Friday, June 27, 2008

Growing Asparagus on Mars

According to Mars Daily, Martian Soil Good Enough For Asparagus:

Washington DC (AFP) Jun 27, 2008 Martian dirt is apparently good enough for asparagus to grow in, NASA scientists said Thursday, as they announced the results of a soil analysis collected by the US Phoenix Mars lander. "There is nothing about the soil that would preclude life. In fact it seems very friendly," said Samuel Kounaves, the project's lead chemist at the University of Arizona in a telephone press conference.

"The soil you have there is the type of soil you have in your backyard," said Kounaves. "You may be able to grow asparagus very well."

The analysis is based on a cubic centimeter of soil scooped up by the lander's robotic arm and introduced into one of its eight ovens, where it was gradually heated up to 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Kounaves said his team was "flabbergasted" at the results that came back.

"We basically have found what appears to be the requirements of the nutrients to support life, past, present or future," said Kounaves. reports that while it would be good for asparagus growing, it wouldn't do well for strawberries. The soil is a bit too alkaline.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Overview of SpaceX

Also from the same press release from SpaceX, a nice overview of the company and what they are up to:
About SpaceX

SpaceX is developing a family of launch vehicles intended to reduce the cost and increase the reliability of both manned and unmanned space transportation ultimately by a factor of ten. With its Falcon line of launch vehicles, powered by internally developed Merlin engines, SpaceX is able to offer light, medium and heavy lift capabilities to deliver spacecraft into any altitude and inclination, from low-Earth orbit to geosynchronous to planetary missions. SpaceX currently has 14 missions on its manifest plus indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts with NASA and the US Air Force.

As a winner of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services competition (COTS), SpaceX is in a position to help fill the gap when the Space Shuttle retires in 2010. Under the existing contract, SpaceX will conduct three flights of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft for NASA, culminating in Dragon berthing with the International Space Station (ISS) and returning to Earth. NASA also has a contract option on Falcon 9 / Dragon to provide crew services to the ISS after Shuttle retirement.

Founded in 2002, the SpaceX team now numbers nearly 500, located mostly in Hawthorne, with four additional locations; SpaceX's Texas Test Facility in McGregor Texas outside of Waco, offices in Washington DC, and launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida and the Marshall Islands in the Central Pacific.

The first Falcon 9 will arrive at the SpaceX launch site at Cape Canaveral by the end of 2008.

SpaceX Conducts Static Test Firing of Next Falcon 1 Rocket

According to a press release I received today, SpaceX conducted a static test firing of its next Falcon 1 rocket:
Hawthorne CA – Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) successfully conducted a full launch dress rehearsal and hold down firing of the Falcon 1 Flight 3 vehicle on June 25, 2008 (Marshall Island Time) on Omelek Island, SpaceX’s launch site at the Kwajalein Atoll. This test is the final step before launch of the Falcon 1 rocket.

This marks the first launch pad firing of SpaceX’s new Merlin 1C regeneratively cooled engine, which operated at full power with only the hold-down system restraining the rocket from flight. In the coming weeks, SpaceX will conduct a thorough review of all data prior to the opening of the launch window for flight, which runs from late July through early September.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Twenty-fifth Wedding Anniversary

Twenty-five years ago today, my wife and I got married. Things have changed a bit since then: we've added three daughters to the mix.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Theology Quote for the Day

The goal of human life is not death but resurrection.

Karl Barth, TIME magazine (20 April 1962) cover story "Witness to an Ancient Truth"

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Stargate Continuum

Teaser trailer for Stargate Continuum:

Friday, June 20, 2008

Solar-Hydrogen House

Not quite cost effective, but it is an interesting technology demonstration, nevertheless:

Mike Strizki has not paid an electric, oil or gas bill—nor has he spent a nickel to fill up his Mercury Sable—in nearly two years. Instead, the 51-year-old civil engineer makes all the fuel he needs using a system he built in the capacious garage of his home, which employs photovoltaic (PV) panels to turn sunlight into electricity that is harnessed in turn to extract hydrogen from tap water.

Although the device cost $500,000 to construct, and it is unlikely it will ever pay off financially (even with today's skyrocketing oil and gas prices), the civil engineer says it is priceless in terms of what it does buy: freedom from ever paying another heating or electric bill, not to mention keeping a lid on pollution, because water is its only by-product.

"The ability to make your own fuel is priceless," says the man known as "Mr. Gadget" to his friends. He boasts a collection of hydrogen-powered and electric vehicles, including a hydrogen-run lawn mower and car (the Sable, which he redesigned and named the "Genesis") as well as an electric racing boat, and even an electric motorcycle. "All the technology is off-the-shelf. All I'm doing is putting them together."

The entire article is interesting: Inside the Solar-Hydrogen House: No More Power Bills--Ever, by David Biello in Scientific American.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Is the Universe All Math?

Discover Magazine has an interesting article, Is the Universe Actually Made of Math, by Adam Frank, theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Rochester in New York. It is an interesting article that is mostly an interview with Max Tegmark, discussing Tegmark's ideas. Tegmark is a cosmologist at MIT:
According to Tegmark, “there is only mathematics; that is all that exists.” In his theory, the mathematical universe hypothesis, he updates quantum physics and cosmology with the concept of many parallel universes inhabiting multiple levels of space and time. By posing his hypothesis at the crossroads of philosophy and physics, Tegmark is harking back to the ancient Greeks with the oldest of the old questions: What is real?

Tegmark has pursued this work despite some risk to his career. It took four tries before he could get an early version of the mathematical universe hypothesis published, and when the article finally appeared, an older colleague warned that his “crackpot ideas” could damage his reputation. But propelled by optimism and passion, he pushed on.

"I learned pretty early that if I focused exclusively on these big questions I’d end up working at McDonald’s,” Tegmark explains. “So I developed this Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde strategy where officially, whenever I applied for jobs, I put forth my mainstream work. And then quietly, on the side, I pursued more philosophical interests.” The strategy worked. Today a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tegmark travels among the world’s top physicists. Backed by this well-earned credibility, his audacious ideas are sparking fascination and taking flight.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gay Marriage

I was reading in my newspaper today about local pastors standing outside the courthouse and protesting against gays getting married, reading Bible verses at them, and denouncing both those who went in to get married, as well as the government officials who were doing the marrying.

I'm a bit puzzled as to how this is part of the Great Commission, or preaching the gospel.

I'm wondering what Paul would think about it. Oh, I do know what Paul would think about it:

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?

1 Corinthians 5:12

It also seems to me that Jesus' approach with sinners was somewhat different than how these Pharis--um, preachers--are operating. In fact, I seem to recall he saved his venom for people who were doing the sort of things these preachers were doing.

"Love, and do what thou wilt..."

I've been reading an old book by E.L. Allen, entitled From Plato to Nietzsche: Ideas That Shape Our Lives; it is a thin book, but a good overview of philosophy and theology for the last two thousand years. One phrase from Augustine (from De Genesi ad Litteram) I liked was “Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good”, since it reflects (unsurprisingly) what Paul says in Romans 13:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet, ”and whatever other command there may be, are summed upc in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself. ”Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

It serves as an antidote to legalism (that is, worldliness; see Col. 2) and the endless concern with rules. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, then we can do as we please, since what we please will not harm our neighbor.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Genetically Modified Bacteria Create Oil?

According to the Times of London, a Silicon Valley company is experimenting with bacteria that have been genetically altered to produce 'renewable petroleum.'

The Myth of Moderate Islam

From Foreign Policy, by Steven A. Cook:

Of all the cures commonly proposed for the many ailments afflicting the Middle East, there is one tonic nearly everyone seems to agree on: boosting moderate Islam.

It sounds eminently reasonable. If Islamic extremism is the problem, moderate Islam must be the solution. It follows that Western governments should therefore find ways to make the moderates more powerful and encourage the extremists to become more moderate. Allow Islamists to compete and accumulate power, the argument goes, and they will have little incentive to radicalize. Furthermore, assuming the mundane tasks of day-to-day governance will compel even the most extreme groups to focus more on filling potholes than on destroying the Great Satan.

But this belief is dead wrong. Not only is it impossible to agree on a working definition of the word “moderate,” but there is scant evidence that extremists really do moderate once they assume power.

An interesting, if discouraging, article. Read the whole thing.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Astronomy in Poetry

I open the scuttle at night and see the far sprinkled systems,
And all I see multiplied as high as I can cyper edge but rim of the farthest systems.
Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always expanding,
Outward and outward, forever outward.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Shuttle Discovery Returns to Florida

The Space Shuttle Discovery has landed safely back in Florida. It touched down about 8:15 AM today, Saturday, June 14, 2008.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Science Quote for the Day

There must be no barriers for freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors.

Robert Oppenheimer

Thursday, June 12, 2008

27th International Space Development Conference

Glenn Reynolds posts a report on the 27th International Space Development Conference (May 29-June 1, 2008) on The Atlantic's website:

The main source of excitement at this year's conference was space tourism—folks in the industry prefer the term "personal spaceflight"—involving many companies, from the well-known (Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic) to the sort-of-known (Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin) to the comparatively obscure (XCOR Aerospace). Just this week it was announced that Google co-founder Sergey Brin plans to be a space tourist on a flight to the international space station in 2011. The space tourism business has, according to the results of a study presented at the conference, attracted over 1.2 billion dollars in investment, and grown its revenues from $175 million in 2006 to $268 million in 2007. That's peanuts compared to what NASA is spending on the Space Station or its Constellation project aimed at returning to the Moon, but it's real money and, unlike NASA's budget, it's growing.

Read the whole article: Not Your Father's Space Program

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Video from Aboard the Kibo Module on the ISS

The International Space Station is large. Here's video from the recently installed Japanese Kibo module. The Space Shuttle Discovery undocked from the Space Station today and is on its way home.

Gamma-Ray Telescope Launched

Today (June 11, 2008) at 9:05 AM PDT , the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) was launched aboard a Delta II 7920-H rocket. GLAST is a joint venture of NASA, the United States Department of Energy, and government agencies in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Sweden.

GLAST's main instrument is the Large Area Telescope (LAT) which will make an all-sky survey of astrophysical and cosmological phenomena such as active galactic nuclei, pulsars, dark matter, and other high-energy sources. A second instrument, the GLAST Burst Monitor (GBM), will be used to study gamma ray bursts.

GLAST will orbit at an altitude of about 345 miles. By comparison, the International Space Station orbits at an altitude that varies between a minimum of 173 miles to a maximum of 286 miles.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Climate Change

Dana Longcope, a solar physicist at MSU, said the sun usually operates on an 11-year cycle with maximum activity occurring in the middle of the cycle. Minimum activity generally occurs as the cycles change. Solar activity refers to phenomena like sunspots, solar flares and solar eruptions. Together, they create the weather that can disrupt satellites in space and technology on earth.

The last cycle reached its peak in 2001 and is believed to be just ending now, Longcope said. The next cycle is just beginning and is expected to reach its peak sometime around 2012. Today's sun, however, is as inactive as it was two years ago, and scientists aren't sure why.

"It's a dead face," Tsuneta said of the sun's appearance.

Tsuneta said solar physicists aren't like weather forecasters; They can't predict the future. They do have the ability to observe, however, and they have observed a longer-than-normal period of solar inactivity. In the past, they observed that the sun once went 50 years without producing sunspots. That period coincided with a little ice age on Earth that lasted from 1650 to 1700....

Read the entire article:

Sun Goes Longer Than Normal Without Producing Sunspots

Monday, June 09, 2008

Science Fiction Author Quote of the Day

The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.

Robert A. Heinlein

Friday, June 06, 2008


Sixty-four years ago today the Allies invaded the beaches of Normandy. On that single day of June 6, they suffered an estimated 2500 deaths. Total Allied deaths during the entire Battle of Normandy would reach 37,000.

During the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, 2345 military and 57 civilians were killed. So on June 6, 1944, more Allies were killed than were lost at Pearl Harbor.

In Normandy, the Allies were fighting Germans. And yet Germany had had nothing to do with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Quote for a Friday

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons, November 11, 1947

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Physics Quote for the Day

Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?

Stephen Hawking

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Current List of the Translations for my Book

My editor has sent me a list of the thirteen languages my book, The Bible's Most Fascinating People, will appear in (not counting the currently available version in the original English); most will come out in September, some a bit later:

Swedish, Norwegian, Estonian, Hungarian, French (including a separate version for French Canada), Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Russian, German, Czech, Slovak and Japanese.

I'll be receiving copies as my publisher gets them.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

German Edition of My Book

The German edition of my book, The Bible's Most Fascinating People, is also due for release in September. Published by Tosa, it has the German title, Die 100 bekanntesten Gestalten der Bibel: Eine illustrierte Geschichte

See details in German here, at the German version of

Die 100 bekanntesten Gestalten der Bibel

The title translates as, The 100 best-known figures of the Bible:
An illustrated history
which is very close to what the original title of the book was going to be before Reader's Digest changed it.

SpaceX Five Engine Test

From a press release I got from SpaceX this morning:

McGregor TX – Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) conducted the first five-engine firing of its Falcon 9 medium to heavy lift rocket at its Texas Test Facility outside McGregor on Thursday, May 29. At full power the engines generated almost half a million pounds of force, and consumed 1,750 lbs of fuel and liquid oxygen per second. This five engine test again sets the record as the most powerful test yet on the towering 235-foot tall test stand.

The test of the five Merlin 1C engines, arranged in a cross pattern like the Saturn V moon rocket, is the last step before firing the full complement of nine engines, scheduled for this summer. With all engines operating, the Falcon 9 generates over one million pounds of thrust in vacuum - four times the maximum thrust of a 747 aircraft.

“This is the first time that we’ve added more than one engine at a time, and all phases of integration and testing went smoothly,” said Tom Mueller, Vice President of Propulsion for SpaceX. “As with previous tests, we saw no unexpected interactions between the engines, and are on schedule for adding four more engines.”

The first Falcon 9 will arrive at the SpaceX launch site at Cape Canaveral by the end of 2008. The next flight of SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 1 rocket is scheduled for late June or July of 2008.

Video of the test:

Science Fiction Author Quote of the Day

It takes an awful long time to not write a book.

Douglas Adams

Monday, June 02, 2008

More information on my book in Swedish

To my surprise, I learned on Saturday that my book, The Bible’s Most Fascinating People, is going to appear in Swedish in September. Given Sweden’s reputation for secularism, it is perhaps surprising that a book focused on Bible stories should find its way into that language. But Wahlström & Widstrand is bringing out my book on September 18. The book was translated by Gunhild Winqvist Hollman.

According to Wikipedia, Wahlström & Widstrand is a large publisher in Sweden established in 1885 by Per Karl Wahlström and Wilhelm Widstrand, two booksellers in Stockholm. Their company started publishing fiction in the 1890’s. Non-Swedish authors introduced to Sweden by Wahlström & Widstrand include Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad, Maxim Gorky and Henri Bergson as well as later authors such as Franz Kafka, William Styron and Joseph Heller. Numerous acclaimed Swedish writers have been discovered by the them, and it has also published several Nobel Prize winners such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gabriel García Márquez, Derek Walcott, Wole Soyinka, Joseph Brodsky, José Saramago and V. S. Naipaul. Now, remarkably, my work is about to be introduced by them to Sweden.

While I don’t think my book is in the same class as Solzhenitsyn’s work, I must admit to feeling incredibly pleased to know that I’m being published by his publisher, since he’s one of my favorite authors.

Buzz Lightyear, to Infinity and Beyond!

A 12 inch tall Buzz Lightyear figure (from the movie Toy Story) was launched aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on Saturday so the astronauts can do some educational activities for kids from orbit.

Orlando Sentinel photographer Red Huber strategically placed a plastic doll of Woody in a tree near the remove cameras that he always sets up for shuttle launches. The resulting photograph shows Woody waving goodbye to his buddy.

Quantum Weirdness for Monday

Can something come of nothing? Philosophers debated that question for millennia before physics came up with the answer—and that answer is yes. For quantum theory has shown that a vacuum (ie, nothing) only appears to be empty space. Actually, it is full of virtual particles of matter and their anti-matter equivalents, which, in obedience to Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, flit in and out of existence so fast that they cannot usually be seen.

This makes the Casimir effect possible, something that now, according to the, may have a practical use.