March 10, 2008

SCIENCE: July 05, AU Edition

cat.jpgCOPY CATS
Entrepreneurial American scientists are destined for the dog house, says Susanne Quick

It’s just another brown brick building in a suburban American business park. But Suite J at the Waunakee Business Center in Wisconsin is about to turn into the animal cloning debate’s ground zero. Genetic Savings & Clone Inc. – the entrepreneurial outfit that introduced the first cloned pet cat to the world in December – is opening its doors in this small Madison, Wis., suburb this month. The company’s CEO, Lou Hawthorne, has promised that by year’s end, a dog will be born here.
In the eight years since Dolly the Sheep’s birth was announced to the world, research into animal cloning has progressed in ways few dreamed possible a decade ago.

Scientists have now cloned barnyard animals and endangered species. They’ve created cloned cows from frozen steaks and cloned mice from cancer cells. They’ve talked about resurrecting extinct creatures such as woolly mammoths and Tasmanian tigers. And with the news on Thursday that soft tissue from dinosaurs had been discovered, re-creating these giant lizards does not seem so farfetched. Despite the scientific excitement, creativity and ingenuity that have inspired and driven this research, cloning remains uncomfortable – even freakish – for many people.

Who and what are the clones? Are they healthy animals or deformed monsters? How many animals are sacrificed in the pursuit of one healthy clone? And, in the end, what will it lead to?

As ethicists and scientists weigh the motivations for animal cloning – improving the food supply, fighting disease, saving endangered animals – the arguments for and against cloning mutate and evolve along with the research advances.

That debate is now moving to the backyard.

In December, Genetic Savings & Clone announced the birth of Little Nicky, the first cloned cat to be sold as a pet. The recipient, a Texas woman known only as Julie, paid $50,000 to have her beloved – but dead – kitty cloned. While some say she was swindled, Hawthorne believes she was given an incredible, if expensive, gift.

‘Our product is based on love’, Hawthorne said.

David Magnus, director of Stanford University’s Center for Biomedical Ethics, scoffed at this claim. He said the high death rates and possible cruelty that go into cloning make Genetic Savings & Clone’s product anything but ‘loving’.

Also, he and other critics said consumers are being duped: The animals they think they are getting – their original pets – cannot be reproduced.

And finally, they think Genetic Savings & Clone’s product is grossly frivolous in light of the number of animals in shelters who need homes.

‘Everything about this is objectionable’, Magnus said.
But Autumn Fiester, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, said there isn’t evidence to show that animals are suffering – at least any more than commercially bred dogs or cats.

She added that the claim that pet owners are being duped is condescending. As for the frivolous argument, she says, ‘Then you’re arguing against buying any luxury good.’ Among those involved in cloning, she is in the minority.

Robert Lanza, vice president of medical and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology – a Worcester, Mass., company at the forefront of cloning technology – called it ‘troubling.’

Rudolf Jaenisch, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, called pet cloning ‘ridiculous’ and ‘preposterous.’

Somatic cell nuclear transfer – the shop name for cloning – is conceptually a pretty easy process.

A cell – such as a skin cell – is taken from an adult animal. The nucleus, and the DNA it houses, is sucked out and placed next to an empty egg cell that’s had its nucleus removed. The new egg-nucleus combo is then jolted with electricity or bathed in a chemical cocktail.

‘What you want to do is basically trick the egg into thinking it’s been fertilized by a sperm’, said Neal First, a retired professor of animal sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the first researcher to clone cattle.

If all goes well, the duped egg starts to divide, eventually creating an incipient embryo, which researchers implant into a surrogate animal.

While this may sound pretty straightforward, it’s actually a messy, hit-or-miss process that yields few successful clones.

Depending on whom you talk to, the number of successful clones – i.e., those which survive beyond birth – can run as low as one-in-1,000 to as many as 15 percent.

Researchers believe this is the result of a host of molecular issues, some they can pinpoint, others they can’t.

The mystery is in the egg. ‘There are molecules in the egg that allow the DNA to reprogram’ and start anew so that it’s read as the blueprint for an embryo, not an old skin cell, Lanza said.

But what those molecules are and how they work remains elusive.
There is also an issue of extra DNA in the egg. Even though the egg’s nuclear DNA is removed, other genetic material remains floating around the egg cell in a form known as mitochondrial DNA.

No one knows for sure what effects this might have on a developing clone embryo, but it does mean that the clone, despite its name, is not an exact genetic duplicate of the donor. It has some other DNA that may or may not affect its development.

Then there’s the issue of imprinting. Mammals carry two copies of each gene: one set from their mother, the other from their father. But only one of these copies is active at any one time.

In a clone, ‘the normal battle between mom and dad’ is not taking place, Lanza said. The end result: critical messages from the genes are being lost during an embryo’s development, potentially leading to cardiac problems, respiratory ailments and ‘a messed up placenta.’
The hurdles don’t end here.

When DNA is in a quiescent state, it looks like spaghetti noodles with proteins attached to it. This means that when the skin cell DNA is sucked out, it’s carrying a lot of protein baggage. It is possible these proteins may get in the way of the egg-skin cell DNA fusion.
Researchers at Genetic Savings & Clone say they have solved this problem by using a new technique called chromatin transfer that cleans the DNA. The result, according to Hawthorne, is higher efficiency.
‘Our losses are well under 50 percent’, he said, adding that such losses are typical in commercial breeding.

Magnus and others question these claims; scientists at Genetic Savings & Clone have not published their results. But Jim Robl, president of a South Dakota biotech company called Hematech and one of the developers of chromatin transfer, said he, too, had gotten good results using this method to clone cows.

Yet, the battle over pet clones only partially hinges on technical and molecular hurdles.

These animals are behaviorally complex. They are not just products of a strict genetic blueprint, but of the multicolored and textured tapestry of their environment and experiences.

This means that a consumer who’s paying thousands of dollars in hopes of getting the same dog or cat will be getting an animal that behaves differently than the original. That, said Magnus, is ‘a rip-off.’
Finally, critics of pet cloning said there’s the issue of the millions of animals who don’t have homes that are living on the streets or housed in shelters.

Magnus and Spiegel-Miller believe Hawthorne’s business is minimizing the plight of these animals.

They charge that the money Hawthorne’s clients are willing to spend on a clone would be better used on these other animals, that Genetic Savings & Clone clients should head to a local shelter, pay $50 for a cat or dog that needs a home and donate the rest to the shelter.
That would be a more ethical way to spend their money, they say.
Fiester and Hawthorne dismiss the criticism as baseless.

‘Why should someone who loves their cat be more obligated
to donate money or help shelter animals than someone else?’ Fiester said.

He also threw back the notion that cloning for agricultural or medical purposes is somehow more ethical.

In the end, he said, the future of the pet cloning business will depend upon the quality of the product.

If Genetic Savings & Clone can create animals that pet owners are happy with – animals that aren’t sick or compromised and behave in ways similar to the original – the business will succeed, Hawthorne said.

His scientists also are looking into how to enhance pets and make them live longer and healthier.

‘Our clones will be better than normal,’ he said. ‘Clones are going to become the preferred pets.’

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:51 PM | Comments (0)

SCIENCE: Dec 05, AU Edition

scienceart.jpgTO HELL AND BACK
Was life on early Earth as bad as all that? And what does
that mean for life on other planets? Robert S. Boyd reports

A scientific quest called “Mission to Really Early Earth” has unearthed evidence that our planet had an ocean, a continent and an atmosphere suitable for life half a billion years earlier than previously thought.

Since the requirements for life – land, water and air – were established so soon on Earth, some scientists say the finding makes it more likely that living creatures could also have arisen on other worlds.

“If it happened so early on Earth, why couldn’t it happen elsewhere in the universe as well?” said Stephen Mojzsis, a geoscientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

According to the traditional view of its infancy, Earth formed between 4.5 and 4.6 billion years ago from a disk of dust, rocks and gas circling the sun.

It then took 700 million years for the young planet to settle down and cool off enough for the first microscopic organisms to appear around 3.8 billion years ago, paleontologists believed.

This early period was named the Hadean (“hellish”) Eon, because it was presumed to be totally hostile to life. During much of that time, the planet was bombarded by giant meteorites like those that blasted the craters on the moon. Any early life would have been wiped out.

Now, however, researchers report evidence that conditions were much more benign when the Earth was only 150 million to 200 million years old – three to four per cent of its present age.

“The stage was set 4.3 billion years ago for life to emerge on Earth”, Mojzsis told a conference on astrobiology – the study of life on other worlds – here last month.

“There was probably already in place an atmosphere, an ocean and a stable crust within about 200 million years of the Earth’s formation”, said Mojzsis, chairman of the conference. “Water was gushing out of the Earth.”

This picture of a comfortably warm, wet young world “contrasts with the hot, violent environment envisioned for our young planet by most researchers”, Bruce Watson, a geochemist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., declared in a recent online edition of the journal Science. “It opens up the possibility that life got a very early foothold.”

“If there was surface water, then life presumably could exist”, said Don Brownlee, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“We don’t know when life began on Earth,” cautioned Mark Harrison, an Australian geoscientist who was at the astrobiology conference. “But it could have emerged as early as 4.3 billion years ago. Within 200 million years of the Earth’s formation, all of the conditions for life on Earth appear to have been met.”

Two hundred million years sounds like an awfully long time, but it’s relatively brief on the geologic scale.

For comparison, suppose Earth’s 4.5 billion-year-old lifespan ws shrunk to one year, with 1 January marking the beginning and 31 December representing today. By that yardstick, life could have begun on Earth as early as 12 January. Under the older, traditional view, it would have taken until 26 February to get started.

The evidence for a very young habitable Earth consists of a collection of tiny crystals called zircons dug up in the Jack Hills of Western Australia over the last 20 years. New technology pioneered by Mojzsis and John Valley, a geochemist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has made it possible to determine how and when they formed.

For example, zircons contain uranium, which decays at a known rate. The Jack Hills zircons also enclose bits of shale, a sedimentary rock that must have previously been created by erosion by liquid water. In addition, the zircons contain a rare type of “heavy” oxygen that forms only in the presence of water.

“These zircons tell us that they melted from an earlier rock that had been to the Earth’s surface and interacted with cold water”, Mojzsis said. “There is no other known way to account for that heavy oxygen.”

Sonia Esperanca, an earth scientist at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., called the Jack Hills zircons “time capsules of processes happening in the earliest times in Earth’s history.”

“The estimated ages for the oldest evidence of an early crust have been getting progressively older as geologists seek out and analyze new samples”, said Douglas Erwin, a paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., who isn’t involved in the Mission to Really Early Earth. Erwin agreed that primitive microorganisms could have existed that long ago. “But I expect it will be very difficult to get any real evidence on the matter”, he said in an e-mail message.

“It’s certainly possible that life arose before the great bombardment, then was extinguished and arose again afterward, but we have no evidence either way”, said University of Washington geochemist Roger Buick in an e-mail message.

Another note of skepticism comes from Samuel Bowring, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “It’s a bit of a leap from a few grains of zircon to continents and oceans,” Bowring said, but he acknowledged that “it is consistent with most people’s view of early planetary evolution.”

The Mission to Really Early Earth is supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, which studies the origin of life on our planet and its possible existence on other heavenly bodies.

“We’re beginning to get the tools to test the Hadean world”, said Mojzsis. “Hell wasn’t as bad as we thought.”

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 10:21 PM | Comments (0)

SCIENCE: Mar 05, AU Edition


The moon’s still out there, but what is it good for? Maybe the next century of Asian economic growth, says Pat Sheil

Since Eugene Cernon closed the hatch on the Apollo 17 lunar module and hit the grunt button, the moon has been a very quiet place. We’re used to the idea now, but in the early 70s the notion of a deserted moon in 2005 would hardly have seemed credible. We were meant to have Holiday Inns on Mars by now, right?

The are good reasons why none of this has happened, not the least of which is that once we knew it could actually be done, going to the moon quickly lost the lustre of heroic achievement and became just another budget line item. If there isn’t a quid in it, and all the prestige value has been milked, then it’s time to mothball the idea until there’s a good reason to do it again. A profit angle sure wouldn’t hurt.

But governments are lousy at making money – remember the hype about drug companies whipping up miracle cures in zero G aboard the shuttle and the space station? With no whiz-bang, frontier busting purpose, the shuttle has proved to be the greatest lemon in the history of transportation, largely because it had nowhere to go and nothing to do when it got there.

Since the Columbia disaster the lemon has mutated into a grapefruit. NASA is so terrified of losing another one that they have restricted its use to delivering odds and ends to the space station, a destination in name only. One more prang and the remaining two will go straight into museums.

The shuttle has become, in the minds of NASA, an accident waiting to happen, and if you or I lived by the new NASA definition of “acceptable risk” we’d all wrap ourselves in cotton wool and crawl under a rock for the rest of our lives. (There is a beautiful story on this subject dating back to the early days of the Apollo program. Werner von Braun had assured NASA that he could achieve an impossible “four nine” reliability, by which he meant that 99.99% percent of his launches would succeed. Word around Houston was that he achieved this by asking his sycophantic fellow German scientists “Is there anything wrong with this design?” only to hear “Nein”, “Nein”, “Nein”, “Nein”.)

But things may be about to change. For space to be worthy of investment, it has to generate a return, and at the moment the only money is in communications and imaging satellites, because they actually deliver a saleable product. The moon, on the face of it, is a desert. But then so was Western Australia in the 1880s. The moon may be about to have its first gold rush.

The gold, in this case, is helium 3. Helium 3 is a very rare isotope of helium which accumulates on the moon from the solar wind, but exists in tiny quantities on Earth. The reason it glitters, from an economic viewpoint, is that it looks like the best fuel for the nuclear fusion power plants that we’ve been promised for the last fifty years. If fusion can be made to work, it will change the energy market in ways that haven’t been seen since the discovery of electricity. And the people who control the He3 supply will get very, very rich.

Sure, there are a lot of “ifs” here, but that’s never stopped speculative investors from sniffing around scenarios that promise mountains of money. These things have a habit of snowballing, and recent events have put the moon back on the table, as it were.

For one thing, George W. Bush has made wacky pronouncements about “going back to the moon and on to Mars”. These can largely be ignored, because it ain’t going to happen, not the way he envisages it, anyway. Most of us will be long dead before there’s a Mars base. But he will be throwing money at the idea, if only by gutting other NASA programs. The space caper, from a purely business perspective, is a lot more sophisticated than it was the last time big government moon money was flying around, and there are companies now that will want a bigger slice of the action than sub-contracting work on engines and paint jobs.

Secondly, there are new players. Take the Soviets out of the game, and throw in Europe, Japan, India and China. These last three especially have very serious long-term energy problems. They have serious short term energy problems for that matter, but by 2050 these nations will have found new sources of energy or they will have imploded.

All of these countries are launching moon probes in the next few years. Europe’s Smart-1 arrived in lunar orbit in November. Japan launches one next year. India and China have both announced moon shots by 2007. All of them will be doing mineralogical surveys.

They are not doing this for fun. Sure, there’s an element of flag-waving in it all, especially in China’s case, but there’s also the small matter of possession being nine-tenths of, well, everything.

D.J. Lawrence, planetary scientist at the US Los Alamos National Laboratory was in India in November addressing the International Conference on Exploration and Utilization of the Moon being held in the northern city of Udaipur. “Potentially there are large reservoirs of helium 3 on the moon,” he said. “Just doing reconnaissance where the minerals are and to find out where helium 3 likes to hang out is the first step, so when the reactor technology gets to work we are ready and have precise information.

“It really could be used as a future fuel and is safe. It is not all science fiction.”

But what of the 1984 UN Moon Treaty, which forbids nations from making territorial claims on the moon, or anywhere else in the solar system? Australia is a signatory. Significantly, the USA and China are not, and with stakes this high, they’re not likely to ratify any time soon. But even if they did, there’s nothing in the treaty, or the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which forbids corporations claiming territory. And this may be a clue as to how this will eventually pan out. Space agencies like NASA are already looking at the sub-orbital flights of Spaceship One last year that took out the US$10 million X Prize, and coming up with their own prize schemes. NASA has announced the Centennial Challenge prizes, which may soon top US$200 million, for private projects including robotic lunar landings and sample return missions.

It’s not that hard to conceive of a multinational mining corporation teaming up with an aerospace company and taking a punt on something like this, especially when success could reap not only tens of millions of dollars to recoup the initial investment, but also put them in pole position when the gun goes off in the claim-staking race. You can almost hear ‘em now. “Treaty? Don’t apply to us – we’re the Lunar Energy Corporation, not the US Government!”

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 05:51 PM | Comments (0)

SCIENCE: May 05, AU Edition

may05scienceart.jpgSMART OF DARKNESS
You’d have to be pretty dim to buy the latest scare story being pushed by the greenies

Nobody knew it at the time, but thirty years ago the environmental movement suffered the greatest blow to its credibility since a grumpy 19th Century Scottish churchman named Malthus made his now-infamous prediction that, due to a lack of ‘moral restraint’, the world’s population would soon outstrip food supplies. For it was on 28 April 1975 that the American magazine Newsweek ran a story on the new ecological scare that was sure to doom the human race: not overpopulation, but global cooling.

That’s right, cooling.

Here’s how their package, ‘The Cooling World’, began: ‘There are ominous signs that the Earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production–with serious political implications for just about every nation on Earth. The drop in food output could begin quite soon, perhaps only 10 years from now. The regions destined to feel its impact are the great wheat-producing lands of Canada and the U.S.S.R. in the North, along with a number of marginally self-sufficient tropical areas – parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indochina and Indonesia – where the growing season is dependent upon the rains brought by the monsoon.’

What a difference a few decades make. Not only is the U.S.S.R. a thing of the past, but global cooling is an all-but-forgotten article of the greenie faith, consigned to the dustbin of embarrassing eco-history – along with predictions that the world would run out of fossil fuels by the year 2000 and that mass famines would trigger global conflagrations and economic catastrophe throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Instead, doom-mongers have spent the last decade focused on global warming, using language surprisingly similar to that of Malthus (‘an angry Gaia will smite us for not having the moral restraint to resist buying 4WDs’). And in a day and age when the Bureau of Meteorology can’t reliably predict on Thursday whether Saturday’s barbeque will be a washout, the Kyoto treaty holds a gun to the heads of Western economies – all based on what are essentially some very long-range weather forecasts.

Which is why the latest nightmare scenario to make headlines around the world is particularly – one might even say darkly – amusing. According to a handful of scientists, life on Earth is actually getting dimmer. Here’s how a BBC report recently aired in Australia put it: ‘Noticed less sunshine lately? Scientists have discovered that the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface has been falling over recent decades.

‘If the climatologists are right, their discovery holds the potential for powerful disruption to life on our planet. Already it may have contributed to many thousands of deaths through drought and famine, and that even the direst predictions about the rate of global warming have been seriously underestimated.’

It gets better. According to this handful of experts (cut from the same cloth as the boffins who, thirty years ago, predicted we would all be taking ski holidays in Fiji when not clouting each other over the head for the last handful of maize), global dimming is a double-edged sword. This sudden bout of planetary mood lighting is bad, they say, but without it things would be a whole lot worse: ‘By allowing less sunlight to reach the Earth, global dimming is cushioning us from the full impact of global warming, climatologists say. They fear that as we burn coal and oil more cleanly, and dimming is reduced, the full effects of global warming will be unleashed.’ In other words, when we’re not making the world hotter, we’re making the world … cooler. We’re damned in both the doing and the don’t-ing, but either way, as the narrator of the BBC’s program on dimming put it in the conclusion, ‘we have to take urgent action to tackle the root cause of both global warming and global dimming - the burning of coal, oil and gas.’

We may have to make very difficult choices about how we live and how we generate our electricity. We have been talking about such things for 20 years. But so far very little has been done in practical terms. The discovery of global dimming makes it clear that we are rapidly running out of time.’

This is the same sort of end-is-nigh apocalyptic language that environmentalists (and their philosophical ancestors) have been preaching for centuries. Malthus told us all to practice some “moral restraint” and stop procreating, lest we all die from mass starvation. Today’s greenies frame the debate in the same moral terms even as journalists and scientists vying for headlines and grant monies out-do each other in trying to freak the public out.

Global dimming is the latest attempt to give some scientific ballast to global warming, which has never borne a lot of close scrutiny.
Indeed, many environmentalists now like to call it ‘climate change’ instead – a deft semantic shift that means just about any freak storm can now be blamed on John Howard and George W. Bush. And it is pretty clear that the science behind dimming is overhyped bunk as well; as Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies put it recently after seeing the BBC documentary, ‘The suggested “doubling” of the rate of warming in the future compared to even the most extreme scenario [is] highly exaggerated. Supposed consequences such as the drying up of the Amazon Basin, melting of Greenland, and a North African climate regime coming to the UK, are simply extrapolations built upon these exaggerations … while these extreme notions might make good television, they do a disservice to the science.’

So what is it that is so attractive about global dimming to its supporters? As with Malthus, the answer is not so much scientific as moral, and an underlying discomfort with modern life and all its trappings. Just look at some of the other rhetoric of radical greens these days: people consume too much, waste too much, products come in too much packaging, our food comes from too far away and all this divorces us from one another and the Earth. But this ignores the fact that all this economic activity is actually good for people and, ultimately, the environment: when I got married four years ago in New York City, for example, New Zealand lamb was the main course. This may horrify some as wasteful, but their outrage ignores the fact that those few dozen plates of lamb, multiplied countless times every day, help pay the wages of hundreds of farmers, abbatoir workers, drivers, pilots, fuelers, mechanics, loading dock workers, chefs, and so on – in other words, the sort of ordinary people whom we are supposed to be more in touch with.

The problem with environmentalists is that, after thirty-plus years, it gets awfully hard to take anything they say seriously. Yes, the outdoors is lovely and nature spectacular, and no one wants their kids to grow up breathing thick and smoggy air – which is why economic development is the key to cleaning up pollution, not relying on a bunch of spurious climate models and a distrust of capitalism. When people are allowed to get rich, they can not only desire a cleaner environment, but do something about it as well.

In the meantime, the environment is too important to be left to environmentalists.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:51 PM | Comments (0)

SCIENCE: Nov 05, AU Edition

New research says that earthquakes may be contagious, reports Sandi Doughton

Geologists used to answer with an emphatic “No” when asked if mega-earthquakes like the one that hit Southeast Asia last December can trigger temblors on the other side of the globe. Today, some experts are not so sure.

Evidence is mounting that large earthquakes can rattle geologic formations thousands of kilometres away – and perhaps even set off volcanic eruptions days, months or years later.

There’s also an intriguing hint that major earthquakes might occur in clusters: Nearly a third of the biggest quakes of the past century struck during a 20-year span between 1950 and 1970.

After three decades of relative quiet, two massive quakes came in quick succession late last year: the magnitude 9 in Sumatra and a little-noticed magnitude 8.1 off the coast of New Zealand three days earlier.

Do monster earthquakes beget more monster earthquakes? Could the two recent events signal the start of a new destructive cycle? And is it possible the Sumatran quake jolted other geologic plates enough to hasten the day when they let loose, unleashing what geologists predict will be comparable catastrophes? No one knows the answers to the first two questions, which are hot topics of research and scholarly debate.
But scientists are fairly certain people don’t have any more to worry about now than they did six months ago.

“I would venture to say there’s a minimal effect, if any at all, on our region from the Sumatra earthquake”, comments Herb Dragert, a research scientist for the Geological Survey of Canada, surveying the seismic risks on his side of the Pacific.

Dragert and his American counterparts operate a network of GPS sensors throughout the region. The instruments can detect even slight movements of land masses, reflecting changes in the amount of stress at the Cascadia subduction zone – a 900-kilometre-long offshore region where the ocean floor is diving under the continental plate.

The measurements show no troublesome blips as a result of the Sumatran quake, Dragert says.

“If we suddenly had a very large earthquake in Alaska, which is much closer, and I saw displacement in my GPS instruments, then I would begin to worry.”

However, there could be ample cause for concern around Indonesia. When the undersea plates there snapped apart, triggering the earthquake, the dislocation almost certainly increased stress and strain on adjacent geologic faults and plate boundaries. Geologists call the pheno- menon “contagion” because it raises the odds of subsequent earthquakes like an influx of germs raises the risk of infection.
“It’s very expected and quite dangerous”, explains Brian Atwater, a U.S. Geological Survey researcher stationed at the University of Washington. “It gives a certain sense of urgency to efforts to get a warning system going around the Indian Ocean.”

Scientists have long known about the contagion effect, which can extend for 100 miles or so from the epicenter of a major quake. It’s the phenomenon that’s responsible for the aftershocks that follow many major quakes.

But most experts were stunned in 1992 when a magnitude-7.2 quake struck the Mojave Desert in Southern California and was almost immediately followed by more than a dozen quakes as far away as Wyoming. A similar thing happened in 2002, when a magnitude-7.9 earthquake in Denali, Alaska, triggered earthquakes and rearranged the plumbing of geyser fields in Yellowstone National Park – 3,000 kilometres away. The same event spawned a couple of small earthquakes under Mount Rainier and set up sloshing waves that swamped houseboats on Lake Union in Seattle and Lake Pontcha- rtrain in Louisiana.

“As people around the world look more carefully, they’re seeing more examples of this kind of (long-distance) effect”, says David Hill, a USGS geophysicist stationed at Menlo Park, California. “At this point there’s really no doubt that it happens.”

Generally, the triggered earthquakes are smaller than the original, though there’s no reason to believe that larger earthquakes couldn’t be kicked off this way as well, says Hiroo Kanamori, a geophysicist at the California Institute of Technology.

The effect seems to be caused by seismic waves that radiate out from the epicenter of an earthquake, along the surface of the ground. Imperceptible to people, these waves cover a lot of distance.
“The Earth ends up ringing like a bell”, Dragert explains. “You have a surface wave that travels around the globe for hours after the event, and if it passes through an area that is already critically stressed, it can, indeed, trigger an earthquake.”

That is, a fault or plate boundary must already be on the verge of slipping or breaking for the surface waves to push it over the edge.
There’s still no detailed explanation for the way that happens, though, Hill says.

“In a way, it’s frustrating to be doing research on this,” he adds, “because we can’t do it in the lab and repeat the experiment. We’ve got to wait for the Earth to do it, and then have good recording networks in the field.”

There’s even less concrete data to show that distant earthquakes can trigger volcanic eruptions, though the circumstantial evidence is growing, Hill says. One analysis found a high number of volcanic eruptions within a day or two of large earthquakes. Several volcanoes around the world, including Pinatubo in the Philippines, have erupted within weeks or months of major earthquakes.

Indonesia has many volcanoes, none of which has yet erupted in the aftermath of the earthquake – but scientists will be watching closely.
After the Boxing Day tsunami, the Washington Post reported lava was spewing from a volcano on an island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian archipelago off the coasts of Myanmar (formerly called Burma) and Indonesia. Previously, the crater had emitted only gas.

Theories linking distant earthquakes to eruptions and other earthquakes remain controversial. It’s almost impossible to prove what triggered an earthquake or eruption, Kanamori points out.

Researchers look mainly at the timing of events, then do statistical analyses to show that they’re probably linked, not just random coincidences.

Hill does collect some hard data from strain meters buried in 600-foot boreholes in California’s Long Valley Caldera near Mono Lake. The sensitive devices detect changes in the pressures pushing and pulling on the rock, and have clearly shown effects from distant earthquakes, he says.

The statistical jury remains out on the question of whether the apparent cluster of major earthquakes in the middle of the century is significant or simply a phantom.

It certainly looks compelling, Atwater says. Most of the events are clustered around the Pacific Rim, from Alaska to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula to Chile.

However, the Cascadia subduction zone off the Northwest coast of the United States was not triggered during that period, he pointed out. The last earthquake there was a magnitude 9 in 1700.

Garry Rogers, a seismologist at the Geological Survey of Canada in British Columbia, says major earthquakes are far too rare and the historical record far too short to be able to draw any conclusion about clusters or large-scale connections.

“In any random process, you will get clusters”, he says.
Hill believes that more data will eventually solve the mystery – and will probably reveal patterns and links no one understands today.

“My own hunch is that there are lots of instances of clusters that are, in fact, related physically. We just don’t know yet what the details might be.”

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:40 AM | Comments (0)

SCIENCE: June 05, AU Edition

There’s a lot of talk of space tourism after Spaceship One, but not much about the risk, says Pat Sheil

So a privately-funded manned flight has finally made it into space. Some see it as the greatest breakthrough in transportation technology since the Wright Brothers. Others deride it as the ultimate toy for the obscenely rich – the most expensive roller coaster ride of all time.

The reality of Spaceship One and the much-heralded dawn of commercial space flight lies somewhere between these two caricatures. These sub-orbital hybrid rocket planes are technically brilliant machines which serve no real purpose other than to break records and impress the socks off techno-heads. And just possibly make money – not as serious working vehicles, but as the wildest fairground ride ever to make it from the drawing board to the ticket booth.

Spaceship One is the brainchild of radical aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan. Radical? Well, a spaceship powered by burning rubber in compressed laughing gas has to qualify as an extreme machine, but it works. Rutan’s team claimed the US$10 million X Prize in September by being the first re-usable piloted vehicle to reach space twice in a fortnight.

The prize was established in 1995 by a group of space enthusiasts and business groups in St. Louis in an attempt to kick-start commercial space flight, in much the same way that the funding of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis 1927 trans-Atlantic flight encouraged investment in aviation through the 1930s. The twice-in-a-fortnight stipulation was made to guarantee that the winning craft was genuinely re-usable.

Spaceship One’s victory was not exactly a commercial triumph in itself, given that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen poured twice the prize’s value into the project. But ever since, the hype merchants have been letting the world know that the age of affordable private space travel has finally arrived.

The boosters have now gone into overdrive with the announcement by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson of the formation of his new ‘spaceline’, Virgin Galactic, which is already taking expressions of interest from hundreds of well-heeled space cadets for the first commercial flights.

Branson talks of a son-of-Spaceship One, a craft already being designed, which will carry five passengers instead of two, and blast thrill seekers into the void for as little as US$200,000. Incredibly, he says that this could all be up and running as soon as 2007.

That mightn’t sound like a cheap ticket for a four hour journey into space, but by today’s aerospace standards that’s exactly what it is. Branson estimates that there are at least 3,000 people in the world with a lazy 200 grand lying around and a hankering for a few minutes of zero-G, more than enough to make to make the project workable.

However you cut the numbers, space tourism is certainly cheaper than it was – the first billionaire to ride in space as a paying customer, Dennis Tito, paid around $US20 million to the Russians for the experience in 2001. Tito made a fortune with the finance company he founded after leaving NASA in the 1960s, and while he was the 415th person in space, he was, at 60 years of age, the first paying customer.

Hardly a cheap ticket, but Tito spent days in actual orbit, 300 kilometers up, on the International Space Station. Branson’s rocket planes will reach 100 kilometers – the official if somewhat arbitrary boundary of space – and fall back to earth without getting anywhere near earth orbit. (This is what the X-15 rocket planes of the ‘60s managed to achieve before they were abandoned in favour of the moon program’s heavy multi-stage booster rockets and the space shuttle. Still, you do get the zero-G experience, and the view’s pretty good from 100 kilometers…)

The view was also pretty good for another bunch of wealthy thrill seekers on May 6, 1937, as they approached Lakehurst, New Jersey, aboard what was then considered the grooviest, hippest travel experience on earth. Thirty-five seconds after an orange glow was spotted near the tail section, the Hindenburg, and the age of the airship, lay in a twisted pile of flaming wreckage, only two hundred metres from the landing mast.

It’s hard to imagine that the consequences of a fatal accident on a Virgin Galactic jaunt would be much different. Unlike commercial aviation, space joy rides have no utility, and thus a very low level of acceptable risk.

And just because they’re the ones taking the risk, does that make it OK for wealthy adventurers to blast themselves holus-bolus into the ionosphere? Ferris wheels that collapse aren’t acceptable. What’s the difference, apart from the scale of the ride? Part of the problem is that when space shots fail, they can fail spectacularly, and come down just about anywhere.

The nub of the problem was simply expressed by Senator Bart Gordon of the US Senate’s Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee in July last year. Industry representatives had appeared before the Committee to insist that the US Government indemnify the industry against such disasters. ‘Commercial human space flight may be an idea whose time is about to come,’ said Gordon.

‘However, if it is to succeed, industry and government need to enter into a serious dialogue on the issues of appropriate safety standards and the extent to which it is appropriate for the Government to indemnify the companies against the consequences of launch accidents.’
In other words, ‘We’re none to sure about all this - leave it with us for a while.’

One-time exo-tourist Dennis Tito suggested to the committee that once there had been several sub-orbital launches, that would be sufficient to establish a ‘record of safety’. The committee was dubious about this.

Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace is a possible Virgin Galactic competitor, as are a few of the twenty-odd teams who originally registered as X-Prize competitors and are still working on their launch systems. Greason unintentionally revealed the cavalier nature of the industry’s approach to safety when he breezily reassured the senators that ‘it’s safe enough when customers start showing up’.

Branson’s web site is unclear as to the insurance arrangements for Virgin Galactic, though it appears at this stage that he’s hoping to get away with a simple passenger waiver of all rights against Virgin in case of mayhem. Whether such a document would stand up in court, against the well-advised relatives of very rich victims, is another thing entirely.

The Canadian da Vinci team, who had hoped to snare the X-prize with their Wild Fire rocket, came up against this very problem – as well as a few technical hitches – last month when their Government baulked at indemnifying them against launch accidents. It’s not just the passengers and crew, either. They can take their chances, but ploughing a crippled spaceship into a crowded shopping mall is a different thing entirely.

Nonetheless, there is a sense of inevitably about all of this. Spaceship One has proved that it can be done, and when it comes to new technology, nine times out of ten that means it will be done, in one form or another. And if the International Space Station manages to justify its multi-billion dollar price tag on the waffly argument that we must ‘maintain a human presence in space’ (as George W. Bush puts it), taxpayers will probably be happy to see the work contracted out to private operators if they can do it at a fraction of the cost.
In the hope of long-term budget relief, NASA will next year announce its own version of the X-prize, the Centennial Challenges, which will make awards of up to $20 million for private companies who first achieve feats like robotic moon landings and asteroid sample-return missions.

The Centennial Challenge program manager Brant Sponberg said recently that the agency would have to get approval from Congress first.
‘We can only make awards of up to $250,000 at the moment. Starting next year we hope to have legislative authority to award purses above this level.’

There are politicians in the United States who want NASA to make big money available for private projects. One senator on the Science, Technology and Space Committee, Republican Sam Brownback, is proposing that NASA award $200 million for the first private manned orbiting mission – a lot more than the $10 million X Prize for sub-orbital flights, and a good indication of the work private launch operators have to do before they break into the big time.

But whatever the financial incentives, and no matter how careful the players and strict the rules, inevitably, over time, there will be accidents. It’s just a matter of whether they are bad enough to stop one or two spacecraft, or bad enough to kill an industry.

Engineers and legislators received a salutary reminder of this on October 15 this year. The Chinese had announced that an unmanned test shot of the FSW-20 ‘recoverable satellite’ had ended successfully. By this they meant that the capsule had been retrieved. They didn’t - at first - admit that it had crashed into a four storey apartment building in the town of Daying, miraculously without loss of life, as all the residents were off shopping at the local market.

No real harm done to the Chinese space program, either. But Richard Branson, and those who come after him, won’t be running the Chinese space program.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:12 AM | Comments (0)

SCIENCE: Apr 05, AU Edition

Sure, Einstein hit it big in 1905. But let’s not forget the really important inventions of a century ago – like the windscreen wiper, says Pat Sheil

The Japanese thumped the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War. Sailors mutinied on the battle-ship Potemkin. Norway gained independence from Sweden, Sun Yat-sen founded his secret society to expel the Manchus, and Sinn Fein was founded in Dublin. Oh, and England flogged the Aussies in the Ashes.
But if you ask a group of scientists what happened in 1905, they’ll all say the same thing: Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity. Now, there’s no denying that this was a significant event. A 26-year-old patent clerk had the temerity to tear classical physics to confetti and throw it out the conceptual window, and while most people say the 20th century started in 1901, and others contend it really began in 1914, most scientists date our brave new world from Einstein’s theoretical detonation of ’05.
On top of that, in 1905 he used Brownian motion to confirm atomic theory, and explained the photo-electric effect (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921 – he never got a prize for relativity, funnily enough). It was a big year for Albert, though he didn’t really become famous until the effects he predicted in his General Theory of 1915 were confirmed four years later during a total solar eclipse, when the light of a distant star was measurably bent by the sun’s gravity. He was right – relativity actually applied in the real world.

Yet even then, with his peers in awe of his achievement, the rest of the world simply took the scientists’ word for it: this Albert Einstein was one brainy guy. Even today, we have to take this on trust, because relativity and all that it implies is not exactly self-evident as we go about our daily lives.

So counter-intuitive is it that even though most of us can come to grips with the ideas if the basics are properly explained, very few of us are able to explain it to anyone else a week or two later.

Relativity has a short cerebral half-life – an hour is long enough for it to be brain-dumped in most cases. The fact is that humans live in a Newtonian world, where the three laws of motion clearly affect everything from cricket to sex, from driving a car to falling down the stairs. Relativistic insights are momentarily gleaned from
encounters with powerful drugs or inspired physics teachers, not by lifting a beer in the pub or running down an infant with a supermarket trolley.

But in a bizarre coincidence, 1905 saw major breakthroughs in the application of Newtonian physics and old-fashioned 19th century chemistry which set the tone for the new century in ways that are much easier to understand. Ideas, patents and processes that we still use all the time and which changed our everyday world, for good or ill, depending on your point of view.

For instance, 1905 saw the invention of the jukebox, by one John Gabel of Chicago. There had been coin-operated Edison phonographs seen in the preceding decade, but these only played one tune, and were so quiet that they could only be heard by putting a listening tube to your ear. Gabel, who had previously built cigar vending machines, manufactured and marketed the “Automatic Entertainer”, which offered a choice of two dozen different songs played through a massive 102-cm. horn.

In one of those fortuitous coincidences that pepper the history of technology, the rise of the jukebox was given a hefty boost by the invention of thermo-setting plastics, also in 1905. Chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland had just sold his photographic paper process to George Eastman for a million dollars and, by 1905 standards, was cashed up in a very big way. He hit pay dirt again by founding the plastics industry virtually single-handed, and felt that his first breakthrough invention in the field was so significant that it was only fair to name it after himself. Bakelite was born.

Technically, Bakelite is a polymerisation of formaldehyde and phenol. In practical terms, it was the first plastic that didn’t soften when heated, and as well as creating an explosion of consumer electrical goods, kitchenware, telephone housings and a thousand other doo-dads and gizmos, it transformed the recording industry as it was ideal for the pressing of 78 rpm discs.

The world was becoming “new-fangled”. If you tired of the 24 Bakelite 78’s on the Automatic Entertainer, you could catch a
motorised omnibus (the first ones plied the streets in 1905) and make your way to the cinema. Well, you could if you were in Pittsburgh, where the first dedicated nickel cinema, or nickelodeon, was opened by vaudeville promoter Harry Davis. It would be 25 years before the movies and the depression killed off vaudeville for good, but Davis pulled in a lot of nickels without having to pay any flesh-and-blood entertainers, and it didn’t take long before others caught on – within three years there would be 8,000 nickelodeons across the USA.

Given that hi-tech entertainment was on a roll in ’05, it was fortuitous that someone came along with a promotional tool that couldn’t be ignored to keep the show on the road. French chemist and inventor Georges Claude worked out in that year that by pushing electricity through a tube filled with neon gas (which had only been discovered six years earlier), a new form of lighting could be had, and one that could be bent and twisted into letters, shapes, and logos. His invention was to make him a fortune, and to reach its apotheosis in the town of Las Vegas, where it took on ever-more-lurid forms.

It shouldn’t be at all surprising that Las Vegas was founded in, yep, 1905.Music, lighting, entertainment, transport, mass-production – in 1905 the 20th century really started to hit its straps. The first signs of what the century had in store came as cracks began to appear in the Victorian/Edwardian edifice of starch and prudery. And not just in the dark, thrilling back rows of the nickelodeons, though preachers were already warning of the moral turpitude to be found in these places. Even talking about sex almost became respectable with the publication of Sigmund Freud’s Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex.

Einstein had never seen a neon light or ridden in a motorised omnibus when he wrote his seminal paper. He had never used a Bakelite telephone or put a coin in a jukebox. He may have seen a moving picture show or two – he was a patent clerk after all – and knew a thing or two about the latest inventions. Perhaps the absence of such distractions, and the sheer boredom of working in the Swiss bureaucracy played a crucial part in the extrapolations that led to the Special Theory. Then again, being a freakish genius probably didn’t hurt.

Years later, as he was driven home from the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study in the pouring winter rain (Einstein was sufficiently a man of the 19th century to have never learnt to drive a car), his driver would have been thankful for the inspiration of Mary Anderson. Mary spent many a freezing evening in New York streetcars, as the drivers stopped, got out, and letting in a blast of snow or sleet wiped the window so they could see where they were going. She got sick of it, and realised that the answer was not relativistic, but deeply Newtonian. She understood that the solution was quite straightforward, and after knocking out a few sketches, patented the first windscreen wiper.

In 1905.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 02:59 AM | Comments (0)

SCIENCE: Sep 05, AU Edition

Researchers have finally discovered the secrets behindthe mysteries of female orgasm, writes Pat Sheil

To the male of the species, being involved in a female orgasm is a wonderfully fulfilling experience. It makes you feel all warm and gooey inside. You may suspect that you weren’t entirely responsible for the successful conclusion of your encounter, but you know that you were a part of it in some small way. Reflecting on what transpired afterwards, you feel much the same as an Amish man walking home from a successful barn-raising.

But what exactly is going on here? There aren’t many men alive who haven’t thought how much fun it would be to actually experience a full-blown female orgasm, if only once. Not so much actually live in a woman’s body for a night, but just to somehow download the sensory data into his skull for a few minutes and feel the heat.

The prospect is some way off, but might just be getting closer. If not quite pinpointing what a woman’s climax is, a researcher in the Netherlands has at least found out what it isn’t. The results are deeply counter-intuitive, and somewhat disappointing for men who like to think that they’re the epicentre of the action.

Gert Holstege, of the University Groningen, recruited 13 heterosexual women and their partners. He asked the volunteers to lie on a scanning machine bed, where they were injected with a dye that shows changes in brain function. Then they were wheeled headfirst into the PET scanner, stark naked and legs akimbo.

Holstege’s team compared the women’s brain activity in four states: resting, faking an orgasm, having their clitoris stimulated by their partner, and clitoral stimulation to the point of orgasm. (This is the kind of research that only gets done in places like the Netherlands – you just can’t imagine it taking place at the University of Kansas, let alone Lahore. Hats must also go off to a group of horny women whose devotion to science was such that they could manage to come in a lab surrounded with researchers and with their heads stuck in a PET scanner.) So what did Holstege find? It turns out that when women approach climax, whole regions of their brains shut down, and the more excited they get, the more functions cease. Speaking at a meeting of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology in Copenhagen last month, Holsteg said that only one part of the brain was more active than normal during orgasm – the cerebellum, which is normally associated with movement. So if you think she’s making lots of noise because she thinks you’re just tops, well, forget it. In women, the parts of the brain involved in emotion shut down the hotter they get. Alertness and anxiety fall to near zero. It seems that when she’s feeling at her very happiest, she’s feeling nothing but the orgasm itself.

Let’s look at the difference between faked and genuine orgasms for a moment. It’s this data that makes Holstege’s conclusions deeply compelling. ‘The fact that there is no deactivation in faked orgasms means a basic part of a real orgasm is letting go. Women can imitate orgasm quite well, as we know, but there is nothing really changing in the brain’, says Holstege. ‘When women faked orgasm, the part of the brain governing conscious action lit up. It was not activated during genuine orgasm.’

The most striking results, however, were seen in the parts of the brain that deactivated. ‘During orgasm, there was a strong, enormous deactivation in the brain’, Holstege said. ‘It looks like to have an
orgasm, you need to not be fearful or full of anxiety.’

Holstege added that he had trouble getting reliable results from another study on men, because the scanner needs cerebral changes lasting at least two minutes in order to record an activity.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:25 AM | Comments (0)

March 09, 2007



"That’s one small step for giant leap for conspiracy theorists": did we really land on the Moon? HAMISH CARNACHAN investigates the controversial argument over whether NASA faked it, or whether the people pushing the theory are, themselves, loose moon units...

Houston, the Eagle has landed" - famous words that spelt out one of the defining moments of the twentieth century. ‘Eagle’, the Apollo 11 landing module, had gently touched down on the Moon’s surface and the United States’ National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) had finally achieved what many thought was impossible. For the very first time, a craft carrying humans had visited a world other than our own planet.

On a clear morning in mid-July 1969 NASA’s landmark mission began. Columbia, the command module atop a massive Saturn V rocket, successfully rose off pad 39a, thundered towards the heavens billowing a cotton-wool vapour trail and disappeared beyond the stratosphere.

The voyage to the Moon ran smoothly and on the distant side of the Moon, Eagle prepared to disengage from its mother ship.

Neil Armstrong’s voice soon crackled across the airwaves and into the headsets of the anxious technicians awaiting news back at Houston’s Mission Control. The broadcast carried the news of the successful separation: "The Eagle has wings".

The pivotal phase of the mission was underway, but when the engine on the lander was fired to begin the descent it was like triggering a signal for the drama to commence.

At 14,000 metres an alarm sounded – the computer was becoming overloaded with data – but Mission Control gave the all clear to "continue powered descent".

Moments later another siren screeched a warning. The computer readout suggested Eagle was approaching touchdown too fast. Mission Control scrambled to analyse and again snubbed the signal to abort – descent velocity was fine.

At 6400 metres above the lunar surface, and with Eagle closing at a rate of 3700 metres per minute, the time to decide whether to land or abort was almost up when Armstrong glanced out of the window and saw that they were heading directly into a boulder field.

With a landing in rough terrain impossible he manually angled the craft away, hoping to find a smoother spot to touch down. A call came through from Mission Control: "30 seconds". Fuel was running dangerously low and there was a risk that Eagle would not have enough in reserve to ascend.

Finally Buzz Aldrin’s triumphant dispatch came through: "Contact light". A collective sigh of relief was let out followed by a monumental roar that rocked the mission centre. After years of meticulous planning and four days after the mission was launched, Man was finally on the Moon.

It was 20 July, 1969, a day that is fixed in the memories of everyone who saw the flickering, grainy black and white television images of Neil Armstrong stepping down from the Apollo 11 capsule onto the lunar surface.

Arguably it was the most monumental feat in modern history – perhaps recorded history – some have even called the Apollo 11 mission the pinnacle of Man’s pioneering adventures.

So many of the people who stood witness that day were left speechless and it was Armstrong’s now famous words, "One small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind", which articulated what they could not say themselves.

Hundreds of kilograms of samples were brought back throughout Project Apollo, as were reams and reams of film and still-photo footage. These invaluable archives and the astronauts’ experiences not only gave us an indication of how the Moon was formed and how it could be exploited in the future, but they provide evidence that set the missions in irrefutable fact.

The famous first mission to the Moon, and the five others that were to follow, were, to a majority of people, "remarkable accomplishments". For many others at the time though, the achievements were too unfathomable, incomprehensible even. They simply did not believe it was possible to put a man on the Moon.

Though there have always been subcultures that strongly believe the landings were faked, today, more than 30 years on, there is a growing wave of disbelievers who are finding favourable platforms and forums to launch attacks against the Apollo missions.

The new breed of sceptic has laid down a fierce challenge to NASA, and the space agency is now finding it increasingly harder to rid itself of the rumours that it pulled "one giant con on Mankind".

Now the conspiracy theories have been elevated to a higher level of public awareness with international television screenings of a documentary that proposed NASA faked the whole affair.

"Conspiracy Theory: Did we land on the Moon?" as the program is titled, has aired twice in the United States and in numerous countries around the world including New Zealand, creating quite a stir. While some have written it off as a "personal attack against NASA" from its creators, millions of Americans and people of other nationalities now believe that the landings were staged in a studio at the conspicuously secretive Area 51 military base in the Nevada Desert.

One of the spin-offs of the film is that Internet conspiracy sites have since flourished and now provide an inexpensive global medium for sceptics to push their position. They seem to have made substantial headway, and the level of debate on the topic has become unprecedented.

In October this year, a Washington newspaper report suggested that the argument was getting ugly too. The Daily News ran a story alleging that one sceptic confronted 72 year old former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, poked him, verbally abused him and demanded that he swear on the Bible that he really walked on the Moon. Aldrin supposedly responded by punching Bart Sibrel in the face.

So what is behind this recent groundswell of contention? As more and more people noticeably start to query NASA’s moon landings is there actually some substance to their doubts? Do the Apollo missions really deserve the highest accolades or were they, as the sceptics claim, an elaborate hoax staged right here on Earth?

Sibrel, who was four years old when man first set foot on the Moon, is one of the growing numbers of detractors who have made it their own personal goal to prove that the landings were the biggest con job in history.

Central to the stance that sceptics like Sibrel have adopted is that the landings were staged to dupe the Soviet Union – it was the height of the Cold War and the United States had entered into an aggressive space race with their old foe.

On his website (, Sibrel lists the grounds on which he has taken issue with what has generally been regarded as established fact, and claims to have found a credible source who worked for the space program during the 1960s to back these up.

"He asserted, most confidently, that the Apollo moon landings were, first, impossible and, second, falsified as a Cold War tactic to bluff the Soviet Union into thinking the United States had greater capability than it really did," states Sibrel.

"I discovered that the highest ranking official at NASA resigned, without explanation, just days before the first Apollo mission. All three crewmembers of the first historic flight also resigned shortly thereafter.

"Neil Armstrong, the most famous astronaut because of supposedly being the first man on the Moon, refused to even appear in a single still picture on the Moon! Aside from the initial press conference immediately following the event, in which he seems very disgruntled, he has not given a single interview on the subject, in print or on camera, to anyone ever!"

History notes that Sibrel is indeed correct in these claims. However, is it rational to argue, with absolute certainty, that a solitary testimony from a retired NASA employee and a handful of resignations are anything other than coincidence?

Well, Sibrel asserts that there is more evidence to back up his allegations and on his website he lists his ‘Top Ten’ reasons why the landings were a hoax and why Man has never set foot on the Moon.

Sceptics have literally cre-ated a field of study in the dissemination and scrutiny of NASA material and typical of their contentions are some of the following points, often shown as proof that there were no moon landings.

Richard Nixon, the king of cover-up, was the President at the time and sceptics query his potential antics that were never discovered. They argue that a successful manned mission to the Moon offered a spirit-lifting distraction for American citizens smarting over 50,000 deaths in the Vietnam War.

It is also argued that the Soviet Union was well ahead of the US in the Cold War space-race. They had a five-to-one superiority over the States in terms of manned hours in space and were the first to achieve important milestones such as launching the first man-made satellite into Earth’s orbit, putting the first astronaut in space, putting the first astronaut in orbit around Earth, and completing the first space walk.

Detractors say this put America at a perceived military disadvantage in missile technology and because they were so far behind in technical capability they had no other alternative but to fake it.

There is the fact that passengers of a spacecraft that went beyond Earth’s orbit would likely have been subjected to the potentially lethal radiation of the Van Allen radiation belt. Questions are raised about the possibility of astronauts travelling through the field unscathed.

Sibrel suggests it is odd that "the Apollo missions were the only times ever that an astronaut, Soviet or American, left the safety of Earth’s orbit and ventured into the deadly hazards of space radiation."

Also peculiar, says Sibrel, is the astronauts’ silence on their mission.

"Neil Armstrong, the first man to supposedly walk on the Moon, refuses to give interviews to anyone on the subject. Collins also refuses to be interviewed. Aldrin, who granted an interview, threatened to sue us if we showed it [Sibrel’s own documentary, "A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Moon"] to anyone."

Another significant point of conflict is held in the photographs and film taken on the Moon. On close inspection, analysts have discovered that there are numerous inconsistencies and oddities. For example, no stars are shown in any of the film and the shadows do not fall in the same direction. To some this suggests that the footage was shot in a studio under artificial lighting.

"Sunlight would cast shadows that would never intersect," argues Sibrel.

The Hasselblad cameras that were used by NASA on the missions had many crosshairs in each frame. Keen-eyed sceptics have noticed that in some shots the crosses disappear behind objects in the picture, providing further proof of foolery.

Perhaps even more bizarre are the pictures with identical backgrounds that are supposed to have been taken at different locations on different days. In two sequences from the Apollo 16 mission, this irregularity is clearly depicted.

But the biggest discrepancy and the "ultimate give away", according to the sceptics, is the footage that shows the American flag fluttering in the wind – an impossible phenomenon on the Moon simply because no wind can form in the vacuum of outer-space.

"The wind was probably caused by intense air-conditioning used to cool the astronauts in their lightened, un-circulated space suits. The cooling systems in the backpacks would have been removed to lighten the load not designed for Earth’s six times heavier gravity, otherwise they might have fallen over," suggests Sibrel.

Sibrel has spent many years and almost US$500,000 in a quest to prove his theory that the landings were faked. But aside from querying inconsistencies and highlighting unexplained oddities, he professes to have uncovered irrefutable evidence.

"In my research at NASA I uncovered, deep in the archives, one mislabelled reel from the Apollo 11, first mission, to the Moon. What is on the reel and on the label are completely different. I suspect an editor put the wrong label on the tape 33 years ago and no reporter ever had the motive to be as thorough as I. It contains an hour of rare, unedited, colour television footage that is dated by NASA’s own atomic clock three days into the flight.

"Identified on camera are Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins. They are doing multiple takes of a single shot of the mission, from which only about ten seconds was ever broadcast. Because I have uncovered the original unedited version, mistakenly not destroyed, the photography proves to be a clever forgery. Really! It means they did not walk on the Moon!"

In a book he released last year, amateur French astronomer and photographer Philippe Lheureux made international headlines when he made similar claims about NASA faking photographic footage.

But Lheureux puts a different spin on the hoax theory. In ‘Lumieres sur la Lune’ (Lights on the Moon) he suggests astronauts did get to the Moon but in order to prevent competitors from using sensitive scientific information in the genuine photos, NASA released bogus images.

The BBC quoted Lheuruex from French television: "In order not to give out scientific information they released photos taken during the training stages.

"That satisfied the American taxpayer and that left no real possibility for other countries to make scientific use of them."

Lheureux presents evidence from a photo of a lunar landing craft’s ‘foot’ because it is totally dust-free. The problem here, he says, is that according to Neil Armstrong large clouds of dust were displaced on landing.

Need more proof? How about props in space? According to the BBC report, Lheureux says that when one of the photos purportedly taken on the Moon is enlarged a letter ‘C’ can clearly be seen scribed on a rock "exactly like some cinema props".
Sibrel alleges that NASA continues to doctor their film footage to clean up obvious errors like those that Lheureux claims to have exposed.

"Newly retouched photographs correct errors from previously released versions. Why would they be updating 30-year-old pictures if they really went to the Moon?" asks Sibrel.

In the face of this barrage, NASA’s persisting silence does not seem to have helped quell any of the doubts either.

In response to Lheureux’s claims, the agency was reported to acknowledge that about 20 pictures of the thousands that were taken do take some explaining but on close examination they have a scientific explanation. NASA left its response at that.

In the past NASA has either relied on information sheets originally issued in 1977, or private citizens, concerned enough to mount their own campaigns to address some of the concerns in circulation.

But in late 2002 it seemed that the US space agency had finally got fed up with all the dissent. They commissioned James Oberg, a 22-year Mission Control veteran and prominent space-travel author, to work on a 30,000-word book to debunk the faked landing hypothesis and also examine how such theories become popular and spread.

The former chief historian at NASA, Roger Launius, conceived the idea to give schoolteachers a tool to help answer classroom queries because half the world’s population was not yet born the last time an astronaut reached the Moon.

"As time progresses, this gets less and less real to everybody. At some level, I think that may be what’s happening here," Launius told Washington’s Daily News.

However, days after they announced the funding for the book, NASA added fuel to the fire by pulling its financial backing. According to the worldwide news service, AFP, a NASA spokesman said the project had lost its focus because it was "being portrayed by the media as a PR campaign to debunk the hoaxers and that was never the intent".

Oberg has lost his promised US$15,000 contract for the work, but despite this setback he informs Investigate that he is forging ahead with the book, writing it "commercially".

Until Oberg completes the book though, the task of silencing the critics will be left to individuals like Dr. Phil Plait, a teacher of physics and astronomy at Sonoma State University in California. Plait, who has no links to NASA, invests his own resources in disseminating information he believes categorically disproves the conspiracy theories.

And just as the sceptics are using the Internet to spread their message, so too is Plait on his ‘Bad Astronomy’ website ( In times when public opinion is so easily influenced by the Internet and "subjective" television programming, he says he created the site to add balance to a growing argument.

"Am I a bad astronomer?" asks Plait. "I don’t think so. I would say I am an average one. But on these web pages, I’m discussing astronomy that is bad."

A good part of this discussion is a detailed rebuttal of Fox television’s "Conspiracy Theory" documentary in which Plait assures that the rumours broadcast on the network are completely false, some laughably so.

"Sometimes, I think I have heard everything when it comes to bad astronomy. Then something comes along so strikingly nuts that I have to wonder what still lies ahead. In this case, the craziness involves people who think that the NASA Apollo missions were faked."

The "craziness" Plait refers to has grasped a sizeable chunk of the American population too. Although the documentary states that 20 percent of Americans now doubt that Man set foot on the Moon, the claim, like many of the others, is actually false. The real figure, sourced from a 1999 Gallup-poll, is closer to 6 percent.

Some call this slice of the population the "lunatic fringe" but, nonetheless, 6 percent of almost three hundred million, is still a significant body of outsiders. Still, Plait isn’t fazed by the foibles of his countrymen.

"There is no idea on God’s green Earth so dumb that you can’t get a big chunk of the American public to buy it. These are the same people who believe you can cut taxes but expand services, and who believe you can extract oil from the ground indefinitely without running out of it."

On his site he proposes that part of the problem creating the current wave of doubt is a lack of understanding of science. Plait doesn’t profess to have covered every claim by the conspiracy theorists, simply because there are so many, but he does answer many of the major "myths". He says some involve subtle, but comprehensible, physics, while lesser assertions are easily shown to be false.

For example, he readily acknowledges that the US flag is moving but says the explanation is entirely logical.

"The flag had a stiffening rod on the upper side so it would stand out from the staff. When the astronauts moved the pole, the free corner lagged behind by simple inertia. The flag actually flops unnaturally quickly because there is no air resistance to impede it."

As far as the absence of stars in the footage goes, claimed by sceptics to be indicative of filming inside a studio, Plait reasons that basic photography clears this contention.

He says that because the Apollo astronauts all landed on the ‘day’ side of the Moon, and all the film they shot from orbit were over the ‘day’ side, the exposure settings were all set for daylight.

"Set your camera to 1/125 at f/8 (a setting typical of the slower films in use in 1969). Aim it at the night sky and shoot pictures. Tell me how many stars you see. Aim your camcorder at the sky and see how many stars you can film.

"Even with the eye you’d have difficulty seeing stars from the daytime lunar surface unless you stood in a shadow and shielded yourself from any light reflected from the ground, for the same reason you can’t see stars from a brightly lit parking lot at night."

But sceptics also assert that con-verging shadows in numerous pictures provide further evidence that the landings were staged inside, under artificial lighting. As Plait has already indicated, this is one of those issues that requires a little scientific understanding.

"Shadows lie on parallel lines pointing away from the Sun. Because of perspective, they will appear to radiate away from the point on the horizon directly under the Sun. It’s simply incredible that people who claimed to have backgrounds in photography and engineering would not know this.

"A brief look around outdoors on a sunny day will show that shadows of nearby objects do not line up with more distant ones, or even point directly away from the Sun. The reason is that you don’t line up the base of the object with its shadow. You draw a line from a point on the edge of the shadow through the object that casts that part of the shadow. So it’s simply ridiculous to draw lines from the base of the lunar module through its shadow. To see if the shadows were consistent, you’d have to draw lines from objects on the lunar module to their corresponding shadows. These lines should converge on the Sun."

One sequence in the program that Plait appears to take pride in ripping apart quite convincingly shows that two scenes supposedly filmed on different days at different locations were actually filmed at the same spot.

"Maybe this proves the missions were filmed on Earth on a set. Or maybe it merely shows that whoever edited the film mixed up the footage," says Plait who suggests the logical explanation would make no sense at all to a conspiracy theorist.

Another couple of photos show that crosshairs etched on the camera lens appear to be behind objects in the foreground. There’s no question about it - the crosshairs do disappear at the edge of the objects. One in particular appears to be in front of the American flag but behind an astronaut’s arm.

"If you’re going to stage the landings on Earth, why put crosshairs on the camera at all? If we assume the photos were shot with the calibrated cameras that would have gone to the Moon, and NASA went to the time and trouble to build stage sets and have people in spacesuits act out the landings, why not just shoot the scenes you need? Cutting and pasting makes no sense at all - nobody would have missed the apparently doctored shots if they weren’t made."

Plait says somebody editing out distracting crosshairs for press release makes perfect sense, or another feasible explanation is that areas of brighter light in the picture may simply have hidden the marks.

French cynic Lheureux claims the absence of dust on the foot of the Eagle landing craft proves some pictures were faked. "Not so" in this case says Plait – it is merely a case of confusing lunar dust with household dust.

"Household dust is mostly organic (a lot of it is dead skin). It has a low density and floats easily in the air. Lunar dust is powdered rock, much higher in density and with no air to support it. There are no dust bunnies [eddies] on the Moon.

"Kick any dry, bare ground surface on Earth and you will kick up rock dust. Kick the Moon and you will kick up lunar dust. Both kinds of dust are powdered rock, different origins but with somewhat similar properties. Rock dust is pretty cohesive once it packs down. One reader sent in a picture of the lunar rover churning up dust and asked how this could happen if there is no dust on the Moon. Same way an ATV in a gravel pit kicks up dust. Nobody ever said there is "no dust" on the Moon, just no fluffy, easily mobilized dust.

"Once the lunar lander rockets blew away the near-surface dust, what’s left? Larger particles too big to move easily."

The ability of NASA astronauts surviving passage through the extreme radiation of the phenomenon known as the Van Allen radiation belt takes some explaining and Plait offers detailed analysis on his website.

In very simple terms, because they passed through the belt at such a rapid speed, the astronauts spent less than 15 minutes in the danger zone. Plait calculates that exposure over that amount of time would have been about 1 percent of a fatal radiation dose – perhaps not completely safe but entirely survivable.

Finally, it is well known that America was losing the space race to the Soviet Union. In one of the most famous speeches of his presidential career, John F. Kennedy acknowledged this and pledged support and billions of dollars of funding to match the Russian’s strides in space: "I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."

Of course history tells us that Kennedy did not survive to see his vision fulfilled and it was the infamous Richard Nixon who was in power when NASA finally accomplished the goal. But for some sceptics it would not have been above Nixon to pull a lunar landing scam.

However, why would the President have gone to the trouble of preparing a contingency speech to be read to the watching world if the mission failed and the astronauts died?

In 1999 the BBC reported that a memo found in America’s national archives revealed the extent of emergency planning for the first mission by NASA and the Whitehouse.

Radio transmissions would supposedly have been terminated, leaving the space travellers to die or commit suicide in silence. Nixon’s speech would have opened: "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace."

Is this irrefutable evidence that Man did reach the Moon, or another prop in an elaborate hoax?

Perhaps the AFP news service is correct when it suggests that by staying silent, NASA merely feeds the hoax rumours; by denying, it encourages charges over an establishment cover-up – the agency appears to be in a no win situation.

Sceptics like Bart Sibrel point to a human condition called "cognitive dissonance", a condition when someone has a long held belief so deeply rooted in their psyche that they cannot see anything else, even if visible facts present themselves that prove contrary to their belief.

"The pride inducing moon landings can certainly cloud some people from seeing the distasteful truth," he states.

Meanwhile, Plait will not reply to queries that do not firstly address his own: What evidence would it take (available now on Earth) to prove we really went to the Moon? He suggests cognitive dissonance should work both ways.

"I have found it to be a great general-purpose cut-through-the-crap question to determine whether somebody is interested in serious intellectual inquiry or just playing mind games," says Plait.

With such resolute opponents facing off, which side of the story are we supposed to believe? Will we ever really know, with absolute certainty, whether Man reached the Moon or not?

Well, the answer may be closer than many think. European scientific astronomers have announced that they will use the latest, and most powerful, telescope ever made to search for equipment NASA astronauts left on the Moon.

It is hoped that the Very Large Telescope (VLT), capable of imaging a human hair from 16 kilometres away, will provide visual confirmation of one or more of the six lunar modules that landed on the Moon.

Across the Atlantic, Californian company TransOrbital plans to mount a search for further proof. Trailblazer will be the first commercial probe to orbit over one of the Apollo landing sites and take photos of gear left behind by NASA. The launch of Trailblazer has been tentatively scheduled for August 2003.

Certainly such technological developments will have set alarm bells ringing already.

"Sceptics, you may have a problem."


conspiracy theory problem no. 1: in 1969 there were no computerised photo-editing programmes. forging photographs was strictly a cut and paste job. if we never got to the moon, who took these pictures on kodak extachrome film. this is not fuzzy broadcast video, this is hard copy colour film, with a small earth in the background. who got far enough out in space to take a picture of a small earth and a large moon? to put it in perspective, more computing grunt is required to create this magazine than was used in the apollo programme


conspiracy theory problem no 2: if it had been filmed in a studio, multiple light sources would be required to evenly fill such a large background, yet only one source exists in this photo. additionally, if the light source were man-made then it would have to be so close that shadows would be seen radiating in different directions


conspiracy theory problem no. 3: if we faked the first trip to the moon because we couldn’t do it, why compound the risk of discovery by faking several more moon landings in quick succession? why not quit while they’re ahead? why fake the apollo 13 crisis?


conspiracy theory problem no. 4: hundreds of thousands of people worked on the apollo flights, each performing detailed technical tasks, each expecting certain data on the screens in front of them. to fabricate that data and fool all the people involved would probably be a larger technical problem than actually getting to the moon in the first place


conspiracy theory problem no. 5: contrary to the claims in the documentary that it was only test flown once, and crashed, three lunar module prototypes were test flown on earth more than 160 times

Posted by Ian Wishart at 02:03 AM | Comments (1)

January 26, 2007

Dioxin's Toxic Legacy: Jan 07 issue


UPI’s Christine Dell’amore profiles new research on Dioxin's reproductive dangers

New evidence on the effects of dioxin in the Vietnam-era herbicide Agent Orange suggests the chemical interferes with the reproductive systems of men. The research, led by Dr. Amit Gupta, is one of the first studies to find that men exposed to a type of dioxin called TCDD experience smaller prostate glands and lower testosterone levels -- even at minimal exposure to dioxin.

“Now we now know dioxins have an effect on the prostate, and it's somehow affecting normal development,” says Gupta, a urologist at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.

The study, published in the November issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, also offers new insight into whether lower doses of dioxin are dangerous to human health. Previous studies have observed dioxin's effects only in highly exposed populations; some research has found a link between these populations and development of cancer.
However, because the study was not a true experiment, it's not known whether it was really dioxin that led to the effects.

Gupta and colleagues followed participants of the Air Force Health Study for more than 20 years, beginning in 1987. The study had two groups: About 1,200 ranch hands, or veterans who sprayed Agent Orange in Asia between 1962 and 1971, and a comparison group of about 2,400 Air Force veterans not involved in herbicide spraying during the war, says co-author Dr. Arnold Schecter, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas. The two groups were matched on age, race and military occupation.

The researchers examined the men in 1982, 1985, 1987, 1992, 1997 and 2002, recording their prostate and reproductive health. In 1987 the research team measured the level of TCDD dioxin in their blood.

As expected, the levels of TCDD -- the most toxic form of dioxin -- were higher in the ranch hand group than the comparison group, although both groups in the study experienced changes in their reproductive function. These higher levels were associated with a lower risk of diagnosis of a prostate condition called BPH, in which the prostate grows in size. TCDD somehow inhibits the prostate from growing, although scientists are unsure of the mechanism of how it happens, Gupta said.

Of course, most men would want to avoid BPH, since a larger prostate can create several uncomfortable side effects, such as frequent urination.

Yet dioxin's ability to thwart prostate growth isn't exactly cause to celebrate, says Gupta -- rather, it's a worrisome indication that dioxins are altering the reproductive system's natural course.

A reduction in testosterone due to dioxin can also cause several health problems, such as loss of muscle strength, infertility, drop in sexual function and depression.

Since the comparison group had exposures consistent with the exposures of the general American population in 1987, even lesser amounts of dioxin present in the United States may impact Americans who never stepped foot in Vietnam.

“Most of the 30 types of dioxin produced in the United States come from industrial processes such as waste incineration, chlorine bleaching of pulp and paper and other chemical processes. It's also a component of pesticides and herbicides, which move up the food chain from contaminated crops, to poultry and beef, to humans. Once inside the body, the chemical settles into the fat. That's why, sadly, human babies get dioxin from their mother's dioxin-laden milkfat,” says Gupta.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency -- which is close to issuing a new scientific reassessment of the health risks of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds exposure -- has successfully cut down on much of the dioxin pollution since the 1970s. In fact, quantifiable industrial emissions of dioxin in the United States have fallen more than 90 percent from 1987 levels, according to the EPA.

Since Gupta and colleagues used a 1987 marker of TCDD in their research, the risk could have gone down for the U.S. population exposed to dioxin.

In addition, it may be difficult to compare one type of dioxin -- TCDD -- to the effects of other types of the chemical. “In the case of Vietnam, where people were exposed almost exclusively to TCDD through Agent Orange, it's reasonable to attribute any irregularities in the reproductive system to that chemical,” says Dr. John Constable, a former surgeon at Harvard Medical School and one of the first Americans to study the effects of herbicides in Vietnam in the 1960s.

“But if someone has a ragbag of chemicals in their bodies, as Americans likely do, it's harder to parse out which dioxins really caused the abnormalities.”

Indeed, the number of male reproductive tract disorders, such as testicular cancer, has risen sharply over past decades. “Some scientists have suggested dioxins might be partially responsible for the spike,” the authors wrote. But there could be other endocrine disruptors at play, substances that have already been shown to alter reproductive processes in rat models.

“Although more research could help in nailing down some of the causes of dioxin, the government has decided to discontinue the Air Force Health Study,” Schecter says.

The next 20 years will answer the question as to how much damage Agent Orange did to our Vietnam vets, says Schecter. “With the program now out of existence, that's really most unfortunate for the health of our vets, and for anyone exposed to dioxins -- which is anyone in the industrial world.”

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:24 AM | Comments (0)