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June 30, 2009

POP: Introduction

Thus far, here at Scientifica Phenomena, we've talked a lot about the latest scientific discoveries. However, we haven't been talking as much about how those discoveries are made. Obviously, "science" is a ridiculously broad term, and we can't cover every branch between the two of us. However, since I have a good familiarity one branch of science, I decided I'd share that knowledge in a Processes of Paleontology (POP) series.

Before I can discuss how a paleontological discovery is made, though, I want to establish some principles of paleontology. Paleontology is defined as "The study of forms of life existing in prehistoric or geologic times, as represented by fossils of plants, animals, and other organisms." More precisely, paleontology looks at the organisms that existed on our planet in the far past, before the Holocene Epoch (see the time scale above). The line between paleontology and paleoanthropology, archaeology, and anthropology gets a little fuzzy within the past 100,000 years or so, but any life before that time falls under the category of paleontology. Obviously, dinosaurs are part of paleontology, but only a small part. Trilobites, ammonites, xiphactinus fish, insects, fossil leaves, tracks, worm burrows in the rock.... these fossilized remains of ancient life, and numerous more, are all part of paleontology.

All of what paleontologists study is based on fossils. These can either be the direct remains of creatures, called organic fossils, or just traces of these creatures, called trace fossils. All of the images above are different fossils. From left to right, they are a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton (an organic fossil), a therapod track (a trace fossil), a trilobite (an organic fossil), and a branch with leaves on it (an organic fossil). Despite the diversity, they were all preserved over hundreds of millions of years in similar ways. The organism died in some sort of sediment, like a lake bottom, a swamp, or an ocean floor. More sediment fell on top of it, covering it. In general, this process was very quick, to eliminate predation and severe decomposition. As this solidified into rock, whatever remained of the organism became trapped. Minerals permeated the rock with water, replacing the original organic matter with stone. There are other types of fossilization as well, but this type is the most common.

For more information on fossilization, check out this website. It has a pretty thorough description of most types of fossilization.

For more information on paleontology in general, visit the USGS website.

Carnival of Space 109

If you like reading our space posts, you may like the Carnival of Space. It's a gathering of the best space science posts on various blogs. For the Carnival of Space #109, click here. For past carnivals, check out the Universe Today list here.

The Real Effects of Video Games

As early as I can remember I have been playing video games. I have played everything from FFVII on the Playstation I to the amazing graphics of the new releases. I have also heard all of the arguments against playing video games. I think one of the problems is that this is such a recent phenomena that the studies are just now coming out. So, what are some of the effects?

I remember being told growing up that playing video games was bad for my eyes. Just today (June 30th), a new article came out from Scientific American saying that this household wisdom may be incorrect. According to a new study from the University of Rochester, playing action video games may actually improve "core functions of vision". They reported that playing games like "Unreal Tournament 2004" and "Call of Duty 2" increased levels of "visual contrast sensitivity." This is the ability to distinguish between low contrast targets.

I think it is also good to remember, though, that there are negative effects to playing video games. Articles published though Science Daily show that 1 in 10 gamers ages 8-18 are addicted. In a separate article, they found that gamers who played over 7 hours a week and claimed a gaming addiction, got less sleep and were more tired then non-gamers. We are also in a society where obesity is a growing problem, and many kids don't get enough exercise.

Like all things in life, video games have their good and their bad. Personally, I really enjoy playing video games; however, I also spend time swimming and mountain biking. As I mentioned earlier, this is still fairly new research. We will have to see what happens as scientists get more time to study this media.

Science Daily- Nearly 1 In 10 Youth Gamers Addicted To Video Games

June 29, 2009

Tales of a Tooth

Today, most animals that eat plants chew their food. Think of a cow: it spends its day chewing its cud, in a grinding fashion. The jaw slides across, grinding plant material between the teeth. The lower jaw is hinged to the skull and the upper jaw.

The hadrosaurs of the dinosaur world might have fit a similar niche to grazers like cows, but how they ate was entirely different. In fact, nothing alive today eats in a way even close to the way the duck-billed dinosaurs did. Hadrosaurs do not have a complex hinging jaw like most mammals of today; instead, their upper jaw was hinged to the rest of the skull. Biting down forced the upper jaws outward, grinding the multiple rows of teeth together and chewing the food. This created complex wear patterns, showing teeth grinding together backwards, forwards, and side to side.

The idea of hadrosaurs chewing in this fashion has been around for 25 years. However, proving this theory was a challenge. The skulls of hadrosaurs are, obviously, fossilized, and so can't be manipulated the same way the skull of a modern animal could be. Direct observation is also impossible. Thus, paleontologists recently turned to the microscopic scratches on hadrosaur teeth. These scratches are distinctive enough to tell the researchers exactly how the dinosaurs chewed. It even revealed what they ate. Hadrosaurs might have been either grazers, chipping plants close to the ground, or browsers, pulling leaves and branches off of trees and bushes. The scratches reveal that hard particles, perhaps dirt or silica, were chewed on as well as the plant material. This is distinctive of grazers, as dirt often gets mixed in with the ground vegetation and silica is found in grasses and other grazed plants.

So, from the tiny scratches on a single tooth, paleontologists have solved the mysteries of what and how the hadrosaurs ate. It's remarkable how much we can learn about these fantastic animals from such a small part as a tooth.

Credit: Science Daily, "Dino Tooth Sheds New Light On Ancient Riddle"

Scientific Unknowns: Tilted Worlds

In the northern hemisphere, we are currently in the middle of summer. That's because the Earth's axis is tilted at 23.5 degrees. Right now, the northern hemisphere is pointed towards the sun. So, while right now I get to enjoy long days and warm weather, in six months the northern hemisphere will be pointed away from the sun and the snow will return. This is how seasons work (seasons are NOT caused by the Earth getting closer and farther from the sun). On other planets, this tilt is much more extreme.

Venus has the most intense tilt in the solar system. Venus is actually upside-down, compared to the other planets. The thinking is that Venus got flipped the same way the Earth got its tilt. In the young solar system, when there were lots of little planets wandering around, collisions were common. It was one of these collisions with a Mars-sized planet that gave the Earth its tilt. The debris from that collision created our moon. Venus probably got its extreme tilt from one or many of these collisions.

For the inner rocky words of our solar system, this collision model makes sense; the outer planets are another story. The outer planets are made mostly of gases like hydrogen, helium, and methane. Uranus's axis is tilted over 90 degrees. Yes, Uranus orbits the sun on its side! Even most of Uranus's moon's are orbiting in this weird plane. The problem: to tilt such a large planet, you need a lot of big planets to hit it. We just don't think that there were that many big planets hitting Uranus. Some other ideas are out there, but it is really hard to know what happened 4.5 billion years ago. Hopefully one day we will find new evidence that could lead to an answer, but for now this is another one of our solar systems mysterious features.

Sources- NASA

June 26, 2009

Spectroscopy (The Color of the Universe)

In space sciences, there are few things more important than light. Spectroscopy is the study of light. Almost everything we know comes from light. We build bigger telescopes to gather more light, and put telescopes in space to see in different types of light. Because of this, astronomers have figured out how to squeeze as much information out of every photon we can.

Light is cool: it lets you see our world every day. But the light we see is just a small sliver of the many types of light that are out there. The light we can see with our eyes we call visible light (no surprise there). Think of this light as the rainbow, with violet at one end and red at the other. If we could continue our rainbow into the other colors of light, we would see a very different world.

Past the red of our rainbow, we get the infrared. This is weird because things that are hotter give off more infrared light. So we can use infrared light to tell the temperature of objects. You are a flashlight in the infrared.

Keep going past the infrared and you get into the microwave light. This is the same color of light that is used to cook your food in that iconic box. Microwaves are also used for communication and studying the first moments after the big bang.

Radio light is past even the microwaves. Radio light is used in lots of commutation applications. Everything from your car radio to cell phones use radio light. The reason that it is so useful is that radio light passes though almost everything without a problem. Radio light passes though your house like visible light passes though a window.

All of these colors of light have less energy then our visible light. Light is a wave, kind of like sound. You can think of these colors of light as the low pitches. The "high-pitched", more energetic light are the colors past violet. These are also the dangerous colors of light.

The first of these is ultraviolet. This is the color of light that will give you a sunburn. Lucky for us, most ultraviolet light is blocked by our atmosphere. Otherwise, you would get a sunburn on your insides.

Next are the X-rays. These are what doctors use in X-ray and CT scans. The amount of X-rays you get from a trip to the doctor is harmless, but in high doses X-rays can be very dangerous. Lucky for us our atmosphere absorbs X-rays. In astronomy, X-rays are produced by some of the most exciting places in the universe like black holes and supernovae.

Last on our tour are the Gamma rays. Gamma rays can be deadly under certain circumstances. In astronomy, one of the most exciting explosions are gamma ray bursts (GRB).

Light is amazing. In astronomy, many times all we get is the light. All of these different colors of light have taught us something different about the universe, and we continue to learn from each of them.

Image Credit- Wikipedia
For more information

June 25, 2009

Around the World... in a Solar Plane

Solar technology has boomed recently. We have solar concept cars, buildings running on only solar power, and now... a solar powered airplane!

Adventurer Bertrand Picard made history in 1999 by flying around the world, non-stop, in a hot-air balloon. Now, to raise awareness about alternative, renewable energies, he and his Solar Impulse team have created an initial version of a solar airplane, HB-SIA. It has a similar build to a glider, has the same wingspan of an airliner, and weighs very little. This first version will be tested to see how well it handles night flying. The super efficient solar cells, batteries, propellers, and motors should allow it to function at night. If successful, the team will work on the next version, HB-SIB, which will be larger and more sophisticated, with a pressurized cabin and better avionics.

Picard hopes to cross the Atlantic in this solar plane by 2012, and eventually to circle the world once again, this time in a plane powered entirely by the sun.

Credit: BBC

Kid-Sized Concept Car

I've built some of those model solar cars before. You know, the little ones that crawl along the sidewalk in bright sunlight? They are a neat lesson in solar power, but they aren't very practical. Scaled up, they wouldn't generate enough power to move at all. In the UK, though, one lucky six-year-old got to drive a much more efficient solar car.

Dr. Graham Sparey-Taylor and his team at Glyndwr University in Wales have designed a solar-electric car, known as Nos Gwawr II, that will be entered into the North American Solar Challenge in 2010. To test the design's aerodynamics, the team created a half-sized model. Unfortunately, this little car isn't big enough for an adult. However, Dr. Sparey-Taylor's son, Finnbar, is the perfect size to drive it. As Dr. Sparey-Taylor says, "He's got the opportunity to play with technology of the future that other kids haven't got."
The model car travels no faster than walking speed, as it only has a small motor, but the full scale one is estimated to go at around 100 miles per hour. There is also a second design option, a "commuter model." The team hopes to sell the design as a viable solar car in Wales. It would be a big step forward in automobile technology if this catches on.

And, come on. Who wouldn't want to be that kid, testing these solar cars?

Credit: BBC
Check out Nos Gwawr II

What To Do with a Stuck Rover

The Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) are some of the most famous robotic explorers of our time. They were sent to Mars with a expected lifetime of only 90 sols (a Martin day, which is about 24.6 hours). They have been so successful and lucky that they are now on their fifth year. Opportunity is currently driving to Endeavor Crater. Meanwhile its twin, Spirit, is stuck.

Spirit is currently on the west side of a feature called Home Plate. The intrepid rover can't seem to get traction in the soft dirt (called regolith). Some have speculated that Spirit may be stuck on top of a rock. At this point, the wheels are covered over the hub in regolith. While the engineers work on how to free the rover, the scientists aren't stopping.

The place Spirit got stuck is extremely interesting to scientists. Richard Moddis from NASA's Johnson team says "The exceptional amount of power available from cleaning of Spirit's solar arrays by the wind enables full use of all of the rover's science instruments. If your rover is going to get bogged down, it's nice to have it be at a location so scientifically interesting." The regolith surrounding the rover is tan, white, yellow, and dark red. By studying the regolith, scientists hope to get a better understanding of water's role in forming these deposits.

Source- NASA

June 24, 2009

Black Gold from Ocean Scum

It's hard to avoid the topic of oil in a discussion today. It has an impact on everything from the daily commute to international affairs. The main problem with oil is that we seem to not have enough of it. Without oil to make gasoline, our society screeches to a halt. Scientists might have a new solution to this problem, though, that doesn't involve drilling new holes.

First, though, I want to take a minute and familiarize you with how crude oil forms. Oil is, basically, the compressed remains of ancient, microscopic plants, algae, and bacteria. When these died in a lake or swamp, they would sink to the bottom and create a thick organic mat in the mud. This material didn't just rot away, however. The thick, choking mud prevented most decomposers from properly disposing of it. Thus, as the layers built up, they became more and more compressed. This pressure and heat, along with anaerobic bacteria, converted the organic matter into oil.

A lot of the crude oil that we drill is the compressed remains of a specific type of algae, known as diatoms. Diatoms, like the ones on the right, are microscopic critters with elaborate shells. There are millions of them in most bodies of water, particularly oceans. They also produce an oily substance while they are alive, which is believed to be a large component of the crude oil we use today. It is that idea that has led Richard Gordan and others to propose "milking" diatoms for oil. They estimate that these little creatures could produce 10 to 200 times as much oil as an oil seed of the same acreage. This would make oil a renewable resource, rather than the very finite one it currently is. It will be interesting to see where this research goes. Hopefully, the outcome is a good one.

Credit: Science Daily

Enceladus has an Ocean?

In 2005, the amazing Cassini spacecraft saw plumes of water shooting out from the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Ever since the question has been is there a ocean under the sheets of ice that cover the surface of this weird moon. If there is an ocean, it raises the question of whether or not these is also life. Needless to say, this is a question everyone wants to know the answer to. If an ocean is there, scientists expect sodium to be dissolved in the water shooting out of these jets. So the search for sodium began.

In the last issue of Nature, two studies came out looking for this elusive piece of evidence. Both groups used spectroscopy. This is where you break down light into its different colors. When you do this each element and molecule has a distinctive fingerprint. Using this teqnuqie one group thinks they found sodium in the water, and another says it's not there.

The group from the Cassini spacecraft team says that they have found sodium. The other group was using two of the best ground based telescopes in the world. They say that sodium is absent from the water. So what do we do? Rarely in science do you get opposite results published at the same time. Both sides have strong evidence, and are both in one of the most prestigious science journals. Really, the only thing we can do is wait for more evidence.

Cutting edge science is thrilling. We are always learning new things, and those things always manage to surprise us. I just can't wait to see what happens.
The suspense is killing me!

Sources - NASA

Quarter Shrinker

Science is so cool! Anyone who thinks differently hasn't seen this video. They took a standard US quarter and shrunk it to the size of a dime. You need to see this.

At it's core what they are doing is really simple. If you have ever played with magnets, you know that when you have two like poles they repel each other. If you put electricity through a wire you can create a magnetic field. What they did was turn the coil that surround the quarter, and the quarter itself into really strong magnets. Since the magnetic fields were repelling each other push on the quarter in all directions, shrinking it.

This is cool science in action!

June 23, 2009

Brains for the Battle

Of all the primates, humans have the largest brain. In fact, brain size has tripled over the past 2 million years, much faster than any other mammal's brain. The question has been why the human brain is so large, proportionally. Was it a response to climate change? Did ecological demands, or a lack thereof, lead to the growth? Or did social factors necessitate a larger brain size?

A recent study suggests that the primary motive for the evolution of larger brain size was coping and competing with other humans. Researchers analyzed over 150 fossil hominids from around the world, looking at the climate, the presence of parasites, and the estimated population density. The skulls with the largest brain cases were part of the largest population groups, suggesting that brain size helped attain necessities and social status in these early social groups.

Despite this new evidence, though, the large size of the human brain is a peculiarity. The brain is a very energy-intensive organ. Having a large brain size would need to provide a significant advantage to evolve, because it requires so much energy to grow and maintain. Why only humans have discovered this advantage, to our knowledge, is still a mystery.

Credit: Science Daily

Scientific Unknowns: Saturn's Hexagon

When most people think of science, they think of a body of knowledge. Science has discovered a lot of really cool things, but what we know is just the beginning. There are lots of really cool things that we don't understand as well. Unfortunately, I think that these get overlooked too often. For that reason, I am starting weekly series of things that are on the leading edge of science. Amazing phenomena that we don't yet understand. It is the nature of science to grow. Every question we answer makes us ask many more. Someday these mysteries will be solved, but there will be many more to take their place.

When we look at planets we expect to see lots of shapes. Most planets are basically spheres. We see conical volcanoes, circular craters, and stripes of different colored clouds. One shape we don't expect to see are hexagons. Luckily, the universe is far weirder then our expectations. The clouds around Saturn's north pole have made a hexagon!

In my opinion Cassini is one of the most successful spacecraft ever. Of all the great discoveries that it has made, though, this is one of the weirdest. This picture was taken in infrared light (5 microns). This means that what you're seeing is a type of light that represents heat. It also means that you are looking beneath the top layers of clouds. The clouds you see are between 45 and 60 miles below the top layer.

The south pole of Saturn is also weird. Instead of hexagon, though, it has a cyclone system. I don't want to go too deep into this feature, but it is weird to have such a stark difference between the poles. Bob Brown, from the University of Arizona, says, "At the south pole we have what appears to be a hurricane with a giant eye, and at the north pole of Saturn we have this geometric feature, which is completely different."

Source- NASA

Back to the Moon

Last Thursday NASA launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS). This duo is part of NASA's plan to return humans to the moon. Both of these spacecraft are going to be looking for water on the moon. Scientists think that water on the moon could be frozen in permanent shadow in deep craters near the poles.

LCROSS made it to the moon this morning. With it's science instruments switched on we just have to wait and see what it turns up. The picture at the top of this article is one of the first taken by LCROSS. The most exciting part of this mission will be in October. That's when LCROSS will crash into the moon sending up plume of material. Studying the spray of material will give us one of the best looks into what the surface of the moon is made of.

The LRO is also in lunar orbit. The LRO will search for water, study radiation that could be harmful to astronauts, and build the best lunar maps ever made of the made. NASA says on their website that "LRO will return more data about the moon than any previous mission."

The great thing about science is you never know what your going to find. I can't wait to see what surprises these robotic explorers send back to us. I am excited to see what new things we can learn from about the our nearest celestial neighbor.

You can see the LRO/LCROSS Launch Here
Source- NASA

Removable Body Parts

We, as humans, use a myriad of tools throughout each day. Toothbrushes, cell phones, brooms, computers, silverware... the list is almost endless. These tools make our daily life a lot easier. They also seem easy to use. It requires almost no conscious thought to brush your teeth, for instance. It's like the tools become part of a person's body while in use.

According to a new study, that's exactly what happens.

Our brains have a concept of our bodies, known as a "body schema." When we use a tool, it is incorporated into that schema. The idea is centuries old. The methods for testing it are relatively new. A team of scientists in France reasoned that, if a person uses a tool, then their behavior performing a task immediately after using the tool should be different. To test this, they had test individuals use a mechanical grabber to extend their reach. Immediately afterward, the individuals continued to act like their arm was longer.

This new evidence helps explain why humans employ tools to the extent that we do. We're wired for it. Our brains quickly adapt to the capabilities a tool provides, and adds that tool on as a temporary body part. Thus, we are able to manipulate a tool just as well as we can manipulate our own hands.

Credit: Science Daily

June 22, 2009


Dinosaurs are easily the largest creatures to ever walk the planet. But how big were they, exactly? Some of the estimates put dinosaurs like Apatosaurus as weighing over 40 tons. However, recent experiments have caused scientists to question these models, shrinking the gigantic dinosaurs.

Scientists Geoffrey Bichard of George Mason University in Virginia, Gary Packard of Colorado State University, and Thomas Boardman of CSU ran some tests of the old equation that calculated the mass of dinosaurs, using living animals like elephants. The equation predicted a much greater mass than a live elephant could actually attain. Thus, the three created a new equation that can more accurately predict dinosaur size. Bichard uses an analogy that likens dinosaurs to a build built on pillars: the wider the pillars (or legs), the more weight can be supported.

Based on the new model, Apatosaurus would have weighted just 20 tons, rather than 42. Diplodocus would have come in around 4.4 tons, rather than 6.1 tons as previously estimated. Granted, these numbers are still enormous. The more accurate estimations merely make the dinosaurs a reasonable size. They are still, without a doubt, some of the largest, most impressive creatures to ever exist.

Credit: LiveScience
Image Credit: Bureau of Land Management

June 21, 2009

Do you know where your heart is? Your Lungs?

According to a new study, most people don't. Unfortunately, many people think that science is irrelevant to them. They make no effort to educate themselves on the world around them or within them. A new study shows just how ignorant we have become.

This study, from the BioMed Central, shows that the general public has a extremely lacking understanding of their own body. I can't overstate how embarrassing and sad this story is. In the study only 46.5% of people knew where their heart was. That's less then half! Less then one third (31.4%) of people knew where their lungs were. The researchers even looked at groups that had medical problems with specific organs. They found that even in those groups, only those with liver problems could identify where that organ was significantly better then the general public.

This story is one of the saddest that I have seen in a long time. The paper states "...concern has been expressed about the potential problems, which these sorts of findings could have for doctor-patient communication, with possible adverse effects on diagnosis and treatment outcomes". The numbers presented in this paper are about the same as they were forty years ago. Science is important not only to understand our world, but to understand ourselves. Understanding ourselves is how we get to live longer healthier lives.

See the original paper here
Source- BioMed Central
Special thanks to the SGU

June 20, 2009

Sparks on the Red Planet

Where I live near Denver Colorado, it has been raining every afternoon all summer (which is really weird for here). With these rain storms we have also had our fair share of lightning. Lightning here on Earth is cool, but it's even cooler on Mars. That's right, researchers from the University of Michigan have found the first evidence for lightning on Mars.

Here on Earth, we associate lightning with rain. On Mars, there is almost no water, and what water is there is frozen in the polar regions. The lightning found on Mars does not form in rain clouds, but dust clouds. We don't have a very good understanding of how lightning forms here on Earth, and even less of a understanding of how it works in these dust clouds on Mars.

Mars is an amazing world and like everything in our universe, continues to defy what we think is possible. It was just three years ago a group of scientists said that there was probably no lightning on Mars. Maybe studying this Martian lightning will help us better understand how lightning here on our own world works. Maybe Spirit can image some of this lightning on its overnight viewing session (unlikely though).

Defining Climate Change

We've heard it all over the news and the web. "Humans are causing global warming." "We'll make ourselves, and everything else on the planet, go extinct!" These doomsayers claim that only immediate action will save our planet from ending up like this:
However, a lot of these websites claiming doom and destruction just refer to "scientists" providing claims or cite CO2 as an exclusive cause for "global warming." In truth, though, the situation is more complex.

First off, "global warming" is an extremely inaccurate term. The planet Earth is not uniformly warming up. Some areas will get warmer, while others will get cooler. Therefore, in referring to the changes in global temperature, the term is "climate change," not "global warming."

Second, climate change is nothing new to the planet. Throughout the planet's history, the temperature has changed. In the Cretaceous, for instance, there were no polar ice caps. The Earth regularly warms and cools for various reasons, including:
  • Eccentricity: As the Earth orbits the sun, the shape of the orbit, as well as the tilt of the planet, change somewhat. Because of this, the amount of heat reaching the planet changes, which can cause ice ages, based on a theory by Milutin Milankovitch.
  • Sun Intensity: This is pretty self-explanatory. As the sun fluctuates, it may be more or less powerful for a period of time. This can also cause changes in the global temperature of the planet.
  • Volcanic Eruptions: The release of particulate matter and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when volcanoes erupt can also affect climate temporarily. A time interval with a lot of volcanic activity can push a more lasting shift in the climate.
  • Ocean Currents: A large conveyor belt of circulation in the oceans moves cool water from the poles to the equator, and warm water from the equator to the poles. As global temperature shifts, this current may become weaker, changing climate regionally.
  • Greenhouse Gases: And this is the one everyone is concerned about. Gases like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), water vapor (H2O), and nitrous oxide (N2O) all can capture infared radiation and prevent it from escaping the atmosphere. This leads to a build-up of heat, the greenhouse effect.
So, in a nutshell, that's what climate change is, and what causes it.
In the next installment: the Human Factor

Credit: EPA

Giving the Night Sky a Little Treatment

Light pollution is wasted light. If you have a outdoor light of any kind that doesn't direct the light towards the ground, where is the light going? It's lighting up the sky. In some cases you can be wasting over half of the energy you put into the lightbulb. We put light fixtures out at night to light up roads and sidewalks, so why are we lighting up the sky?

A lot of the reason is laziness and a lack of understanding. Most people don't even know that this problem exists. This leads to light pollution wasting energy and money. In 2002, the city of Calgary in Canada changed all of their lighting fixtures to direct their light at the ground. Since then, they have been saving an estimated 1.7 million dollars every year. The AMA calculates that over 10 billion dollars are wasted by bad lighting practices every year. That's more then half of NASA's annual budget! There are also other effects on wildlife and safety that can be improved simply by changing these lighting fixtures.

There's also another reason to care about light pollution. If you have seen the night sky in a big city, and from a remote spot in the middle of nowhere, you know the difference. If you haven't, the difference is a few thousand stars. The wasted light in a city washes out the fainter stars making them impossible to see with the naked eye. This is one of the reasons new observatories are often built in very remote locations. By improving the types of lighting fixtures we use we can greatly improve our view of the universe.

Just five days ago (on June 15th) the American Medical Association (AMA) passed a resolution regarding light pollution. The resolution has 3 parts.

RESOLVED, That our American Medical Association advocate that all future outdoor lighting be of energy efficient designs to reduce waste of energy and production of greenhouse gasses that result from this wasted energy use.

RESOLVED, That our AMA support light pollution reduction efforts and glare reduction efforts at both the national and state levels.

RESOLVED, That our AMA support efforts to ensure all future streetlights be of a fully shielded design or similar non-glare design to improve the safety of our roadways for all, but especially vision impaired and older drivers.

For all of us amateur astronomers this is great news. One of the main reasons for the AMA's involvement is the growing link between light pollution and breast cancer. The AMA has a lot of power and influence in this country. It is inspiring to see such a large group support science, and help to make a more energy efficient society.
For more Information about light pollution check out the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

Source- Universe Today
Image Credit- NASA

See a Live Dinosaur!

Ok, so you can't see a real live Ankylosaurus or Tyrannosaurus rex walking around. They're extinct, and there's no real life Jurassic Park. However, there is now a show touring the United States that takes you as close as you can get.

The producers of the BBC special, Walking with Dinosaurs, created a film that reconstructed the world as it may have been 65 to 250 million years ago. Recently, they have taken that film and created a theatrical production. "Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular" is a panoramic show, using life-sized puppets of the dinosaurs. These were created by a team of scientists, artistic designers, and others to make these puppets as life-like as possible. The entire plot of the show, in fact, was designed with scientists involved, to make it as accurate and up-to-date as possible.

I personally have not yet seen the show. Based on reviews, however, it sounds phenomenal. It is extremely difficult to flesh out the fossils in a 2-dimensional drawing. Then there are a multitude of options for coloration, skin patterning, ornaments, etc... And all of that is just on paper. It's amazing to consider then reconstructing a full-size, life-like dinosaur, with accurate movements, in 3 dimensions. And the people who designed the show didn't just create one or two of these marvels; there are 15 dinosaurs representing 10 species in the show. Kudos to the designers and operators of these dinosaurs, and to the whole crew of this theatrical Walking with dinosaurs. I hope to be able to see your show soon.

Credit: Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular
Read an interview with a cast member here

June 19, 2009

Dino Fingers

In the realms of paleontology, one of the great debates has been if birds are directly descended from dinosaurs. A new fossil discovery out of China points yet another finger of evidence to support this theory.

Xu Xing, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Institute
of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, and his team recently uncovered two specimens of a beaked, herbivorous dinosaur named Limusaurus. This creature has 4 fingers, equivalent to our thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers. The thumb, however, was severely shrunken, while the index finger was elongated.

Previously, paleontologists had been puzzled by bird wings compared to dinosaur hands. The wings of birds contain 3 fingers, correlating to our index, middle, and ring fingers. But most theropods (the group of dinosaurs including Velociraptor and other similar creatures) had either 5 fingers, or had lost their pinky and ring fingers. Limusaurus is unique in that it shows the loss of the thumb, rather than the ring figure.

Critics of the dinosaur-to-bird theory still claim that these new fossils are not definitive. It is still the only dinosaur to show this particular digit pattern. However, it certainly gives a "hand" to the theory. This piece of evidence files in with many others, including comparisons of dinosaurs to flightless birds and specimens like Archaeopteryx. The theory is becoming widely accepted, redefining our view of the past.

One of the two Limusaurus specimens, from the Junggar Basin in China

Credit: People's Daily Online
Image Credit: People's Daily Online

New Telescope, Exciting Opportunities

The Herschel Space telescope just took its first picture. Launched May 14th, it traveled almost one million miles (1.5 million kilometers) to reach its resting place. Herschel will be in a special orbit behind the earth relative to the sun.

Herschel will be looking at the universe in types of light invisible to our eyes. Herschel will use light from the infrared to the sub-millimeter part of the spectrum. These wavelengths of light can be thought of as colors beyond red that our eyes can't detect. These colors are often used because they give us a different view of our universe. Infrared, for example, is often used for looking through clouds of dust that block regular or visible light. In some of these wavelengths, Herschel will be breaking new ground.

The main mirror on Herschel is 3.5 meters (about 11.5 feet) across making it the largest telescope space telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope by example has a mirror 2.4 meters (about 7.9 feet) across. A bigger mirror lets you gather more light. This will allow Herschel to get better images of very dim objects.

Spitzer, another infrared space telescope, has made tons of exciting discoveries over the last few years. With its bigger mirror and ability to peer into new colors of light, astronomers are hoping for a whole gamut of new discoveries. This image an exciting start. You can see the clear difference in quality between the Spitzer image (left) and the Herschel (right). If Spitzer is still turning out amazing science, I can't wait to see what Herschel does.