Another Week of GW News, April 8, 2012 [A Few Things Ill Considered]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 11 April, 2012 - 06:46

Logging the Onset of The Bottleneck Years
This weekly posting is brought to you courtesy of H. E. Taylor. Happy reading, I hope you enjoy this week's Global Warming news roundup

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Categories: Education

A Brief History of Timekeeping: Final Notes [Uncertain Principles]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 10 April, 2012 - 17:24

Between unpleasant work stuff and the Dread Stomach Bug wiping out the better part of five days, I only got my student evaluation comments for my winter term class last week, and I'm only getting around to writing the post-mortem now. This was, for those who may not have been obsessively following my course reports, a "Scholars Research Seminar" class with the slightly cute title "A Brief History of Timekeeping," which is intended to introduce students to scholarly research and writing. The topic for my SRS was timekeeping, specifically the development of various timekeeping technologies and the science behind them. This ranges from Stonehenge to NIST-F1, so it's a lot of material.

So, how did it go? Pretty good, though there were some things I'll tweak when and if I do this again. I'll go into detail below the fold, but here's something I wasn't able to get together in time to be useful for the course: a time-lapse video of Union's campus, made up of webcam pictures at 3pm every day (4pm after the Daylight Savings switch) from the start of the year until the beginning of April:

The particular camera we had available wasn't really well suited for this-- it didn't have the kind of exposure control that would've been ideal-- but you get the idea of how the Sun changes position as time goes on. Also, you get an idea of our lovely weather...

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Categories: Education

Meet the Next 5 of the Top 20 Finalists for the Kavli Video Contest! Vote for "The People's Choice Award"! [USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 10 April, 2012 - 06:57

The Kavli Science Video Contest has wrapped up with over 260 entries! Now it's time for the People's Choice Vote, in advance of the awards ceremony on April 29, in Washington, DC, as part of the USA Science & Engineering Festival. People's Choice Voting begins April 2 and closes April 13. Voting is easy, just view the videos on YouTube and click 'like" for your favorites. Click here to view the videos.

We have been highlighting the Top 20 Finalists on our blog for the past two weeks. In today's blog get to know the next five of the Top 20 Finalists:

Entrant: Sowmya Mullapudi
Entry: Stem Cell Research
Stem Cell Research.jpg
What are your favorite subjects? Science and Literature
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video?
After being assigned stem cells for a speech topic in freshman year, the potential of stem cells blew and continues to blow my mind. Stem cells can cure many diseases in the world, but many people don't know about them like myself in freshman year. Therefore, this potential inspired me to make this video to increase awareness of the good stem cells research can bring to society.
What do you want to study in college? I'd like to study medical (pre-medicine) and pharmaceutical studies.
What kind of career do you want to pursue? I'd like to pursue a career in stem cell research, drug development, or medicine, because I feel like all these fields are rapidly bringing positive change in curing diseases and saving many people.

Entrants: Alex, Aliya, Anita, Jeremy, Joshua, LaBria, Michael, Molly, Sophie G, Sophie S, Tom
Entry: What Will the World Be?
What would the world be.jpg
What are your favorite subjects? Science, Art, English, Gym, Social Studies, Math, Physics, and Technology
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video?
A love of science! (Joshua)
I want everyone's attention to be brought to the point that one person can make a difference with the help of science. (Sophie G)
It showed me why science is important. By exploring the different answers to the question "how can science save the world?", science became one of my favorite subjects. (Sophie S)
I saw some on youtube and asked my teacher if we could make a class one. (Michael)
Riding on my bike and conserving kinetic energy made me interested in piezoelectricity. (Tom)
I am an animal fan so I wanted to do something on animals. (Jeremy)
Well, I was noticing a lot of problems around the world and I wanted to get the message out that if we don't stop littering and causing all this pollution, in a thousand years we might not be here. (LaBria)
I knew that fossil fuels from the earth are running out, so I wanted to research wind turbines and how we can collect energy from the wind. (Anita)
I chose to study solar energy because it can save the environment. (Alex)
I never knew what science could really do and how important it was. Once I did know, I wanted to share my knowledge with others. This was a perfect way to do it! (Molly)
Enthusiastic scientists can save the world, and we are all scientists. (Tom)
What kind of career do you want to pursue? Pediatrician (LaBria), Electrical engineering (Tom), Author (Sophie G), Write comics (Jeremy), Professional volleyball player, doctor, or a teacher (Anita), Famous video game maker (Alex), Computer designer (Michael), Robot design/Computer Science (Joshua), Teacher (Sophie S).

Entrants: McKenzie Clark,16 and Bridget O'Toole,16
Entry: "Tech Town"
Tech Town.png
What are your favorite subjects? Film, Art, Multimedia
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video? We heard about the contest on our schools morning announcements and immediately went to our tech teacher to get more information. It was weird how we read each others minds and knew exactly what kind of video we wanted to do. It's a perfect combination of art, film technique and technology, our favorites!
What do you want to study in college? Film and Art

Entrant: Megan Rosenberger, 17
Entry: Water is Life"
Water is Life.jpg
What are your favorite subjects? Calculus, Statistics, Science
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video? In 2004, when I was just 9 years old, the tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane was ever recorded: Ivan. My house was flooded with water, and I wondered if there was any way our flood could have been prevented. I became familiar with a rain barrel during the summer of 2009 when I approached a local environment fair's booth. I soon became curious of there was any way to additionally enhance the rain barrel to help the environment. I contacted Create Change Africa to learn about their water crisis relief efforts in Ghana and how rain barrels impact developing countries with a limited supply of drinking water. By installing my rain barrel in developing countries, the communities' lives of millions will be impacted. Not only can a fresh water supply be possible, but electricity could be made possible as well! Since then I have worked with this Ghana community to make a difference through my science and engineering research!
What kind of career do you want to pursue?Civil or Environmental Engineering

Entrants: Jeremiah Kim, Gabe Ball, Nick Van Steenhuyse (13)
Entry: "Solar Energy"
Solar Energy.jpg
What are your favorite subjects? Math/ Science
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video? I wanted to save energy and make more - Jeremiah Kim, I wanted to be able to make the world better - Gabe Ball, I wanted to create a world that produced rather than deduced - Nick Van Steenhuyse
What do you want to study in college? Pre-Med/Medical School, Business, Graphic Design
What kind of career(s) do you want to pursue? Doctor, CEO of a Solar Company, Graphics Designer

Thank you to all of the entries for the 2012 Kavli Foundation "Save the World Through Science & Engineering" Video Contest!!

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Categories: Education

When supernovae get too big! [Starts With A Bang]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 10 April, 2012 - 02:29

"You cannot, in human experience, rush into the light. You have to go through the twilight into the broadening day before the noon comes and the full sun is upon the landscape." -Woodrow Wilson Without a doubt, one of the most spectacular light shows of the cosmos happens when stars burn out -- reaching the end of their normal life cycle -- and die in a great supernova explosion. We've spoken in the past about the main ways that these stars die. Either a very massive star -- something more than ten times as massive as our Sun -- reaches the end of its nuclear fuel, and its core collapses, blowing off its outer layers in a massive explosion.

(Video credit: NASA / ESA, retrieved here.)

This is how the Crab Nebula, from a type II supernova explosion nearly 1,000 years ago, was created. These supernovae leave behind a collapsed object, either a black hole or a neutron star, at the center of the now-destroyed progenitor star.

On the other hand, less massive stars don't collapse like this; their core merely contracts as their outer layers are blown off much more gently. This produces a planetary nebula that fades over time, and a very long-lived white dwarf at its core.


(Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA.)

But these white dwarfs get a second chance at a supernova. When they either accrete enough additional mass or -- as now seems to be the more likely scenario -- merge with another compact object, they can also undergo runaway nuclear reactions. This typically destroys both stars, leaving neither a neutron star nor a black hole behind, but releasing a tremendous amount of energy in a type Ia supernova.

(Video Credit: NASA / CXC / A. Hobart.)

There is some variation among the core-collapse types of supernovae, but I'd like to remind you of what goes on inside of those stars. While nuclear fusion is occurring, the outward radiation pressure from the fusion in the core holds the rest of the star up against gravitational collapse.


(Image credit: Sakurambo at wikimedia commons.)

But when that nuclear fusion in the core runs out, the core collapses under its own gravity, emitting tremendous amounts of light via the conservation of energy. Why's that? You know all about gravitational potential energy; it's why that weight you drop onto your foot hurts so much! Well, when you collapse a large mass -- something hundreds of thousands to many millions of times the mass of our entire planet -- into a small volume, it gives off a tremendous amount of energy.

In theory, if we made a star massive enough, like over 100 times as massive as the Sun, the energy it gave off would be so great that the individual photons could split into pairs of electrons and positrons. Electrons you know, but positrons are the anti-matter counterparts of electrons, and they're very special.


(Image credit: NASA / CXC / M. Weiss.)

Because a positron will run into an electron in short order, annihilating it, producing a gamma-ray. And if the rate of gamma-ray production is fast enough, you heat up the core. In other words, if you start producing these electron-positron pairs at a certain rate, but your core is collapsing, you'll start producing them faster and faster... continuing to heat up the core! And you can't do this indefinitely; it eventually causes the most spectacular supernova explosion of all: a pair instability supernova, where the entire, 100+ Solar Mass star is blown apart!

At least, that was the theory. Was, I say, because in 2007, that's exactly what was observed!


(Image credit: A. Gal-Yam et al. at the Weizmann Institute, Israel.)

This supernova, known as Sn 2007bi, is exactly this type of pair-instability supernova that was only theorized. What's extra remarkable about it is that, when we peer deep into the Universe to look at where it came from in depth, we literally see practically nothing!


(Image credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey.)

I say practically nothing, of course, because there really is something there. Far away is a tiny, faint, and distant dwarf galaxy, just barely visible with the right image manipulation.


Dwarf galaxies, it turns out, form stars only on very rare occasions. But when they do, they form them in great bursts, with often the entire galaxy becoming a great star-forming region! When this happens -- much like the great star-forming region at the center of our galaxy -- we get large, 100+ solar-mass stars as part of the deal: the only candidate for forming these pair-instability supernovae!

As was just reported, this supernova, Sn 2007bi, is the first confirmed pair-instability supernova ever, and it needs this relatively pristine environment present only in young, dwarf galaxies (and not in our metal-rich Milky Way's center) to do it!

Which means, of course, that if we want to see one close by, we need to know where to look. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you your neighbor, NGC 1569!


(Image credit: ESA, NASA and P. Anders (Göttingen University Galaxy Evolution Group).)

A dwarf galaxy so close to us it's actually blueshifted towards us, this old, low-metal galaxy has been forming stars as recently as within the last 5 million years! (Look in the X-ray if you don't believe me!)

So supernovae formed from massive stars will leave you a neutron star, or, if they're bigger, a black hole, or, if they're really bigger, absolutely nothing, except a much richer, heavy-element-filled Universe, perfect for creating things like you and me. And aren't we fortunate for that!

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Categories: Education

How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog: A Review Is In [Uncertain Principles]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 9 April, 2012 - 19:32

sidebar_relativity_cover.jpg I'm trying not to be Neurotic Author Guy and obsessively check online reviews of How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog every fifteen minutes. I've actually been pretty successful at it, so successful that I didn't notice the first posted review at Amazon until my parents mentioned it to me. It's a really good one, though:

I'm at the point know where I could answer some of the most basic questions that his dog has, but I remember a time when I couldn't and when the questions the dog asks would've been exactly the questions that I would have had. Pretty much every time a statement by the author left me slightly confused or uncertain his dog would stop him in his tracks and ask either the question that I was thinking or a different question that either way would lead to the answer that I needed. I wish that all science authors, whether their books in dominated by dialogue or not would be as focused as Chad Orzel when it comes to anticipating questions that readers might have. I don't think writing the book as a series of 'conversations with his dog' was the reason that this book is successful; I think it is the fact that the author was able to anticipate and answer clearly questions that readers might stumble upon, and using his dog was an excellent way to not only answer important questions that could cause readers to stumble, but also because the dog's interruptions highlighting important points that often can be confusing or just need to be addressed to develop a clearer understanding.

This book will blow your mind!!!!!

Woo-hoo! I couldn't ask for better than that.

So, you know, if you were waiting to hear a random Amazonian's take on the book before buying it, well, there you go. Grab your copy now.

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Categories: Education

Explorers in Our Midst: What the James Cameron Voyage Can Tell Us [USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 9 April, 2012 - 16:00

By Larry Bock
Founder and organizer, USA Science & Engineering Festival

In our world of high-tech bravado, I often wonder where we'd be without explorers -- those undaunted heroes and heroines of the past and of today whose achievements, like an unforgettable song or movie -- form a lasting impression in the brain over what the human spirit can accomplish with will and perseverance.

From the annals of history, their names roll off the tongue almost effortlessly: Vespucci, Columbus, Lindbergh, Earhart, Shackleton, Henson, Cousteau, Glenn and others -- people who, bolstered by a sense of adventure and a higher purpose, had the courage to push the limits of human (and craft) endurance in order to explore unknown realms and regions -- and in the end, to help us see what really is on "the other side."

It is great to know that individuals such as these remain in our midst, inspiring and amazing us with their feats of exploration. Film director James Cameron is one of them.

web_cameron_thu_1388564cl-8.jpgAs you may know, Cameron recently undertook and successfully completed an historic voyage to the deepest known point in any of the world's oceans (about 11 kilometers) in his one-man submarine, the Challenger Deep, in the Pacific Ocean southwest of Guam. At this deepest point on Earth, where he spent three hours shooting footage and collecting research samples as part of a joint project with the National Geographic Society, he said he found the ocean to be eerie and desolate, almost like being on another planet.

Said the acclaimed director of such films as Titanic, Avatar and The Abyss: "My feeling was one of complete isolation from all of humanity... I just sat there looking out the window, looking at this barren, desolate lunar plain, appreciating."

"It's really the sense of isolation, more than anything," he continued, "realizing how tiny you are down in this big vast black unknown and unexplored place." Later, he will share footage and experiences of his journey through a deep-sea documentary, which will likely include 3D video of never-before-seen views -- all which he hopes will draw attention to the need for further study of the ocean, one of the last unknown frontiers of exploration on Earth.

What does it take to be an explorer? What are the challenges and risks? What are the payoffs?

These are some of the questions that young students and others will get answered when they meet and hear prominent explorers this spring as part of the USA Science & Engineering Festival hosted by Lockheed Martin, the nation's largest celebration of science and engineering.

At the Festival's Expo weekend celebration (a free event) April 28 to 29 in Washington, D.C., excitement will abound as visitors learn from space and ocean explorers and other trailblazers -- including Space Shuttle astronauts, the world's first female private space explorer, professional storm chasers and the oceanographer who helped lead the exploration of the Titanic.

In the Festival's mission to inspire the next generation of innovators as well as informing the public about the fascinating world of technology, we are especially looking forward to giving kids and others a peek into the world of scientists, engineers, explorers and other innovators who are helping to make it all happen.

Here are just some of the explorers that Expo visitors will meet:

-- John Mace Grunsfeld, Ph.D., five-time Space Shuttle astronaut and Hubble Space Telescope repair expert

-- Anousheh Ansari, an electrical engineer and technology entrepreneur who made world headlines in 2006 by becoming the world's first female private space explorer, and the first astronaut of Iranian descent

-- Josh Wurman and Karen Kosiba, both scientists from the Center for Severe Weather Research who explore bad weather in the teeth of raging hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards and wildfires

-- David Gallo, oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanograhy Institution, who co-led expeditions to the Titanic and the German battleship Bismark

-- Nan Hauser, ocean scientist and president of the Center for Cetacean Research & Conservation, who explorers the world's oceans studying the humpback whale and other endangered marine life

-- Richard Garriott, legendary computer video game innovator who, in 2008, became the sixth private citizen to journey into Earth's orbit when he traveled to the International Space Station as a self-funded tourist (Garriott is the son of former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott who completed two space missions in the 1970s)

-- Chantelle Rose, high school science teacher in Ohio who is among seven teachers currently undergoing training with the Teachers in Space Program for a suborbital flight on a commercial spacecraft -- after which she will share her experiences with current and future students

-- Inspirational book authors in exploration: The Expo includes a Book Fair on April 28 to 29 that highlights prominient Featured Authors in science and technology. Authors in exploration that are sure to wow you include: Homer Hickman, a former NASA engineer whose No. 1 New York Times bestselling book, Rocket Boys, was based on his childhood love of space exploration and building rockets, and which was the inspiration behind the acclaimed film October Sky. Ed Sobey, an oceanographer-turned-author who has participated in research expeditions and other projects around the world including Antartica, in addition to circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean. Jeffrey Bennett, whose works such as Max Goes to the Moon, and Max Goes to Jupiter, has been an inspiration to kids toward space exploration and other frontiers

In addition, at the Expo, Lockheed Martin and other festival partners will take visitors behind the scenes to view leading aerospace technology that is helping forge bold new paths in space discovery. For more information on the Expo and Book Fair, visit

Join us in April as we inspire the next generation of innovators -- and explorers!

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Categories: Education

...But What If There Was More Time? [Starts With A Bang]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 8 April, 2012 - 05:43

"Well you run and you run to catch up with the Sun but it's sinking,
racing around to come up behind you again.
The Sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
shorter of breath and one day closer to death." -Pink Floyd For the last four-and-a-half billion years, the Earth has spun on its axis, orbiting its parent star: our Sun. Today, our home planet looks something like this.


(Image credit: Reto Stöckli, Nazmi El Saleous, and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, NASA GSFC.)

Looking at our world, even from outer space, you see some very familiar features that we think of as essential parts of our world. The vast, watery oceans. Our substantial (but not too thick) cloud-filled atmosphere. And the great land masses: our continents. These continents are, perhaps, the most striking feature to a traveler looking down on our rock from space, as the land on our world is not merely the color of the rock that composes it or the ice frozen upon it.

No; huge swaths of our Earth's land is transformed by the color of the life that dwells upon it.


(Image credit: Juan Manuel, a.k.a. Van Pelt on flickr.)

The way we got here is a remarkable story in its own right. What we commonly think of as complex life -- the plants and animals visible to our naked eyes -- has existed on Earth for only around 600 million years.


(Image credit: Planet Dinosaur.)

Prior to that, life was mostly colonies of single-celled organisms, engaging in relatively simple life processes, like turning sunlight into energy, or somewhat more complex lifeforms feeding off of that abundant biomass. It makes you wonder what took so long; what took the Earth around four billion years to bring about the large plants and animals that have dominated the planet?

We've gone from fish to insects to reptiles and dinosaurs to (eventually) birds and mammals. We've gone from the seas up onto the land and into nearly every possible location on the planet. And yet, what science tells us is that for nearly 90% of the Earth's history, we didn't have anything like what we have today. It turns out we've actually been incredibly fortunate to go down the path that we did.


(Image credit: Joel Cayford.)

The atmosphere that we take for granted is a relatively recent thing. In particular, it took billions of years of organisms turning sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates -- an energy source that could be used even in the absence of sunlight -- which produced oxygen as a by-product. At first, this trace amount of oxygen was absorbed by the oceans or by the seabed rock. Once the oxygen began to make its way out of the oceans, it was absorbed by the land surface. Finally, the oxygen accumulated in the atmosphere, paving the way for life as we know it.


(Image credit: Christian Jégou.)

It took more than four billion years for life to make it onto land on our planet, and we've got maybe another 500 million to one billion years left.

What, that's it?

Yes, that's it. Why such a short time?


(Image credit: Wikipedia/wikimedia commons user Tablizer.)

Because the Sun, like all stars, burns more luminously as it gets further and further along in its life cycle. By the time its energy output increases by another 10-20%, the oceans will boil, and terrestrial life as we know it will cease to exist.

If we had a cooler, lower-mass star, it would burn its fuel more slowly, and increases in such a star's energy output would give us more than this narrow, 1-1.5 billion year window for land-based life.


(Image: Morgan-Keenan Spectral Classification.)

That's not so hard; while our Sun certainly isn't the biggest, hottest, or brightest star out there, being a G-type star, only 5% of the stars in existence are brighter and hotter than our Sun! Most stars -- meaning around 90% -- are either K or M-type stars, which not only live longer than our Sun, but burn cooler and in a more stable fashion than our Sun does.

So while our Sun and Earth have been around for 4.5 billion years, the Universe has been around for 13.7 billion, or more than three times as long. If you were to condense the entire history of the Universe into one calendar year, the gas cloud that collapsed, forming the Sun and Earth, wouldn't have done so until early September of that year.


(Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / T. Pyle (SSC).)

That's good, because back on January 1st, there was no carbon for our sugars, nitrogen for our DNA, oxygen for our lungs, calcium for our bones, iron (or copper) for our blood, or phosphorous for our body's (ATP) energy system. There was no silicon for the "rocky" part of our rocky planets.

It took generations of stars to live and die, fusing their primordial hydrogen and helium into the heavier elements that make us up, spitting that spent fuel out into the Universe once those earlier stars reached the end of their life cycles.

Many ways to die.jpeg

(Image composite created by J-P Metsävainio of AstroAnarchy.)

But did we really need 9+ billion years of previous generations of stars to have the type of planet we have today? What if these generations came and went quickly in some places in the Universe, and gave rise to rocky planets many billions of years before Earth was a twinkle in its grandfather-star's belly?

What if, instead of in September of the Universe's history, there were rocky planets in the Universe's early days, some of which might still be around today?

If this possibility sounds exciting, have I got news for you.


(Image credit: NASA, retrieved from Discovery News.)

375 light-years away, here in our own galaxy, lies an old, non-descript star, just a little less massive than our own Sun. If our Sun formed in the Universe's "early September", this star, HIP 11952, was formed in late January/early February, an estimated 12.8 billion years ago.

What's remarkable about this star? It's the oldest, most ancient star ever confirmed to have planets orbiting it!


(Image credit: Timotheos Samartzidis.)

So far, they have confirmed two gas giants planets orbiting it, with the smaller one just a bit less massive than Jupiter, while the more massive one nearly is three times as heavy as our Jovian giant. The star itself has fewer heavy elements than any other star ever found with planets around it, but, compared to most other stars its age, is extremely enriched with these elements essential to all we hold dear.

We've long known that there are regions of space that burn through generations of stars much more quickly than, say, our corner of the Milky Way does. A prime example is any actively star-forming region, such as the center of our own galaxy.


(Image credit: NASA / JPL-Catech / S. Stolovy / Spitzer Space Telescope / IRAC.)

With the oldest confirmed gas giant planets around it (according to this research, published last month), could this star also have rocky planets around it, too? With a longer lifetime than the Sun, if there are rocky planets here, could they have harbored complex, macroscopic life for not just half-a-billion years, but for many billions of years?

If so, what would that look like? And if they were technologically savvy, what could they accomplish?


(Image credit: Jeffy Kun at DeviantArt.)

And if not, we've got literally billions of old, cool stars -- stars that may be rich enough in heavy elements to have rocky planets -- to sift through and search. We've found solar systems with Earth-sized (or smaller) planets, we've found solar systems with rocky planets in their star's habitable zones, we've found cool stars, sun-like stars and hotter stars with rocky planets, and now we've found very old stars with planets around them, too.

We normally think of Earth -- and the complex life on it -- as the epitome of what the Universe can create with its building blocks. But there's a whole Universe out there just waiting to be discovered, and what's out there may be more fantastic than anyone has ever imagined.

(My apologies for the unusually long time between posts. I thought a few times about cranking out something short and light, but you've grown accustomed to things being of a certain quality here, and I wouldn't dare disappoint you. Hope it was worth the wait!)

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Categories: Education

Meet the Next 5 of the Kavli Science Video Contest Top 20 Finalists - Now Who will Win the "People's Choice" Vote? [USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 6 April, 2012 - 16:00

The Kavli Science Video Contest has wrapped up with over 260 entries! Now it's time for the People's Choice Vote, in advance of the awards ceremony on April 29, in Washington, DC, as part of the USA Science & Engineering Festival. People's Choice Voting begins April 2 and closes April 13. Voting is easy, just view the videos on YouTube and click 'like" for your favorites. Click here to view the videos.

We will be highlighting the Top 20 Finalists on our blog for the next two weeks. In today's blog get to know the next five of the Top 20 Finalists:


Entrants: The "Black Gold Miners"- Nikhil Srinivasan,13 Akshay Karthik,13 Aidan Pavao,14, Akash Purohit,14
Entry: How Composting Can Save the World
The Black Gold Miners.jpg
Where do you go to school? R.J. Grey Junior High School. Acton, MA.
What are your favorite subjects? Science & French (Nikhil) Math, Science, Spanish (Akshay)
Science, Math & Social Studies(Akash) Science & French (Aidan)
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video?
We produce lots of food scraps and other compostable waste that is dumped in landfills and produces methane, polluting the atmosphere. Living in a world where our generation might have to deal with extensive pollution and lack of resources is a daunting task. To help myself and other kids of my generation, I want to help lower how much trash we end up burning or placing in landfills. I am a strong believer in trying to make Earth a more environmentally- friendly place; a place void of pollution and other hazardous conditions. I feel that if every person does a little bit to help, we can reach zero-waste and ultimately drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions/ pollution. Composting is a great way to reduce trash, thereby lowering methane production in landfills, and it's very beneficial to gardeners and farmers!
What do you want to study in college? Neuroscience (Nikhil) Math, Chemistry, Oncology (Akshay)
Astronomy or Engineering or Biology (Akash) Biology (Aidan)
What kind of career do you want to pursue? Medical science with a focus on neuroscience research (Nikhil) Medicinal, Chemist (Akshay) A science career which relates to the environment or space (Akash) Biofuel and other alternative energy resources. I hope that biofuel and solar will replace coal and oil during my lifetime! (Aidan)

Entrants: Matt Koutsoutis,15, Queenie Luo, 15, Ananya Joshi,14
Entry: "Innovating Cities"
Innovating Cities.jpg
Where do you go to school? High Technology High School, Ocean, NJ
What are your favorite subjects? Math (Matt), Language Arts (Queenie), Biology (Ananya)
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video? A few years ago, we read an article on the green city of Tianjin, so we thought about creating a green city. In software applications class, we just learned how to use Adobe Flash, so we decided to use it for the video.
What do you want to study in college? Mathematics (Matt), Business (Queenie) Biochemical Engineering (Ananya)
Which colleges? Princeton(Matt), Yale (Queenie), MIT (Ananya)
What kind of career do you want to pursue? Math professor (Matt), Entrepreneur ( Queenie), Biochemical Engineer (Ananya)

Entrant: Julia Kudryashev, 16
Entry: "Bioprinting"
PastedGraphic-2 (252x300).jpg
Where do you go to school? Dulaney High School in Timonium, MD
What are your favorite subjects? Engineering, Science, and Math,
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video? Earlier this year I read an article about the first successful transplant of a printed lower jaw, and this got me thinking about the relationship between the 3D printer and the world of medicine. Fascinated by this emerging field, I began to do some research and in the process discovered the world of bioprinting. The concept of printing live cells in 3D structures was amazing enough that I felt I should enter a video about it..
What do you want to study in college? I plan on majoring in engineering, though as of yet I'm undecided on the specific field.
Which college(s)? UC Berkeley, Caltech, or Johns Hopkins
What kind of career do you want to pursue?
I absolutely love to build things, particularly those that are robotic in nature, so any job in which I would be able to design and create something new would be ideal. My dream job would be to work for NASA so that I can help engineer robots to send into space!

Entrant: Rocky DeHart, 17
Entry: " The Electric Rail System"
Rocky DeHart.jpg
Where do you go to school? Pathways to Technology Magnet School, Windsor, CT
What are your favorite subjects? Pre-Calculus, Biology AP, and Programming.
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video? Every time I drive somewhere, I realize how easy it would be for me to get in a car crash. Someone would simply have to take a sharp turn into
oncoming traffic and I would be done. So out of curiosity I looked up how often crashes do happen, and my results were devastating. Thousands of people are killed each year from crashes. So I tried to design a new transportation system that would make crashes impossible, at first i was only thinking about safety, but my idea kept growing and growing, and eventually I came up with the most convenient way of travel, The Electric Rail System.
What do you want to study in college? I would like to study Software and Hardware Logic.
I would also like to minor in Film Production (screenwriting).
What kind of career(s) do you want to pursue? Either a Developer for new groundbreaking hardware or
a Screenwriter for the next generation of movies, or both if I'm lucky!

Entrants: Isaiah Cabanero, 16, Shanna Losanes,16, Bea Nufuar,16, Phoebe Subo,16
Advisor: Mr. Angelo Ovido
Entry: Listen
Where do you go to school? Philippine Science High School, Iloilo, Central Philippines
What are your favorite subjects? Physics (Isaiah), Chemistry (Shanna),Robotics( Bea), Biochemistry (Phoebe)
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video? Well, the moment Mr. Olvido told us about the video contest we definitely all got excited actually! We can say that we mostly got inspired to even do better in making this video because of the situation of the Earth here in our country, the Philippines. Well, we know that we are rich in natural resources but it's just sad how most of these blessings for us are not well-taken care of or well-loved. And problems occur, and science and engineering are very helpful definitely today to help solve these problems. We know that we all want to make our own step in making this world a better place. And I think this was one thing we thought we could do our part in saving the world (in our own little way as teenagers of this time) to make it a better place for all of us.
What do you want to study in college? - Civil Engineering (Isaiah), Management of Applied Chemistry (Shanna), BS Biology, (Bea and Phoebe )
Which colleges? University of the Philippines - Diliman ( Isaiah), Ateneo de Manila University (Shanna), West Visayas State University (Bea and Phoebe)
What kind of career(s) do you want to pursue?

Thank you to all of the entries for the 2012 Kavli Foundation "Save the World Through Science & Engineering" Video Contest!!

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Categories: Education

The Story of the One Little Pig, the Nice Wolf, and Materials Science [Uncertain Principles]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 6 April, 2012 - 15:50

I want a story. The story about one little pig, and the wolf.

I'll need you to help me with it, OK?



OK, once upon a time, there was one little pig, and he... What did he do?

He built a house out of straw.

Right. He was a little bit silly, so he built himself a house out of straw. Which is a terrible material to build a house out of.

So, then, one day, a big wolf came along, and said [scary wolf voice] "Little pig, little pig, let me in!"

But he was a NICE wolf.

Right, so he said [scary wolf voice] "Little pig, little pig, let me in! I'm a nice wolf, but I sound like this because this is how wolves talk." and because he was a nice wolf, the little pig let him into the house, and offered him something to eat, which was...?

No, the wolf wasn't hungry. He just wanted to watch tv.

OK, right, the wolf wasn't hungry, so they just sat down to watch tv, and--

No, no-- first they have to make the tv. Out of... What's our tv made out of?

A tv is made out of glass, and metal, and plastic.

OK, so they made that. How do you make glass?

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Categories: Education

Poll: Most Important Part of Physics? [Uncertain Principles]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 4 April, 2012 - 16:29

Over in Twitterland, we have a question from WillyB:

If you had to pick one topic to cover in Physics, which do you think is the most important for the gen. public?

This sounds like a job for the Internet! To the polling machine!

If you had to pick one topic to cover in Physics, which do you think is the most important for the general public?

While several of the options allow linear superpositions of solutions, this is a purely classical poll, so you may choose only one answer. Though you should, of course, feel free to bitch about the choices in the comments.

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Categories: Education

The Festival Expo Map is Ready to View! Start Planning for Your Festival Weekend Today! [USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 4 April, 2012 - 16:00

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for usa_science_engineering_festival_newlogo.jpg
We are excited to share the news that the 2012 USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo Map is out! The Festival will run from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM on Saturday, April 28th and from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM on Sunday, April 29th. We will also host free evening shows including the Stargazing Party and our Featured Author Panel Discussion both on Saturday night. The "Largest Celebration of Science" will take place this year in Washington, DC at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

The Festival is packed with entertainment for the whole family with 3,000 exhibits and over 150 stage shows. We are thrilled to offer extraordinary hands on activities at the exhibits plus an amazing line up of science celebrities and authors will fill our Festival stages! We have finalized all of the presentation show dates, times and stages so that you may plan ahead to make your Festival experience that much more enjoyable.

mythbusters-adam-jamie.jpgDo you want to be entertained by the famous duo Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman from The Mythbusters? Check them out on Saturday afternoon at 1:00 on the Curie Stage. Are you a fan of Bill Nye the Science Guy? You can see Bill Nye on Saturday afternoon at 3:30 on the Curie Stage. You can have the experience of a lifetime listening to the incredible innovators Elon Musk, George Whitesides and Richard Garriott early Saturday evening at 5:00 also on the Curie Stage. The Icons Legend will help you to choose the stage shows to explore with symbols such as little kids, explosive, music, celebrity and magic!

Our Book Fair stages have been categorized by genre including Teen Non Fiction, Family Science and Hands on Science. Take a look at the map to plan out which Featured Author Presentations with free book signings you would like to visit such as bestselling author of Crater, Homer Hickam or Physicist and author of Knocking on Heaven's Door, Lisa Randall.

FRIZ in Adventure_Magic School 2 (189x300).jpgTraveling to the Festival with young children? Be sure to visit our very own replica of the Magic School Bus featuring character actresses playing Ms. Frizzle. PBS Kids will also be at the Festival to thrill your budding scientists! And you cannot miss the 2012 National Robot Fest & DIY Expo located in Hall B! Our Meet the Scientists/Engineers in the Career Pavilion is a great place for high school students to explore various careers in science and engineering. Every hour students can conduct in-person interviews with scientists and engineers from different disciplines.

Our map legend makes it simple for you to explore the Festival with symbols for exhibits, stage shows, first aid stations, restrooms and numbers for our major exhibitors. You can also collect your "Festival Stamps" on the Expo Map. Collect stamps when you complete at least 10 exhibits from any of the thematic tracks and then visit the National Academics Exhibit to enter a prize drawing!

So whether you want to plan out your weekend excursion at the Festival or just get to know the layout of the Expo, be sure to follow this link to see the Expo Map!

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Categories: Education

Why Haven't We Discovered the Higgs yet? [Starts With A Bang]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 4 April, 2012 - 02:21

"...the publisher wouldn't let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing."
-Leon Lederman, author of The God Particle The Higgs Boson: you know the deal. It's the last undiscovered particle in our current picture of all the fundamental particles in the Universe.


(Image credit: Fermilab, retrieved from here.)

If we can find it, we'll either have a big clue as to what the next step to take in physics will be, or we'll be forced to admit that physics works too well, and many of the great hypotheses (supersymmetry, large extra dimensions, etc.) are highly unlikely to be within our reach. It all depends -- if we find it -- on what its properties are.

So how do we go about finding it? We accelerate particles to the highest energies we've ever reached on Earth, smash them into one another at strategic collision points, and observe the debris that results.


(Image credit: CERN / Particle Physics for Scottish Schools.)

These collisions are so frequent at the Large Hadron Collider, numbering about 600 million per second, that we couldn't possibly record them all. Instead, what we do is look for exotic signals, or signals that have quickly measurable indicators that something interesting may be going on, and only record those. This is vital, because each collision shows up looking like this in one of the two main detectors.


(Image credit: AP Photo / CERN / CMS, retrieved from CBS news.)

So what particle physicists looking at this do is try to reconstruct, based on what's showing up in the detector, what was created when these collisions occurred. The difficulty of this is mind-boggling; it makes blood-spatter analysis look like child's play.

We can actually do this, and determine what particles came from what locations with a specific energy at a specific time, for pretty much everything (except neutrinos) that are produced! This is important, because depending on what mass of the Higgs Boson is, and whether it's a normal, standard-model Higgs or something more exciting, the Higgs should decay into different particles of a given energy.


(Image credit: Fermilab's "Higgs Missing Report".)

So when we reconstruct that there were bottom-antibottom quarks leaving a collision, that's interesting. When we see two high-energy photons, that's interesting. When we see a tau-antitau pair, that's interesting, too. And so on.

But the Higgs isn't the only thing that produces those particles. In fact, many other things produce those particles. The big question -- and the reason finding the Higgs is so difficult -- is that we have to figure out how much. It's what makes physics so powerful, the fact that we're a quantitative science. And you may have seen the ATLAS results here just a few months ago, where their combined data provided some very suggestive evidence of a Higgs boson at about 126 GeV/c2.


(Image credit: Fabiola Gianotti for the ATLAS collaboration / CERN.)

The best signal, as you can see in red, comes from looking at what appears to be a Higgs Boson decaying into two photons.

But what does that mean? Where does that graph come from? Well, I don't need to describe it, when the cover of one of last month's issues of Physical Review Letters can show you!


(Image credit: G. Aad et al. for the ATLAS collaboration.)

What this graph is showing you is, with the black data points, the data observed by the ATLAS experiment. This is contrasted with the (red line) theoretical prediction of all the known particles and interactions of the standard model, excepting the Higgs. A deviation from that red line indicates either an experimental fluctuation or some type of new physics.

Let's go in for a closer inspection, with some annotations (in blue) by me.


A visual inspection clearly shows the excess of data peaked at around 125 GeV/c2, but that's hardly an incredibly convincing graph! It should clearly show you why we say we need to take more data before we have successfully convinced ourselves that this is new physics and not simply a fluctuation. The degree of statistical significance we require in this discipline to announce a discovery is five standard deviations; on its own, this study -- the best individual channel searching for the Higgs Boson -- doesn't even reach three.


But this is why we're increasing the energy of the beam, taking more data, and trying to establish exactly what is and what isn't a fluctuation.

And if we can get the data to say that with some degree of certainty, "there is some new physics here," the next step is to ask whether it's a standard model Higgs Boson or not. Because it might be simply be a standard model Higgs Boson at ~125 GeV/c2, and there might not be any new physics beyond that -- in the world-case scenario -- all the way up to the Planck scale! (Of 1019 GeV!)

A Likely Higgs.jpg

(Image credit: P. P. Giardino et al, as is the next image.)

If this is the case, we should see a specific excess of signals at an energy corresponding to the Higgs Boson's mass in each channel: bottom-antibottom quarks, two photons, a tau-antitau pair, W-bosons, Z-bosons, etc.

If you take a look at the error bars on the graph, above, you'll see that we are way more likely to wind up on the green line (Standard Model Higgs) than the red line (no new physics), but we may also wind up in... well... a weird place! What do I mean by weird? I mean that the thing we find may not be the Higgs Boson we're looking for, or it may not be a Higgs Boson at all.


What we see, so far, is consistent with a Standard Model Higgs Boson, but that is by no means the only (or, arguably, even the best) interpretation. If I were a betting man, the Standard Model Higgs Boson is what *I* would bet on, but it isn't the only possibility, and we need to take more data to be able to decide.


So be patient. This is how we do science, and this is what it takes to get it right. Above all else, we should all be ecstatic to see that the science is being done properly here; we owe it to everyone doing their job correctly to give them the time to do it right.

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Categories: Education

Kavli Science Video Contest Top 20 Finalists Have Been Selected- Now Who will Win the "People's Choice" Vote? [USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 3 April, 2012 - 16:00

The Kavli Science Video Contest has wrapped up with over 260 entries! Now its time for the People's Choice Vote, in advance of the awards ceremony on April 29, in Washington, DC, as part of the USA Science & Engineering Festival. People's Choice Voting begins April 2 and closes April 13. Voting is easy, just view the videos on YouTube and click 'like" for your favorites. Click here to view the videos.

We will be highlighting the Top 20 Finalists on our blog for the next two weeks. In today's blog get to know the first five of the top 20 Finalists:


Entrant: Rachit Agarwal, 14
Entry: "Rachit Robot"
Rachit Agarwal.jpg
Where do you go to school? Roberto Clemente Middle School, Germantown, MD
What are your favorite subjects? Computer Science and Science
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video? My passion for robotics and scientific curiosity to solve problems
What do you want to study in college? Engineering & Business
Which college? MIT, Stanford, or Harvard
What kind of career do you want to pursue? Engineering Entrepreneur

Entrant: Cameron Quon, 17
Entry: "Solar Power, Saving With Solar
Where do you go to school? Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California
What are your favorite subjects? TV Production, Science, Math, and English
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video? 10 of the schools in our district began putting up solar panels over our parking lots this year. Creating a video relating to science and engineering seemed to fit perfectly with this project.
What do you want to study in college? I want to major in broadcast journalism as a pre-med.
What kind of career do you want to pursue?
I want to combine my love for broadcast journalism, my avid interest in medicine, my excitement for traveling abroad, and my love for Jesus into a career as a medical news-correspondent/broadcast-journalist with an active medical practice. I yearn to open the eyes of the world through the eye of the lens.

Entrants: Kevin Liberman,17 Anna Spitz, 17, Amit Silverstein,18, Alex Neiman, 16
Entry: "Saving the World"
Kevin, Anna, Amit, Alex.jpg
Where do you go to school? Tarbut V' Torah (TVT) in Irvine, California
What are your favorite subjects? Math , Physics, Engineering
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video? I wanted to make a video about promoting alternative fuels because I envision that it will play a large role in making our lives greener and better. (Alex) To help the environment and help our school's engineering club (Anna) I want to help make others aware of possible solutions to our environmental challenges.( Amit) I am passionate about automobiles, alternative fuels and, as a future engineer, I want to make a difference in this world. That is why I enrolled in AP Environmental Science, started a Science and Engineering club at my school, and recruited my friends to make this video with me. I hope you enjoy it! ( Alex)
What kind of career(s) do you want to pursue? Engineering (ALL)

Entrant: Kyle Davis, 17
Entry: Saving the World
Where do you go to school? Oakleaf High School, Orange Park, FL
What are your favorite subjects? Environmental Science, 3D animation
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video? A movie not out yet called "Chasing Ice" a documentary about ice caps melting and I felt like I could really get the word out through this video contest.
Which college? Full Sail University to study 3-D computer animation

Entrant: Sreya Vangara, 12
Entry: Nuclear Fusion
Where do you go to school? Roberto Clemente Middle School, Germantown, MD
What are your favorite subjects? Science, Math, English, Spanish, Computer Science
Can you tell us what inspired you to make this video? I actually came across this contest while checking out a link to the U.S. Sci. Festival that my science teacher gave to me. We are actually going to the festival on a field trip. I decided to enter the contest, but didn't know what to make the video on. Later, while I was working on a science project on Nuclear Fusion, I decided to make my video on Nuclear Fusion. I mean, why not? I could get my video and project research done at the same time! I went through a lot of trial and error getting the soundtrack (voice) in. But it was worth it!!! I actually had fun doing it! Of course, science is fun...
What do you want to study in college? I want to major in Computer Science, Science (physics), and Math. I really love science! I also want to learn lots of foreign languages so I can travel the world and be a member of UN (I'm on my way! English, Telugu, and some of Spanish down! ) Or, I will major in law so I can be president when I grow up (my dream!) The first woman (and Indian) president.

Thank you to all of the entries for the 2012 Kavli Foundation "Save the World Through Science & Engineering" Video Contest!!

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Categories: Education

Ten Years Before the Blog: Historical Recap [Uncertain Principles]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 3 April, 2012 - 15:45

June 22, 2012 will mark the tenth anniversary of the founding of this blog. While I would like to one day be famous enough to be able to staple together a collection of loosely related blog posts and call it a book, I'm not there yet. This particular arbitrary numerical signifier does, however, seem worth some commemoration. Also, while I have some idea of how the site has evolved over the last ten years, it's been a slow process, so I thought it would be interesting to troll back through the archives and see how things used to be.

Next Friday, appropriately enough the 13th, will be exactly ten weeks short of the ten-year anniversary. So, my vague plan (more of an aspirational goal, really) is to go back through the archives, starting with the original blogger site and highlight some of the most notable stuff from each year of this blog's existence each of the next ten Fridays.

So, why am I mentioning this today, which is not a Friday, in a post which does not contain any outstanding historical bloggage? Well, for one thing, most of my mental processing cycles are currently taken up by unpleasant stuff that I can't blog, but can't stop thinking about. More importantly, though, there's a vast amount of material here, and to go through it quickly will require a lot of skimming, and I might miss some stuff.

So, consider this post both notice of the upcoming series of posts, and also an open forum to suggest things from this blog's past that I ought to keep an eye out for. If there's an old post that you particularly liked, leave a URL in the comments; if there's something you sorta-kinda remember, leave a description and I'll try to find it as I go through old stuff.

And if any publishing types out there would like to buy a shaggy best-of collection of blog posts by a physics professor and midlist-y pop-science writer, email me, and we can talk....

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Categories: Education

NASA Senior Review 2012 [Dynamics of Cats]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 3 April, 2012 - 07:14

Every other year NASA conducts a Senior Review of its astrophysics missions that have completed their nominal mission and are requesting an extension of their mission.

The 2012 review panel just reported.

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Categories: Education

Another Week of GW News, April 1, 2012 [A Few Things Ill Considered]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 2 April, 2012 - 16:51

Logging the Onset of The Bottleneck Years
This weekly posting is brought to you courtesy of H. E. Taylor. Happy reading, I hope you enjoy this week's Global Warming news roundup

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Categories: Education

A Confusing Light OPERA: How Does a Loose Fiber Optic Cable Cause a Signal Delay? [Uncertain Principles]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 2 April, 2012 - 16:10

So, the infamous OPERA result for neutrino speeds seems to be conclusively disproven, traced to a problem with a timing signal. Matt Strassler has a very nice explanation of the test that shows that the whole thing can almost certainly be traced to a timing error that cropped up in 2008. This problem is generally described as resulting from a "loose fiber optic cable," and Matthew Francis's reaction is fairly typical

The main culprit was a fiber optic cable that was slightly out of alignment. This is not quite a "loose wire", as it sometimes has been described: it's far more subtle and harder to check than that, but it's still fundamentally a simple technical problem. (My prediction that the effect was due to something really subtle turns out not to be correct!)

As a professional Optics Guy, I would beg to differ a little. Assuming that this hasn't been garbled by some sort of translation issue, this really is something subtle and surprising (albeit in a technical way, not a new physics way). You wouldn't generally expect to get a significant timing delay from a loose fiber optic connector, because of the way that fiber optics work, which is fundamentally different than the way ordinary electrical cables work.

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Categories: Education

Rosetta Stones [Greg Laden's Blog]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 2 April, 2012 - 15:57

One of my favorite bloggers, Dana Hunter, who blogs with me at, is now also blogging at Scientific American at a new blog called Rosetta Stones.

I was five years old, and Mount St. Helens was busy erupting all over my teevee. I made it a get well card. It looked like it hurt. Thus began an ongoing conversation between me and objects people tend to think of as inanimate until they explode, rip apart, or fall down.

Go check it out!

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Categories: Education

Tell My Dog What She Got Wrong: How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog Errata [Uncertain Principles]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 1 April, 2012 - 15:32

In comments to yesterday's post, Andrew G asked:

Speaking of writing, is there an errata list somewhere for "How to teach relativity to your dog"?

No, but there probably should be. I believe there's an error in one of Maxwell's equations (an incorrect sign, though you should've seen the first typeset version...), but given the length and complexity of the book, there are almost certainly other mistakes. So, if you've spotted an error, in physics, grammar, or anything else, leave a comment here, and I'll compile a list of things to fix if we ever get the chance.

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Categories: Education

I Want To Live In A Bathysphere [Universe]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 1 April, 2012 - 03:02


Is poetry a driving force of Oceanography?
Read Rimbaud!

- Phillipe Diolé

I've written many times, although not recently, about the ocean.

When I first began Universe in 2005, it was practically a ship's log: meandering pieces on narwhal tusks, the accidental poetics of my hero, Rachel Carson, and adolescent screeds on the perils of the Mariana trench. At some point in my career, I ported my energies outward to the cosmos, reasoning, as the ancient alchemists did, that "As Above, So Below."

The movement from the deep to the distant, from sea to space, seemed like a sensible evolution. I saw parallels then, as I do now. They are both cold, forbidding, strange, contain tremulous mysteries, and do not give their secrets readily. Tales of their early exploration contain feats of unspeakable audacity, as well as tragedy. Solitary heroes stand out: Yuri Gagarin in his Vostok spacecraft, Jacques Cousteau developing the Aqua-Lung in order to push deeper underwater, the elite few men and women who have dared venture far above, far below. Listen to a veteran diver discuss the sea and an astronaut space: you'll hear the same hushed tones, the same fearful, learned respect.

After all, what experience does this planet offer us more phenomenologically similar to spacewalking than floating in a deep ocean? Water is the best environment for spacewalk training on Earth; substituting neutral buoyancy for microgravity, NASA Astronauts train at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston, a giant swimming pool. I've always been delighted by images of this place; if you squint just right, and ignore the scuba divers, it almost looks like outer space is robin's egg blue and dotted with bubbles.


In spite of our egotism, the human organism is delicate. We're only built to tromp around the accommodating portions of the Earth. The moment we're submerged in the ocean, or we ascend too high a peak&#8212to say nothing of outer space&#8212we're out of our league. Yet, in our incorrigible hubris, we've long used technology to wander beyond our territory. Aristotle wrote of diving bells, and (apocryphally) even Alexander the Great explored the deep ocean&#8212in a submarine of white glass, where the fish gathered 'round to pay homage&#8212and returned to pronounce of his experience, "the world is damned and lost." Mercury spacecraft and the early Soviet Vostok capsules may as well have been diving bells; they were so small, it's said that they were worn, not ridden.


"The sea," Captain Nemo pronounces, in one of literature's more glamorous depictions of the deep, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, "does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still excercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and can be carried away with terrestrial horrors. But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears. Ah! Sir, live&#8212live in the bosom of the waters! There only is independence! There I recognise no masters! There I am free!"

This sentiment, an inverted Overview Effect, sounds familiar. Astronauts consistently speak of the irrelevance of borders, even nations, on a planet viewed from space. It's probably the most consistent revelation of spaceflight, the majestic panorama of a whole planet, seen without its despots and ideologues. The Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, only the second man in space and the first to be there for more than 24 hours, described the experience of seeing the Earth from space as "a thousand times more beautiful than anything I could have imagined." After orbiting the planet over a dozen times, Titov replied a call from mission control with the elated cry: "I am Eagle! I am Eagle!"

An Eagle, of course, has no masters.

Today, in cramped cockpits and bathyspheres, astronauts and their aquatic counterparts lie contorted in the same metal cabins, surrounded by death, peering from thick windows into empty, hostile landscapes. Cloaked in metal, they transport light where there has never been any&#8212to what James Cameron, after his much-ballyhooed recent dive to the Challenger Deep, called a "barren, desolate lunar plain," or (more viscerally) which William Beebe, passenger in the world's first bathysphere, described as "the black pit-mouth of hell itself."


This "black pit-mouth" is what interests me. Essentially every culture has a mythological history which includes primal undifferentiated formlessness. The abyss, as much topless as it is bottomless. And the abyss, figuratively speaking, is neither distinctly maritime nor interplanetary. Rather, it's a little of both: Tao, the primal ocean upon which Vishnu slumbered, amorphous being, chaos preceding time. Is this because the ancients knew on a symbolic level what our scientists empirically know now: that the abyss&#8212in both worldly forms&#8212is the seat of our lineage? We are, as Carl Sagan said, "made of starstuff." We're also risen from the sea. The salt in our veins is testament.

Beebe, one of the greatest American explorers, in his book Half-Mile Down, a record of his dive to 3,028 feet in 1934, wrote that it seems "a very wonderful thing, to walk about on land today, vitalized by a bit of the ancient seas swirling through our body. It is somehow of a piece with stars and time and space-something to be very quiet and thoughtful about, and proud of." Indeed, while beneath the waters lies a cruel landscape, and while the cosmos is vast and unforgiving, they are both our birthright. Our impulse to travel far below and above our limits is precisely that of children striving to return to the womb, only to discover that birth is as great a nothingness as death.

Between coral/Silent eel/Silver swordfish
I can't really feel or dream down here

Further Reading:

Half-Mile Down, by William Beebe
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne
The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson

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Categories: Education

WebElements: the periodic table on the WWW []

Copyright 1993-2011 Mark Winter [The University of Sheffield and WebElements Ltd, UK]. All rights reserved.