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2 June 2012 | NewScientist | 3 TWO hundred and forty-three years ago, astronomers around the world – from the Arctic Circle to the South Pacific to the Indian Ocean – turned their instruments towards the sun. Many had braved perils ranging from pirates to parasites to reach their far-flung observing posts. But they considered the hardships worth enduring for their final chance to observe the transit of Venus across the blazing solar disc. Under a master plan proposed by British astronomer Edmond Halley (whose eponymous comet is another once-in-a-lifetime attraction for most sky-gazers), this scattered fraternity aimed to measure the transit of Venus – the last that would occur for more than a century – in order to establish the distance from the Earth to the sun. That distance, the “astronomical unit”, is the first in a system of yardsticks that now extends to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. This week scientists will once again trek to remote corners of the globe to make last-chance observations of a Venusian transit – although they’re not risking life and limb to do so, merely lost luggage, missed connections and inclement weather. Their objectives, too, are very different to those of their predecessors. NASA’s Kepler space telescope – itself named after the astronomer who first predicted a transit of Venus – detects exoplanets by looking for dips in their parent stars’ light output when they make transits of their own. The hope is that this year’s Venusian transit will provide a benchmark for further efforts to uncover the properties of these distant worlds (see page 44). The 18th-century astronomers could scarcely have envisaged any of this, although they clearly anticipated that their 21st-century successors would follow in their footsteps. Equally, we can scarcely imagine what uses astronomers will make of Venus’s next transit. By 2117, space-borne emissaries will very likely have rendered Earthly observations redundant. Sentiment rarely makes for good science, but it’s nonetheless pleasing that researchers have found good reasons to continue one of astronomy’s most venerable traditions. One might hope they’ll find fresh grounds to do so in a century’s time. n Forever in transition EDITORIAL Venus’s sun-crossing is a chance to reflect on the nature of discovery “LIKE the smell of a brand-new car.” So said US astronaut Don Pettit as he entered the Dragon space freighter after it docked with the International Space Station last week (see page 10). Pettit’s words speak to the slickness of the SpaceX craft – which was, after all, created by a man who has form in making cars. Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors has done much to make electric cars desirable: its head-turning Roadster revolutionised ideas about what an emissions-free vehicle might achieve. But SpaceX cannot just build the Roadsters of the space business. Reliable workhorses are what’s needed, not ritzy performance vehicles. The vast majority of the $60-million cost of a SpaceX launch comes from its Falcon rocket. This currently burns up on re-entry, but the company aims to make it fully reusable. The shuttle fell short of this goal, but SpaceX thinks it can succeed where NASA failed. Can it? Tesla Motors is now building on the Roadster’s technology to roll out a family sedan and an SUV. If SpaceX proves similarly adroit, astronauts can look forward to more new car smells to come. n As easy as building cars “The 18th-century astronomers clearly anticipated that we would follow in their footsteps” LOCATIONS UK Lacon House, 84 Theobald’s Road, London WC1X 8NS Tel +44 (0) 20 7611 1200 Fax +44 (0) 20 7611 1250 AUSTRALIA Tower 2, 475 Victoria Avenue, Chatswood, NSW 2067 Tel +61 2 9422 2666 Fax +61 2 9422 2633 USA 225 Wyman Street, Waltham, MA 02451 Tel +1 781 734 8770 Fax +1 720 356 9217 201 Mission Street, 26th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105 Tel +1 415 908 3348 Fax +1 415 704 3125 TO SUBSCRIBE UK and International Tel +44 (0) 8456 731 731 [email protected] The price of a New Scientist annual subscription is UK £143, Europe €228, USA $154, Canada C$182, Rest of World $293. Postmaster: Send address changes to New Scientist, PO Box 3806, Chesterfield, MO 63006-9953, USA. CONTACTS Editorial Tel +44 (0) 20 7611 1202 [email protected] [email protected] [email protected] Picture desk Tel +44 (0) 20 7611 1268 Who’s who newscientist.com/people Contact us newscientist.com/contact Enquiries Tel +44 (0) 20 7611 1202 Display Advertising Tel +44 (0) 20 7611 1291 [email protected] Recruitment Advertising UK Tel +44 (0) 20 8652 4444 [email protected] Permission for reuse [email protected] Media enquiries Tel +44 (0) 20 7611 1202 Marketing Tel +44 (0) 20 7611 1286 Back Issues & Merchandise Tel +44 (0) 1733 385170 Syndication Tribune Media Services International Tel +44 (0) 20 7588 7588 UK Newsagents Tel +44 (0) 20 3148 3333 Newstrade distributed by Marketforce UK Ltd, The Blue Fin Building, 110 Southwark St, London SE1 OSU Tel: + 44 (0) 20 8148 3333 © 2012 Reed Business Information Ltd, England New Scientist is published weekly by Reed Business Information Ltd. ISSN 0262 4079. Registered at the Post Office as a newspaper and printed in England by Polestar (Colchester) WHAT are we to make of the news that internet giants are racing to build systems that automatically answer questions delivered in everyday language? Can such “answer engines” really deliver knowledge, not just information (see page 21)? If so, will they become as integral to internet use as search engines are today? Will your phone offer better advice than your family and friends? Should we heed those who will inevitably warn that our sense of curiosity will be destroyed? Will answer engines attempt to address the big questions of life, or just the little ones? How will they tell a sincere question from a loaded one, a plea for help from an idle query? And will they ever understand that for humans, asking the question is sometimes more important than getting an answer? n Questions, so many questions

Do internet companies have all the answers?

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2 June 2012 | NewScientist | 3

TWO hundred and forty-three years ago, astronomers around the world – from the Arctic Circle to the South Pacific to the Indian Ocean – turned their instruments towards the sun. Many had braved perils ranging from pirates to parasites to reach their far-flung observing posts. But they considered the hardships worth enduring for their final chance to observe the transit of Venus across the blazing solar disc.

Under a master plan proposed by British astronomer Edmond Halley (whose eponymous comet is another once-in-a-lifetime attraction for most sky-gazers), this scattered fraternity aimed to measure the transit of Venus – the last that would occur for more than a century – in order to establish the distance from the Earth to the sun. That distance, the “astronomical unit”, is the

first in a system of yardsticks that now extends to the farthest reaches of the cosmos.

This week scientists will once again trek to remote corners of the globe to make last-chance observations of a Venusian transit – although they’re not risking life and limb to do so, merely lost luggage, missed

connections and inclement weather. Their objectives, too, are very different to those of their predecessors. NASA’s Kepler space telescope – itself named after the astronomer who first predicted a transit of Venus – detects exoplanets by looking for dips in their parent stars’ light output

when they make transits of their own. The hope is that this year’s Venusian transit will provide a benchmark for further efforts to uncover the properties of these distant worlds (see page 44).

The 18th-century astronomers could scarcely have envisaged any of this, although they clearly anticipated that their 21st-century successors would follow in their footsteps. Equally, we can scarcely imagine what uses astronomers will make of Venus’s next transit. By 2117, space-borne emissaries will very likely have rendered Earthly observations redundant.

Sentiment rarely makes for good science, but it’s nonetheless pleasing that researchers have found good reasons to continue one of astronomy’s most venerable traditions. One might hope they’ll find fresh grounds to do so in a century’s time. n

Forever in transition

EDITORIAL

Venus’s sun-crossing is a chance to reflect on the nature of discovery

“LIKE the smell of a brand-new car.” So said US astronaut Don Pettit as he entered the Dragon space freighter after it docked with the International Space Station last week (see page 10).

Pettit’s words speak to the slickness of the SpaceX craft – which was, after all, created by a man who has form in making cars. Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors

has done much to make electric cars desirable: its head-turning Roadster revolutionised ideas about what an emissions-free vehicle might achieve.

But SpaceX cannot just build the Roadsters of the space business. Reliable workhorses are what’s needed, not ritzy performance vehicles. The vast majority of the $60-million cost

of a SpaceX launch comes from its Falcon rocket. This currently burns up on re-entry, but the company aims to make it fully reusable. The shuttle fell short of this goal, but SpaceX thinks it can succeed where NASA failed.

Can it? Tesla Motors is now building on the Roadster’s technology to roll out a family sedan and an SUV. If SpaceX proves similarly adroit, astronauts can look forward to more new car smells to come. n

As easy as building cars

“The 18th-century astronomers clearly anticipated that we would follow in their footsteps”

LOCATIONSUKLacon House, 84 Theobald’s Road, London WC1X 8NS Tel +44 (0) 20 7611 1200 Fax +44 (0) 20 7611 1250

AUSTrALIATower 2, 475 Victoria Avenue, Chatswood, NSW 2067Tel +61 2 9422 2666 Fax +61 2 9422 2633

USA225 Wyman Street, Waltham, MA 02451Tel +1 781 734 8770 Fax +1 720 356 9217

201 Mission Street, 26th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105Tel +1 415 908 3348 Fax +1 415 704 3125

TO SUBSCrIBeUK and InternationalTel +44 (0) 8456 731 731 [email protected] The price of a New Scientist annual subscription is UK £143, Europe €228, USA $154, Canada C$182, Rest of World $293. Postmaster: Send address changes to New Scientist, PO Box 3806, Chesterfield, MO 63006-9953, USA.

CONTACTSeditorial Tel +44 (0) 20 7611 [email protected]@[email protected]

Picture desk Tel +44 (0) 20 7611 1268

Who’s who newscientist.com/people

Contact us newscientist.com/contact

enquiries Tel +44 (0) 20 7611 1202

Display Advertising Tel +44 (0) 20 7611 [email protected]

recruitment Advertising UK Tel +44 (0) 20 8652 [email protected]

Permission for reuse [email protected]

Media enquiriesTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1202

MarketingTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1286

Back Issues & MerchandiseTel +44 (0) 1733 385170

SyndicationTribune Media Services InternationalTel +44 (0) 20 7588 7588

UK Newsagents Tel +44 (0) 20 3148 3333Newstrade distributed by Marketforce UK Ltd, The Blue Fin Building, 110 Southwark St, London SE1 OSU Tel: + 44 (0) 20 8148 3333

© 2012 Reed Business Information Ltd, England

New Scientist is published weekly by Reed Business Information Ltd. ISSN 0262 4079.

Registered at the Post Office as a newspaper and printed in England by Polestar (Colchester)

WHAT are we to make of the news that internet giants are racing to build systems that automatically answer questions delivered in everyday language? Can such “answer engines” really deliver

knowledge, not just information (see page 21)?

If so, will they become as integral to internet use as search engines are today? Will your phone offer better advice than your family and friends? Should we heed those who will inevitably warn that our sense of curiosity will be destroyed?

Will answer engines attempt to address the big questions of life, or just the little ones? How will they tell a sincere question from a loaded one, a plea for help from an idle query? And will they ever understand that for humans, asking the question is sometimes more important than getting an answer? n

Questions, so many questions

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