront about the machine's real experimental priorities? You tell us.
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Getting it right

I hate to be wrong. I can still remember the time in fourth grade when we were studying powers of ten, and the teacher asked, "What's one hundred times one hundred?" and I raised my little hand and said, "One thousand." Oh no! Wrong! The shame still stings a little.

So maybe it's a good thing that our jobs as researchers involve a lot of fact-checking. Typically, our tireless associate producers do their own fact checking (two sources for every fact, plus expert reviews, if you're wondering). Our job is to check the checking. But sometimes time is tight, or someone forgot to hire an associate producer (oops!), and then your humble researchers jump in to the void.

That's why this article in the February 9 New Yorker (registration required) made me smile. John McPhee (who, wouldn't you know it, just happens to have a Facebook page) pays tribute to veteran fact-checker Sara Lippincott:

Explaining her work to an audience at a journalism school, Sara once said, "Each word in the piece that has even a shred of fact clinging to it is scrutinized, and, if passed, given the checker's imprimatur, which consists of a tiny pencil tick."
So next time you're watching a documentary, and that "Voice of God" narrator comes on and intones something like, "Elephants poop 300 pounds a day," think about the lowly fact-checker, burning the midnight oil in some carpeted cubicle somewhere, reading everything she can get her hands on about elephants' toilet habits--all in the name of getting it right.