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November 27, 2009

Obama's New Science Initiative

On November 23rd President Obama made a really exciting speech. He has started a new program called "Educate to Innovate." The aim of this program is to improve science education across the country. This initiative was announced in front of a large audience including Sally Ride, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and the Mythbusters Adam and Jamie.

This initiative is going to use private companies, more support of the STEM* Education Coalition, and additional programs to try and get students interested in science. This is a great move because it shows some motivation to try and improve our scientific standing in the world. Obama announced that there is going to be an annual science fair at the White house. What a great way to motivate kids to really try and exceed when they are coming up with their science fair projects.

I was really excited when the President said "It goes beyond the facts in a biology textbook or the questions on an algebra quiz. It's about the ability to understand our world: to harness and train that human capacity to solve problems and think critically, a set of skills that informs the decisions we make throughout our lives." YES

I hope we see a growing commitment to science and science education from both parties over the next decade. This is a great first step. Lets teach the our students not how to beat a test, but how to think critically about the world. In the words of the President "We're going to show young people how cool science can be."

*Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

November 16, 2009

Dinosaur Debate: Warm or Cold Blood?

Today, it's easy to tell if a creature is "cold-blooded" (ectothermic) or "warm-blooded" (endothermic). Reptiles, fish, and amphibians all slow down when the temperature is too cold. They do not produce their own body heat. That's why snakes coil up in the middle of the road: that's the warmest surface, and ideal to heat themselves up. Mammals and birds, on the other hand, are warm-blooded. They don't rely on their surroundings for body warmth; they stay at a warm, pretty constant temperature. Therefore, if you pet a dog, it's nice and warm.

But what about dinosaurs? Were they more reptilian, like the creatures they evolved from? Or were they more like their later descendants, the birds of today? This debate has been going on in the paleontology community for decades. A new study points towards the "warm-blooded" model, and the implications help change how we think of dinosaurs.

Obviously, today, we can watch animal behavior to determine if a creature is ectothermic or endothermic. We can also use morphology. Endothermic animals use more energy to move around than ectothermic creatures. The length of an organism's legs is directly related to this energy usage. Fossils give us this information beautifully. Thus, in the study, the hip heights of various dinosaur species were measured. The scientists also used some musculature reconstructions to help approximate the energy each creature would have used to walk. The results? Most, if not all, dinosaurs were most likely warm-blooded. In fact, this trait might have developed in the earliest dinosaurs, making it older than previously thought. It certainly presents a different view of the Mesozoic world.

The Cold-Blooded View
Take a trip back to the Jurassic. You end up in a fern-meadow, with a few trees scattered about. It's a cool morning, but the day will be warm. A herd of Diplodocus are lying in the sun, warming up. A lone Allosaurus is around near some trees. It is tearing hunks off of a dead juvenile Diplodocus. Based on the insects and decay, it's been dead for a while. While the carnivore looks impressive, it lumbers slowly, and is probably not intelligent enough to take down a even a juvenile. One of the more intelligent dinosaurs would have been little Compsognathus, which was only the size of a chicken. As you watch, it catches a dragonfly.

The Warm-Blooded View
Through the benefits of imagination, the scene blurs and changes. You're still in the same fern-meadow, on the same day. The behavior of the dinosaurs has changed radically, however. You find yourself between two very different hunts. The Compsognathus has climbed up onto a tree stump, and is intently watching a hole in the ground. A small lizard darts out. Before it gets more than a foot, however, the Compsognathus pounces on it, grabbing it in long-fingered hands. The lizards struggles feebly, before the dinosaur decapitates it.
Meanwhile, the Diplodocus herd has been walking through the meadow, whip-like tails drawing patterns in the air. A young one is limping near the outside of the herd. The Allosaurus is standing motionless in the shadow of a tree, watching it. Suddenly, it stumbles, and the creature springs to life. It springs out, along with two other Allosaurs, quickly biting on the the Diplodocus. One bites its neck, while another tears a chunk out of the already injured leg. The third guards, snapping at an adult to distract the herd from the little one. In a matter of minutes, the ambush is over. The juvenile is motionless, and the two Allosaurs are dragging it away, while the third retreats and rejoins the pack. The Diplodocus herd lets out some bellows, and reconfigures. All the young ones are now concentrated in the center, protected by adults. They will not be caught off-guard again.

As you can see, the warm-blooded idea of dinosaurs makes them far more intelligent (and possibly more interesting) creatures. It's been a controversial idea since it was first proposed by Robert Bakker in the early 1970's, however, and the debate is still going on today. It is evidence like this study which allows us to finally solve this question.

November 13, 2009

Water on the Moon!

In October, I wrote about how NASA was crashing LCROSS into the moon to see how much water was there. The data is in and the result is a massive YES. This is really exciting and has some intriguing implications. Water on the moon could be used by future astronauts as a source of oxygen, as well as drinking water. It also gives us a better idea as to how common water is in the solar system. "We're unlocking the mysteries of our nearest neighbor, and by extension the solar system. It turns out the moon harbors many secrets, and LCROSS has added a new layer to our understanding," said Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

I was surprised that these results came out so soon, and NASA says there is more on the way. Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS project scientist and principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA, said, "The full understanding of the LCROSS data may take some time. The data is that rich. Along with the water in Cabeus, there are hints of other intriguing substances. The permanently shadowed regions of the moon are truly cold traps, collecting and preserving material over billions of years." A big round of applause to NASA for a job well done and getting this information out so fast.

For more information see the NASA article
Image Credit: NASA

November 12, 2009

Some Cool Astronomy Pareidolia

Pareidolia is our brains ability to see familiar images in random noise. This is what gives us the images of Jesus appearing in everything from grilled cheese to grease stains. I have always thought that pareidolia is also really fun. Astronomy is famous for its great imagery. As would be expected, some of the images have a familiar ring to them.

November 6, 2009

Dynamic Earth: Tsumanis

When I first introduced plate tectonics, it sounded like a relatively boring force. It's kind of cool that the Earth's surface is made up of gigantic slabs, which move around and collide. But these slabs move at the same rate that fingernails grow. Even with the huge mass of each plate, you wouldn't expect things moving at 5 cm a year to do much. However, as demonstrated by earthquakes and some types of volcanoes, the slow-moving plates can have pretty devastating effects. Along with these, there's a third type of natural disaster often associated with plate tectonics. And this one comes by sea.

Tsunamis, also called tidal waves (although this is a misnomer) are some of the most impressive natural disasters, second only to volcanoes. They are a gigantic wave of water that crashes onto land. The 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean was over 50 ft tall (15 m) in some areas. This, like most tsunamis, was caused by an earthquake. A tsunami is basically a series of enormous ripples, when a large amount of water is displaced. In the deep ocean, tsunami waves are very small, barely enough to rock a boat. It is when they get to land that they become devastating. The column of water drags along the ocean bottom, while the top part continues to move quickly. This speed difference causes the tsunami to reach devastating heights. The animation below shows how this works.

Like I mentioned above, tsunamis are caused by displacement. Underwater earthquakes are the primary cause of these. However, large landslides into the ocean can also cause tsunamis. This occurred in Lituya Bay Alaska, in 1958 causing one of the largest tsunamis ever recorded. Geologists and oceanographers also predict that the next mega-tsunami will occur if volcanic activity causes a landslide in the Canary Islands. A good portion of the island would collapse into the ocean, sending a tsunami wave towards the east coast of the United States. Between that, and the Yellowstone caldera, there is not a lot of the United States that will be secure from natural disasters. Fortunately, these gigantic events are rare, and can be monitored using seismographs and other devices, so there will should be plenty of warning before a giant tsunami, or some other mega-disaster occurs.

Sagan Day

Carl Sagan was one of the greatest science educators of the last few decades. He inspired many people, including myself, to explore through the world though the tools of science. November 9th would have been his 75th birthday. In honor of this, Broward College is hosting the first-ever "Sagan Day." I think this is a great idea. They have some excellent speakers lined up, including Phil Plait (The Bad Astronomer) and James Randi.

A similar event has been growing over the last few years as well, called "Darwin Day."  I think that events like these are great ways to spread enthusiasm about science. While this event is on November 7th, I will try to do something on the 9th (maybe some star gazing). Spread the word and maybe do a small gathering of your own.

November 5, 2009

The 123rd Skeptics' Circle

The 123rd Skeptics' Circle is here. A big thanks to Blue Genes for including us this time. If you haven't checked it out before, it is a great conglomeration of skeptical articles. One that caught my eye this time was over at Evolving Mind on common sense. Enjoy.

For more of the Skeptics' Circle, check out