Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Totally Radish Test in Space and More. .

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Totally Radish Test in Space and More. .

Article excerpt

Compared with the great scientific discoveries of this century, some experiments being conducted aboard the current space-shuttle mission might appear downright goofy.

There's the experiment to measure the effects of weightlessness on a pair of toadfish. There's the effort to create more fragrant perfumes in space. And then, there's the great American cockroach, which one Maryland high school class will be studying to see if weightlessness affects the bug's body rhythms and appetites.

(No word yet on whether bugs dine any differently on pellets 340 miles up.) While much of the attention has focused on John Glenn's sleep patterns and bone mass, the vast majority of the work aboard Discovery involves hundreds of experiments that could produce the food, medicines, and funky gadgets of tomorrow. Such experiments may not have the emotional tug of leaving boot prints on the moon, but they represent the evolving purpose of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration. The science conducted aboard NASA's space shuttles, experts say, may end up having as much impact on the lives or ordinary earthlings as rocket science itself. "It's myopic to say, 'Where's this all going to lead?' " says Larry Pinsky, a physicist at the University of Houston. Even the 19th-century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, credited with discovering that light was just another form of electromagnetism, had no idea his discovery would make possible all the computers, radios, light bulbs, and VCRs that 20th-century folks take for granted. So, if the scientists in charge can't predict the possible applications of their study, Dr. Pinsky says, it's unfair to cheer some experiments and jeer others. "If we don't know where major discoveries are going to come from, then we should roll back ignorance on a broad front." At Vero Beach High School, in Vero Beach, Fla., Carol Haffield's science students are pushing back the final frontier by studying a pack of ordinary radish seeds. They have added a growth hormone, gibberlic acid, to radish seeds in a canister aboard Discovery and another set of seeds here on Earth. In theory, the hormone should coat the seeds more evenly in zero- gravity than it would on earth, and result in sturdier, more productive plants in the limited confines of a future space station or lunar colony. "This is a chance of a lifetime," says John Soethe, a junior at Vero Beach and one of four students who constructed the radish-seed experiment, beating out 100 other student experiments in a citywide contest. "I don't guarantee it will work, but I'm sure hoping." At the University of Wisconsin, chemistry professor Norm Draeger is hoping to develop a more fragrant rose in space, which could have lucrative applications in the highly competitive and fickle perfume industry. …

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