Archive for the ‘astronomy’ Category

Post by Minna Krejci

This is a new one: the newly crowned Miss USA calls herself “a huge science geek.”

The "geeky" Miss USA 2011 (http://scienceblogs.com/deanscorner)

And there is at least some evidence that may back her claim.  In preliminary questions as part of the Miss USA competition, she supported teaching evolution in public schools — one of only 2 of the 51 contestants that did — by saying,

“I was taught evolution in high school.  I do believe in it.  I’m a huge science geek…I like to believe in the big bang theory and, you know, the evolution of humans throughout time.”

Later, on-air, she apparently also gave a “complex” answer regarding the question of legalizing marijuana (medically yes, otherwise no.)

Are things looking up for the next generation of geeky girls?  Will girls be less afraid to show their smarts, no longer fearing that it might make them less “cool”?  Even Miss USA geeks out about the Big Bang!

Of course, we should also consider what the standards for “geekdom” are these days.  It sounds a bit like Miss USA (Alyssa Campanella, from California) puts the Big Bang theory in the same group as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny – things to believe in because it’s fun to believe in them, not necessarily because the science points to them.  (I hope that’s not really the case, but you never know.)

Hm… I just searched for “the Big Bang theory” on Wikipedia and was directed straight to an article about the sitcom.  Not even a disambiguation page first!  I’m honestly not sure what to make of that.  While it’s great that science is creeping its way further into the entertainment industry (which is obviously highly influential), I hope that the actual science doesn’t get watered down during the process of making it accessible to the public.  We want simple, not simplistic.

"The Big Bang Theory" (http://whosnews.usaweekend.com)

Back to the Miss USA pageant (not to be confused with the Miss America pageant, by the way).  Campanella wasn’t the only smarty pants competing this year.  Nicole Poteet, a radiation protection engineer with an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, represented Virginia in the competition.  And what does she have to say for herself?

“Don’t tell anyone, but deep inside I’m kind of a dork.”

If Poteet’s a dork and Campanella’s a geek, dorks and geeks have sure come a long way from what I remember about high school!  Here’s to hoping that they’ll serve as good role models and help motivate and encourage tomorrow’s female engineers and scientists.

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By Ruthanna Gordon

A wave of scalding plasma rises from the surface of the sun.  As it plunges back down, gaseous droplets the size of the Earth splash the surface.  Some of the material actually reaches escape velocity, plummeting outward at 1100 kilometers per second.  It will reach us late Thursday or early Friday.  And then…?

Probably most people won’t even notice.  Such is the odd relationship between the sun’s drama and everyday life on Earth.  Wednesday’s coronal mass injection, spectacular enough to draw gasps from solar watchers around the globe, may cause mild interference with satellite radio, or slightly boost the power of the northern lights.  But 150 million kilometers is a long way, and the blast wasn’t aimed directly at us—it will brush our magnetosphere only in passing before continuing on its way.

This blasé attitude may be a luxury.  The sun is becoming more active as it approaches the peak of its 11-year cycle.  Of course, we’ve been through this before—in the early 2000s, for example.  It’s not a catastrophe.  But some peak events can be more impressive than others.  In 1859, a massive solar storm actually set telegraph wires on fire!  Auroras were visible as far south as Hawaii and as far north as Chile.  The Carrington Event, named for the astronomer who documented it, caused surges in electrical activity of all types.

Today, such surges would be far more disruptive.  Our electrical grid is much larger, more closely networked, and more vital.  Our little local storms can take out small portions of the grid, causing blackouts that last for hours, or in the worst case days.  A Carrington repeat, disrupting the grid across the board, could leave people without power for weeks or months.

There are things we can do to minimize the risk.  Although solar weather forecasting is still primitive—about where planetary forecasting was a couple of decades ago—it does exist.  And 150 million kilometers is a long way, so we’d be likely to have some warning.  Deliberately shutting down transformers would cause temporary blackouts, but protect our electrical infrastructure while the storm rolled safely past.  Even so, anything depending on internet access or satellite communications—medical records, for example, or your ability to buy anything except with cash—would be disrupted.

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Post by Minna Krejci

Quiz time: What do Donnie Darko, Star Trek, A Wrinkle in Time, Contact, and Stargate have in common?

I’ll give you a hint:

"Wormhole" painting by the artist Andrew Leipzig (http://blog.onlineclock.net/wormholes-as-time-machines/).


The concept of the wormhole is popular in science fiction — wormholes make it possible to travel across the universe within the span of a human lifetime.  (To put things into perspective: if we traveled at the fastest speed recorded by a manmade object — set by the Helios 2 spacecraft at 150,000 miles/hr — it would take us 19,000 years to get to the closest star to our solar system, Proxima Centauri, 4.22 light years from Earth.)

Wormholes provide a shortcut through space and time.  While wormholes have never actually been observed outside of science fiction, the theory of general relativity allows for the existence of these kinds of structures.  We can visualize “spacetime” as a 2D sheet bent back on itself, with a wormhole “bridge” connecting two distant regions:

Recent calculations suggest that advanced civilizations might be able to make wormholes work by using something called “exotic matter,” which has a negative energy, to prevent a wormhole from collapsing on itself.  If such “traversable” wormholes exist, then they hypothetically could allow for time travel.  (Just hypothetically, at least for now.)

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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

Humans have often speculated about the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  As our ability to detect conditions on other worlds has improved, we have both narrowed and expanded the set of possibilities for what’s out there.

In the early years of the twentieth century, many believed that intelligences not too different from our own existed within the solar system.  These hopes, and fears, have long since been laid to rest: Martian canals turn out to have been the product of an overenthusiastic imagination, and Venus harbors no dinosaurs.  However, recent research suggests that relatively primitive life forms may be more abundant than we thought.

Life on earth depends on a few basic requirements.  Carbon is needed as a building block for organic molecules.  And liquid water is its necessary complement.  Even in the most extreme conditions, terrestrial life flourishes wherever these two things can be found.  And they seem to be surprisingly common elsewhere.

One way to get liquid water is to have your planet orbit in the “Goldilocks Zone”—the temperate band not so far from a star that water freezes, and not so close that it boils.  But other factors can have the same effect.  Molten rock or radioactivity can melt ice.  The presence of salt or ammonia can prevent freezing, just as they do on a highway or in your car.  We’ve found evidence for liquid water in the clouds of Venus, in the asteroid belt, and on moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn.  We may even have taken pictures of it on Mars.

The next step is a more direct search.  The Curiosity Rover is scheduled to land on Mars in 2012, where it will analyze the rocks for chemicals characteristic of life.

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