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The Power of Admitting "I'm Wrong" [Starts With A Bang]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 17 April, 2012 - 06:50

"Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing wrong with this, except that it ain't so." -Mark Twain

"It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong." -Richard Feynman Every day that you set forth in the world is a new opportunity to learn something about it. Every new observation that you make, every new test you perform, every novel encounter or piece of information you pick up is a new chance to be a scientist.

How so?


(Image credit: Alan Chen.)

You have a conception of how things work in this world. You've pieced it together as a combination of your experiences, your knowledge, and the working hypotheses that you've accepted as the best mirror of reality. And every new shred of evidence you pick up about reality interrogates these hypotheses, daring your picture of reality to hold up to this level of scrutiny.

No matter who you are, no matter how smart you are, no matter how brilliantly you've drawn the conclusions you've drawn from the evidence you've gathered, there will come an instance where the evidence you encounter will be irreconciliable with the picture of reality you presently hold. And when that moment happens, your response will mean absolutely everything.


(Image credit: Glennbeck.com.)

Because there is the possibility that your view of reality -- the way you make sense of things -- is flawed in some way. You have to open your self up to at least the possibility that you are wrong. It is a humbling admission, that you may be wrong, but it's also the most freeing thing in the world. Because if you can be wrong about something, then you can learn.


(Image credit: Dave Koerner at Northern Arizona University.)

The discovery that planets move about the Sun in ellipses required exactly that; were it not for Kepler and his ability to accept that his earlier models were flawed, and then abandon them and create new and improved ones, physics and astronomy would likely have been set back an entire generation. And if you, yourself, can do this in your own life, you can find a better explanation for the phenomena you encounter in this world. You can bring your understanding of the world more closely in line with what reality actually is. In other words, you can do what all good scientists do, and in the end, learn something amazing.


(Image credit: NASA, retrieved from Universe Today.)

But if you can't admit that you might be wrong, if your picture of reality is unchangeable despite any evidence to the contrary, if you refuse to assimilate new information and new knowledge and re-evaluate your prior stance on an issue, then you will never learn.


Perhaps as an adult you're entitled to that right; you are, after all, free to believe whatever you want. But if you're a student in school? Your job is to learn. If you don't do your job, particularly if you don't even try to do your job, it's your teachers duty -- and I would say responsibility -- to fail you.

At least, it should be. Recently, some incredibly appalling things have been happening in education that completely undermine this, including the banning of the words 'dinosaur' and 'evolution' from standardized tests and the passage of Tennessee's "academic freedom" bill that allows teachers to teach counterfactual scientific information to their students about biological evolution and climate science, among other topics.


(Image credit: Listverse / Mike Devlin.)

And this is unfathomable to me. See that creature above? That's a black wolf. Know what's interesting to me about it? The black wolf doesn't occur in nature! The mutation for black fur did not occur until after the domestic dog had been in existence for thousands of years. If ever you see a black wolf, that tells you that at some point in their lineal history, there was a wolf that engaged in breeding with a domestic dog that had that (dominant) black fur mutation.

Biology, of course, doesn't stop with evolution. What I just explained to you is an explanation that requires genetics to understand, which is encoded in an organism's DNA. But before you get to DNA, before you even get to genetics, at a more basic level you must have an understanding of evolution. If you want to understand disease: evolution. If you want to understand whales and dolphins: evolution. (I mean come on, they've got freakin' leg bones!)


(Image credit: retrieved from distraff at selectsmart.com.)

Same deal with global warming; there are plenty of people asserting that the Earth isn't warming anymore (yes, there really are), despite all studies showing that it totally is, if you look at the data without cheating. For example, last year (2011) was "only" the 11th-warmest year on record since records began in 1880. But last year was also a La Niña year, which is characterized by cooler temperatures. It was also the hottest La Niña year of all time, since 1880.

The question I always ask people who dig in even deeper when their view on an issue is challenged by new data is the following: What evidence would it take to change your mind on this issue? For the "Is the Earth continuing to warm" question, you may very well get your wish in 2012 or 2013; one of the next two years could easily become the new warmest-year-on-record.


(Image credit: NASA / GISS global average temperature data.)

Believe it or not, it's actually harder for many of us to admit that we could be wrong about something the less we know about it! Why's that? A neat little psychological effect known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. In a nutshell, it says that people who are incompetent at something (e.g., biology, climate science, etc.) lack the very skills necessary to evaluate the fact that they are incompetent!

This results in people who know almost nothing about a particular topic who are willing to opine at length, argue with experts, and declare -- incorrectly -- that they are right and you are an idiot. Here's the original graph from the original Dunning-Kruger paper, illustrating exactly that.


(Image credit: Justin Kruger and David Dunning, 1999.)

But if we recognize that our present understanding may not be the final answer, and we can absorb that ego-bruise from possibly not being in the right when we thought we were, we can step forward. There are plenty of people working to help make it easier for us all to do exactly that. I'm not exempt from this either, even in areas where my knowledge actually is far above average. Last week, I wrote about when ultramassive stars die, and a number of people challenged some of the contentions I made. Yes, some of them may have been jerks about it, but they also had information that I didn't. Despite being a theoretical astrophysicist, I don't know all there is to know about all aspects of astrophysics, and I never will.


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

So I went out and learned what it was that I didn't know, and now my picture of how supermassive stars die is -- while possibly still imperfect -- improved over what it was. And the next time I go to explain it, there will be at least two things that I can do a better, more accurate job of explaining, and there will be at least one misstep I won't make again.

It doesn't make me any less of a person or any less of a scientist that I didn't get everything right the first time I put it all together; on the contrary, it makes me human. I've been refining what I know and how things make sense to me my entire life, and I'll continue to do that tomorrow. There is no part of that picture of reality that I hold so dear that overwhelming evidence to the contrary couldn't change my mind. I would be surprised at a great number of things, but I wouldn't be stuck.

I know exactly what types of evidence would change my mind about the theories, hypotheses and ideas that make up my world view. Remember the words of Carl Sagan: When you make the finding yourself -- even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light -- you'll never forget it. I hope that I never reach the point where I think I'm always right; I hope I can always gather new information and knowledge, have that crisis when my preconceptions conflict with new data, and admit when I was wrong. Because I don't want to ever stop learning; no matter how much I know, there's always going to be a whole Universe out there to explore.

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Categories: Education

Another Week of GW News, April 15, 2012 [A Few Things Ill Considered]

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

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

My New Favorite Review of How to Teach [Quantum] Physics to Your Dog [Uncertain Principles]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 16 April, 2012 - 15:45

My Google vanity search for my name and the book titles is really frustratingly spotty, often missing things in major news outlets that I later find by other means. For example, I didn't get a notification about this awesome review in the Guardian, from their children's book section:

I am a ten year old who likes Physics. What is Physics, you might ask! Well, Physics is the science of pretty much everything around you. It asks big questions like where did we come from? How long ago was the Big Bang? Quantum Physics is the part of physics which talks about atomic and sub atomic particles, basically very very small particles. It is a little tricky to understand the behaviour of these particles. So I decided to buy How to Teach Quantum Physics to your Dog. It is an extremely funny book in which Chad Orzel, the writer, teaches his pet dog, Emma, Quantum Physics. Emma loves to chase bunnies and squirrels in the garden, but the problem is that she cannot predict where they will be so they are able to dodge her every time. Now this is also a problem we have in Quantum Physics. So learning Quantum Physics should help Emma catch bunnies...

(The replacement of "Emmy" with "Emma" is a really persistent problem, even among adults, so I just shrug that off. I suspect it's the work of over-zealous copy editors who haven't read the book.)

He goes on to call it "one of the most amazing books I have read." I wonder if I can get that on the jacket? "'One of the most amazing books I have read' -- 'Tintin,' age 10."

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Categories: Education

Bob Madigan - WTOP's "Man About Town" Broadcasts from a Nifty Fifty Presentation! [USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 14 April, 2012 - 16:00

Thumbnail image for IMG_0071.jpgRockville High School in Rockville, MD was visited by Dr. April Croxton, Marine Biologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Dr. Croxton is one of the AT&T Sponsored Nifty Fifty X 2 Speakers. WTOP's "Man About Town" Bob Madigan was on hand to broadcast Dr. Croxton's presentation and even catch some student comments about this inspiring event.

Listen to WTOP's coverage with Bob Madigan here.

The USA Science & Engineering Festival's AT&T Sponsored Nifty Fifty Program sends more than 100 top scientists and engineers to DC-area schools leading up to the the FREE Expo which will take place at the DC Convention Center on April 28-29. The program has been a huge success this year and we are so grateful to all of our Nifty Fifty Speakers! We believe it is so important for students to hear from real live scientists and engineers to see the potential they can reach with STEM.

We hope to see you at the Festival in 2 weeks!

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Categories: Education

Down the barrel of a thousand cosmic cannons! [Starts With A Bang]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 14 April, 2012 - 00:18

"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" -Albert Einstein Our galaxy is but one among hundreds of billions in the cosmos, nearly all of which contain supermassive black holes at the center. Ours happens to be "only" a few million times as massive as our Sun, as well as quiet.


(Image credit: ESO, R. Genzel et al. at MPI fur Extraterrestrische Physik.)

In other words, our galaxy's supermassive black hole is behaving right now, by not viciously shooting off high-energy jets of particles and light at some poor, innocent passers-by.

But other galaxies are not so well-behaved.


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

For example, some 53 million light-years away in the Virgo Cluster, the galaxy Messier 87 shoots a jet some 5,000 light-years long out of its central supermassive black hole. This behemoth has the advantage of having a black hole a few billion times as massive as our Sun (rather than a few million), and happens to be in the process of devouring a large amount of matter at the moment.


(Image credit: NASA, NRAO/NSF, John Biretta (STScI/JHU), and Associated Universities, Inc.)

These supermassive black holes possess some of the strongest and largest magnetic fields in the Universe, and as matter falls in -- whether its from stars, planets, asteroids, gas or dust -- it gets broken apart into individual atoms, which become ionized. Like all charged particles, they get accelerated by these magnetic fields, resulting in, among other things, the intense emission of radiation along the magnetic-axis of the black hole!


(Image credit: CosmoVision, W. Steffen et al. / UNAM, retrieved here.)

Galaxies with these powerful, collimated jets emitted from their central black holes are known as Active Galaxies, and this radiation covers the entire spectrum, from gamma-rays through visible light all the way down to radio frequencies. Nearly always, this radiation comes off in an extremely narrow beam, so that any one particular Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN) is very unlikely to fry us, here on Earth.


(Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech.)

But, keep in mind, there are hundreds of billions of galaxies out there in the Universe, and that even with a tiny percentage of them containing active nuclei and an even tinier percentage pointing right at us, it is a very big Universe. And for those of you who've come by here recently, you'll recall that we've just completed surveying the entire Universe in the infrared, imaging -- literally -- hundreds of millions of these galaxies.


(Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / WISE Team / UCLA.)

With the entire sky imaged by the infrared WISE satellite in four wavelengths -- higher energies in blue and lower energies progressing through green and into red -- hotter objects like stars and galaxies should pretty much always show up with a blue or greenish-blue color. Very dusty regions will show up as red or green, as that gas is heated up by stars to be much warmer than the interstellar medium, but still far too cold to give off visible light.

But remember, nearly half of the "points of light" imaged by WISE are galaxies, some of which are active. And every once in a very rare while, these active galaxies have a jet pointed right at us.


(Image credit: NASA / GSFC Conceptual Image Lab.)

These rare but fascinating objects are known as Blazars, because they're "blazing quasars." Normally found with Gamma-Ray telescopes, you wouldn't necessarily think that an infrared telescope would be a great Blazar-finding tool. But Francesco Massaro and his team have done exactly that, with great success. Here's how:


(Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Kavli.)

With a uniquely flat spectrum across WISE's four color filters, Blazars appear white compared to everything else. Why white? Unlike practically every other point of light in the image, which shows up colored based on the thermal temperature of the emitting objects (hotter appear blue, cooler appear red), the light from Blazars comes from that characteristic radiation of charged particles being accelerated by their black hole's magnetic field: synchrotron radiation! The synchrotron radiation shows up with a roughly equal brightness in all four of WISE's filters, giving it a whitish appearance compared to all other compact object.

These objects are very rare and normally hard-to-find, but because of their unique and easily identifiable appearance to WISE's eyes, more than 200 new blazars have been seen and thousands of old ones confirmed, with estimates that thousands more are in the all-sky image, just waiting to be discovered. This is particularly remarkable, considering that there only are around three thousand known Blazars in the entire Universe! (3,081 as of October, to be more precise.)


(Image credit: Gene Smith's Astronomy Tutorial at UCSD.)

In other words, this infrared satellite could, if we're lucky, wind up doubling the number of known Blazars! As the study's lead author notes: Blazars are extremely rare because it's not too often that a supermassive black hole's jet happens to point towards Earth. We came up with a crazy idea to use WISE's infrared observations, which are typically associated with lower-energy phenomena, to spot high-energy blazars, and it worked better than we hoped. What an unexpected, serendipitous use for an infrared satellite: as a gold-mine for Blazars, which just happen to be some of the most interesting objects in the Universe.


This is part of the beauty of doing an All-Sky Survey; if you can just learn one new technique for finding/identifying one class of object, you're suddenly going to catch every single one in the Universe that your instrument is sensitive to.

And that's how a simple infrared satellite can capture thousands of the most energetic cosmic cannons in the Universe!

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Categories: Education

Ten Years Before the Blog: 2002-2003 [Uncertain Principles]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 13 April, 2012 - 16:06

As threatened a little while ago, this is the first of ten hopefully weekly posts looking back at the ten years this blog has been in operation. This one covers the period from the very first post on June 22, 2002 to June 21, 2003.

When I started doing this look back, I was more than a little afraid that it would prove cringe-inducing. It's been ten years, after all, and in that time I've gone from a wet-behind-the-ears, recently married assistant professor to a tenured father of two and a published author. That's enough external change that I was expecting my early posts to seem, well, pretty juvenile.

That wasn't the case, though. I mean, there are some definite changes in the general style of the blog, but all in all I was pleasantly surprised at how well a lot of it held up. Some of the pieces I wrote in the early days are a surprisingly good match to stuff I've written recently on the same topics. Which either means that I've always been brilliant, or that I've plateaued as a writer, I'm not sure which.

The tagline of the blog from the very beginning has been "Physics, Politics, Pop Culture," so I'll use those as headings to organize the recap of noteworthy posts.

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Categories: Education

A Night of Celestial Excitement: Join Us April 28 at the Stargazing Party! [USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 13 April, 2012 - 16:00

USASEF_stargazing_Party_24x36_FINAL_v4.pngUnder the guidance of some of the top astronomy experts in the country, explore our amazing Universe - including up close views of the Earth's moon, Jupiter and other mysterious planetary objects - at the Stargazing Party, an exciting educational collaboration between the Festival, the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum (NASM), telescope manufacturer Celestron and other partners, on Saturday, April 28 at NASM in Washington, DC.

A hit with visitors at the inaugural Festival in 2010, the Stargazing Party is returning to the Festival Expo with an equally impressive lineup of evening celestial activities which include Bill Nye the Science Guy in a live recorded broadcast by Planetary Radio with host Mat Kaplan who will inspire other young astronomers to make their own unbelievable discoveries!

In addition, don't miss presentations by such prominent astronomy educators as Drs. Jeffrey Bennett and Jeff Goldstein who will give walking tours of the celebrated Voyage Scale Solar Model System located just outside the NASM and later discuss other fascinating facets of our quest to explore the universe.

Celestron will add hand-on excitement to this night with telescopes set up around NASM's Public Observatory to accommodate visitors' celestial viewing enjoyment.

Event Details:
April 28, 2012- 06:30 PM to 10:30 PM
Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall

6:30 pm - 7:45 pm: Walking Tours of the Voyage Scale Model Solar System (space is limited, sign up for one of the 3 thirty-minute tours at the museums info desk when you arrive)
7:30 pm: Telescopes ready for viewing around NASM's Public Observatory
7:45 pm: Doors open for Stargazing Party!
8:00 pm: Program in Moving Beyond Earth gallery, including welcome by Bill Nye the Science Guy and remarks by Celestron, and the Planetary Radio Live program
8:10 - 10:20 pm: Check out "Scale of the Universe" and "Human Exploration: the Journey Continues" in Milestones of Flight, plus "Forces of Flight" in How Things Fly, and look for hands-on Discovery Stations throughout the first floor of the Museum!

For more information on this free event, visit this link. And keep updated on other exciting Festival activities taking place in the month of April (including Expo Weekend) here.

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Categories: Education

Jennifer Lawrence channels Katniss, says "Screw PETA" [denialism blog]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 12 April, 2012 - 22:33

In it's increasingly bizarre need to inflict it's animal rights morality on everybody, PETA's Ingrid Newkirk has criticized Jennifer Lawrence for scenes in Winter's Bone and the Hunger Games, which show her hunting and eating animals.

The actress was dubbed "the coolest chick in Hollywood" by Rolling Stone, and in the magazine's latest issue she recounts her on-screen squirrel-skinning scene in the 2010 movie "Winter's Bone."

"I should say it wasn't real, for PETA. But screw PETA," she told the magazine.

In response to the actress's comment, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk told Gothamist, "[Lawrence] is young and the plight of animals somehow hasn't yet touched her heart. As Henry David Thoreau said, 'The squirrel you kill in jest, dies in earnest.' We are told that this squirrel was hit by a car, but when people kill animals, it is the animals who are 'screwed,' not PETA, and one day I hope she will try to make up for any pain she might have caused any animal who did nothing but try to eke out a humble existence in nature."

Gag me with a spoon. Lawrence's initial instincts were correct. Screw PETA. In these scenes and movies characters are grappling with survival in the face of starvation and poverty. PETA seems to think the appropriate ending for Katniss would have been a moral vegan death from starvation in district 12 rather than being a life-affirming, kickass hunter. And I guess Ree should have morally died from exposure in the Ozarks. The producers bought her a squirrel from a local hunter, and she realistically portrayed the skinning of an animal by hunters for food. I think what really upsets PETA about these portrayals is that they realistically show what humans will do to survive, that hunting and eating animals comes naturally to us, and there's nothing wrong with hunting for food.

Let's hope Lawrence doesn't back down, for some reason I think she won't:

The actress, who spent a month in Missouri with a rural family learning to shoot rifles and chop wood in preparation for "Winter's Bone," and was trained by four-time Olympic archer Khatuna Lorig for her role as Katniss in "The Hunger Games," also told Rolling Stone, that when she is done with her next movie she is "thinking about buying a house. And a big dog. And a shotgun."

I'm liking her more and more.

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Categories: Education

Why So Many Books About Quanta? [Uncertain Principles]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 12 April, 2012 - 15:35

I'm re-instituting the quota system for the moment-- no blogging until I make some substantive progress on the current work-in-progress-- but I'll throw out a quick post here to note a media appearance: Physics World has a podcast about books on quantum physics up today:

Since its inception in the early part of the 20th century, the theory of quantum mechanics has consistently baffled many of the great physicists of our time. But while the ideas of quantum physics are challenging and notoriously weird, they seem to capture the public imagination and hold an enduring appeal. Evidence of this comes in part from the numerous popular-science books that have been written on the topic over the years. This episode in the Physics World books podcast series looks at the popularity of quantum mechanics in science writing.

This features some comments from a telephone interview I did with them, about why I thought it was worth writing yet another book about quantum physics. They also talked with Marcus Chown and Robert Crease, and go a little bit into the great Brian Cox argument.

So, if you've got 20 minutes to kill, check it out.

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Categories: Education

Scam Publisher Fools Swedish Cranks [Aardvarchaeology]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 12 April, 2012 - 14:20

Perennial Aard favourites N-A. Mörner and B.G. Lind have published another note in a thematically unrelated journal. It's much like the one they snuck past peer review into Geografiska Annaler in 2009 and which Alun Salt and I challenged in 2011. The new paper is as usual completely out of touch with real archaeology, misdating Ales stenar by over 1000 years and comparing it to Stonehenge using the megalithic yard. No mention is made of the fact that this unit of measurement was dreamed up by professor of engineering cum crank archaeoastronomer Alexander Thom and has never had any standing in academic archaeology. The megalithic yard does not exist.

At first I thought, damn, they've managed to game the system again. But then I looked into the thing some more and came to the conclusion that this time, Mörner & Lind have been scammed, poor bastards.

The journal they've published in is named the International Journal of Astronomy and Astrophysics. It's an on-line Open Access quarterly, and though it has an ISSN number for a paper version as well, this is not held by any Swedish library. This may not be cause for suspicion, because the journal is new: its first four issues appeared last year. The Head Editor is professor of astronomy at a young English university that is quite highly ranked within the UK.

So far, it may look like Mörner & Lind have simply published in a low-impact but legit academic venue. But let's have a look at the publishers of IJAA, Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP). This outfit publishes from Irvine, CA, but its web site is registered in Wuhan, China, where its president Huaibei "Barry" Zhou is based. He is apparently a physicist. According to a 2010 statement by Zhou to Nature News, he co-founded SCIRP in 2006 or 2007. In the five or six years since, the firm has launched over 150 on-line Open Access journals. Uh-oh.

Suspicions about SCIRP began to gather in December 2009, when Improbable Research, the body behind the IgNobel Prize, said the publisher might offer "the world's strangest collection of academic journals". Improbable Research pointed out that at the time, SCIRP's journals were repurposing and republishing decade-old papers from bona-fide journals, sometimes repeating the same old paper in several of its journals, and offering scholars in unrelated fields places on editorial boards.

This was taken up by Nature News in January 2010, when they contacted Zhou and received the explanation that the old papers had appeared on the web site by mistake after having been used to mock up journals for design purposes. "They just set up the website to make it look nice", said Zhou. While he had otherwise represented himself as president of SCIRP, Zhou now told Nature News that he helped to run the journals in a volunteer capacity. The piece reports that SCIRP had listed several scholars on editorial boards without asking them first, in some cases recruiting the names of people in completely irrelevant fields. In other cases, scholars had agreed to join because a SCIRP journal's name was similar to that of a respected publication in their field. Recruitment efforts by e-mail had apparently been intensive and scattershot.

Now, what is this really about? Why is SCIRP cranking out all of these fly-by-night fringe journals that anybody can read for free? The feeling across the web is that it's most likely a scam utilising a new source of income: the "author pays" model built into bona fide Open Access publishing. A kinder way to put it would be that SCIRP is a pseudo-academic vanity press.

Instead of charging a subscription fee, many Open Access journals charge authors a publication fee once their manuscripts have gone through peer review and been accepted. This gets research out of the stranglehold of the big publishing houses (Elsevier et al.), making it available to tax payers and scholars in poor countries. Instead of putting huge money into their libraries to buy expensive journal subscriptions, universities can distribute smaller amounts among their faculty to pay Open Access publication fees.

But Mörner & Lind's new paper has clearly not been vetted by any competent scholar. This suggests that anybody can publish anything in SCIRP's International Journal of Astronomy and Astrophysics as long as they pay the fee. Its Head Editor tells me by e-mail that he is "concerned about the refereeing process and should investigate".

And as for the other 150 SCIRP journals? Well, what can you tell me, Dear Reader?

(SCIRP has a few other lines of business too. One is apparently scam conferences. Beware of the International Conference on Internet Technology and Applications.)

Update 16 April: Michael D. Smith, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Kent, stands by his journal. He wrote me today:I have checked - the article was indeed refereed properly.

I also note that your blog contains many many errors and also draws on selected information taken out of context.

I believe few academics would agree with him regarding the quality of the peer review in this case -- be they astronomers, archaeologists or archaeoastronomers.

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Categories: Education

The Whole Universe from One Satellite's Eyes [Starts With A Bang]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 12 April, 2012 - 04:08

"We were left with a picture of part of the sky with no stars or galaxies, but it still had this infrared glow with giant blobs that we think could be the glow from the very first stars." -John Mather When you look out at the night sky, you're limited by the light pollution from your surroundings, the imperfections of our atmosphere, the light-blocking gas and dust throughout the interstellar and intergalactic medium, and the capabilities of your eyes. Still, what one can see is truly a sight to behold.


(Image credit: IronRodArt - Royce Blair of NightScapePhotos.com.)

What if you didn't have those limitations, though?

You could get rid of the light pollution entirely by heading into outer space, where there's no competing light sources to the night sky. You could soar above the atmosphere, where the paths to the stars becomes so pristine that they cease to twinkle. You could even look with infrared cameras instead of your eyes, seeing past the galaxy's light-blocking dust. And if you could do that, for years and years, photographing the entire visible Universe in the infrared from space, you'd be NASA's WISE mission.


(Image credit: NASA / Berkeley Labs, retrieved from here.)

Well, here we are, 2.7 million images, four wavelengths of light and an unbelievable 15 trillion bytes of data later. There have been some great discoveries along the way, but what NASA's gone and put together has literally left me breathless.

Without further ado, here's WISE's view of the entire 360 sky.


(Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / WISE team.)

Over half a billion objects were imaged in this survey, including hundreds of millions of stars, hundreds of millions of galaxies, and tens of thousands of asteroids, a large fraction of which had never been seen before.

You can zoom in on the image yourself, download the 170 megapixel version, or just check out some of the highlights I've pulled out, shown side-by-side with their visible light counterparts. Notice, in every case, how different the infrared view (at left) is from what you can see with visible light (on the right). Let's start with Omega Centauri, the largest and most massive globular cluster in the galaxy.


(Visible image credit: Mario from Astrophotography in Argentina. As always, click on any image in the post for a larger version.)

In one of the most coincidental alignments in our part of the Universe, we've got a close, active star forming region just 420 light-years away, known as the Coronet Cluster, paired in the sky with a distant globular cluster, NGC 6723, around 29,000 light years distant! In visible light, the star forming region is all but obscured, but its inner workings are laid bare by the infrared power of WISE!


(Visible light image: retrieved from LowOhm.com.)

But perhaps we need to look outside of our own galaxy to help give a greater perspective; let's look at our small, nearby satellite galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud. In visible light, the pink belies the star formation it's undergoing. But with WISE's infrared eyes, you can see so much more than that.


(Image credit: Stéphane Guisard, retrieved from APOD.)

And, perhaps most strikingly, the Andromeda galaxy, the Milky Way's sister and nearest neighbor to us, whose dusty warm gas tracing out its spiral arms is revealed by WISE in a way that visible light -- and our eyes -- can simply not uncover.


(Visible image credit: Jason Ware.)

But most spectacular to me, as you well know, is being able to scroll through the plane of the galaxy. We did it before in visible light here, now hang onto your hats and take a look at our home galaxy, in great detail, in the infrared!


That's the whole Universe, as you'd only be able to see it from outer space, with infrared eyes far superior to those of any living creature! And if you made it all the way down here, perhaps you want one more chance to download the entire infrared sky, courtesy of WISE; enjoy!

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Categories: Education

The Electric Life of Michael Faraday by Alan Hirshfeld [Uncertain Principles]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 11 April, 2012 - 17:36

A passing mention in last week's post about impostors and underdogs got me thinking about Michael Faraday again, and I went looking for a good biography of him. The last time looked, I didn't find any in electronic form, probably because the Sony Reader store has a lousy selection. I got a Nook for Christmas, though, and this time, Alan Hirshfeld's 2006 biography, The Electric Life of Michael Faraday was right there, so I picked it up and read it over the weekend.

It was a fast read, both because this is a short popular biography-- 250-odd pages-- and because Faraday's life story makes for compelling reading. He was born to a poor family in 1791, and seemed destined for life as a bookbinder, a prospect he found very depressing. While reading manuscripts sent to the shop where he was an apprentice, though, he developed two passions that would shape the rest of his life: a relentless drive for self-improvement, and a deep fascination with science.

Together, these brought him into contact with Sir Humphrey Davy, one of the stars of British science at that time, and through a great stroke of luck, Faraday managed to get hired on as Humphrey's assistant and sometimes valet. And the rest, as they say, is history: his incredible gift for experimental science quickly made him an essential part of the Royal Institution, where he worked for the remainder of his life, and where he made essential contributions to physics, chemistry, and materials science, among others. Faraday was famously one of three scientists whose portrait Einstein kept in his office (the others were Newton and Maxwell), and Hirshfeld does a nice job of laying out the discoveries that justified that high regard.

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Categories: Education

"Science, Danger, and Progress" a Talk by Featured Author William Gurstelle [USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog]

Science Blogs Physcial Sciences - 11 April, 2012 - 16:00

William-Gurstelle-190.jpgThe USA Science and Engineering Festival will really heat up when Popular Science and Make Magazine writer William Gurstelle speaks at the Family/Hands-on Science Stage on Sunday morning. Gurstelle, who wrote the bestselling DIY science book Backyard Ballistics, will be reading from his newest book, The Practical Pyromaniac. The book is a hands-on guidebook to playing with fire and narrates the story of humankind's long-coming understanding of the most important chemical reaction on the planet.

In addition to his talk, William will join a number of other well-known science authors including Homer Hickam, Theo Gray, and Robin Cook for a panel discussion on Saturday night to discuss how current science writing is reinvigorating interest in the sciences among young people. The Featured Author Panel Discussion "Science Stories in Society & School: Using Narrative to Bridge the Gap" will take place at 8 pm at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium. Click here for free tickets to this event.

Gurtselle novel.jpg William's Sunday morning's talk is entitled "Science, Danger, and Progress". The three decade period preceding the year 1800 was a time of incredible scientific progress. Led by scientists such as Benjamin Franklin, John Dalton, Henry Cavendish, Joseph Priestly, and Antoine Lavoisier, the understanding of the physical world radically changed. The old theories of nature - the four elements, alchemy, and phlogiston, among others - were swept aside and new scientific understanding based on real chemistry and physics took hold. These men - The Practical Pyromaniacs - led lives filled with science, danger, and progress.

Visit this link to learn more about William Gurstelle and all of the Featured Authors at the USA Science & Engineering Festival.

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Categories: Education

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 http://www.usasciencefestival.org/

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

Follow Larry Bock on Twitter: www.twitter.com/usasciencefest

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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

WebElements: the periodic table on the WWW [http://www.webelements.com/]

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