Look! Up in the Sky...

Caltech Astronomer Finds Solar System's 10th Planet

from Reuters

LOS ANGELES - A California astronomer has discovered what he believes is the 10th planet in our solar system, a group of NASA-funded researchers said on Friday.

The new planet, known as 2003UB313, has been identified as the most distant object ever detected orbiting the sun, California Institute of Technology astronomer Michael Brown said.

Brown and colleagues Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz have submitted a name for the planet to the International Astronomical Union and are confident it will be designated a planet. Brown did not reveal the proposed name.

The procedure for approving the new planet is somewhat hazy as no new bodies have received that designation since Pluto was discovered in 1930, Brown said.

"We hope that it's fairly noncontroversial among those who believe Pluto is a planet," Brown said. "I would say get out your pens and start rewriting the textbooks today."

The planet is located about 9.7 billion miles from the sun and is about 1 1/2 times the size of Pluto, the researchers said. It orbits the sun once every 560 years and is now at its farthest point from Earth, he said. In about 280 years, the planet will be as close as Neptune, he said.

The new planet is believed to be part of the Kuiper Belt, a large ring of icy objects that orbit beyond Neptune and are believed to be remnants of the material that formed the solar system.

Their finding comes a day after a Spanish team of astronomers announced the discovery of another relatively large object orbiting in the solar system's outer reaches. That object, Brown said, was about three-quarters the size of Pluto.

Report: Saturn Moon May Have Ice Volcanoes

from The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES - Saturn's tiny moon Enceladus, long thought to be cold and still, appears to have active ice volcanoes, scientists reported Friday.

A recent flyby of the international Cassini spacecraft found evidence of a huge cloud of water vapor over the moon's south pole and dramatic warm zones of heat leaking out of the icy moon.

If confirmed, the discovery would put Enceladus in the class of geologically active moons with Jupiter's Io and Neptune's Triton.

The July 14 flyby, in which Cassini flew within 110 miles of Enceladus, confirmed that the moon possessed a significant atmosphere, possibly created by volcanism, geysers or gases escaping from the surface or the interior. The planet-sized Titan is the only other Saturn moon known to have a thick atmosphere.

Recent images snapped by the spacecraft revealed distinctive geological features on the snow-white moon. Its south pole was covered with house-sized ice boulders and showed no evidence of impact craters - an indication that the terrain is much younger than the rest of the moon's surface.

Scientists expected Enceladus' southern region to be cold and lacking in activity because of the little sunlight it receives. But to their surprise, they spotted warm spots in its icy surface that most likely came from heat from evaporating ice. Scientists have not ruled out the possibility that the moon may have special sunlight-trapping techniques that may help explain the south pole's warmness.

Ice Lake Found on Mars

from Space.com

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express has snapped an image of a modest ice lake on the Red Planet.

The frozen patch of water ice is tucked away in an unnamed impact crater. The feature is located on Vastitas Borealis, a broad plain that covers much of the far northern latitudes.

The ice patch is present all year round, as the temperature and pressure are not high enough to allow the frozen water to escape into the atmosphere.

Faint traces of water ice are also visible along the rim of the crater and on the crater walls, ESA officials said. The absence of ice along the north-west rim and walls may occur because this area receives more sunlight due to the Sun’s orientation.

The poles on Mars are known to contain large quantities of water ice. There is also ample water ice beneath the surface of Mars. But it is not so common to see isolated patches of water ice away from the poles.

Earlier this year, ESA scientists said subsurface ice they detected on Mars could provide habitats for life. But so far, there is no convincing evidence for martian biology.


Revenue of the Sith

Darth Does DVD

from E! Online

Revenge is sweet on DVD.

The much heralded final installment in George Lucas' epic Star Wars saga, Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, will be released on DVD galaxy-wide Nov. 1.

The release, timed for the holiday shopping onslaught, will likely be one of the year's top sellers. Not only is Revenge of the Sith the biggest moneymaker of 2005, setting box office records and generating $784 million and counting in worldwide ticket sales, it also means that all six Star Wars films will be available on DVD for the first time.

The DVD will be released as a two-disc set augmented by a feature-length making-of documentary, two new featurettes (one of exploring Anakin Skywalker as the prophesized "Chosen One" and the other providing a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the movie's stunts) and the 15-part collection of Lucasfilm's Webisodes on the film.

There was no immediate word on whether Lucas would do a full-length commentary, as he has done for previous DVD releases. Lucasfilm says it will release further details at a later date.

The previous two prequels, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, included commentary from Lucas, as well as deleted scenes, trailers and TV spots, photo galleries and theatrical posters.

And, in a synergistic show of force, the DVD will drop the same day LucasArts unleashes its latest movie-based videogame, Star Wars Battlefront II on the Playstation 2, Xbox, Windows and PSP platforms. The game allows fans to play out key fight sequences from all six Star Wars films. To tie in the game and DVD releases, Revenge of the Sith will offer consumers access to a special Xbox playable demo of two entire levels from Batllefront II featuring never-before-seen environments taken from Sith.

Star Wars Light Sabers on Auction Block in L.A.

from Reuters

LOS ANGELES - Light sabers used by Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies are expected to fetch around $60,000 each at a Beverly Hills movie memorabilia auction on Friday.

The two light sabers from the original Star Wars and its 1980 sequel Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back are among more than 75 "artifacts" in an auction that also includes Harrison Ford's signature leather jacket from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, estimated to fetch some $50,000.

The Star Wars treasures come from the collection of producer Gary Kurtz, who worked closely with director George Lucas from 1973-81, and many of them are expected to be snapped up by fans and collectors for well over their estimates.

Other movie memorabilia on the block on Thursday include Tom Hanks' costume from Saving Private Ryan, John Travolta's leather chaps from Urban Cowboy, and the suit worn by The Riddler in the first episode of the 1960s TV series version of Batman.

Collectors cam bid in person in Beverly Hills, by phone, fax or live on the Internet through

Eaten Alive! Attack of the Mighty Meat-Eating Mutant Monster Mice!

Cheese just makes them angry.

Rare Island Birds Threatened by 'Super Mice'

from Reuters

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - "Monster mice" are eating three-foot-high albatross chicks alive, threatening rare bird species on a remote south Atlantic island seen as the world's most important seabird colony. Conservation groups say the avian massacre is occurring on Gough Island in the South Atlantic, a British territory home to more than 10 million birds.

"Gough Island hosts an astonishing community of seabirds and this catastrophe could make many extinct within decades," said Dr Geoff Hilton, a senior research biologist with Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

"We think there are about 700,000 mice, which have somehow learned to eat chicks alive," he said in a statement.

The island is home to 99% of the world's Tristan albatross and Atlantic petrel populations - the birds most often attacked. Just 2,000 Tristan albatross pairs remain.

"The albatross chicks weigh up to 22 lb and...the mice weigh just 35 grams; it is like a tabby cat attacking a hippopotamus," Hilton said.

The house mice - believed to have made their way to Gough decades ago on sealing and whaling ships - have evolved to about three times their normal size.

This is a common phenomenon on island habitats - for reasons much debated among scientists - where small animal species often grow larger while big species such as elephants display "dwarfism" and become smaller.

In the case of the mice of Gough Island, their remarkable growth seems to have been given a boost by a vast reservoir of fresh meat and protein.

The rapacious rodents gnaw into the bodies of the defenseless and flightless chicks, leaving a gaping wound that leads to an agonizing death. Scientists say once one mouse attacks the blood seems to draw others to the feast.

While predation by oversized mice is unusual, birds on small islands are especially vulnerable to extinction from human activities such as the introduction of alien species.

This is because many birds that have evolved on isolated islands with no predators have become what biologists term "ecologically naive" - meaning they do not recognize danger from other animals.

Flightless species - or chicks that cannot yet fly - are especially at risk.

Moments before being messily devoured, two children run up to a monster mouse, mistaking it for a costumed restaurant mascot. "They were a little stringy," said the mouse.

CSI: The Yukon

Lab To Test 'Sasquatch' Hair

from Reuters

VANCOUVER, British Columbia - The debate over the existence of sasquatch, aka Bigfoot, an ape-like creature said to haunt the wilderness of western Canada, has entered the world of modern DNA testing.

A laboratory will test hair samples that several residents of Teslin, Yukon, say were left when the large, but so-far mythological creature made a late-night run through their community in early July.

University of Alberta wildlife geneticist David Coltman, who agreed to do the tests as a favor to a colleague, said on Monday that scientists have cataloged the DNA of nearly all large animals in the Yukon such as bears and bison.

"So we'll compare it to all of that, and if it doesn't match anything, then it's potentially interesting," said Coltman, who suspects the hair was actually left behind by a much more mundane Yukon bison.

The legend of a large, hairy, two-legged creature lurking in the mountains of western Canada and the United States dates back to before Europeans settled the continent. This was the second report of the creature near Teslin in just over a year.

In the latest sighting, a group of Teslin residents told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. they heard branches cracking and saw a large human-like creature run by a house. It left behind large footprints, they said, and the hair tufts that were given to wildlife officials.

Coltman expects to have his results on Thursday and said that even if the hair turns out not to be from a sasquatch, the process should serve as good way to get students interested in the field of DNA testing.

"It's sort of like a wildlife CSI story," he said.


Two Words: 'Garlic Tampon' - Problem Solved

'And this is the best part, Louis: He told her he was a cabaret-singing vampire and threatened to impregnate her with the Anti-Christ - and she believed him! Have you ever heard anything so absurd?! A heterosexual cabaret singer?! I swear, I laughed so hard blood shot out of my nose. And people think I'm crazy!'

Who Wouldn't Fall for Such a Clever Trick?

from Reuters

PALERMO, Italy - An Italian couple stole 50,000 euros from a woman in the Sicilian city of Palermo after convincing her they were vampires who would impregnate her with the son of the Anti-Christ if she did not pay them.

The man, a cabaret singer, and his girlfriend took the money from their victim over four years by selling her pills at 3,000 euros each that they said would abort the Anti-Christ's son.

Police uncovered the fraud after the 47-year-old woman's family became concerned when they discovered she had spent all her savings.

'You don't say! A blood-sucking con artist who sings cabaret but claims to be straight - and who has his own pill supply? He sounds dreamy...he isn't married, is he?'


The Fantastic Funk

Pigs in Space

from United Press International

China is hoping to learn what, if any, effect cosmic rays have on sperm by sending pig semen into space, the BBC reports.

Around 40 grams of semen from high-pedigree pigs will accompany two astronauts on an October orbital mission, and will be kept both inside and outside the Shenzhou VI spacecraft.

Sperm that survives the voyage will be tested for effects of microgravity and used to fertilize eggs. The semen is from the Rongchang breed of pig, prized for its high quality of meat and physical characteristics.


There's No Race Like Gnome

'Do not be alarmed by our black, souless eyes. We are friendly and kind. Now it's time for you to sleep, to dream forever. You look very slee-' 'When do we get to drink their blood?' 'Shhh, you idiot! They can hear you!' 'Dibs on the kids!' 'Screw you, Bambo! I said dibs on the kids earlier! They so dang juicy!' 'Did not!' 'Did too!' 'Will you guys shut up!?'

Gnome Sweet Gnome: Police Find Missing 'Little People'

from Rocky Mountain News

GREELEY, Colo. - Perhaps it was a lack of gnomeland security that pushed Elsie Schnorr into the ranks of Greeley's gnomeless.

She's not exactly sure how it happened, but she thinks she knows how to describe the culprit: jobless, bored and without anything better to do than go around trolling for gnomes.

On May 31 several of Schnorr's garden gnomes were stolen, and then a few days later, the robber came back for seconds, all in all stealing 30 of Schnorr's prized gnomes - little statues that serve as garden decorations.

And Schnorr wasn't alone.

On Saturday, children found black bags with 80 gnomes behind an apartment complex in Greeley, police Sgt. Tom Walde said.

"They're just like little people, only they don't talk to you," Schnorr said.

The gnomes vary in size, typically from 6 to 12 inches. Some are made of concrete and others molded plastic. Greeley police are holding the gnomes in a secure area at the station. People can set up an appointment to stop by, identify and claim their gnomes.

"We've been inundated with phone calls," Walde said.

"I'm here to fill out a 'gnome form,' " said Sandy Jordan, who was surprised to see one of her gnomes on the front page of her local paper Sunday.


Tonight @ The Temple of Poseidon

The full moon rises behind the ancient temple of Posseidon, in Sounio about 45 miles south-east of Athens, on Thursday, July 21, 2005. Tonight's full moon appear bigger than usual, as the distance between the Earth and its only natural satellite was the closest until 2007, at about 223306 miles. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)


What the Smurf?! E.T. Returns

E.T. To Phone Home...Again

from Dark Horizons

Drew Barrymore and director Steven Spielberg are in talks to make a sequel to the 1982 Hollywood classic ET: The Extraterrestrial reports WENN.

Barrymore is apparently anxious to resume her role as Gertie, but only if Spielberg, who directed the first film, agrees to oversee the project. According to reports, the sequel will see ET return to a now grown-up Gertie, desperate for help saving his family from extinction.

"Drew has spoken to Steven about it," a Hollywood insider said. "Although he thought she was joking at first, he's actually giving it serious thought. Drew thinks the world needs another feelgood movie like E.T. right now and she's prepared to work with Steven to make it happen."

A Smurfin' Movie Deal

from E! Online

Fans of a certain animated tribe of small, blue woodland creatures haven't gotten a lot of love lately: No new TV episodes, no old TV episodes on DVD (outside of a couple of import releases), no real news on a long-rumored movie.

Now, finally, things are looking rather smurfin'.

A 3-D, CGI-animated Smurfs feature film will bow in theaters in 2008, Daily Variety reported Tuesday. The extravaganza from Paramount's Nickelodeon Movies will be the first in a planned trilogy, it said. According to Newsweek, the project has been trying to get off the ground since at least 2003.

"Dude, a Smurf movie?" went a message-board post on TheMovieBlog.com last month after Newsweek noted a film was nigh. "That's the smurfing best thing I've heard in smurfing forever."

The Smurfs were a phenomenon of the 1980s, unless one lived in Europe, where the characters have been mainstays since 1958, when Belgian artist Pierre Culliford, better known as Peyo, introduced them in the comic pages. The new movie's planned release date supposedly is tied to Smurfdom's upcoming 50th birthday.

Peyo's creations - the aforementioned small, blue woodland creatures who lived in homes shaped like mushrooms, whistled happy tunes, conjugated the word "smurf" in any way they saw fit, and named themselves Ramones-style (Papa Smurf, Brainy Smurf, Grouchy Smurf, etc.) - blew up as big as any Transformer robot in 1981 when The Smurfs debuted on NBC. The Hanna-Barbera-produced series won two Daytime Emmys, moved much merchandise, from Smurf-Berry Crunch cereal to countless figurines, and dominated Saturday morning TV until 1990. A 1983 big-screen adventure, The Smurfs and the Magic Flute, grossed $11 million, per the box-office site The-Numbers.com, even though it was nothing more than a retitled, redubbed version of a 1976 Belgian-produced movie.

Scotty Beamed Up

Star Trek Star James Doohan Dies

from The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES - James Doohan, the burly chief engineer of the Starship Enterprise in the original Star Trek TV series and movies who responded to the command "Beam me up, Scotty," died Wednesday. He was 85.

Doohan died at 5:30 a.m. at his Redmond, Wash., home with his wife of 28 years, Wende, at his side. The cause of death was pneumonia and Alzheimer's disease.

He had said farewell to public life in August 2004, a few months after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

The Canadian-born Doohan was enjoying a busy career as a character actor when he auditioned for a role as an engineer in a new space adventure on NBC in 1966. A master of dialects from his early years in radio, he tried seven different accents.

"The producers asked me which one I preferred," Doohan recalled 30 years later. "I believed the Scot voice was the most commanding. So I told them, 'If this character is going to be an engineer, you'd better make him a Scotsman.'"

The series, which starred William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as the enigmatic Mr. Spock, attracted an enthusiastic following of science fiction fans, especially among teenagers and children, but not enough ratings power. NBC canceled it after three seasons.

When the series ended in 1969, Doohan found himself typecast as Montgomery Scott, the canny engineer with a burr in his voice. In 1973, he complained to his dentist, who advised him: "Jimmy, you're going to be Scotty long after you're dead. If I were you, I'd go with the flow."

"I took his advice," said Doohan, "and since then everything's been just lovely."

Star Trek continued in syndication both in the United States and abroad, and its following grew larger and more dedicated. In his later years, Doohan attended 40 "Trekkie" gatherings around the country and lectured at colleges.

The huge success of George Lucas' Star Wars in 1977 prompted Paramount Pictures, which had produced Star Trek for television, to plan a movie based on the series. The studio brought back the TV cast and hired director Robert Wise. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was successful enough to spawn five sequels.

The powerfully built Doohan, a veteran of D-Day in Normandy, spoke frankly in 1998 about his employer and his TV commander.

"I started out in the series at basic minimum_ plus 10 percent for my agent. That was added a little bit in the second year. When we finally got to our third year, Paramount told us we'd get second-year pay! That's how much they loved us."

He accused Shatner of hogging the camera, adding: "I like Captain Kirk, but I sure don't like Bill. He's so insecure that all he can think about is himself."

James Montgomery Doohan was born March 3, 1920, in Vancouver, British Columbia, youngest of four children of William Doohan, a pharmacist, veterinarian and dentist, and his wife Sarah. As he wrote in his autobiography, Beam Me Up, Scotty, his father was a drunk who made life miserable for his wife and children.

At 19, James escaped the turmoil at home by joining the Canadian army, becoming a lieutenant in artillery. He was among the Canadian forces that landed on Juno Beach on D-Day. "The sea was rough," he recalled. "We were more afraid of drowning than the Germans."

The Canadians crossed a minefield laid for tanks; the soldiers weren't heavy enough to detonate the bombs. At 11:30 that night, he was machine-gunned, taking six hits: one that took off his middle right finger (he managed to hide the missing finger on screen), four in his leg and one in the chest. Fortunately the chest bullet was stopped by his silver cigarette case.

After the war Doohan on a whim enrolled in a drama class in Toronto. He showed promise and won a two-year scholarship to New York's famed Neighborhood Playhouse, where fellow students included Leslie Nielsen, Tony Randall, and Richard Boone.

His commanding presence and booming voice brought him work as a character actor in films and television, both in Canada and the United States.

Oddly, his only other TV series besides Star Trek was another space adventure, Space Command, in 1953.

In a 1998 interview, Doohan was asked if he ever got tired of hearing the line "Beam me up, Scotty."

"I'm not tired of it at all," he replied. "Good gracious, it's been said to me for just about 31 years. It's been said to me at 70 miles an hour across four lanes on the freeway. I hear it from just about everybody. It's been fun."

Meanwhile, Back on Krypton...

Move Over Superman: Here Comes Mandela, The Comic Strip Hero

from AFP

JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's first black president Nelson Mandela is to become a comic strip hero in a new project aimed at encouraging young people to read, his charity foundation said.

"We are harnassing comics to get across the message and the values of Mr. Mandela," John Samuel, chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

One million copies of each of the seven comic strips depicting Mandela's life were distributed in newspapers and schools across South Africa as part of events celebrating the ex-president's 87th birthday July 18.

"Comics are an extremely useful way of bringing young people into reading," said Samuel. "And this is our objective here."

Samuel dismissed a suggestion that the world's most revered statesman should not be reduced to a comic figure.

"It would take a lot more than comics to demean his stature."


Exhibit A: Skin-Tight Suits, Exhibit B: 0% Body Fat, Exhibit C: Look Good in Speedos

Asgardian (left) and Hulking (right) do the supernasty?

Queer Comic Book Characters Coming Out

from QueerDay

It's no secret that Hollywood is really into comic books these days, but what those of us who don't read them much don't know is that they've really been taking on current issues with fresh perspectives, including ours.

Marvel's new Young Avengers is generating major buzz after hinting in the team's first issue that two male heroes, Asgardian and Hulkling, will become romantically involved. Yep, the first gay male relationship in mainstream comics.

And let's not forget that Gotham Central has Detective Renee Montoya in her first committed lesbian relationship as well. Did you know that major character Mia of Judd Winick's Green Arrow recently tested HIV-positive? She's the first mainstream HIV-positive superhero.


Geek Is the New Black

Suddenly, It's Hip To Be Square

from The Associated Press

CHICAGO - Maybe it's because young computer gurus are now enjoying the millionaire life. Perhaps it has something to do with the unexpected popularity last year of the movie Napoleon Dynamite, about a quirky, dancing teen and his sleepy Idaho town.

Whatever the reason, being a nerd, a geek, a dork — whatever you want to call the tragically unhip — is becoming a source of pride.

Case in point: Steffi Weiss, a 15-year-old in the Chicago suburb of Lake Zurich, who plays violin in the school's orchestra.

This spring, she and a friend bought black mesh sports jerseys — something like the football team's — and added "ORCH DORKS" in white letters on the front, their last names on the back and their instrument on the sleeves (VLN I, for first violin, in Weiss' case).

"We used to not be able to stand the fact that we were in orchestra," says Weiss, who's been playing the violin since fourth grade and proudly wore the shirt to her high school this year. "Finally, we realized that's where all our friends are and that's where we have the most fun.

"So why not just say we're dorks?"

There was a time when teens who tried something like that would have been asking for some serious goofing. But today being smart and sensitive, even a little socially awkward, is often considered cool — and the signs are everywhere.

The O.C., a TV show popular with teens, has Seth, a comic-book loving nerd played by actor Adam Brody. Bands such as Weezer also feed off the dork image, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and a song about being OK with not fitting the Beverly Hills mold. Napoleon Dynamite has a fan club; its Web site claims 150,000 members.

And, increasingly, people are parading around in shirts that say "Dork Pride!" among other things. Such items have gotten so popular that CafePress.com, an online merchandiser, has created a special category for shirts and other items celebrating geeks, dorks and nerds.

Philip Kaplan, the 29-year-old founder of the startup online ad company AdBrite — and one who's long played upon his own dorky reputation — finds the whole phenomenon amusing.

"In high school, I didn't go to parties. I didn't have a lot of friends," says Kaplan, who lives in San Francisco and also created a tongue-in-cheek Web site that chronicled the dot-com bust. "Now all the people from high school are asking me if I have a job for them. So I guess it wasn't so bad to be a dork."

People who track youth trends have noticed the shift in attitude, too.

"It feels like, for a while there, we were hearing so much about bullying in schools — and this is almost a time for the geeks to stand up for themselves," says Schuyler Brown, a trendspotter for advertising and marketing firm Euro RSCG.

Michael Lee, a self-proclaimed nerd, is happy it's happening. "It's society validating who I am," says the 28-year-old marketing manager from in Perris, Calif.

But he also worries that the popularity will be short-lived, returning he and fellow nerds to a life of ridicule. "Because it is a trend," he says, "it'll become extremely untrendy."

For now, though, he's going with it and has put a bumper sticker on his motorcycle that says "Talk Nerdy To Me" so he attracts the kind of women he's looking for — "a librarian type girl," who likes to go to bookstores and art galleries and whose eyes don't glaze over when he starts talking about the finer points of Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica.

"It's like (the movie) American Pie with the band geek girl," Lee says. "That is definitely part of the fantasy."

Still others are feeling a little territorial about their geek status.

Nick Ross, a 26-year-old freelance artist and animator, wrote The True Geek Test, a set of online questions aimed at weeding out the "posers." He says people often want to play the part but, in this case, know little about the worlds of computers and gaming — something Ross says is a must to truly be a geek.

"The label of geek actually has nothing to do with computers anymore. It's become about irony," says Ross, who lives in Ellington, Conn. "Among young people, liking something cool is uncool, and vice versa. There is no logic behind it at all."

But Uyen Mai says she knows how to spot a true geek, dork or nerd — and she likes what she sees.

"I see them as eccentrics or maybe smart, gentle people with a passion for something that may not be popular at the moment, like maybe computers, Star Wars, physics," says Mai, a 28-year-old university employee who lives in Walnut, Calif. "Say, for instance, we're watching a dream movie with Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt and Topher Grace. I'd gush over Topher Grace," she adds, referring to an actor from That '70s Show who's known for his geek appeal.

To prove her point, Mai has an "I (Heart) Dorks" tank top, which she wears often.

"My husband is not nearly as amused by the shirt as I am. I thought he'd be flattered," she says. "Oh well."

Why Do UFOs Always Visit Hicks?

Mysterious Texas Lights Draw Crowds

from The Associated Press

MARFA, Texas - Nevada has Area 51. New Mexico has Roswell. Texas has the Marfa Lights.

Whatever's out there sparkling or dancing across Mitchell Flat and toward the Chinati Mountains has both befuddled people and attracted them to this remote area east of Marfa for well over a century.

They start converging about dusk on a desolate spot in the West Texas desert with a ridge view and an expanse of some 20 miles of treeless rangeland.

A few bring lawn chairs. Some find a spot on concrete picnic tables. Others lean against a brick wall.

With darkness toward to the east and the remnants of a spectacular sunset to the west, the first cries erupt.

"Look! Look!"

Fingers point. Binoculars get fine tuned. A few cameras click. All the attention focuses on specks of brilliance.

Legend. Myth. Natural phenomenon. UFOs?

"I just want to see for myself, and say I saw them," James Teems, 61, from Hobbs, N.M., said on a recent night.

"I thought we'd come over and look," said his wife, Fern, 59. "Looks like campfires."

That was the description back in the 1800s when cowboys and pioneers first noticed the lights. According to numerous accounts, they speculated they were camp fires or signal fires from Apaches who roamed the wilderness area around Texas' Big Bend. But, as the legend has it, when folks went over for a closer inspection, they found no sign of fires.

And still haven't.

"I'm having a hard time believing no one knows what it is," said Mike Thompson, who with his wife and two daughters made the stop as part of a trip to the region from their home about 300 miles away in San Angelo. "We've heard about this for a long time. We're here to see if we can see anything."

The lights on a recent pair of June evenings appeared to float above the horizon, dip and occasionally flare. At times, there were two or three simultaneously. They generally moved left to right, up and down. Then there were periods of no lights.

"It looks like car lights," one woman said.

Could be.

Highway U.S. 67, the main route between Marfa and Presidio, winds and seesaws 60 miles to the south on the Texas-Mexico border. A car's headlights easily could be detected in the darkness from miles away.

But the lights were here before cars and even before electricity reached the region.

There are numerous theories on what causes the phenomenon. Moonlight on mica veins sparkling off the mountains. Swamp gas. Static electricity. Atmospheric conditions created by warm and cold layers of air bending light rays that only can be seen from afar.

Then there are the ghosts of the Conquistadores looking for gold, or the old Apache explanation of stars dropping to Earth.

"I have seen strange lights that moved oddly and were definitely not on the ground," said Bernie Zelazney, with the Big Bend Astronomical Society.

Some years ago he saw lights that were "bright bluish and red colors and would come together, then one would go away."

"It was unusual," he said.

Zelazney said one explanation he leans toward is called the piezoelectric effect, where voltage is created between moving solid surfaces — in this case, rock containing quartz that contracts and expands as the surface heats and cools.

"There's a lot of quartz in the mountains out there," he said.

The effect was discovered by Pierre Curie in 1883, coincidentally the same year rancher Robert Reed Ellison is credited with the first disclosure of the Marfa Lights.

Joe Duncan, 46, owner of the Paisano Hotel, estimates a third of his customers come to see the Marfa Lights, which are celebrated with a festival each summer. He subscribes to the car-lights-on-the-highway theory.

Sort of.

"It's a hilly road, so it comes and goes and they see that," Duncan said. "But there have been too many people that are too intelligent that say there is something out there, and that if it was just the car lights somebody would have figured it out. They were definitely here before headlights.

"Static electricity," he adds. "That's what old timers here have told me."

Other local folks have stories of lights following them or bearing down on them as they travel lonely U.S. 90 between Alpine and Marfa. About a 10-minute drive east of town, the Texas Department of Transportation has erected a roadside rest stop that serves as the "Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Area," according to the road sign.

It's where the nightly gathering of the curious assembles, with everything from motorcycles to tractor-trailer rigs filling the free parking area.

"I'd heard about it for years," said Jack Phillips, 52, who was touring the area by motorcycle with his wife and stopped for the show. "You can't beat the price."

"I think it's somebody on the hill," Christi Collier, 54, of Austin, offered while gazing at the lights. "It's a big campfire."

"I don't understand," said her companion, Lane Howard, 49. "They can tell us what happened on the moon a million years ago but they can't explain this?"



Planet with Three Suns Challenges Astronomers

from Reuters

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - In a scenario out of Star Wars, astronomers have detected a planet outside our solar system with not one, but three suns, a finding that challenges astronomers' theories of planetary formation.

The planet, a gas giant slightly larger than Jupiter, orbits the main star of a triple-star system known as HD 188753 in the constellation Cygnus ("The Swan").

The stellar trio and its planet are about 149 light-years from Earth and about as close to each other as our sun is to Saturn, U.S. scientists reported on Thursday in the current edition of the journal Nature.

If you stood on the planet's surface, you would see three suns in sky, although its orbit centers around the main yellow star among the trio. The larger of the other two suns would be orange and the smaller would be red, astronomers at California Institute of Technology said in a statement.

The new finding could upset existing theories that planets usually form out of gas and dust circling a single star, and could lead scientists to look in new places for planets.

"The implication is that there are more planets out there than we thought," the commentary said.

Caltech astronomer Maciej Konacki, who wrote the research article, refers to the new type of planets as "Tatooine planets," because of the similarity to Luke Skywalker's view of his home planet.

Something Super This Way Comes

Superheroes Abound at Movies This Year

from The Associated Press

NEW YORK - "I want suit approval." Who can blame Vincent Chase, the movie-star character on HBO's Entourage, for his Aquaman ultimatum? He understands that superhero films teeter on a precarious edge between laughable (Cat Woman) and arguably brilliant (Spider-Man).

There's no current plan for a King of the Seven Seas flick, but this year has already seen Fantastic Four, Batman Begins, Sin City, Constantine, and Elektra. And waiting in the wings are dozens of superheroes, each poised to either make movie history (X-Men) or get ridiculed into oblivion (Daredevil).

On Thursday, tens of thousands of comic enthusiasts began descending on San Diego for the annual Comic-Con convention, where movie adaptations are among the hottest topics. But with so many cartoon superstars like Batman, Superman, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four already gone Hollywood, who's left?

"Ha ha!" laughs Marvel Studios chief Avi Arad. "You know we have 5,000 characters?"

Next up for Marvel is Ghost Rider, in summer 2006, with Nicolas Cage as a possessed motorcycle rider hellbent on justice.

"For the hardcore group, Ghost Rider is probably the most anticipated one," Arad says. "I think once the world gets to meet him, it will extend this community."

In various stages of development, Arad says, are movies for Thor (the hammer-welding Nordic hero), the Silver Surfer (who rides a flying surfboard), Captain America (the most patriotic hero, fashioned during WWII), and Namor the Sub-Mariner (one of the oldest superheroes — think a more cranky Aquaman).

Also in the pipeline is Iron Man (who's protected by a suit of armor, to be directed by Nick Cassavetes), Doctor Strange (a sorcerer of the mystic arts), Nick Fury (a James Bond-like spy), and Black Panther (the first black comic book character, although he was beaten to the big screen by Spawn).

DC Comics is similarly situated, with thousands of their own characters.

"Our properties span a really wide range of style and themes," says Paul Levitz, president of DC Comics. "We turn to them and look at what's new and what's in the stack and think how we can take advantage of it."

Queen among them is Wonder Woman, which is still several years off. Joss Whedon, the brains behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will direct — though the super-heroine may need some updating.

"The costume works phenomenally well in the comics, but is it going to work so well in a live-action film?" wonders Johan Weiland, executive producer of http://www.comicbookresources.com. "We know Linda Carter looked sexy (in the TV version), but she also kinda looked a little ridiculous."

Coming this November is V for Vendetta, starring Natalie Portman (with shaved head) and Hugo Weaving. It's written and produced by the Wachowski brothers, who made the Matrix trilogy.

Set in the near future, Vendetta is a series created in the `80s by Alan Moore, one of the most respected writers in comics. Moore's previous forays to the big screen haven't gone well, with duds like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Constantine. He has already been very critical of the Wachowski brothers' script, calling it "imbecilic."

A delay on the release date of Vendetta also seems possible given that the hero, V, blows up London's Parliament and subway system.

Moore's Watchmen is also in early preproduction, with Paul Greengrass (Bourne Supremacy) to direct. The landmark graphic novel takes place in an opposite world where President Nixon enjoys extreme popularity as he leads the U.S. to victory in Vietnam. Superheroes are real and must register with the government.

"As sacred as Spider-Man is, Watchmen is even more sacred," says Weiland. "It's probably the one all comic fans want to see made, but it's also the one we dread the most. If they screw that one up, big trouble."

Another classic, the Flash, is also in the incubator. After penning the screenplays for Batman Begins and Ghost Rider, David S. Goyer has been tapped to direct the speedster.

Closer to fruition are The History of Violence and Aeon Flux, both out later this year.

Violence stars Viggo Mortensen, is directed by David Cronenberg and comes from the same publishers of Road to Perdition. Aeon Flux stars Charlize Theron as the futuristic secret agent. It will get a sneak peak at Comic-Con Saturday.