Wild 2 Surprise!
Stonehenge! Teleportation!
Blazars! Agents of ORNL!
Phasers on Stun & More!
Wild 2 Surprise!
University of Washington Press Release

June 17, 2004 - When the Stardust spacecraft met up with comet Wild 2 in January, scientists fully expected pictures to show a big chunk of rock and ice liberally coated with dark dust, obscuring any interesting features. 

Instead, they got images rich with broad mesas, craters, pinnacles and canyons with flat floors and sheer walls, all sharply defined and covering the comet's surface area of about 20 square miles. 

"It's completely unexpected. We were expecting the surface to look more like it was covered with pulverized charcoal," said Donald Brownlee, a University of Washington astronomy professor and Stardust's principal investigator. 

Stardust, launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1999, is returning to Earth with thousands of particles less than a millimeter in size. They were captured during a flyby Jan. 2 as they streamed from Wild 2 at more than 13,000 miles per hour. Several particles larger than bullets actually struck the spacecraft, Brownlee said. 

A capsule carrying the sample is to parachute into the Utah desert in January 2006. 

In the meantime, it appears the scientists will have more than they expected to keep them busy, in part from 72 pictures of Wild 2's nucleus taken by the spacecraft's navigation camera.

Brownlee is the lead author of a paper in the June 18 edition of Science describing Wild 2's surface as seen in those photographs, taken as Stardust flew less than 150 miles from the comet's nucleus. Three other papers in the same edition describe jets visible on the comet's surface that spew material into space at supersonic speeds; the unexpectedly chaotic distribution of dust particles coming off the comet; and a mass spectrometer analysis of the particles' composition. Brownlee is a co-author of two of those papers. 

The paper discussing the photographs describes two different kinds of craters, probably created when other space bodies slammed into the comet nucleus. One type has a rounded central pit and a surrounding terrain that is rough, presumably because material was ejected during the impact. The other type has a flat floor and nearly vertical cliffs. The scientists have assigned names to some of the craters, including two called Right Foot and Left Foot because of their uncanny resemblance to footprints. 

But unlike craters you might find on Earth, the moon or other solar system bodies, these are remarkably free of powder or other debris that fell back to the surface after the impact, making it possible to clearly see their features. 

One reason there is so little debris appears to be the makeup of the nucleus, Brownlee said. He likened it to a clump of hard dirt that can absorb impact but is brittle so it loses some material when it is hit. Another reason is that there's not much to bring the powder back to the surface once it has been ejected from a crater.

"There's almost no gravity at the surface," he said. "If you were standing on the nucleus, you could jump into orbit." 

Brownlee's co-authors are also co-investigators for the Stardust mission. They are Friedrich Horz, Michael Zolensky and Zdenek Sekanina of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston; Ray Newburn, Thomas Duxbury and Peter Tsou of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; Scott Sandford of the NASA Ames Research Center near Sunnyvale, Calif.; Martha Hanner of the University of Massachusetts; Benton Clark of Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver; Simon Green of the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute in England; and Jochen Kissel of the Max-Planck Institut für Aeronomie in Germany. 

The authors speculate that the comet's surface has so many discernable features because most of it either absorbed impacts from other space bodies or vented water or other volatile substances into space via the comet's jets. 

They also suggest that Wild (pronounced vilt) 2 has probably lost only about three feet of its surface since a close encounter with Jupiter in 1974 moved it closer to the sun, where greater heat means the comet loses more of its mass.

Before 1974 the comet's orbit carried it far beyond Jupiter, and long ago it likely was in the Kuiper Belt, a ring of sub-planet-sized objects beyond the orbit of Pluto.

Many of the features visible on the comet's surface probably are billions of years old, perhaps from around the time that life first arose on Earth, Brownlee said.

If that is the case, the nucleus almost certainly carries evidence of how the solar system came together in the first place, evidence the scientists hope is contained in the return capsule en route to Earth. 

The images also show that a popular notion of comet structure – that it essentially is a pile of rubble packed loosely and traveling through space – does not apply to Wild 2, Brownlee said. 

"We're sure this is a rigid material because it can support cliffs and spires," he said. 

Stardust is a collaboration of the UW, NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, managed by the California Institute of Technology, and Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

Other key members are The Boeing Co., Germany's Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik, NASA Ames Research Center and the University of Chicago. 

Brownlee suspects the comet will give the collaborating scientists still more surprises, and will help them unlock the secrets to Wild 2's beginnings, and Earth's, before it finally meets its end, probably sometime in the distant future. 

"Its fate is that it will hit the sun or a planet, or it will get thrown out of the solar system, if it doesn't disintegrate first," he said. 

University of Washington - http://www.washington.edu

Stonehenge Mystery Lives!
Thousands Gather at Stonehenge 

Wiltshire UK June 20, 2004 (BBC) - Thousands of revelers are expected at Stonehenge in Wiltshire to mark the summer solstice. The 5,000-year-old World Heritage site is again open to the public, following earlier years in which it was closed amid fears of damage to the stones. 

In 2003, more than 30,000 people enjoyed the event, with good weather greeting the crowd at sunrise. 

On Monday, the sun will rise at 0458 BST, with a forecast of sunny spells and showers from the Met Office. In some earlier years there have been battles between police and revellers, including the infamous 1985 encounter dubbed the Battle of Beanfield.

The violent confrontation between 300 people who wanted to reach the stones and the police saw 12 people hospitalized. Police have issued several warnings and anybody going to the site is liable to be searched. The constabulary adds that traffic on the A303 and A360 next to the site is expected to be very busy during Monday morning. 

English Heritage which looks after the site has issued strict rules. Those going will be only be allowed a small amount of alcohol for personal use. 

Only acoustic instruments are allowed to accompany the sunrise, and amplified music is deemed "inappropriate". 

Access to the stones will be allowed from 2200 BST on Sunday, but climbing on them is banned.

[Party on, English Heritage! Ed.]

Stonehenge Lives!
UK Economic & Social Research Council Press Release

June 17, 2004 - More understanding among all sides in the great Stonehenge debate might be made if the world was shown images of how the site is experienced by visitors today rather than only its imagined past, suggests new research sponsored by the ESRC.

This research is published today as a part of Social Science Week. 

But the project, co-directed by Dr Jenny Blain of Sheffield Hallam University and Dr Robert Wallis of Richmond University, London, admits this would undermine the very potent and almost universal need for Stonehenge to remain 'essentially preserved', shrouded in mystery, and the ancient guardian of a hidden past. 

A report from their 'Sacred Sites, Contested Rights/Rites' project, comes at a time when considerable alliances have been formed at a public inquiry in Salisbury by groups fighting redevelopment plans for the Stonehenge area.

These include a tunnel to take the A303 and the siting of a new visitor center. 

The project examined what have come to be known as sacred sites, and the climate of mistrust between heritage management and archaeologists on one side, and pagans and alternative interest groups on the other. 

It included a detailed, systematic analysis of available published material, websites and press coverage, along with fieldwork and discussions with visitors and local people at Stonehenge and similar places. 

Dr Blain said: "Stonehenge is the centre of an on-going struggle between travelers, pagans, 'Druids', members of the 'alternative' community, English Heritage, landowners and the police. The situation there spotlights differences between, on one hand, heritage concerns about preservation for future generations, and on the other, the demands of pagans and others who want open access for everyone."

Accommodations reached between the different parties at times of solstices and equinoxes remain contentious, and distrust is rife, says the report. It points out, however, that dividing lines have been drawn up differently over the current redevelopment plans. 

For many pagans, prehistoric sites are not ruins but living temples or sacred sites. They feel drawn to these places to perform seasonal rituals or to observe astronomical events. Many pagans, including Druids, accept the 'preservation ethos', regarding such things as stone circles, barrows and iron age forts as artifacts of pre-Christian paganism, and therefore sacred. 

Access is important to them, but not at the expense of preserving sites for future generations. However, other Druids and pagans, notably groups campaigning for the return of the Stonehenge free-festival, call for mass public celebrations, especially at the summer solstice. 

The study points out that archaeologists investigating the religious significance of sites rarely consider rituals of the present day, dismissing them as invalid. Some heritage managers speak directly with pagan and other groups, and may even attend festivals, yet this is seldom recorded officially. 

Pagans sympathetic to preservation are interested in archaeological views and want to become involved in site maintenance. They also try to explain their perceptions about landscapes as 'living' entities. But archaeologists who take part in pagan conferences tend to provide information rather than seek it, and the result is frustration for the groups. 

Picture presentations of sites such as Stonehenge invariably show them as dramatic ruins in splendid isolation, removing any signs of people or present-day activity. And the emphasis on such things as visitor centers and 'interpretation' handed out to naïve visitors, suggests a 'top-down' approach by middle-class heritage management, explaining something from a 'closed' past. 

Dr Blain said: "Our project suggests that open and transparent dialogue is needed between all the interested groups. And this must begin with an appreciation of diversity." 

Economic & Social Research Council - http://www.esrc.ac.uk

Fidel Asked Roosevelt for 10 Dollars?
WASHINGTON June 17, 2004 (AFP) - At the age of 14, Cuban leader Fidel Castro sent a letter to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for 10 dollars, according to researchers.

The letter sent by young Fidel, dated November 25, 1940, has been found among eight billion long forgotten documents and pieces of paper kept by the US National Archives and Records Administration. 

At the time, Castro signed off "your friend". Since his 1959 communist revolution in Cuba, Castro has been the arch-rival of nine US presidents. 

Written in lopsided cursive on lined stationary from Colegio de Dolores in Santiago, the Cuban leader's Roman Catholic secondary school, Castro said in the letter:

"I have not seen a USD10 bill green American and I would like to have one of them." 

Castro was an admirer of Roosevelt and wrote, "I like to hear the radio, and I am very happy, because I heard in it, that you will be president for a new period." 

Almost 19 years later, Castro ascended to power under a Communist regime after his guerillas toppled Cuban dictator Fulgeneio Batista. The United States went to the brink of war with Castro's regime during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. 

"I think it's amusing that he had written this when he was a young man or a teenager. It's just odd considering the feeling he had later," said Marvin Russell, an archivist with the administration. 

The records are part of the Havana Post files collection, papers that document correspondence between the US State Department and the US embassy in Cuba. Russell said the letter was found accidently when the files underwent a declassification review in the 1970s. There are thousands of more letters in the archive. 

One, is a thank you note from Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated when a presidential candidate in 1968, for some stamps that Roosevelt, an avid stamp collector, sent him. Another, is a letter written to President Dwight Eisenhower from three adoring Elvis Presley fans who begged that the president excuse the singer from military service. The girls who wrote the letter were most concerned about what would happen to his hair. 

"If you cut his sideburns off we will just die!," they wrote. 

Some of the letters will be on exhibit in "Just Between You and Me, Children's Letters to Presidents," at the National Archive from November 15.

Teleporting Atomic States
National Institute of Standards and Technology News Release

June 16, 2004 - Physicists at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated "teleportation" by transferring key properties of one atom to another atom without using any physical link, according to results reported in the June 17, 2004, issue of the journal Nature.

Unlike the "beaming" of actual physical objects and people between distant locations popularized in the Star Trek science fiction series, the term "teleportation" is how physicists describe a transfer of "quantum states" between separate atoms. The quantum state of an atom is a description of such things as its energy, motion, magnetic field and other physical properties.

The NIST experiments used laser beam manipulations to transfer quantum states of one beryllium atom to another atom within a set of microscale traps, with a 78 percent success rate.

The technique may prove useful for transporting information in quantum computers of the future, which could use central processing elements smaller than a cube of sugar to carry out massively complex computations that are currently impossible.

If they can be built, quantum computers—harnessing the strange behavior of particles at the atomic scale—someday might be used for applications such as code breaking of unprecedented power, optimizing complex systems such as airline schedules, much faster database searching and solving of complex mathematical problems, and even the development of novel products such as fraud-proof digital signatures.

The NIST work and other research by the University of Innsbruck reported in the same issue of Nature mark the first demonstrations of teleportation using atoms. Systems using atoms are arguably the leading candidate for storing and processing data in quantum computers. Teleportation could increase computing speed and efficiency by linking distant zones within a computer so that data could be processed by physically separated quantum bits (or qubits, the quantum form of the digital bits 1 and 0). 

Quantum computing with atomic qubits requires manipulation of information contained in the quantum states of the atoms. "It’s hard to quickly move qubits to share or process information. But using teleportation as we’ve reported could allow logic operations to be performed much more quickly," says NIST physicist David Wineland, leader of the NIST work.

The NIST group previously has demonstrated the building blocks for a quantum computer based on atomic-ion traps. The new experiments, which are computer controlled and perform teleportation in about 4 milliseconds, incorporate most of the features required for large-scale information processing systems using ion traps. In addition, the experiments are relatively simple in design and could be used as part of a series of logical operations needed for practical computing.

The demonstration described in the Nature paper exploited quantum properties that are radically different from the properties observed in the "normal" world. For example, ions can be manipulated into a special state known as a "superposition" in which they literally can be in two places at once. Similarly, they also can hold information representing more than one number at once, a common property of all qubits. Ions also can be "entangled" with each other, so that their behavior is related in predictable ways, as if they were connected by an invisible force. Einstein called this "spooky action at a distance." 

The NIST experiments entangled a set of three ions, then destroyed the quantum state in one ion and teleported it to another one. The properties that were teleported included the "spin state" of the ion (up, down or a superposition of the two), and the "phase" (which has to do with the relative positions of the peaks and troughs of an ion’s wave properties). A clever approach was required because of another unusual feature of the quantum world: measurements always alter quantum states (for example, causing superpositions to collapse). Therefore, the experiment teleported the quantum state without measuring it.

The ions were teleported inside a NIST-developed multi-zone trap, first described in 2002. Lasers are used to manipulate the ion’s spin and motion, and to entangle the ions by linking their internal spin states to their external motion. A key technical advance reported in the current paper is the capability to entangle ions and then separate them in the trap (maintaining entanglement) without generating much heat. This previously led to uncontrolled motions that interfered with operations and required additional cooling operations. The advance was enabled in part by the use of smaller electrodes to generate electric fields that move the ions between trap zones.

NIST - http://www.nist.gov

Eight Year Wait for the Elevator
Trinidad June 18, 2004 (Reuters) - A frail 89-year-old Trinidadian man left his apartment for the first time in eight years this week after broken elevators in the government-owned building were finally replaced. 

Local newspapers reported Thursday that Randolph Hall had been forced to stay in his eighth-floor apartment for years because he did not have the strength to go up and down so many flights of stairs. 

After taking his first ride down the new elevator on Wednesday, accompanied by Trinidadian Housing Minister Keith Rowley, Hall said he was thankful.
One Blazar Equals 10 Billion Suns!
Stanford University Press Release

June 18, 2004 - In an article posted June 10 to the Astrophysical Journal Letters website, astrophysicists at Stanford report spotting a black hole so massive that it's more than 10 billion times the mass of our sun.

More important, this heavyweight is so far away that the scientists think it formed when the universe first began to light up with stars and galaxies, so it may provide a window into our cosmological origins. 

"In cosmology, it turns out that 'a galaxy a long time ago' and 'far, far away' really do go together," says Associate Professor Roger Romani, who with graduate student David Sowards-Emmerd and Professor Peter Michelson of Stanford, and radio astronomer Lincoln Greenhill of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, spotted one of the oldest supermassive black holes yet found.

The scientists collaborate at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford. "In this case, we're looking at [a black hole] far enough away that it's within a billion years of the origin of it all, the Big Bang."

The supermassive black hole sits in the center of a galaxy. A disk of stars and gas swirl around the black hole and eventually get sucked in. "That generates enormous amounts of power, enormous amounts of energy," Romani says. "It's far more efficient even than nuclear fusion. These gravity-powered sources are the most powerful sources in the universe."

As black holes go, this one is a messy eater. It's Jabba the Hutt, in fact, gobbling up its galaxy so quickly that not everything is making it down its throat past the point of no return - that place, called the "event horizon," where not even light can escape gravity's strongest pull. The matter that doesn't make it past the event horizon is spewing back up in the form of accelerated high-energy particles.

If a black hole amid a galaxy shoots out high-energy particles in narrow jets that just happen to be aimed at Earth, astrophysicists give the whole thing a special name - "blazar." 

Amazingly, these blazars can be detected at nearly all energies, even at the high energy of gamma rays. In fact, distant blazars seem to dominate the gamma-ray sky and can obscure other objects of interest. Pulsars, spinning neutron stars nearby in our own galaxy, can also emit gamma rays, but far fewer of them are known. Romani, whose main interest is pulsars, wanted to identify and discard blazars so he could concentrate on the neutron stars.

"I got started working on the blazars as a way of culling the wheat from the chaff," Romani says. "But then the chaff proved just as interesting."

In preparation for a mission that is scheduled to launch in 2007, the co-authors have surveyed 200 blazars; eventually they hope to survey 2,000. The mission, led by Michelson, will use the Gamma Ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) to study high-energy sources of radiation in the universe, such as supermassive black holes, merging neutron stars and hot streams of gas moving at nearly the speed of light. It is funded by NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and government agencies in France, Italy, Japan and Sweden.

"Something really new is waiting to be found in the gamma-ray sky," Romani says. "If we could identify all the blazars, tag the pulsars - the things that are left over, that's where the really new discoveries will be."

Blazar hunting

In photographs, blazars look just like stars. So how do scientists spot them? The co-authors first identified gamma rays seen by the Energetic Gamma Ray Experiment Telescope (EGRET), a GLAST precursor initiated by Stanford physics Professor Robert Hofstadter in the 1970s and subsequently directed by Michelson.

Greenhill led the effort to obtain radio images of the blazar jet using the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA). Funded by the National Science Foundation and operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the VLBA is essentially a radio camera. It consists of 10 dish antennas - 25 meters wide and distributed from Hawaii across the United States to St. Croix - slaved together with computers to create a composite image with a resolution Greenhill calls "comparable to what they would get with a single antenna about as large as a continent."

To find out how far away the blazar was, Romani and Sowards-Emmerd used the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), an optical instrument in a remote part of Texas, to obtain spectral patterns of visible and infrared light. HET is a joint project of the University of Texas at Austin, Pennsylvania State University, Stanford, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and Georg-August-Universität Göttingen.

Spectroscopy reveals signatures of elements in a galaxy's gases. Elements such as hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon and oxygen radiate at specific energies, or equivalently at specific wavelengths. A consequence of cosmic expansion is that those wavelengths get shifted to the red part of the spectrum, or "red-shifted," if an object is extremely far away.

The red shift corresponds to age. "The higher that number, the smaller the universe was when the light was emitted - hence, the earlier you're talking about," Romani explains.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope told the researchers that the red shift of their blazar was 5.5. This high number told them this was not just some star in our backyard; it was an enormous source of energy shining from way across the universe.

"It's amazing to find something so interesting and unique in a relatively small survey," says Sowards-Emmerd, who re-analyzed EGRET data to select the targets examined by HET and analyzed the optical data.

"We immediately realized that a high-redshift blazar and gamma-ray source would allow us to test our understanding of relativistic radio jets and their interaction with the cosmic microwave background leftover from the Big Bang," Greenhill says.

"It's a searchlight that's set so far away that it illuminates matter and radiation all the way between us, between time one billion years after the Big Bang and now," Romani says. "If you can detect it with a gamma-ray telescope, you have a handle on the birth of stars and galaxies between then and now that you never had before."

Scientists are currently stymied about how a black hole could have gotten so big so fast. How do you take something big enough to hold 1,000 solar systems and as heavy as all of the stars in our Milky Way galaxy put together, and quickly crunch-collapse it?

Scientists think the universe formed 13.7 billion years ago with the Big Bang. The distance of the blazar indicates it formed a billion years after that.

"What's interesting about a billion years after the Big Bang is that this marks the end of the 'Dark Age,"' Romani says.

"The universe first formed with an enormous flash of light and heat - that's the Big Bang - and then cooled off. And everything's dark for about a billion years. And toward the end of that period, the first stars and black holes and galaxies start collapsing and forming and turning on. We talk about that as the end of the Dark Age.

"So it's very interesting, and this is one of the big pushes in cosmology, to find objects back in the tail end of the Dark Age, when things are first lighting up, and then to use those to figure out how everything we have in the universe formed." 

Extreme physics

In the next year, the scientists hope to use the VLBA to take a better picture of the jet detected with radio waves and then observe its X-ray spectrum. This will help illuminate the matter between the supermassive black hole and Earth, clarify the black hole's size and characterize the jet's material as it moves away from the black hole at nearly the speed of light. 

"Studying these things gives us a window into the sort of physical processes that we can't yet control here on Earth," Romani says. "They're the extremes of physics."

Those extremes fascinate Romani. "Pulsars are, I think, the most extreme objects in our universe," he says. These cores of dead stars have collapsed, but not far enough to form an event horizon, so they are just short of turning into black holes. They are the densest things in the measurable universe. They have the strongest magnetic fields. Their surfaces have extremely high temperatures. They are cosmic accelerators that speed particles to the highest energies known.

So far, scientists have found only a handful of gamma-ray pulsars, and Romani is particularly excited about GLAST as a means of hunting down more in the Milky Way.

"I'm particularly interested in ways in which you could find extreme physics out there in the cosmos and get a handle on physics of the 22nd or 23rd century by seeing what's going on in the sky."

Roger Romani's web page: http://astro.stanford.edu/home/rwr/home.html

Stanford University - http://www.stanford.edu/news

Snowmobiles Win Again!
By Alan Fram
Associated Press

WASHINGTON June 18, 2004 (AP) — The House voted Thursday to let snowmobiles continue using Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, as the recreation industry dealt a defeat to environmentalists. By 224-198, the chamber beat back an effort to ban the vehicles by lawmakers who said the machines cause pollution and noise and pose a danger to the parks' wildlife.

"Yellowstone National Park is a unique environment, a precious national treasure that deserves an extra level of protection," said Rep. Rush Holt, D-New Jersey, one of the sponsors.

Snowmobile advocates — backed by snowmobile manufacturers and tourism interests — said a ban would devastate the local economy around the parks, which lie mostly in northwestern Wyoming. They also said that despite their opponents' assertions, new snowmobiles are cleaner and quieter than older models.

"They come in and say, 'We're going to cut you in half. We're taking half your income away,'" Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Montana, said of those supporting the ban. "Our communities can't withstand that."

The snowmobiling issue has mushroomed into a legal dispute that federal courts have yet to untangle. Because the two parks are among the country's most renowned, the battle has also became an election-year symbol of a conflict frequently joined in Congress between environmental and economic interests.

The fight came as the House worked its way through a $19.5 billion measure financing the Interior Department and other land and cultural programs for next year. The overall bill, which passed by 334-86, would provide less than President Bush proposed for clean energy projects and adding land to parks, but more than he wanted for fighting wild fires that have already flared in the West.

In other battles,

* Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, lost a bid to prohibit the National Park Service from killing any bison from Yellowstone's herd by a 215-202 vote. Some animals from that herd, which numbers about 3,700, are killed each winter after leaving the park either to prevent the spread of disease or because they could not be coaxed back inside.

* The House rejected, 267-152, a proposal by Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vermont, to force the government to sell some oil from its strategic petroleum reserve in an effort to drive down spiking gasoline prices.

Last year, the House rejected a proposed snowmobile ban in the two parks by 210-210, just shy of the majority those seeking to bar the vehicles needed.

In 2000, President Clinton imposed a plan to phase out snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway that connects them. The vehicles were to be barred completely by this coming winter and replaced by snow coaches that could carry groups of people into the parks.

Last year, the Bush administration decided to replace the Clinton plan with rules allowing snowmobiling, though with vehicles that are supposed to have quieter and cleaner engines.

Instead of adhering to a daily limit of 493 snowmobiles in Yellowstone that the Clinton plan would have imposed for this past winter, the National Park Service allowed 780 per day.

The Senate has yet to craft its Interior Department bill.

With many lawmakers trying to bar snowmobiles in the parks from the East, Thursday's debate took on regional tones.

"Many of the radical environmentalists pushing for this ban would like to put all of the West into a national park," said Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyoming.

And Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minnesota., said that during bitter stretches of winter, "Without the snowmobile and stretch pants, we don't have a life" in parts of the West.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-California, compared snowmobiles in parks to running chain saws in the House during debate, saying, "If there's something that's not natural in a national park, it's snowmobiles."
Agents of ORNL!
DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory Press Release

OAK RIDGE June 16, 2004 - Thousands of special agents created at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory are on missions 24 hours a day as they work to uncover threats to national security. 

These agents, which are actually intelligent software programs, scan the Internet, satellite images, hundreds of newspapers and electronic databases worldwide as they search for anything that even hints at a plot. In addition, the agents reproduce and spin off special-purpose agents that assist in the massive effort to scan more data than is humanly possible to analyze. 

"The challenge is to take an incredible amount of information and very quickly determine what represents a true threat to our safety," said Thomas Potok, who leads a team of researchers in the lab's Computational Sciences & Engineering Division. "It's like having a stack of 100,000 pages and having to find the 20 pages that contain information critical to national security." 

By using computers to gather data and reduce the information to what is relevant, the intelligence community can concentrate on analyzing just the meaningful information. Thus, people can make quick and accurate decisions based on hard data instead of relying on instincts or gut reactions. 

"We're trying to marry what people do best with what computers do best so we can reduce the amount of information that we have to deal with," Potok said. ORNL's intelligent software agent research actually began in the late 1980s and has involved a number of clients, including the military, the intelligence community, Battelle and DOE. 

For the military, Potok describes a future battlefield in which intelligent software agents gather information from multiple sources, analyze it instantly and send information to a commander or command center. As a result, instead of a commander being bombarded with information and having to mentally determine priorities, the officer is fed information in order of its importance. 

Turning to the homeland, cameras at airports, seaports, sporting events and other major public gathering places can be linked to agents that quickly scan the scene for threats. Researchers create agents that do this, for example, by programming them to look for objects that are out of place or anything that has changed since the last scan. 

"With satellite imaging and the many other tools we have at our disposal, it gets rather sophisticated," said Potok, adding that his colleagues are a creative lot who write programs that result in highly effective agents. 

"In creating intelligent agents, we think beyond the normal bounds of software engineering," Potok said. "We look at biological and natural models such as a school of piranha or a flock of birds as patterns for our agents. We also look at the breeding and natural selection as a blueprint for finding solutions to complex problems." 

The challenges are immense, but so are the rewards. 

"Ultimately, our goal is to be able to detect an imminent threat that no one has been able to see with conventional methods," Potok said. "So designing systems that safeguard people and help the military be more effective makes this job rewarding, and it makes coming to work every day exciting." 

Remaining challenges include scalability, which involves figuring out how thousands -- or even millions -- of sensors and agents can communicate with each other and people. Another challenge involves developing agents that more closely mimic brain functions. 

While ORNL has made great progress in the area of intelligent software agents, Potok expects greater progress as ORNL's computing power continues to increase. In May, DOE selected ORNL as the site where it will build the world's largest supercomputer. 

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy. Funding for the project is provided by the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. 

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory - http://www.ornl.gov
Phasers on Stun?
New Scientist News Release

June 16, 2004 - Weapons that can incapacitate crowds of people by sweeping a lightning-like beam of electricity across them are being readied for sale to military and police forces in the US and Europe. At present, commercial stun guns target one person at a time, and work only at close quarters.

The new breed of non-lethal weapons can be used on many people at once and operate over far greater distances. But human rights groups are appalled by the fact that no independent safety tests have been carried out, and by their potential for indiscriminate use. 

The weapons are designed to address the perceived shortcomings of the Taser, the electric-shock gun already used by 4000 police departments in the US and undergoing trials with some police forces in the UK. 

It hits the victim with two darts that trail current-carrying wires, which limit its range to a maximum of 7 meters.

As a single shot, short-range weapon, the Taser is of little use in crowd control. And Tasers have no effect on vehicles. 

These limitations are beginning to be overcome. Engineers working for the US Department of Defense's research division, DARPA, and defense companies in Europe have been working out how to create an electrically conductive path between a gun and a target without using wires. A weapon under development by Rheinmetall, based in Düsseldorf, Germany, creates a conducting channel by using a small explosive charge to squirt a stream of tiny conductive fibers through the air at the victim (New Scientist, 24 May 2003, p 19). 

Meanwhile, Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems (XADS), based in Anderson, Indiana, will be one of the first companies to market another type of wireless weapon. Instead of using fibres, the $9000 Close Quarters Shock Rifle (pictured) projects an ionized gas, or plasma, towards the target, producing a conducting channel. It will also interfere with electronic ignition systems and stop vehicles. 

"We will be able to fire a stream of electricity like water out of a hose at one or many targets in a single sweep," claims XADS president Peter Bitar. 

The gun has been designed for the US Marine Corps to use for crowd control and security purposes and is due out next year. It is based on early, unwieldy technology and has a range of only 3 meters, but an operator can debilitate multiple targets by sweeping it across them for "as long as there is an input power source," says Bitar. 

XADS is also planning a more advanced weapon which it hopes will have a range of 100 meters or more. Instead of firing ionized gas, it will probably use a powerful laser to ionize the air itself. The idea has been around for decades, says LaVerne Schlie, a laser expert at the US Air Force Research Lab in Kirtland, New Mexico. It has only become practical with advances in high-power solid-state lasers.

"Before, it took a laser about the size of two trucks," says Schlie. "Now we can do it with something that fits on a tabletop." 

The laser pulse must be very intense, but can be brief. So the makers of the weapons plan to use a UV laser to fire a 5-joule pulse lasting just 0.4 picoseconds- equating to a momentary power of more than 10 million megawatts. 

This intense pulse - which is said not to harm the eyes - ionizes the air, producing long, thread-like filaments of glowing plasma that can be sustained by repeating the pulse every few milliseconds. This plasma channel is then used to deliver a shock to the victims similar to a Taser's 50,000-volt, 26-watt shock.

HSV Technologies of San Diego, California is also working on stun and vehicle-stopping shock weapons with ranges of over 100 meters. And another company, Ionatron of Tuscon, Arizona, is due to supply a prototype wireless vehicle-mounted weapon to the US Department of Defense by the end of the year. 

But the advent of wireless stun weapons has horrified human rights groups. Robin Coupland of the Red Cross says they risk becoming a new instrument of torture. And Brian Wood of Amnesty International says the long-range stun guns could "inflict pain and other suffering on innocent bystanders". 

And there are safety concerns. Of the 30,000 times US police officers have fired Tasers, in 40 instances people stunned by them later died. The deaths have been attributed to factors such as overdoses of drugs and alcohol, or fighting with officers, rather than the electric shock. 

In a statement, Taser International chief Rick Smith said: "In every single case the medical examiner has attributed the direct cause of death to causes other than the Taser." Amnesty is not convinced, however, and wants an independent study of the effects of all existing and emerging electric-shock weapons. 

This article appears in New Scientist issue: 19 JUNE 2004 

New Scientist - http://www.newscientist.com

Genre News: Stepford Wives, Nip/Tuck, Ray Bradbury, Superman, Lois Lane, Winona Ryder & God
Stepford Steps Up
By FLAtRich

June 20, 2004 (eXoNews) - I suspect a lot of moviegoers will pass on the new version of The Stepford Wives remembering the classic 1975 version and thinking why bother? I was in that club, but someone said the new one was a satire of the original so I was intrigued.

Turns out that screenwriter Paul Rudnick and director Frank Oz have managed to pay respectful homage to the original William Goldman screenplay. The excellent cast breathes new life into an updated storyline to give us one of the best remakes in recent memory.

Whether Stepford 2004 is a satire or just a comedy remains in the eyes of the beholder, however.

The original Stepford is usually classed as a thriller, but it was a genuine satire reflecting the rise of empowered women in American life.

Based on a bestselling novel by Ira Levin, Stepford 1975 gave us a cabal of secretive husbands creating male ideal stereotypical "perfect" wives who stayed home and baked cookies in high heels by day and still delivered sexually at night.

In the original, Joanna Eberhard (Katharine Ross) arrives in Stepford as a young bride and discovers the town full of fashion zombie wives.

Her pal Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss) shows up and the two begin to unravel a mystery the Stepford husbands are hiding.

In the new version, Joanna (Nicole Kidman) is a TV executive who takes reality programming one step too far and loses her big network job. She and less-talented husband (Matthew Broderick) move to Stepford, where Joanna discovers the town full of fashion zombie wives.

Joanna makes pals with two more new arrivals, best selling writer Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and flamboyant gay Roger Bannister (Roger Bart) and the three begin to unravel the mystery the Stepford husbands are hiding.

Much of the new Stepford is indeed the old Stepford, but it's a way funnier Stepford than the original.

Glenn Close and Bette Midler easily steal the film from superstar Kidman, deftly assisted by Roger Bart.

Kidman is always good, but her competition this time is better.

I guess this follows a Stepford tradition. Paula Prentiss just as easily stole the original film from Katharine Ross.

The big surprise is that there is a big surprise because Rudnick and Oz take their Stepford one step beyond the Stepford of Goldman and original director Bryan Forbes. If you are lucky enough to see Stepford 2004 before someone tells you the big surprise, you'll probably be as delighted as I was with the remake.

Official Stepford - http://www.stepfordwivesmovie.com

Nip/Tuck Second Season 
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES June 17, 2004 (AP) - The two men in crimson scrubs and rubber gloves are having a bit of a squabble.

"I'll run lead, you'll assist," pronounces Dr. Sean McNamara. 

"No, there's media. I'm co-lead ... I'll be stepping up with you to any microphones," Dr. Christian Troy snaps back. 

"You want to take this outside," snarls an enraged McNamara. 

"Love to," sneers Troy. 

Behind them on an operating table lie comatose conjoined twins, surrounded by a team of doctors appalled by the plastic surgeons' untimely bickering. 

"Nip/Tuck" is back, and more outrageous than ever.

The FX series about the two ethically challenged surgeons, portrayed by Dylan Walsh as McNamara and Julian McMahon as Troy, begins its second season Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT. 

Creator Ryan Murphy says this season will be "more emotional," the surgeries "more expensive" and the guest stars "higher profile." Vanessa Redgrave appears in the premiere episode playing the mother of McNamara's estranged wife, played by Redgrave's daughter, Joely Richardson.

"Our show is a tone piece. It's pushing the envelope and yet walking a line of drama that I think is very responsible," says Murphy. "People have said — and I agree — that every one of our episodes feels like a little independent movie." 

The episode filming this day at Paramount Studios provides a metaphor for the theme that underscores the entire new season: Can the doctors' contentious partnership survive? 

Crainopagus (joined at the head) twins, 42-year-old Lori and Reba Schappell, portray conjoined twins Rose and Raven Rosenberg. 

Lying on an L-shaped operating table, Lori as Rose whispers to her sister, "I'm afraid. Sing to me," as they wait for the anesthetic to kick in. Reba as Raven softly croons, "... gonna buy you a mockingbird ..." 

The twins' performance drew applause from cast and crew. Then they were replaced on the operating table by prosthetic figures created from casts of their bodies. 

Although the series takes dramatic license, technical adviser Linda Klein, a registered nurse, is meticulous that the operations look authentic. 

For this episode she consulted Dr James Bradley, associate professor of plastic surgery at UCLA Medical Center, part of the team that successfully separated the conjoined Alvarez twins from Guatemala in August 2002. 

"They seem to usually have bizarre surroundings to the surgeries, but the surgeries for the most part are accurate," comments Bradley. "The technical aspect is thought out well, based in fact and reality. The story line, that's the creativity of the writers, not something that we get into." 

Bradley's aware that "Nip/Tuck" has attracted its share of criticism from plastic surgeons concerned about the ethics of the show's doctor characters. However, he says there's greater concern among his peers about reality shows such as Fox's "The Swan" or ABC's "Extreme Makeover" that make it seem "these long complicated operations are a walk in the park, rather than serious surgery." 

"Nip/Tuck" certainly doesn't make cosmetic surgery look as neat and nifty as the show's title suggests. 

"I feel a moral responsibility to show what the suffering is. I don't want to glamorize it," Murphy says. "I used to think that plastic surgeons treated faces like pieces of porcelain. What I've come to realize is they actually treat them like pieces of sirloin."

Klein, who uses steak to simulate muscle during the fake operations, says, "Ryan likes to be as graphic as possible." 

When providing the blood and guts, she keeps in mind her startled reaction to first witnessing a face lift "when they peel the skin off the muscle and actually hold someone's face away from their body." 

Murphy says "Nip/Tuck" episodes "are like a Grimm's fairy tale. There's always a moral, order is always restored, and the running theme is be careful what you wish for..." 

Consequently, story and character development on the show can overshadow clinical realism. 

"I like to take dramatic license," says McMahon.

"I am constantly battling Nurse Linda, as I call her, because she says, `That's not the way.' I'll do what I'm told and whatever's best, but when it comes down to it, I'm going to do what's necessary to get across our message at that point of time — one of the battles the character is going through, usually some kind of evolution, moral dilemma, on the precipice of disaster." 

Murphy notes that in the second season, the more conservative of the two surgeons, Sean McNamara, will be doing more "bad guy stuff." 

"It's interesting, the two guys almost switch roles in some great way," Murphy says. "So last year if you thought Christian was the bad guy I think this year you may think he's the good guy and Sean is the sort of morally ambiguous one."

Nip/Tuck Official - http://www.fxnetwork.com/shows/originals/niptuck

Moore & Bradbury Flap Over Fahrenheit 9/11
Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES June 19, 2004 (AP) - Ray Bradbury is demanding an apology from filmmaker Michael Moore for lifting the title from his classic science-fiction novel "Fahrenheit 451" without permission and wants the new documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" to be renamed.

"He didn't ask my permission," Bradbury, 83, told The Associated Press on Friday. "That's not his novel, that's not his title, so he shouldn't have done it." 

The 1953 novel, widely considered Bradbury's masterpiece, portrays an ugly futuristic society in which firemen burn homes and libraries in order to destroy the books inside and keep people from thinking independently. 

"Fahrenheit 451" takes its title from the temperature at which books burn. Moore has called "Fahrenheit 9/11" the "temperature at which freedom burns." 

His film, which won top honors in May at the Cannes Film Festival, charges that the Bush administration acted ineptly before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, then played on the public's fear of future terrorism to gain support for the war against Iraq. It opens nationwide next Friday.

Bradbury, who hadn't seen the movie, said he called Moore's company six months ago to protest and was promised Moore would call back.

He finally got that call last Saturday, Bradbury said, adding Moore told him he was "embarrassed." 

"He suddenly realized he's let too much time go by," the author said by phone from his home in Los Angeles' Cheviot Hills section. 

Joanne Doroshow, a spokeswoman for "Fahrenheit 9/11," said the film's makers have "the utmost respect for Ray Bradbury." 

"Mr. Bradbury's work has been an inspiration to all of us involved in this film, but when you watch this film you will see the fact that the title reflects the facts that the movie explores, the very real life events before, around and after 9-11," she said. 

Bradbury, who is a registered political independent, said he would rather avoid litigation and is "hoping to settle this as two gentlemen, if he'll shake hands with me and give me back my book and title." 

Moore's film needed new distributors after Disney refused to let its Miramax subsidiary release it, claiming it was too politically charged. The documentary was later bought by Miramax bosses Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who lined up Lions Gate and IFC Films to help distribute it. 

The movie's distributors are appealing to lower its R rating to PG-13 and a screening has been set for Tuesday by the Motion Picture Association of America's appeals board. 

Bradbury's book was made into a 1966 movie directed by Francois Truffaut.

A new edition of the book is scheduled for release in eight weeks, Bradbury said, and plans are in the works for a new film version, to be directed by Frank Darabont.


Hollywood June 17, 2004 (Sci Fi Wire) - After several highly publicized false starts, Warner Brothers is putting the final pieces together for its upcoming Superman film, which could begin production in late 2004, Variety reported.

Location scouting has already begun in Australia, and producers Neal Moritz (Fast and the Furious, XXX) and Gilbert Adler (Constantine, Ghost Ship) are in negotiations with the studio to produce, the trade paper said.

Although director McG is not officially attached, he tested six actors last week for the lead role, including Jason Behr (Roswell), Henry Cavill (The Count of Monte Cristo), Jared Padalecki (New York Minute) and Michael Cassidy, Variety reported.

Previous attempts to launch the film with directors such as Tim Burton and Brett Ratner failed to get off the ground due to creative differences with studio executives. The current script, written by Alias creator J.J. Abrams, is budgeted for $200 million, but the project has yet to be green-lighted. The film will revolve around Superman's battle with Lex Luthor and a mysterious killer from the planet Krypton who has come to hunt down the Man of Steel, the trade paper reported.

Andre Braugher is a Thief for FX

LOS ANGELES June 18, 2004 (Zap2it.com) - The long-gestating project "Thief" has received an official pilot order from FX.

Production on the pilot, starring Emmy winner Andre Braugher ("Homicide," "Gideon's Crossing") as the title character, is scheduled to begin in August in New Orleans. Paul McGuigan ("Gangster No. 1," "Wicker Park") has signed on to direct.

FX originally ordered "Thief" last fall as a cast-contingent pilot. It went through some revisions when John Landgraf took over as the cable network's president of entertainment early this year, and that revised version attracted Braugher.

"We got excited because it's a different kind of part than Andrea would be expected to play," Landgraf tells The Hollywood Reporter, "and he brings a level of gravity to the role that is unexpected for a show about thieves."

The show will focus on Braugher and his crew, who become targets for Chinese gangsters as well as the police while planning their next job. Braugher's character also struggles away from the job when a stepdaughter (Mae Whitman, "State of Grace") he hardly knows enters his life.

Malik Yoba ("New York Undercover") has also joined the cast as a member of Braugher's team. Will Yun Lee ("Witchblade") will play one of the gangsters.

Norman Morrill wrote the "Thief" script and is executive producing with Gavin Polone and Vivian Cannon of production company Pariah.

Lois Visits Smallville

Hollywood June 16, 2004 (Sci Fi Wire) - A casting call has gone out for the role of Lois Lane, Clark Kent's future love interest, who will reportedly appear in four episodes of the WB series Smallville, according to Kryptonsite.

The fan site reported that a twenty-something Lois Lane will travel to Smallville in search of her cousin, Chloe Sullivan (series regular Allison Mack).

Lois is described in the casting breakdown as "Caucasian, smart, beautiful, urban, headstrong, and no-nonsense."

Producers are also looking for a young actor to play a new character named Jason Teague, a college student at Metropolis University who will become a regular cast member. There is no word yet on which actors or actresses are being considered for the two roles. 

Smallville will begin filming its fourth season in Vancouver, B.C. in July.

Smallville Official - http://www.thewb.com/Shows/Show/0,7353,||126,00.html

Winona Ryder Reduced 
Associated Press Writer 

BEVERLY HILLS June 18, 2004 (AP) - The judge in Winona Ryder's shoplifting case reduced her felony convictions to misdemeanors Friday and allowed her to finish probation unsupervised.

After reviewing Ryder's probation report, Superior Court Judge Elden Fox warned the actress that she'll be sent to jail if she breaks the law before the end of her probation in December 2005. 

Fox then asked whether she had any questions. 

"No," Ryder replied. "Thank you."

The 32-year-old "Girl, Interrupted" star was convicted in 2002 of felony grand theft and vandalism for stealing several thousand dollars worth of merchandise from a Saks Fifth Avenue store in Beverly Hills the previous year. 

She was placed on three years probation in December 2002 and fined $2,700. She paid $6,355 in restitution to the store and $1,000 in restitution to the court. She also was ordered to undergo psychological and drug counseling. 

Ryder had prescription drugs in her possession when she was arrested while shopping on Dec. 12, 2001. A drug charge was filed but eventually dropped after a doctor said he had prescribed the medication. 

In December, Fox praised the actress for her behavior during probation. She also has completed 480 hours of community service at the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte. 

Wearing a black pantsuit with a white blouse and black cap, Ryder smiled in court Friday and shook hands with Deputy District Attorney Ann Rundle after the ruling. 

"I'm very glad to have this case completed," Rundle said. 

Ryder's attorney, Shepard Kopp, commended the judge's decision to reduce the charges to misdemeanor theft. By placing Ryder on unsupervised probation, she'll have greater freedom to work as an actress, Kopp said. 

The judge "didn't want to do anything to damage her career," Kopp added. "Eventually, this case will be expunged. There will be nothing on her record." 

The judge also approved a government motion to have surveillance videotapes used as evidence in the case returned to the district attorney's office. Clothing stolen from Saks Fifth Avenue will be destroyed. 

Ryder, who began her film career as a teenager in 1986, earned back-to-back Academy Award nominations in the '90s for "Little Women" and the "The Age of Innocence." Her other films include "Heathers," "Edward Scissorhands" and "Reality Bites."

Nielsen Report Defends People Meters
By Meredith Amdur and Pamela McClintock

New York June 17, 2004 (Variety) - Nielsen Media Research fired back at critics of its local People Meter panels Thursday, issuing an unusual interim report on an ongoing audit of its New York service to refute a "campaign of disinformation." 

In a lengthy statement issued late Thursday, the ratings group detailed and responded to many of the findings of the Media Rating Council audit, some of which was leaked to the press earlier this week. 

Nielsen said the confidential preliminary audit found it largely in compliance with MRC standards, but that there are four areas out of 85 in which it's not in "material compliance." 

Among the issues raised by the MRC is a discrepancy on race in two of its 30 homes. Nielsen said it was working to find an alternative method to ask the question in mixed-race homes. Ratings group also said any errors with regard to undercounting Hispanic viewers in one faulty household will be corrected through "intensified training of field staff." 

Ratings body specifically noted that the MRC audit report did not identify any problems with undercounting persons of color, nor did it identify flaws in the People Meter technology. In addition, MRC said nothing about delaying the rollout of the service. 

Opponents such as Fox, Tribune, CBS, Univision and a large number of advertisers claim the method undercounts minority viewing.

Audit Shows 'People Meter' Flawed

LOS ANGELES June 17, 2004 (Reuters) - A coalition of civil rights activists opposed to Nielsen Media Research's new method for measuring local television viewership on Thursday said reported details of an audit showed the ratings system is flawed. 

The Don't Count Us Out coalition, which is allied with News Corp Ltd. in fighting Nielsen's "people meter" system, called again on the independent Media Rating Council to release the content of an Ernst & Young audit of the system launched this month in New York City.

TV Networks Seek God's Help
By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES June 15, 2004 (Reuters) - Sitcoms are running out of laughs, cop dramas are a dime a dozen and reality shows are all starting to look alike.

Now U.S. television networks are turning to a higher power in their quest for loftier ratings.

Inspired by the runaway success of religion-themed novels like the "Left Behind" series and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," broadcasters are devoting more of their prime-time schedules to shows dealing with God, faith and the afterlife. 

Two such shows, "Joan of Arcadia," the story of a teen-age girl who speaks to God, and "Tru Calling," about a clairvoyant young morgue attendant with the power to "relive" the previous day and help prevent deaths, are coming back for second seasons this fall on CBS and Fox, respectively.

[Which has nothing to do with Mel's movie, as Joan and Tru had already arrived and found their fanbase before The Passion hit - not that they are bigger than Jesus, mind you, just cuter - but it makes good copy, I suppose. Ed.]

They will join the return of the WB network's veteran drama "7th Heaven," centered on the family of a minister, and Showtime's darkly comic afterlife series "Dead Like Me."

And NBC is launching two new spiritual dramas of its own -- "Medium," starring Patricia Arquette as a suburban housewife who helps solve crimes by communicating with the dead, and "Revelations," an apocalyptic thriller featuring Bill Pullman as a scientist racing to thwart Armageddon. 

It's not as big a trend as the TV westerns that galloped over the small screen during the 1960s or the "reality" craze of recent years, but the upcoming batch of faith-oriented series marks a new high point in prime-time piety. 

Della Reese, an ordained minister and former gospel singer who starred in the CBS hit "Touched an Angel," sees it as a sign that spirituality has finally become "fashionable." 


"People have wanted spiritual entertainment for a long time, but the powers that be said, 'No. Nobody will buy that,"' she told Reuters. "Now it's come to the place where you know there's nothing else going to save you but the grace of God." 

Network executives, too, have become believers. In a media landscape of increasingly fragmented viewership, they say the success of religious fare elsewhere in U.S. pop culture is shaping their age-old quest for the Holy Grail of commercial television -- a mass audience. 

"We think this is something that's been out there for years and has actually been untapped," NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said. "The world is in turmoil right now, and when it is, you tend to see people going for conspiracy theories, going to apocalyptic stories and spirituality." 

He cited the growing popularity of books like the "Left Behind" novels, a 12-part drama about the second coming drawn from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament that has sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. 

But religion also figures prominently in a host of bestsellers ranging from Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," a modern thriller steeped in purported secrets about the early Christian church, to Bruce Wilkinson's "The Prayer of Jabez: How to Get God to Bless Your Life." 

At the same time, inspirational and religious-themed music has become a growing pop genre in the recording industry. 

Jana Riess, the religion book review editor for Publishers Weekly and author of "What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide," said the notion of a divine approach to TV ratings growth makes sense. 


"If they're looking for an untapped market, this is it," she said, noting polls that show most Americans profess a belief in God and nearly half counting themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians. 

"Americans are a very religious people, but our popular culture expressions have not always reflected that," she said.

"Those same people who read the 'Left Behind' books would also like to see films and television shows that reflect their values and their spiritual principals." 

But a godly theme itself is no guarantee of heavenly ratings. NBC's animated comedy "God, the Devil and Bob" angered many Christians and quickly flopped four years ago. 

Spirituality in series television also runs counter to decades of prime-time orthodoxy, which has generally consigned overtly religious themes to holiday specials. 

Faith had a bigger place in the early days of TV. 

The long-running soap opera "The Guiding Light" moved from radio to television in 1952 as a serialized drama centered on a minister and his family, though the show has evolved into one that generates far more heat than light. And a real-life Catholic bishop, the Rev. Fulton J. Sheen, hosted the popular 1950s prime-time show "Life is Worth Living," offering weekly lessons in morality illustrated with chalkboard scribblings. 

Religious symbolism and spiritual overtones also abounded on more recent shows as varied as "M*A*S*H," "Picket Fences," "NYPD Blue" and "The Sopranos," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. But series TV as a whole has remained largely secular. 

Notable exceptions of the 1980s and '90s include "Hell Town," starring Robert Blake as a two-fisted priest, and inspirational but nondenominational dramas, "Touched by an Angel" and "Highway to Heaven." 

The latter two, both about angels helping troubled people on Earth, were disparaged by some critics as cloying but were commercial successes that lasted several seasons. "It proves that you can do things that don't have to do with (sex) and people will still buy your product, even if you use the word 'God,"' Reese said.

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