Sunday, December 28, 2014

POSTED: Friday, August 10, 2012, 5:36 PM

Physicist Robert Park raised the unnerving possibility in this interesting Slate piece contrasting robotic and manned space exploration. 

“If we sent astronauts to Mars, they would travel for nine months and then have to sit on their hands for another 18 months, awaiting the next conjunction with Earth permitting departure. It's not a pretty picture; countless millions of Earth organisms would hitch a ride to Mars in every human gut and multiply in their excrement while there. We would find life on Mars, but it would look familiar. Mars should be quarantined.”
Read the rest

Meanwhile, our robotic astronaut Curiosity is beaming back stark and spectacular panoramas from its landing site in Gale Crater. Here’s what NASA has to say about the one above: 

Faye Flam @ 5:36 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Wednesday, August 8, 2012, 5:38 PM

F.F. I thought I'd let Higgs the cat deal with some recent claims from climate change deniers and cold fusion believers. Here’s a comment from a recent column comparing and contrasting climate denail with creationism. 

Comment: 1,000 published articles and studies in reputable scientific journals that refute "Man-Made" global warming:

Higgs: What, just 1000? You people are way behind the cold fusion people. Just take a look at this email message that recently landed in our inbox: 

Faye Flam @ 5:38 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Tuesday, August 7, 2012, 7:31 PM

Skepticism is essential to science, and to a strong public understanding of science. But when does healthy skepticism veer into irrational denialism?

This question was the subject of a workshop held at the University of Wisconsin last spring. I wasn't able to attend, but a reader sent me this detailed summary of the event published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.  
Here’s an excerpt:

By many counts the level of science education and the general understanding of science in the United States, particularly relative to other nations, has stagnated or declined, and some denial results from a lack of knowledge about the scientific process. The public may not grasp the difference between the results of a single study, a handful of studies, and a scientific consensus, and such distinctions are not always communicated clearly by the media.
In other cases, industries and interest groups may drum up “organized doubt” in order to achieve a goal—for example, continued production and sale of a product, or advancement of a political agenda. Such campaigns have targeted the demonstrated health hazards of agents such as tobacco, lead, and DDT.
The ensuing misinformation trickles down through the media to the public, resulting in confusion, exasperation, and distrust. “Science, for various reasons, has become more politicized,” says Terry Devitt, director of research communications at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Science, twenty years ago, used to have more cachet with the public, and that trust has been seriously eroded by coordinated attacks on science.” Devitt helped organize “Science Writing in the Age of Denial Conference,” one of the first conferences focusing exclusively on science denial, which was held at the university 23–24 April 2012.

Faye Flam @ 7:31 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Tuesday, August 7, 2012, 5:18 PM

A reader sent this very clever story about a Higgs searching contest sponsored by Symmetry Breaking, a publication put out by two physics labs – Fermilab and the Stanford Linear Collider Laboratory.

The contestants spotted the Higgs in the strangest places. Congratulations to the winners. See all the winners and runners up here.

Faye Flam @ 5:18 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, August 6, 2012, 2:40 PM

Here’s this week’s evolution column. It also ran in Monday’s issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

When Pennsylvania State University biologist Andrew Read injected mice with a component of several promising malaria vaccines, he got a disquieting result: The malaria parasites spread through the immunized mice and evolved to become more virulent.

Unvaccinated mice infected with these super-parasites got much sicker than those infected with ordinary malaria.

Faye Flam @ 2:40 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, August 6, 2012, 11:26 AM

The first images from the Mars Science Laboratory have arrived. Here’s what NASA says about the successful landing:

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's most advanced Mars rover Curiosity has landed on the Red Planet. The one-ton rover, hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack, touched down onto Mars Sunday to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft that carried Curiosity succeeded in every step of the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars, including the final severing of the bridle cords and flyaway maneuver of the rocket backpack.

Faye Flam @ 11:26 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Sunday, August 5, 2012, 7:54 PM

I’m finally back from a series of vacations and ready to pick up regular blogging again. And there’s going to be plenty of good material coming up the rest of the summer. Sunday night/Monday morning NASA’s latest Mars mission will attempt to land. Today’s Inquirer featured this front page story about the science behind the mission. Here’s an excerpt:

The rover, called Curiosity, is huge compared to its predecessors, the toy-size Sojourner and the golf-cart-size Spirit and Opportunity. It carries a host of instruments, including devices that measure radiation, detect carbon, and use lasers to vaporize and analyze minerals.

At the landing site, Gale Crater, orbiting spacecraft have previously revealed layers of sediments possibly laid down by a lake. Inside the crater is Mount Sharp, which promises exposed layers of Martian geologic history.

Faye Flam @ 7:54 PM  Permalink | 0 comments
POSTED: Monday, July 30, 2012, 11:40 AM
(AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

If we found life on another planet, the discovery would go a long way toward answering the deepest open questions in biology: How did life originate, how widespread is life in the universe, and are there alternative recipes for life?

There’s no obvious sign of life on any of our neighbors in the solar system. But desolate, frozen Mars keeps calling scientists back. In the Martian landscape, geologists see dry riverbeds and floodplains that hint at a warmer past that just might have allowed life to originate.

All life on Earth appears to be related, using DNA and RNA molecules to pass down assembly instructions and other information. We share stretches of this genetic code with bacteria, yeast, and amoebas.

Faye Flam @ 11:40 AM  Permalink | 0 comments
About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

Planet of the Apes
Latest Health Videos
Also on
Stay Connected