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Businessweek Archives

What Does Mars Sound Like?

Developments to Watch


EARTHLINGS MAY BE ABLE TO EAVESDROP ON MARS VIA THE INTERNET NEXT YEAR. If NASA's Mars Polar Lander touches down without mishap in December, 1999, an audio chip on the vessel will pick up the first sounds from another planet and broadcast them back to Earth.

Nothing exotic is expected--just whooshing wind and the scratch of sand blowing against the Lander. But there might be muted thunder from dust-cloud storms. "We don't really know what Mars's electrical discharges will sound like," says Janet G. Luhmann, a physicist with the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley. "It might be just a crackling sound."

The $100,000 tab for the Mars Microphone project is being paid by the Planetary Society of Pasadena, Calif., a nationwide organization of space buffs. The audio chip is from Sensory Inc., and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. made the flash-memory chips that will store the sounds. Martian sounds will be recorded in 10-second increments, and the loudest segment will be relayed back to earth every 10 days.

Luhmann's team will post them on the Net at, and they are hoping for something unexpected. That could secure a ride for another Mars eavesdropper on NASA's next mission in 2001.EDITED BY CATHERINE ARNSTReturn to top


HEALTH-FOOD STORES PROMOTE VITAMIN E AS AN EFFECTIVE WEAPON against heart disease, but there has been no proof that it actually works. Now, there's evidence it does in mice: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania say they have shown that vitamin E protEcts mice against atherosclerosis, the artery-clogging condition that leads to heart attacks.

The mice were genetically engineered to have high cholesterol and develop atherosclerosis. The researchers reported in the October issue of Nature Medicine that, after 16 weeks, heart tissue damage was cut by 40% in the mice on vitamin E. Significantly, cholesterol remained high; the improvement seemed to come from a reduction of free radicals in the bloodstream.

Free radicals are constantly created in the blood. Scientists speculate that high levels of free radicals, caused by smoking or highcholesterol, can damage blood vessel walls. So-called antioxidants, including vitamin E, can mop up the excess free radicals--and perhaps prevent damage. But the idea couldn't be tested without an accurate method for measuring free radicals in the blood.

Dr. Garret A. Fitzgerald, chairman of the Pharmacology Dept. at Penn, says he and Joshua Rokach, a chemist at Florida Institute of Technology, devised a free radical test three years ago, enabling them to conduct the mouse trials. Fitzgerald cautions against taking large doses of vitamin E until human trials are conducted, but the American Heart Assn. does recommend eating foods high in vitamin E, such as lettuce.EDITED BY CATHERINE ARNSTReturn to top


SMART TOYS DON'T NEED A LOT OF COMPUTER SMARTS. Witness Furby, a garrulous and ingratiating new fuzzball that could be this Christmas' Tickle Me Elmo. Like many other chip-enhanced dolls, Furbies talk, giggle, open and close their eyes, and respond to pokes, tilts, or tickles. But this latest electronic pet is amazingly convincing--in part because, like real pets and some family members, its reactions are a bit out of whack. Furby's inventor, David M. Hampton, planned things that way. In the process, he saved Furby's manufacturer--Tiger Electronics Ltd., a unit of Hasbro Inc.--a bundle in manufacturing costs.

To hold Furby's list price to $30, less than one-third the cost of Microsoft Corp.'s ActiMates Barney doll, Hampton and the Tiger development team used some ingenious shortcuts. Instead of expensive communications circuits--the kind that permit wireless messaging among various computer devices--Furbies exchange crude infrared signals to trigger spontaneous-sounding giggles and goofing sessions. As for processors, the toy's silicon brain is a low-cost Asian variant of the chip that powered the original Apple II.

Furby has trouble doing two things at once, and that's just fine, since carefully crafted software rules give the illusion of complexity. Talking, for example, always takes priority over listening. So Furby sometimes seems a little unresponsive--not unlike some children we all know. Likewise, while the toy is in motion, its sound sensor automatically switches off, which saves battery power and prevents motor noise from confusing the sensor. Furby's 1,000 bits of trainable memory manage a vocabulary of just 200 words. But these words get combined in ways that even the inventor never predicted. The effect compares favorably with a hamster, and beats the heck out of a pet turtle.EDITED BY CATHERINE ARNSTReturn to top

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