World and Nation

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Fireball in Texas Sky, Its Origin Unknown

The fireball that streaked across the Texas sky and appeared to dive toward earth over the weekend remained a mystery on Monday after the military said the event had nothing to do with a collision of satellites last week and did not seem to involve an artificial satellite coming down.

“We still think it’s possible it might be a natural phenomenon, a meteor or asteroid,” said Maj. Regina Winchester, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Strategic Command, in Nebraska.

Whatever it was, the fireball on Sunday caused great consternation and wonder across Central Texas. Dozens of people called the police to report sonic booms and a bright fireball plunging toward the ground around 11 a.m.

In Williamson County, north of Austin, so many callers were convinced that the plummeting light was a burning aircraft that the sheriff’s office dispatched a helicopter and several patrol cars to look for debris.

“No one said they saw it crash,” said a spokesman, Detective John Foster. “But it looked like it was going down; it was approaching the earth.”

Lisa Block, a spokeswoman for the Texas State Police, said troopers were flooded with calls around the same time from McLennan County, which includes Waco, and Kaufman County, southeast of Dallas.

The Federal Aviation Administration has determined only that the object was not an aircraft.

Byron D. Tapley, the director of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas, Austin, said it was highly unlikely that the object came from the collision of a Russian satellite and an American communications company satellite over Siberia last Tuesday. Tapley said the belt of debris, some 500 miles above the earth, was too high for pieces to come down this soon.

Boycott Over Louisiana Law Seen As Door to Teaching Creationism

A leading scientific group has announced its intention to boycott Louisiana because of a new state law that could open the door to teaching creationism in the public schools.

The measure, signed into law last summer by Gov. Bobby Jindal, allows teachers to “use supplemental textbooks” in the classroom to “help students critique and review scientific theories.”

A leading Christian conservative group here, the Louisiana Family Forum, championed the law; a member proposed the bill to its legislative sponsor.

Scientists denounced the law as a back-door effort to sneak creationism into the classrooms.

In response to the law, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, formerly the American Society of Zoologists, wrote to Jindal this month to announce it would not hold its 2011 annual meeting in New Orleans, opting for Salt Lake City instead.

“It is the firm opinion of S.I.C.B.’s leadership that this law undermines the integrity of science and science education in Louisiana,” the president of the society’s executive committee, Richard A. Satterlie of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, wrote to the governor, a Republican.

The group has more than 2,300 members, mostly academics who teach across the spectrum of biological sciences. It said its most recent convention, in Boston last month, brought together more than 1,800 scientists and graduate students for five days.

“The S.I.C.B. leadership could not support New Orleans as our meeting venue because of the official position of the state in weakening science education and specifically attacking evolution in science curricula,” Satterlie wrote. “As scientists, it is our responsibility to oppose anti-science initiatives.”

Facebook’s Users Ask Who Owns Information

Reacting to an online swell of suspicion about changes to Facebook’s terms of service, the company’s chief executive moved to reassure users on Monday that the users, not the Web site, “own and control their information.”

The online exchanges reflected the uneasy and evolving balance between sharing information and retaining control over that information on the Internet. The subject arose when a consumer advocate’s blog shined an unflattering light onto the pages of legal language that many users accept without reading when they use a Web site.

The pages, called terms of service, generally outline appropriate conduct and grant a license to companies to store users’ data. Unknown to many users, the terms frequently give broad power to Web site operators.

This month, when Facebook updated its terms, it deleted a provision that said users could remove their content at any time, at which time the license would expire. Further, it added new language that said Facebook would retain users’ content and licenses after an account was terminated.

Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, said in a blog post on Monday that the philosophy “that people own their information and control who they share it with has remained constant.” Despite the complaints, he did not indicate the language would be revised.

The changes in the terms of service had gone mostly unnoticed until Sunday, when the blog Consumerist cited them and interpreted them to mean that “anything you upload to Facebook can be used by Facebook in any way they deem fit, forever, no matter what you do later.”

Given the widespread popularity of Facebook — by some measurements the most popular social network with 175 million active users worldwide — that claim attracted attention immediately.

The blog post by Consumerist, part of the advocacy group Consumers Union, received more than 300,000 views. Users created Facebook groups to oppose the changes. To some of the thousands who commented online, the changes meant: “Facebook owns you.”