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Tossed in Space

Strap yourself into a centrifuge and blast off to MarsBy Brad Lemley

Mission: Space

Walt Disney World/Epcot

In 1969, when I was 14 years old, I rode the Flight to the Moon attraction at Disneyland (owned by the Walt Disney Company, which also owns this magazine). I was underwhelmed. Among other tepid effects, a pump sucked air out of the riders’ seat cushions with an audible hiss—a ruse intended to simulate the inertial force that mashes astronauts back into their chairs during liftoff as their bodies resist the rocket’s forward thrust. A deflating whoopee cushion, I surmised, didn’t quite capture the drama of shooting into space. What it did was deflate the dream I had idly nursed of becoming an astronaut. If I could have experienced something remotely as thrilling as real spaceflight, I might have resolved to undergo the requisite grueling training. In those days, the option to sample a journey into space did not exist.

Now, to a surprising extent, it does. The new Mission: Space ride at Walt Disney World, outside Orlando, Florida, is an ambitious $150-million-plus effort to bring interplanetary travel to the masses. Although the “mission” lasts just four minutes, it was created with the aid of NASA scientists and is remarkably uncompromising. “It took my breath away,” says three-shuttle-mission astronaut Rhea Seddon, who rode it with her three children. “They were all asking me if the actual launch was like that. I said it was certainly realistic.”

Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company, copyright 2003

Fiberglass models of Mars, Earth, and the moon adorn the Planetary Plaza at Disney World's Mission: Space ride.

Engineers were still tweaking the ride when I arrived for a preview in June at the Planetary Plaza, a courtyard dominated by large fiberglass models of Earth, the moon, and Mars (see photo at right). Inside the building, the ride itself, like all things Disney, is embedded in a story. The year is 2036, and groups of four riders make up “Mars teams” in training to fly to the Red Planet. “Welcome to the International Space Training Center,” says actor Gary Sinise, playing the role of capsule communicator, who appears on a video screen. “Those made uncomfortable by enclosed dark spaces, spinning, or loud noises should bypass this experience,” adds an actress playing the flight director.

Uh . . . doesn’t that include everyone?

But Sinise says, “It’s go time!” in a manly way, so when the hatch slides open I gingerly step aboard a capsule attached to the end of a centrifuge arm. In fact, the whole ride consists of four centrifuges, each with 10 arms, with a four-passenger capsule at the end of each spoke. But riders can’t see any of these mechanicals. The spinning centrifuges push riders back into their seats, simulating the chest-pressing inertial forces-known as g-forces-that slam astronauts back during takeoff.

In each capsule, riders are designated “commander,” “engineer,” “pilot,” or-my position-“navigator.” The control panel facing each position is an abridged version of the one installed on the space shuttle, complete with gauges monitoring atmospheric re-entry and cabin pressure. A crystal-sharp LCD screen in front of each rider reveals a view of the launch tower framed by a sky filled with puffy clouds. Then the cabin door hisses shut, and things start happening quickly. As a countdown terminates with the word “Ignition!” the tower falls away, clouds flit past, stars wink on, percussive bass tones roar, and a startling quantity of force crushes me back. Intellectually, I know this is because the centrifuge has started to spin, but the sights and sounds in the capsule make the sensation of actually hurtling into space deeply convincing.

Earth slides off the screen, and the extra g-forces suddenly abate; clearly, the centrifuge has come to a sudden stop. Sinise’s disembodied voice informs us that we are now weightless. “Some people feel weightless at that point; some people don’t,” Disney spokesman Charles Stovall tells me afterward. I’m in the second group. While I no longer feel pressure pushing me into the back of my chair, I can sense Earth’s dependable gravity pulling me down into my seat—a sensation that, on Earth, can be canceled only by a long drop. Perhaps the engineers hoped that rapidly slowing the centrifuge would mimic the sensation of weightlessness, but they can’t overrule physics.

Just as unmanned Mars missions have in the past, we now begin a “slingshot” maneuver past the moon. When a small spaceship swings by the moon, it grabs some of the moon’s 2,287-mile-per-hour orbital velocity, which boosts the ship’s trajectory toward Mars-rather like a dancer flinging a partner across a ballroom floor. “Navigator, prepare for lunar orbit insertion!” Sinise barks, and a yellow button lights up on my control panel. Grinning like an idiot, I press it. The moon swings into view, and the centrifuge spins again. Soon after we whirl around the moon, we enter “hypersleep,” which explains how we manage to travel for three months in a few seconds. We “wake” to a scene that shows us barreling in fast over Mars’s 16-mile-high Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system. We land bouncily, overshoot the runway (built, the story goes, by robots from previous unmanned missions), and nearly plummet into a deep rift near the north polar ice cap.

“We used real satellite data from the two Mars orbiters to create those images,” show producer Sue Bryan tells me later. “You see the real textures, the real minerals, the real colors, the real landforms.” But the point is . . . we made it.

Suffering from mal de mer but otherwise exhilarated, I exit the capsule and explore not the sandy Red Planet but the ride queue area nearby, which snakes under an original Apollo-era lunar rover, designed by NASA for training purposes. (One of its mates sits abandoned on the moon.) Also on display is a 35-foot-diameter “gravity wheel.” Representing a cross section of the Mars rocket, it spins to show how the crew quarters and mess hall would generate artificial gravity during a real journey to Mars.

Sure, the idea is to have fun, but everyone involved in creating this ride has worked hard to give people a real taste of space. At 160 riders every seven minutes, more than 15,000 people could ride each day. With a number that large, it is not far-fetched to imagine a few life paths altered by the experience. “It’s really great if you can plant that seed,” show producer Bob Zalk says, adding that some may already be sprouting: “In early testing, we’ve had a couple of kids come off and say, ‘Gee, I want to be an astronaut!’”

I think I do too.

Photography Books

The Moons of Jupiter

By Kristen Leutwyler

W. W. Norton, $39.95

Moons of Jupiter

Courtesy of NASA/JPL

Jupiter’s satellite Io is equal parts Domino’s Pizza and Dante’s Inferno. The mozzarella-and-sauce landscape is created by fountains of scorching-hot sulfur and its compounds, which dapple the surface. Every year, these eruptions unleash about 50 times as much lava as all of Earth’s volcanoes, making Io the most geologically active body in the solar system. Pairing dramatic full-page images with poetic science essays, Kristen Leutwyler introduces the reader to Io and three other giant satellites-fractured Europa and planet-size ice balls Ganymede and Callisto-as well as a handful of Jupiter’s 57 tiny companions. She also includes a moving eulogy to Galileo, the intrepid spacecraft that mapped Jupiter and its environs for eight years before perishing in a controlled plunge into the Jovian atmosphere two months ago.

-Corey S. Powell


Tilt: A Skewed History of the Tower of Pisa

By Nicholas Shrady

Simon & Schuster, $21.95

Tilt: A Skewed History of the Tower of Pisa

Gaze at the plethora of Pisa-rabilia on sale to sightseers and you would never guess that until the 19th century the leaning bell tower was an acute source of embarrassment to those living in its vicinity. The residents of Pisa began to change their minds only when a local art historian managed to delude them into thinking that the tower had been built off-kilter intentionally. (A gathering influx of tourists may have also helped shift public opinion.) The truth is, though, that the campanile was in trouble from the start. In 1178, when it was half built, it was already leaning noticeably, and construction stopped. A century later, a new generation of builders offset the higher stories back toward the center line, giving the tower a slight curve. When it was all done, save for belfry and bells, writes Nicholas Shrady in Tilt, there were still in Pisa “a good many voices in favor of dismantling the misbegotten thing.” Who knew it would stay standing for the next 700 years? Who could guess it would become, in an age of mass tourism, an incongruous pillar of the city, far more famous than the magnificent cathedral next door?

In fact, the tower came within a touch of falling down. It was saved just two years ago when a commission—the 17th in a string spanning seven centuries—appointed engineers who extracted dirt from under the north side of its foundation, thus halting and even partially reversing its accelerating tilt toward the south. Shrady devotes the first and last chapters of this “skewed history” to an account of this delicate operation. Interspersed between these bookends are descriptions of how medieval Pisa became a maritime power that could afford a splendid Romanesque cathedral (the loot came from the sacking of the Muslim city of Palermo, Sicily, in 1063), and how the city subsequently fell into decline even before the adjacent bell tower was complete. There is also a long chapter on Galileo-Shrady demolishes the legend that Galileo dropped things from the tower—and an account of how the tower narrowly missed being blown up by American cannons in 1944. (The Germans had been using it as a vantage point to guide their own artillery.)

What is missing from his lopsided book, however, is much in the way of historical detail about the construction of the tower. Perhaps there is a dearth of documentary evidence. But if Shrady had provided more context on medieval building techniques, he might have arrived at a clearer answer to a central question about the tower: Was its architect incompetent or just unlucky when he planned a tall tower on shallow foundations in soft silt? He also fails to see the Looney Tunes humor in the Leaning Tower. Unlike all the tourists who line up for the standard souvenir photo, propping up the edifice with arms outstretched, Shrady adopts a romantic view. “The image of this tilting, defiant campanile symbolizes all that is wondrous and strange in a world that is fast losing good measures of both,” he concludes. Maybe so, but it’s still shaped like a banana.

-Robert Kunzing

Best Sellers


By Bill Bryson, Broadway Books

2. STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

By Mary Roach, W. W. Norton

3. ALPHA & OMEGA: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe

By Charles Seife, Viking Penguin


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5. KRAKATOA: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

By Simon Winchester, HarperCollins

6. THE MIRACULOUS FEVER-TREE: Malaria and the Quest for a Cure That Changed the World

By Fiammetta Rocco, HarperCollins

7. A TRAVELER’S GUIDE TO MARS: The Mysterious Landscapes of the Red Planet

By William K. Hartmann, Workman


By James Gleick, Pantheon Books

9. THE NEW BRAIN: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind

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10. EMPIRES OF LIGHT: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World

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Source: Barnes & Noble Booksellers

The Master Key to Literacy

Rising from humble origins, the alphabet now serves 4.8 billion folk.

By Margaret Foley

Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z

Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet From A to Z.

By David Sacks

Broadway Books, $24.95

A potbellied clay chicken balanced on two plump legs may seem an odd choice for a schoolchild’s primer. Yet 26 familiar symbols march in a wavy line around the midriff of this 2,550-year-old Etruscan jug. The first six scratched into the ceramic are identical to the first six letters of the English alphabet, and at least half of the remaining 20 bear a close resemblance to the letters still studied by small children today. Even though the Etruscan tongue is now extinct and largely indecipherable, the alphabet employed by its speakers and scribes—a trading people who lived along the Italian coast in the first millennium B.C.—has survived. Indeed, variations of this alphabet are now used by three-quarters of the world’s population. “Like the wheel,” David Sacks writes in Language Visible, “it changed the ancient world, and, like the wheel, it is still with us and has never been superseded.”

Sacks celebrates this ingenious human invention, letter by letter, in a historical chronicle packed with curious trivia. Prior to the advent of the alphabet, he reports, written communication in the Middle East relied largely on hieroglyphics, a cumbersome system of symbols that worked both pictographically and phonetically. Each figure could signify the item that it pictured as well as a sound or sounds related to the pictured word. These sounds could then be combined with other symbols to spell words. Sometime around 2000 B.C., a Semitic people toiling in Egypt as soldiers or laborers simplified the system, assigning some of the Egyptian hieroglyphics to sounds in their own language. For example, they took a symbol that looked like a head in profile, called it resh, a Semitic word for “head,” and assigned it the sound r.

Courtesy of the Photography Library of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This alphabet-inscribed clay Etruscan clay rooster may have once belonged to a child.

The house-shaped bayt signified a b; the squiggly silhouette of mem, or “water,” indicated an m; and so on. From Egypt this malleable and easy-to-use alphabet spread rapidly throughout the ancient world. Seafaring Phoenicians adapted it to their language, followed by the Greeks, the Etruscans, and the Romans, who by 250 B.C. had settled on a 21-letter scheme, dropping five Etruscan letters that were useless in Latin. This alphabet, with the later addition of j, v, w, y, and z, is the one we still use today.

Sacks’s survey includes forays into topics ranging from the history of typesetting to the twisty tale of c, k, and q. (The Phoenicians pronounced the precursors of k and q in slightly different ways, while the Etruscans replaced the Greek gamma-which stood for a sound they did not use-with the crescent-shaped c.) He carefully delves into the archaeological evidence for the alphabet’s origins, describing the oldest known alphabetic inscriptions, dating to about 1800 B.C., which were recently identified among rock carvings at Wadi el-Hol in central Egypt. Language Visible’s chief delight, though, lies in Sacks’s linguistic miscellany. For example, he relates Sir Walter Scott’s observation that our livestock often bear English names such as sheep, cow, and swine, because they were tended by English peasants. Yet the meat, which was destined for the plates and palates of their Norman overlords, is dignified with French-derived names: mutton (from the French mouton), beef (boeuf), and pork (porc). No matter how the rich rearrange its letters, though, the down-to-earth and durable alphabet remains—as it was from its earliest days—the doorway to literacy for the common people.

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Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s beloved founding fathers, collected electricity from lightning in 1752 by standing outside in a thunderstorm holding a kite—or so the legend goes. Tucker claims the fabled experiment was a fraud concocted by Franklin, a witty polymath and inveterate mischief maker, to garner celebrity and upstage his foreign rivals.

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Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson

Granville Woods patented devices as diverse as a steam boiler furnace and an electric incubator. Shelby Davidson strove to improve efficiency at the U.S. Treasury by inventing adding machines. Lewis Latimer co-patented a train-car lavatory and several improvements to electric lamp design. Historian Rayvon Fouché documents the struggles of these early black inventors and dismantles several myths surrounding their lives. Latimer thrived through assimilation with his white colleagues, while Woods never achieved financial success, even though his 45 patents later earned him accolades as the greatest inventor in the history of his race.

-Maia Weinstock

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