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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

Readers share their earthquake tales

May 7, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Rumbles remembered:
Scientists may have hated it, but last weekend's schlocky "10.5" earthquake miniseries was a hit with TV viewers. It also sparked some aftershocks of recognition from Cosmic Log readers.

Earlier this week, XCOR Aerospace's Aleta Jackson recalled her own long-ago brush with a brutal Peruvian earthquake, and noted how so many pre-Conquest buildings were left standing while the Spanish-built church collapsed. Were the Conquistadors particularly shoddy builders, or was it a perverse stroke of divine wrath? NBC News space analyst James Oberg says it was neither:

"I call this the unrecognized pre-selection bias, in that buildings that were constructed pre-Conquest have already mostly been destroyed in centuries past by earlier earthquakes," Oberg writes. "Only the very strongest ones have survived this long."

My colleague at MSNBC.com, Mark Stevenson, reminds me that "10.5" was only the latest in a long line of schlocky earthquake flicks. The classic of the genre is "Crack in the World," which came out in 1965. For pure cheesiness, it's hard to beat this snippet of dialogue, which comes after a scientist explains that the crack could rip the world apart:

Indian Ambassador: "You mean ... the world will come to an end?"

Scientist: "The world as we know it, yes. As a cloud of astral dust, it will continue to move within the solar system."

Here are a few more of the seismic stories received this week:

Paul Gradenwitz, Zurich, Switzerland: "Some years ago I was in Greece when there was a heavy earthquake in Athens. At the moment of the earthquake I was in Delphi. In the evening I was in my hotel in Eretria, some 80 kilometers from Athens. I was looking at the TV where they showed the rescue under way. Then suddenly they backed off, calling out 'Sysmos! Sysmos!' (Earthquake!) There was an aftershock. A few seconds later the density in the air increased, a strange sound swelled, and then with a bang the tremor reached the hotel. I suddenly realized the immense speed of the earthquake, traveling from Athens to Eretria in a few seconds, where we had driven that distance by bus in more than an hour."

Tom: "My brother and I were living in the North Plains area in the Portland, Ore., area when at about 5:30 or so the 'spring quake,' as we later called it, started. We were upstairs in my father’s cabin in the Restful Haven Health Club, or RHHC. Eric called out to me 'Earthquake,' rather loudly, as it was a noisy affair.

"We both put on some clothes and then went outside after it stopped. The cabin is on a hillside, mounted on long timbers, and it swayed back and forth. It is a little unnerving when your whole house continues to move after the earth stops moving. We went under the platform that the cabin is built on to check for damage. It was unfazed by the quake, but we weren't. As a matter of fact, it is now known that houses that are mounted on a hillside with a platform foundation survive better than fixed concrete foundations. But that was unknown to us at the time.

"By the way, the RHHC is a nudist camp! Just think about other things that swing back and forth in a earthquake, like your anatomy."

Irene: "I've only felt just a handful of relatively small quakes since moving to California's Central Valley about 20 years ago. My favorite story is about the first one I experienced.

"I was working in a local store in downtown Stockton. A youngish woman had come in with her daughter, about 4 or 5 years old.  The woman and I were talking, me behind my counter, the woman a short distance away.  The young girl was standing at the counter, with her little hands curled over the lip of the counter.  All of a sudden, the counter started vibrating.  I was just starting to ask the girl not to hang on the counter when her mother said what I was thinking.  Just then, both of us looked up and saw the light fixture swaying.

"I stepped back into a doorway, and the woman pulled her daughter to her, away from the path of the hanging light fixtures. All the while, the little girl was saying, 'I didn't do anything, Mommy!'  After the shaking stopped, we both laughed a bit and reassured the girl that we knew she hadn't done anything, and explained the earthquake to her.  Now, that was a challenge for me.

"It turned out that it was the so-called 'Coalinga Quake' of the early 1980s."

May 7, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
The star of Mother's Day:
With the approach of Mother's Day, "name-a-star" suggestions are once more winging their way into my junk-mail folder. For a refresher course on star registries and their astronomical meaninglessness, review "The Truth About Buying Your Place in Heaven" on Space.com. Then use the method of your own choosing to make your mom a star on Sunday.

May 7, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Defense Tech: No idea too wild for NASA's sci-fi arm
'Nova' on PBS: 'Magnetic Storm'
The Economist: Why curves are good
Science News: Teen brains on trial

May 6, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
E-voting verdict:
The controversy over electronic voting systems received a vigorous airing at the federal Election Assistance Commission's first public hearing Wednesday — but what happens now?

The panel plans to draw up guidelines for states buying new e-voting equipment using the $3.9 billion allotted under the Help America Vote Act. During a teleconference organized by the National Committee for Voting Integrity, computer security expert Rebecca Mercuri said the panel should go further — by refusing to provide new money for the current generation of touchscreen systems.

"We need a moratorium on these purchases, and [the panel should say] anybody who makes purchases now does not get reimbursed," she said.

That's a highly unlikely scenario, however, because the commission's mandate extends only to drawing up voluntary guidelines for the states. In fact, the commission's short-term goal is to get enough of its own federal funds to stay in operation. That will be the focus of a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing next Wednesday.

The commission is also supposed to rely on the National Institute of Standards and Technology for setting up a certification system for voting equipment, but Mercuri complained that "NIST has gotten 'dime zero' for this."

So for now, the debate over paperless voting vs. paper backup ballots will play out primarily on a state-by-state basis — and perhaps polling place by polling place. Voters may have to take matters into their own hands, said Doug Jones, a University of Iowa professor who once headed the Iowa Board of Examiners for voting machines and is now an e-voting critic.

"The most we can do is to ask the public to exercise a right which has long been ignored," he said, "to observe what’s really going on at the polling places, to observe the counting of the vote, to observe the pre-election testing … because if we can't get the equipment fixed, we need the officials to know that the process is being watched."

Experts say the weakest link in the e-voting chain could well be poll workers who are befuddled by computer technology, so a new wave of computer-savvy, independent-thinking volunteers might be just what the situation calls for. To find contact information for your county elections office — and to keep track of developments in election reform nationwide — click on over to ElectionLine.org.

May 6, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
High-flying ideas on the World Wide Web:
Science @ NASA: Was Galileo wrong?
Wired: Dream gadgets of 2014
The Guardian: The space tourist doing it for science
Canadian Arrow rocket to be tested this summer

May 5, 2004 | Updated 5:10 p.m. ET
X Prize renamed:
The $10 million race to develop private-sector passenger spaceships is no longer being called the X Prize competition: Now it's the Ansari X Prize, honoring a family of Iranian-born entrepreneurs. Anousheh Ansari and her brother-in-law, Amir Ansari, today announced a multimillion-dollar contribution to the X Prize Foundation.

In today's announcement, the X Prize Foundation noted that today was the 43rd anniversary of astronaut Alan Shepard's suborbital spaceflight, which notched a first for NASA and set the model for the Ansari X Prize. The foundation will award $10 million to the first privately funded team that safely sends a piloted craft to the edge of space — 62 miles or 100 kilometers in altitude — and repeats the feat with the same craft within two weeks.

Amir Ansari told MSNBC.com that he saw his family's contribution as a way to help make "an impossible dream" come true.

"Even for the cream of the crop, it's an extremely rare opportunity to go into space," he noted. Ansari said the money was given with the hope that "we can create a shot for others who aren't within the elite of the elite."

Both Anousheh and Amir are hoping to make the trip themselves someday. "I'd go up there as baggage if I could," Amir Ansari said.

Anousheh Ansari said in today's announcement that she's been dreaming of traveling to space ever since she was a child.

"As an adult, I understand that the only way this dream will become a reality is with the participation of private industry and the creative passion of smart entrepreneurs," she said. "The Ansari X Prize provides the perfect vehicle to ignite the imagination and passion of fellow entrepreneurs, giving them and their courageous pilots a platform for success."

The two are co-founders of the Texas-based venture capital firm Prodea, and they also co-founded Telecom Technologies Inc., a soft-switch systems company that was acquired by Sonus Networks in 2000.

Amir Ansari said that he and his sister-in-law had been debating whether to follow in California millionaire Dennis Tito's footsteps and buy a trip to the international space station. But then X Prize founder Peter Diamandis "showed up and said, 'Listen, you don't have to go about it that way,'" he recalled. That's when the Ansaris began to consider their sponsorship of the X Prize.

Image: Ansari X Prize logo
X Prize Foundation
The Ansari name has been added to the X Prize logo.

Amir Ansari declined to specify the precise amount of the contribution and said there were no restrictions on how the money was to be spent. "We just felt that we wanted the X Prize Foundation to succeed," he said.

X Prize spokesman Eric Lindbom said the Ansari family's contribution is being used "to purchase the 'hole-in-one' insurance that covers the $10 million cash purse through Jan. 1, 2005, and also supports the operations and educational mission of the foundation."

The Jan. 1 deadline has fueled a burst of activity by the 26 teams in the competition, and Amir Ansari said he and his sister-in-law were looking forward to the liftoffs to come.

"I'm not going to miss an official launch," he said. "If they make a public announcement of a launch, you can guarantee we'll be there."

May 5, 2004 | 10 p.m. ET
Scientific scan of the World Wide Web:
BBC: Dark matter detector limbers up
New Scientist: Hormones converge for people in love
Discovery.com: Oldest evidence of bedding found
Popular Science: 106 science claims and a truckful of baloney

May 4, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
New berry patch on Mars:
Among the most intriguing features discovered by NASA's Opportunity rover are the "Martian blueberries," spherical grains of gray rock that are actually the size of BBs rather than blueberries. The hematite-laden spherules, strewn around Opportunity's landing site in Eagle Crater, were key pieces of evidence indicating that the area was once drenched with water.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that Opportunity's new neighborhood at Endurance Crater is similarly covered with blueberries. The darn things can be seen all over the place in pictures from the rover's panoramic camera.

Because Endurance Crater is so much bigger and deeper than Eagle Crater, the blueberries and layered bedrock could shed much more light on how long liquid water may have covered the plain. Mission scientists will discuss what they are seeing so far, and whether they'll take a chance on going down into the crater, during a news briefing at 3 p.m. ET Thursday. You can watch the event via MSN Video.

Meanwhile, a couple of readers said they really dug the 3-D image of Endurance Crater, but had misplaced their red-blue glasses.

Image: Blueberries
NASA / JPL / Cornell
An image from NASA's Opportunity rover shows "Martian blueberries" embedded in a rock and strewn on the ground near the rim of Endurance Crater.

"If you guys are going to keep putting up 3-D photos, a note on where to obtain the glasses would sure be appreciated," Joe Hopwood wrote. "Or even better, perhaps you could get advertising to get some made with MSNBC on them and give them away for the cost of shipping."

I've forwarded the suggestion about official MSNBC anaglyph glasses to the proper authorities, but in the meantime, you can consult NASA's list of suppliers. As Hopwood suggests, most suppliers will send you a "free" pair of glasses for a nominal shipping charge.

NASA offers an anaglyph gallery of 140 images showing 3-D views of Mars, Earth, Europa and other cool celestial scenery. And while we're on the subject, "Shrek 3-D" is due to be released a week from today as part of a DVD two-pack that also includes four sets of anaglyph glasses.

May 4, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Astronaut update:
NASA is due to name its next class of astronaut candidates on Thursday as part of the festivities for Space Day, including three educator mission specialists, also known as "teachers in space." Two of the teachers work in the United States, as previously reported. The third, Richard Arnold, works in Romania at the American International School of Bucharest, teaching middle-school math and science. His mini-biography notes that he's also spent time in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia (as well as the States, of course). Find out more about the full Class of 2004 on Thursday.

May 4, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Rating the rumbles:
Now that the aftershocks of "10.5" have settled down, some folks wrote in to say they enjoyed the earthquake show: "I loved the '10.5' miniseries and I am looking forward to purchasing it on DVD and listening to it with full surround sound," Christopher Parker wrote from Portland, Maine.

Aleta Jackson of XCOR Aerospace says the "10.5" depiction of a big quake didn't quite match her memory of a scary shaker she experienced in Peru:

"The Peruvian event was about 20 years ago, so my memory is hazy. But I do remember the biggest danger was from rocks rolling down the mountain, not fissures opening in the earth. Big boulders blocked the roads all over the place, and it took the authorities days to clear them out. The quake lasted perhaps 20 to 30 seconds — it seems like hours when you are standing on ground that suddenly seems liquid! I remember trying to catch my breath, and hearing a roar that sounded like a freight train running over the mountains and through me. Very odd sensation.

"The aftershocks, which were almost as strong, and which cut water and power to many small villages, sent stones and mud and junk sliding. The buildings that were constructed pre-Conquest didn't suffer, but the facade of one Spanish-built church fell into the town square, which is where most of the deaths occurred. A few rooms in the local hotels were unlivable because the ceilings had collapsed — no one there at the time, thankfully — and of course the modern buildings in the poorer parts of Cuzco were simply demolished to dust. I remember many of the people living in the town square, which was just a big open garden, but was far away from any building.

"These are highly subjective memories because at the time I was with a group of astronomers and we were more concerned with getting good views of the southern sky and not getting stranded. I wish I had collected more data back then.

"About two months after I returned to the States, I was just north of San Diego, sleeping in a hotel room, when at about 1 a.m. my bed decided to dance across the room. It took me a few seconds to wake up and decide that I wasn't dreaming. I again heard that strange roar, though not so loud. By the time I was up and had thrown something on, it was over.

"Ever since then, the moment I think I feel anything like a tremor, I'm either out the door or in a doorway. A couple of years ago there was a 5-point-something out by Twentynine Palms. That was really strange, because for about 40 seconds the earth swayed and swelled like ocean waves. It wasn't the sharp jerks or the bouncy bumps of the other two I've described."

If you have an earthquake tale you'd like to tell, send it in, and I'll pass along a selection.

May 4, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Space race update:
SpaceX announces that it has struck a deal for the first launch of its Falcon 5 rocket in November 2005 from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.

As first reported by Space.com, the Falcon 5 — a beefed-up version of SpaceX's Falcon 1 — would put an inflatable space structure into orbit for Bigelow Aerospace. The module, dubbed the Genesis Pathfinder, would test the technology for future use in space habitats.

Meanwhile, the latest X Prize newsletter provides an update on the progress of private-sector rocketeers. And the Peninsula Daily News has more about Space Transport Corp., the X Prize team from Forks, Wash. In a follow-up e-mail, Space Transport's Phillip Storm says "we're going to try another launch this Sunday with a more assured fix."

May 4, 2004 | 1 p.m. ET
Lunar darkness at midday:
It's not often that you're able to watch a total lunar eclipse in the afternoon, but that's just the situation Americans find themselves in today: Earth's shadow will cover the entire full moon's disk starting at 3:52 p.m. ET and ending at 5:08 p.m.

INTERACTIVE
MOON
Inconstant moon
What causes a lunar eclipse?
How can you see a lunar eclipse before the moon rises? Not by looking out your office window. In the real world, the total eclipse is visible only from parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and huge stretches of southern oceans. This chart at Sky & Telescope shows where the eclipse can be seen, and where it can't. North America is totally left out.

For skywatchers in North America, the Internet is the only way to go: A Webcam has been set up in the Canary Islands by the SAROS Group, and you'll find a long list of live Webcasts at Astronet.

A total lunar eclipse isn't as exciting as a total solar eclipse, but you won't be looking at a black screen, either. During totality, the moon should shine a dull red, due to a sunset diffraction effect. Lunar eclipses have a rich history — even Columbus used one to his advantage.

Americans shouldn't feel too bummed about being left out this time around. After all, we took in a double feature last year, and we'll have a front-row seat for the next lunar eclipse on Oct. 28.

May 4, 2004 | 1 p.m. ET
Scientific frontiers on the World Wide Web:
Wired: The doctor will freeze you now
Nature: Hollywood grapples with human cloning
BBC: The mystery of mind control
CfA: Scientists 'see' through cosmic dark ages

May 3, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Mars questions answered:
The months-long Mars rover missions are turning into an interplanetary juggling act. Even as Spirit and Opportunity continue to roll along on opposite sides of the Red Planet, the Mars science team has just sent in the first batch of research papers for eventual publication in the journal Science.

How long will the rovers last, and what will send them to their doom? Have they found fossil evidence of ancient life? What's on the horizon for Spirit and Opportunity? The project scientist for the rovers, Joy Crisp, answered these questions from MSNBC.com readers during an audio chat today. The questions came in response to our special report on "A Day in the Life of a Mars Rover."

For now, the rovers' missions have been extended until September, when the sun will come between Mars and Earth, temporarily cutting off communications. But Crisp said "it is possible that they could keep surviving beyond that."

Eventually, the rovers will fall prey to an electronic or mechanical breakdown — perhaps a busted antenna, or a drained battery or a robotic brain freeze brought on by the onset of Martian winter.

"The biggest problem that they face is the incredible temperature swings that they have to survive every day," Crisp said. "Right now, the temperature is swinging between about minus-130 Fahrenheit, to plus-1 Fahrenheit. It's very hard to design electronics that will withstand those kinds of temperature swings."

Image: Joy Crisp
NASA
Rover project scientist Joy Crisp wears a necklace with gray hematite beads. Click on the image to learn more about the hematite's significance.

The chat's most provocative questions had to do with the search for evidence of life. Crisp pointed out that the rovers' instruments were not designed to look for life directly.

"Our mission was set up to look for potential ancient habitat," she said, "to read the record in the rocks, to figure out, ‘Was liquid water around?’ and ‘Were there environments in the past that would have been favorable for life and for preserving evidence of fossil life?’”

A serious search for the fossils themselves would have to be left to future missions, she said.

Every once in a while, an intriguing fossil-like squiggle may turn up on a microscopic image of Martian rock, and the "scientists do study these things hard," she said.

"But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and we've not found anything so far that to the science team is compelling evidence for fossil life," she said. "The fun thing is that we put out all the pictures, and anybody in the world can do their own interpretation and do their own scientific study of these images as they like."

Click onto the audio file to hear the entire half-hour conversation with Crisp and MSNBC.com's Will Femia — and stay tuned for future Cosmic Chats.

May 3, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Aiming for Mars:
The Planetary Society kicked off a new campaign today to build support for human missions to Mars, with the establishment of an international "lunar way station" as a key preliminary step.

The start of the "Aim for Mars" campaign was timed to coincide with testimony given by the Planetary Society's executive director, Louis Friedman, to the President's Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond. During the commission's public hearing in New York, Friedman voiced strong support for the space agency's new exploration initiative.

"We believe that the new policy is extraordinarily well-crafted, balancing the public interest in science and exploration with the practical need for changing America’s human spaceflight program," Friedman said in his prepared remarks.

Friedman called for a relaxation of export controls to make it easier for Americans to use Russian launch vehicles. "Even the Planetary Society, whose activities in space are at the most popular and open level, has to register as an international arms trafficker in order to pursue cooperative projects," he said. That was an apparent reference to the society's work with the Russians on the Cosmos 1 solar-sail venture.

The commission's public hearings are due to wrap up Tuesday in New York, setting the stage for the issuance of its report to the president next month.

May 3, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
N.Y. Times: Antimissile system takes shape
Astrobiology Magazine: Man vs. machine on the moon
Sky and Telescope: The moon goes dark
Science @ NASA: UFO planet

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


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