Science Friday: Shuttle Extension + Ancient Math + Tibet Super-humans + Flying Car + more

Welcome to another exciting edition of Science Friday! This week: see the Space Shuttle program into 2011, solve a century-old math problem, evolve faster than ever in Tibet, and take the sharpest images ever of Jupiter from a 747. All this and more plus our gadget of the week: the Terrafugia flying car!


End of Shuttle Program Pushed Back to 2011
The Space Shuttle Endeavor was scheduled to be the last space shuttle to ever launch this November, but NASA has just announced that it has pushed back the launch date to February 26th, 2011. Space Shuttle Discovery, which was set to launch this September, will now launch in November. The target dates were changed because the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer instrument, heading for installation on the International Space Station won’t be ready by the time of the previously planned Sept. 16 launch for STS-133. The decision to cancel the shuttle program was made under the administration of the former president George W. Bush, in part due to the Columbia disaster that killed 7 astronauts, and the Obama administration has decided to stick with that cancellation. Want more? Check out this article with some great photos by Ken Kremer on the construction of the last two space shuttle external tanks.

Discovery on the launch pad March, 2010

Math Genius Solves Century-old Problem, Declines $1 Million Prize
Grisha Perelman, the reclusive Russian mathematician, has finally spoken. After solving the Poincaré Conjecture, a math problem that has been plaguing mathematicians for a century, Perelman declined a $1 million prize offered by the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Mass. “I have refused,” Interfax, a Russian news agency, quoted him as saying. “You know, I had quite a lot of reasons both for and against. That is why I took so long to make up my mind.” The problem, named for the great French mathematician Henri Poincaré, hypothesizes that any three-dimensional space without holes is essentially a sphere. Perelman’s solution was over a thousand pages long, and it took some of the world’s top mathematicians years to poor over in order to come to the conclusion that Perelman had actually solved the problem. Read more about the original solving of the problem at NYTimes.

To a topologist, a rabbit is the same as a sphere. Neither has a hole. Longitude and latitude lines on the rabbit allow mathematicians to map it onto different forms while preserving information.

Scientists Say Tibetans are Fastest Example of Human Evolution
Tibetans, who live at an elevation of 13,000 feet, have been cited by scientists as the fastest example of human evolution. This rapid evolution is seen as the reason for the fact that Tibetans suffer very little altitude sickness, despite living where there is 40% less oxygen than at sea level. Comparing the genomes of Tibetans and Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China, the biologists found that at least 30 genes had undergone evolutionary change in the Tibetans as they adapted to life on the high plateau. Tibetans and Han Chinese split apart as recently as 3,000 years ago, say the biologists, a group at the Beijing Genomics Institute led by Xin Yi and Jian Wang. The report appears in Friday’s issue of Science. (via NYTimes). See some great photos of Tibet.

Living at 13,000 feet has helped Tibetans to evolve at warp speed

NASA’s Flying Telescope an Early Success
In late May, NASA’s flying telescope made its first scientific flight when it captured images of Jupiter and a nearby galaxy. The engineering marvel, which takes to the skies on a 747, is named the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. Just a few years ago, SOFIA’s future looked bleak, and many thought the experiment would never make it off the ground. But, after being nearly cancelled, SOFIA got her big debut, and the results are in and better than anyone expected. Already, the telescope has captured some of the sharpest images ever of Jupiter and the nearby galaxy M82.

SOFIA and scientists aboard a 747

Gadget of the Week: Terrafugia Flying Car
Over a year ago, we reported on the first successful test flight of the Terrafugia flying car. Now, the FAA has approved this winged marvel for flight. The car/plane, which can transform by folding up its wings for garage storage, is set to be on the market next year with a price tag of $200,000.

Learn more at the Terrafugia website

Upcoming Events: SETIcon

To mark the 50th anniversary of SETI research and the 25th anniversary of the SETI Institute, SETI (or the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) is hosting the first SETIcon in Santa Clara, CA August 13-15, 2010. Astronauts, scientists, and sci-fi stars are all on the docket as speakers at the event, which takes place in the Santa Clara Hyatt Regency hotel. Representing Star Trek is John Billingsley (Dr. Phlox) and Tim Russ (Tuvok). Learn more about the event at the official website.

Science Quickies
Not enough science for you? Here’s a warp-speed look at some more science tid-bits that are worth a look.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


TrekMovie’s Science Friday is an homage the the great NPR radio show Science Friday. Science Friday® is a registered service mark of ScienceFriday Inc.

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Is it just me or is the whole idea of flying cars a bit redundant?

Sweet. my flying car has arrived.

*makes Jetsons noise*

So what is going to replace the Space Shuttle for heavy payload lifting to the ISS?
A Russian unmanned vehicle that cannot be steered?

Is that really a sound option?

‘To a topologist, a rabbit is the same as a sphere. Neither has a hole.’

Then explain to me how Bugs can leave those little piles of BB’s in my mother’s yard year ’round. He ain’t rolling them out of mud.

SETI’s assumptions are EXTREMELY out-dated; it’s a waste of time / money.

There are ET’s, but they are not going to wait light years to receive radio transmissions. …and even if they did, they are certainly not going to answer us!

They already are in contact with individuals among us, and have been for millennia, we are just too arrogantly ignorant and fearful to consider the truth.

Alright! Flying cars!

#5 To quote Calvin & Hobbes: “Sometimes I think the surest sign of intelligent life in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.”

Flying cars… in my lifetime (now, does it come with a flux capacitor standard, or is that extra?). ; )

Of course, at my age and level of cynicism, all it means to me is that people who were rude, selfish drivers on the ground will be equally rude and selfish pilots in the air! If I’d been 12 yrs old when this happened, I’d be a lot more enthusiastic. Now, I see it as a very expensive toy for a handful of the very wealthy and not much else…

As for the Russian robot ship nearly crashing with the ISS, it pains me to think that there is no manual override on that thing to steer with. Personally, I really wish the ISS could be scrapped altogether somehow and a unified, manned international mission to Mars be put in its place. Or imagine if all that science funding were poured into the far more productive robotic missions? Wishful thinking, I know, but IMO the ISS has been an albatross in orbit for too long.
An end to justify a means, much like the shuttle program: boldly going where hundreds have gone before… over and over again!

Just my opinion; for the two cents it’s worth….

Agent Mulder, I know that you must be getting a bit bored having been in hiding all these years, but I don’t think posting comments on a Star Trek blog is the most effective way to get your message across.


Does the aluminum foil ever irritate your scalp?

Cool. Speaking of 2011, that may also be the year marking the 45th anniversary of ‘Star Trek’, not just the original series, but the franchise as well.

@Majicou, @Vultan: please review the last part of the last sentence in my post ;-)

@Capt. of the USS Anduril: Calvin & Hobbes can be quite the philosophers… ;-)

I think that the idea that everything is a sphere, so to speak, is the first step in actually creating a hologram that can be touched physically. All it takes is a computer with enough memeory to handle the math…


baby steps… baby steps

The best ideas for going to Mars are the Zubrin idea “Mars Direct” and Ben Bova’s idea.


Unless you plan on sending geriatrics or homosexuals who really dont want children, or just plain eunichs, NO ONE is going to spend 18 months in space absorbing solar & cosmic radiation.

There is an engine in development that will cut the travel time to a few months, but it’s not likely to come on line until someone can find a way to MAKE MONEY off of Mars.

So give it 50 years.

The couldnt find a way to make money off of the Moon, and even Leonardo da Vinci will tell you a scientist has to produce marketable product…

“… it took some of the world’s top mathematicians years to poor over in order to come to the conclusion …”

Ummm. That *should* be “years to PORE over.”

[picky-editing-mode cancel]

…or perhaps pour (over)?

…no, I’m thinking of milk / cereal…

I’ve read all of Bob Zubrin’s Mars books, and the tech he proposes is plausible. The new Canadian-built plasma engine I’ve seen is still a small prototype, and no where near ready to install in a spacecraft. But I think you’re wrong in assuming that no one would go knowing the dangers (the long exposure to cosmic rays, etc).

Bob Zubrin had some inventive solutions to the cosmic ray issues in his books, and to many of the other stumbling blocks to Mars. He thought we should’ve done this by now.

And personally, I think MANY would volunteer in a heartbeat (including Zubrin himself), and not just eunichs or homosexuals (I’ve known gay parents who love and wanted children very much, by the way). People have volunteered for dangerous missions all throughout human history. Don’t underestimate good old fashioned curiosity as a powerful motivation.

Besides, in 50 years I’ll be worm food (or if I get my way, urn filler), so it wouldn’t matter to me then…

Sometimes, it feels like the human adventure is just beginning… without us!

Loved the Science of Fireworks. Timely and informative.

Oh, give me a break. Does everything have to be made political? Bush didn’t decide to cancel the shuttle; it was coming to its planned end and he decided to replace it with the ambitious Orion/Constellation program. Obama decided to cancel that. We all know who’s at fault here, to quote the Dude.

19… The plasma engine Scruffy is talking about probably is VASIMIR, designed and built by Ad Astra of Houston, Texas, They plan to build two, one to test on the International Space Station and one as a spare.

21… “Bush didn’t decide to cancel the shuttle”

Yes, he did.

“The shuttle’s chief purpose over the next several years will be to help finish assembly of the International Space Station. In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty, will be retired from service.”
– President Bush, January 14, 2004

21… “it was coming to its planned end”

No, it wasn’t. NASA had recently canceled the latest attempt to replace Shuttle, the X-33/VentureStar program which had proven unworkable. Prior to the Columbia accident, NASA was working on the understanding that Shuttle would operate until the Space Station’s planned retirement in 2015. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board did not tell NASA or the President to retire the Shuttle in 2010, they only recommended that the Shuttles be given a complete inspection, down to the subsystem level, if NASA planned to fly the Shuttle beyond 2010.

Ah. My mistake. Of course, we now know that Obama’s plan for NASA doesn’t involve space at all. It involves making Muslims feel better about their history.

Nachum = pinhead