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News Briefs

Passports, Visas to Get High-Tech

THE NEW YORK TIMES -- WASHINGTON

Technologies that scan faces and fingerprints will become a standard part of travel for foreign visitors next year, and for all travelers in the near future. The technology, known as biometrics, has been developing for years, but largely because of security concerns after the attacks on Sept. 11, its arrival has been greatly accelerated.

One deadline looms large -- Oct. 26, 2004. In a little over a year, the State Department and immigration bureau must begin issuing visas and other documents with the body-identifying technologies to foreign visitors. The change is mandated by border security legislation passed by Congress last May. The federal government has started issuing border-crossing cards for Mexican citizens and green cards that display fingerprints and photos.

Mars Is Getting Close, and Maybe So Are Those Little Green Men

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Anyone looking at the night sky the last few weeks has seen it coming, Mars looming larger and redder on the way to one of its close encounters with Earth. It happens every two years or so. But this time, on early Wednesday morning, Mars and Earth will be closer together than at any time in almost 60,000 years.

Near as Mars will be this week, 34,646,418 miles away, observers are hardly likely to see as much as their imaginations once could see.

The planet’s red glow used to remind people of blood and life and war. Mars was assumed to be inhabited, perhaps by intelligent beings like the little green men of lore. It was a neighboring world that enthralled and intimidated people.

When some astronomers in the late 19th century thought they could make out canals stretching across the planet’s deserts, these were presumed to be a great civilization’s desperate attempt at survival in a harsh climate. It seemed to follow that adversity drove Martians to interplanetary belligerence, a theme science fiction feasted on, notably in H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” Orson Welles’ realistic radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells story about a Martian invasion of Earth panicked many listeners on the night before Halloween in 1938.

Human attitudes were shaped by curiosity as much as dread. Beginning in 1911, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote 11 romantic books about an American adventurer’s travels to spired and domed cities of Mars, where he woos and wins a beautiful princess. Is it any wonder that people began listening for radio messages from Mars?

Marconi, the wireless inventor, announced in 1921 that he had received mysterious signals in code that he suspected came from Mars. So the next year and again in 1924, at close approaches of Mars, the U.S. government requested all radio stations to observe complete silence for a certain period while operators listened for Martian signals. Navy transmitters in the Pacific remained silent for three days, while a codebreaker stood by to translate any messages from Mars -- all in vain.