Archive for the ‘General Science’ Category

Allen Telescope Array

Allen Telescope Array

The Search for Extraterrestrial (meaning outside Earth) Intelligence (SETI) has been going on for 50 years and as you can probably guess, we have not found any aliens yet. Otherwise, we would have stopped looking. 🙂

It STARTED with an astronomer named Frank Drake. He thought, quite reasonably, that since we were using radio waves to communicate here on Earth, beings on OTHER planets around other stars might be doing the same thing. The thing about radio wave transmitters, especially the kinds used by broadcasting stations, is that they transmit radio waves in all directions, including into out space. And if there were anybody out there with a receiver, they could easily pick up those transmissions.

If we can do it, why couldn’t another, sufficiently ADVANCED civilization on another planet do the same? And so, SETI astronomers have been using radio telescopes to look for signals from other civilizations.

Where are they?

There are many reasons why we have not yet detected any aliens. They may not have developed the technology to use radio transmissions, or they may have developed other means of communication like lasers. There is a branch of SETI that looks for laser signals from aliens but this is a very difficult search. As you are probably aware a laser is a concentrated light beam. In order to detect it, the laser has to be pointed right at us.

Is it possible that we have not detected anything because there is nothing to detect? Yes, it is possible but highly improbable. As one character from one of my favorite movies of all time put it, “I’ll tell you one thing about the universe, though. The universe is a pretty BIG place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space. Right?”

Will we ever find life outside our solar system?

I believe we will FIND life on planets outside our solar system before the next 50 years of SETI are up. It may not be intelligent life that SETI looks for but it will be life, most likely plant life. As I have posted before, we are looking for other Earth-like planets. Once we find a few, we can start studying them with better telescopes to find the composition, or makeup, of their atmosphere. If we detect oxygen in the planets’ atmosphere, we will know that there are at least plant-based life on those planets. And where there are plants, there are critters to munch on them. 🙂

You can help look for ET.

Due to advances in radio telescope technology, SETI astronomers are flooded with data they have not yet analyzed because they do not have the computing resources to do so. So, just like Galaxy Zoo, scientists are recruiting the help of people just like to you to help them sort through the data and see if we have received signals from outside Earth. The project, called SETI@Home allows anyone with a computer and an internet connection to download data from telescopes like the Allen Telescope Array pictured above and analyze it to see if CONTACT has been made. SETI is not just for professionals anymore; YOU could be the one who discovers ET!

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The cool thing about new technologies is that they can be used to study our universe with better SENSITIVITY than ever before. The downside to this is that with better instruments comes more data than all the professional scientists can currently analyze without outside help. Thank goodness for the internet, which makes it possible for virtually anyone, any age (well, old enough to read and use a computer) to help those scientists with the FLOOD of data they have to deal with.

Galaxy Zoo

Help scientists classify galaxies.


One such source of data is the ROBOTIC telescope of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which has been taking images of galaxies (among other objects) since 2008. It has photographed about a MILLION galaxies so far with more to come. There are 4 main types of galaxies, each of which has certain unique characteristics. Because galaxies are so far away, the images taken by Sloan survey are not as crisp as photographs we might take of flowers and mountains. While there exists computer programs that can differentiate between different objects in a picture, the image quality of Sloan galaxies is not good enough for a computer to help in this area.

This is where you come in. Galaxy Zoo invites internet users to help scientists classify galaxies. Over 150,000 people are already participants and some have DISCOVERED never before seen objects like the Voorwerp, which was discovered by a school teacher who volunteered some of her free time to classifying galaxies.

Voorwerp

A new object discovered by a Galaxy Zoo volunteer.


Getting started is pretty easy. You sign-up, there is a brief tutorial on how to use Galaxy Zoo and identify different types of objects and then you are off making YOUR OWN classifications and, perhaps, new discoveries. There is usually not a right or wrong answer, just what you think an image represents. A few other people are shown the same image to garner some sort of agreement on the classification.

Well, what are you waiting for? Head over to Galaxy Zoo and get started. You might see YOUR name listed on a scientific paper along with professional scientists. That would be really COOL!

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TWIST

Twist, twist.

I have decided to try to write one post a week summarizing some of the science and technology news of the week (well, it could be older news that I am just discovering :)) that I think are EXCITING. I will not go into details of each of the topics but try to give a brief non-technical description and should you choose to investigate it further, I will provide appropriate links. I am calling is TWIST. Any guesses what it stands for? 🙂

Anyway, here is the first TWIST.

Planet hunter’s first catch.

Kepler, the planet hunting satellite has FOUND 5 planets in the first 6 weeks it has been searching for them. Kepler looks for planets that might lie in between Kepler and another star by measuring the dip in the amount of light coming from that star as the planet goes around it. These planets are not Earth-like (these will take longer to detect), which is what Kepler is primarily looking for but it is a good thing anyway since it shows that Kepler is WORKING as expected. News article.

3D or not 3D?

CES, or the Consumer Electronics Show, takes place very first week of January where technology companies bring out their LATEST and GREATEST gadgets along with cool technologies that will be available in stores soon. This year was no different. One of the coolest emerging technologies is 3D televisions. Yes, I know that 3D has been around for a while but it hasn’t quite taken off. This year it will be different. The technology has improved a lot and some TVs don’t even require you to wear those annoying glasses. While a 3D TV may not exist in every home, this is the year when every TV store will start carrying TVs that allow you to watch movies and play games in TRUE 3D. How 3-D TV Works.

You CAN touch this!

This is also the year of the TOUCH computer. No longer will you have to drag your mouse around and enter text using a keyboard. Touch enabled computers allow you to USE your finger(s) to open, close programs, draw pictures and do anything that you used to do with a mouse. You can also write directly on a touch computer as if you were writing on a piece of paper. What’s great is that your input is AUTOMATICALLY converted to text as if it were typed in. This technology has existed for a while but computer screens that could accept touch input were very expensive. Not any more. Some of these computers will just be a screen with no keyboard or mouse, although you could attach them if you wanted to. But why? Here is a good example of what a touch PC would be capable of: Microsoft Courier. Too bad this product was not actually announced so we don’t if it will ever be available for sale.

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Well, Earth-like planets to be precise. What does that mean, you ask? You see, Earth is a very SPECIAL planet. Special in the sense that it is the only planet that we (currently) know of that can support life.

How does Earth support life?

For starters, Earth is right DISTANCE from our Sun, in what some call the Goldilocks Zone (also known as the habitable zone). It is the region where water can exist in a liquid form on the surface of a planet. Too much closer and the heat from the sun would boil away all the water. Too far, and there isn’t enough heat causing any water on the planet to freeze.

Earth is also a TERRESTRIAL planet, meaning that part of the surface is solid, i.e. made up of rocks and dirt. The Earth is also large enough to have a GRAVITY that can have an atmosphere, you know, the air we breathe. Without enough mass, the gravity would be too low to prevent the air from escaping out into space. You can read more about this in my book. 😉

Believe it or not, those are the pretty much all the things that are needed for a planet to support life. What about OXYGEN, you ask? Oxygen that we breathe is created by plants, which are a form of life. You would think, with these meager requirements, there are probably HUNDREDS, if not thousands, of planets that can support life.

The thing is, detecting other Earth-like planets is not an easy thing to do. Stars are really far away, and planet that may exist around those stars tend to be very TINY compared to the star they orbit. Our own Sun contains more that 99% of all the mass in our solar system. And our, habitable Earth is quite small compared to giants like Jupiter and Saturn.

Kepler Satellite

Kepler Satellite

Kepler, the planet hunter.

As you can imagine, looking for other Earth-like planets is not an easy task. However, a space mission launched in March of 2009 aims to do just that. Kepler, named after the astronomer, Johannes Kepler carries very POWERFUL cameras to catch a planet transiting its parent star. A transit is when the planet that we are looking is in between us and its parent star as the planet goes around the star. When the planet is between us and its star, the brightness of that star as seen by us is lower than when the planet is behind star. The animation below explains it better than I can write it.

Look at the sky on a clear night. What is the largest star you see? Imagine looking for a planet in front of that star. A tiny Earth-like planet around a star that already looks only like a dot from where we are. That is what Kepler is trying to do. At a lecture given by a Kepler mission scientist that I attended, she said that they expected to find about a 100 Earth-like planets in the tiny patch of the sky it will look at. Whether those planets will have ALIENS will be another matter.

Resources

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The Internet has opened up a whole new world to public participation in science projects both big and small. These were usually restricted to the in-crowd but are now available to anyone with a computer. The level of participation can be very active, as in the case of GalaxyZoo.org (more on this later), or very passive like in Folding@home and SETI@home.

Akatsui space craft.

Illustration of the Akatsui spacecraft around the planet Venus. Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita


Sometimes, they are a one time deal that can still be very exciting to participate in. Akatsuki (Japanese for dawn) is one such opportunity. Akatsui is a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) space mission to study the planet Venus. The Akatsui Message Campaign is a public outreach effort for the mission, which allows people to submit a very short message that will be printed onto an aluminum plate what will be attached to the Akatsui spacecraft.

The deadline for submissions is January 10, 2010. Sorry for the late notice but I just found out about it. I should add, although the slogan for this outreach program reads, “We will deliver your message to the bright star Venus,” Venus is actually a planet. But, you already knew that. Thanks to my friend Robert Sparks for the info.

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Evil Scientist
Evil Scientist.
Copyright AE0538T

I was watching a sci-fi, superhero movie the other day and it occurred to me how evil scientists are always trying to take over the world or something similar, at least in the movies. It is perhaps because of this or, still, the most recognizable scientist that ever existed, Albert Einstein, that when children are asked to draw scientists, they draw them with spiky hair, lab coat and an evil GRIN, although Einstein is rarely pictured with a lab coat and NEVER with an evil grin.

The point is that some children, and, unfortunately, quite a few adults, always imagine scientists as evil. And, because scientists do science, somehow science is evil too. Well, it is NOT. The reason that scientists are depicted as evil GENIUSES in movies is because they have to stand in contrast to the hero or heroine of the movies. The hero/heroine is usually the underdog who has to overcome great odds (in this case the evil scientist and his evil, scientific gadgets) to save the day. If the hero/heroine was as, or more, powerful than the evil scientist, he/she defeat the villain quite easily and then there would not be much a movie to show.

While the villains are clearly marked as evil scientists in movies, the heroes of many of those movies also tend to be scientists, although that fact is often overlooked. Below are listing of some movie scientist heroes.

  • Indiana Jones – Archaeologist, a person who studies history and historic creatures, including humans, through analysis of their artifacts, inscriptions, monuments, and other remains that may have been excavated (dug up).
  • Mr. Fantastic (leader of the Fantastic Four) – Physicist.
  • Robert Neville (played by Will Smith in the movie, I Am Legend) – Virologist, someone who studies viruses and the diseases caused by them.

I have not listed more only because these are, after all, fictional characters.

There are a lot of REAL hard-working scientists, who, every day, work to find a CURE for cancer and other diseases, make alternative energy solutions more AFFORDABLE and easier to implement, help us understand the universe in which we live, and push the limits of technology to make BETTER computers, which can aid in all these areas. These scientists DESERVE better than to be looked upon as mad, evil geniuses.

Online resources about scientists in popular media.

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Girls make great scientists!

Girls make great scientists!

I am sorry that it took me so long to write about this topic. Contrary to what you may have seen (I am talking about pictures and movies where most scientists are guys), girls make GREAT scientists. I consider myself a fairly smart person, placing in top 10 in my elementary and high school classes but I was always, ALWAYS “out-smarted” by girls. Even in college, while studying physics, a girl was the smartest person in our class.

This is not a new thing either. Women scientists have EXISTED as long as men scientists. That link only lists the women scientists we know about. There are probably many more women scientists that we do not know about because either they did not get published, or they were shy, or whatever reason.

Although their contributions to science and humanity are important, this post is about you. If you are a girl who LIKES science, and thinking about a career in science, I am here to say, “YOU GO, GIRL!”

Being a scientist is a WONDERFUL job. You get PAID to figure out how things work. You know, stuff you are curious about anyway. How much better can it get?

How to become a famous women scientist.

How do you keep on track to becoming a SUCCESSFUL women scientist? Besides the regular stuff, like doing well in school here are some other pointers:

1. Declare your intentions of becoming a women scientist.

Letting others know of your intentions, does a couple of things. First, now that you have said you are going to so something, it acts as MOTIVATOR for you to actually do it (like keeping a promise). Don’t worry, you can still change your mind later. Second, if you let others know what it is that you want to do, they will be able to better help you with your interest.

2. Ask questions.

So, you like science. Great! What kind of science exactly? Do you like astronomy, astrophysics, astrobiology, cosmology, etc. It’s OK if you do not know the difference between all those words. That is WHY you have to ask questions.

3. Find other girls with similar interests.

You would be lucky if you know of many other girls in your class who share your interest for science. Having good friends that SUPPORT you in what you want to do is important. If you can’t find other girls in your classes, or neighborhood who are interested in science or you cannot get your friends to get interested in science, the internet is a great place for you to find other girls your age who share your interests. I have listed some websites where you get find such friends.

4. Don’t give up.

BECOMING a famous woman scientist takes hard work. That is why it is also fun. Imagine playing a game where you always won. I doubt it would be fun for very long as there would not be any challenge in it. On your road to becoming a famous woman scientist, you will encounter problems, problems like lots of homework, math problems, and, unfortunately, people who will doubt your abilities, discourage or make fun of what it is you are trying to accomplish. Sometimes, these things will want to you stop chasing your GOALS. Anytime, I ran into something like this, it made me even more determined to succeed. You may encounter set backs but never EVER let anything or anyone from reaching your dreams.

5. Become a famous women scientist.

If you do all the other things, this part will be the easiest. Let me talk about what it means to be a famous scientist. A scientist is someone who works to discover new things, or create them. Things that no one before her or him knew about. Things that will change how people do things. Things that CHANGE the world. So, you may not become someone who has their name mentioned on TV all the time, you will become someone who will go down in history as a person who discovered or created something that changed our understanding of the universe and how we interact with it.

Resources

If I have missed something, please share it with me and my readers by making a comment below.

Here are some websites and organizations that budding, young women scientists like yourself will find useful.

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I am not sure if you have noticed, but when watching a sci-fi movie, it seems that everyone knows a little bit about all the technical stuff that exists in the future. It may be just jargon to us but they seem to know what they are talking about.

I think in the future everyone will have to a strong scientific background to do their everyday jobs. Here is my “evidence.” Up until 10-15 years ago, computers were not part of our everyday lives. Now, it seems that there is a computer on every desk. Anyone who does not know how to use a computer will have a very hard time finding a job.

Sure, there are jobs that do not require much technical knowledge, but they will become rarer as time goes on and anything that can be automated, will be automated.

Example

Future jobs will require creativity and understanding of science. A simple example that exists today is one of a movie stunt coordinator. Since each stunt has to be different and unique, it cannot be automated. In order make it look exciting, the stunt coordinator has to use creativity to choreograph the stunt. To make sure that everything goes smoothly and safely, the stunt coordinator has to know about Newton’s Laws of Motion (e.g. to determine how a car will fly off a ramp),  chemicals and how they react with each other in various quantities (to create explosions) and electronics (to set off the stunts at the right times).

Resources

*As I have posted before, I believe everyone is already a scientist. This post is to show that in the future people will have to be consciously using science in their daily lives rather than sub-consciously as we currently do.

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Hey Kids! This post may not be very interesting to you, although I think it is an important one. That is the reason I am posting it; to get as many people aware of the need for science. If grown-ups you know do not read this blog, this is the one post you want to share with them. What would be even more awesome is if you and a grown up watched the video below together and then discuss some of the things that are mentioned in the video. Of course, you are more than welcome to discuss them with me by making a comment or sending me an email.

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One of the most IMPORTANT skills in science is our ability make measurements and calculations on those measurements. The metric system makes measurements and calculations EASY.

Example

Suppose you were measuring distance using the metric system. Let’s say you started with something the size of a piece of paper, moved on to size of adult humans and onto the height of moutains. In the metric system, a piece of paper is measured in centimeters, an adult human in meters and the heights of tallest mountains can be measured in kilometers.

See anything common in the different sizes? The work METERS reappears in each one. In the metric system, the meter (abbreviated to m) is the standard measure of length. All other measurements are some multiple of the meter. A centimeter (abbreviated to cm) is 1/100 meters, which is to say, 100 centimeters equals 1 meter. A kilometer is a 1,000 meters.

A standard sheet of printing paper is 21.59 cm wide by 27.94 cm long. The average height of an adult human is about 170 cm or 1.7 m. The height of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world is 885,000 cm or 8,850 m or 8.85 km. See how easy it easy to convert from centimeters to meters to kilometers. Try doing that with inches, feet, yards and miles. It can be done but not as EASILY.

The metric system can be used to easily express the lengths, masses, and volumes of things as small as sub-atomic particles to bacteria and as large as planets, galaxies and the universe.

Interesting Fact

There are only three countries in the world which do NOT use the metric system as their standard unit of measurement. Those countries are the United States of America, Liberia and Burma. I don’t understand why they don’t, it is SO MUCH simpler.

Resources

Wikipedia article – A comprehensive article about the metric system.
National Institute of Standards and Technology – An easy to print Metric Pyramid along with some other info on the metric system.

A video of the history of measuring and an explanation of the metric system.

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