News from the technological frontier.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 17 2005 2:30 PM

Life on Mars?

And other news from the technological frontier.

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers. 2) Life arrives on a moon of Saturn. 3) The creature genetic engineers fear most. 4) The creepy solution to the stem-cell debate.

Two NASA scientists claim to have found possible evidence of life on Mars. They say signs of methane on Mars resemble evidence that has been shown to reflect water and microbial life in caves on Earth. To prove it, we'd have to send a probe to drill into Mars.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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The army is using an online war video game to recruit young soldiers. More than four million users have registered at America's Army, which includes mock battles. Red smoke marks each wounding; bodies are never blown apart. Army's spin: "We have a Teen rating that allows 13-year-olds to play, and in order to maintain that rating we have to adhere to certain standards." Critique: 13? We'd rather let you have the gore. ... 11:30 a.m. PT

Animal rights activists called for federal regulation of pet cloning. The industry, which one company says will have "a multibillion-dollar market," is unregulated. The American Anti-Vivisection Society wants it regulated by the Agriculture Department under the Animal Welfare Act. Activists' spins: 1) It's inhumane to the clones. 2) It's cruel to the homeless animals people should be adopting instead. 3) It's a rip-off, because contrary to buyers' expectations, a cloned cat differs from the original. Pet cloning industry spin: "We bend over backward to make sure people are doing this for the right reasons." Critique: And what reasons are those?

Lawmakers introduced federal legislation to expand funding of stem-cell research. President Bush has restricted funding of human embryonic stem-cell research to cell lines derived from embryos destroyed before Aug. 9, 2001. The new legislation would abolish that cutoff date. Opponents' spin: This will let embryo research get out of control. Proponents' spin: Look at the flight of embryo researchers to California and other countries. It's already out of control, and if we don't fund it, we can't control it.

Philadelphia's mayor wants to equip the whole city for wireless broadband. Fifty local jurisdictions are setting up public broadband networks; more are expected to follow if Philadelphia joins the list. Applications proposed by city officials: 1) Poor folks could use the Web. 2) Cops on the street could access mug shots. 3) Delivery drivers could upload and download inventory data. ... 9:30 a.m. PT

Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2005

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The U.S. will send robots with machine guns to Iraq within two months. Robots are already digging up bombs there and searching caves in Afghanistan. Shallow anti-robot spins: They cost a lot of money, and they'll accidentally kill civilians. Pro-robot spins: They cost less than soldiers do, they're fearless, they're focused, they'll make war casualty-free for us, and they'll learn how to avoid killing civilians. Deep anti-robot spins: The cheaper and safer war is for us, the more we'll indulge in it—and the more we can trust robots to run it, the less attention we'll pay.

A murder jury rejected the Zoloft defense. The defendant, 15, killed his grandparents when he was 12. The judge told jurors they could acquit him based on "involuntary intoxication" if his lawyers proved 1) he didn't know Zoloft could intoxicate him, 2) he followed a doctor's prescription, and 3) the drug made him unable to tell right from wrong. The jury decided Zoloft "played a part in his behavior," but it didn't compel him to kill, and he knew right from wrong. A spokesman for Zoloft's manufacturer says the Zoloft defense has succeeded in only one of 14 criminal cases. Spin from a lawyer suing the manufacturer: It's a dangerous "mind-altering pill. What in the name of God are we doing to our children?" Counterspin: Maybe in this case we should ask what our children are doing to us.

Coffee may prevent cancer. In a big Japanese study, coffee drinkers were less than half as likely as non-coffee drinkers to get liver cancer. The more coffee they drank, the lower the cancer risk. Another study indicates coffee can reduce the risk of rectal cancer, but only if it's decaffeinated. Spin: Maybe it's the antioxidants. Counterspin: Maybe people who drink decaf just have healthier habits in general. And caffeine can cause miscarriage or aggravate menopause. Implication: Don't assume all addictions are unhealthy.