Thursday, November 29, 2007

The largest star...

After years of studying astronomy, I am not often shocked by those "scale of the universe" demonstrations that you often see, but I just came across a really impressive one (click it to see the original page with slightly larger images):

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Green Hybrid Biodiesel Hummers?! Oh My.

So, I recently came across this article about a guy who is making cars ridiculously fuel efficient while increasing horsepower. Check it out:

Goodwin leads me over to a red 2005 H3 Hummer that's up on jacks, its mechanicals removed. He aims to use the turbine to turn the Hummer into a tricked-out electric hybrid. Like most hybrids, it'll have two engines, including an electric motor. But in this case, the second will be the turbine, Goodwin's secret ingredient. Whenever the truck's juice runs low, the turbine will roar into action for a few seconds, powering a generator with such gusto that it'll recharge a set of "supercapacitor" batteries in seconds. This means the H3's electric motor will be able to perform awesome feats of acceleration and power over and over again, like a Prius on steroids. What's more, the turbine will burn biodiesel, a renewable fuel with much lower emissions than normal diesel; a hydrogen-injection system will then cut those low emissions in half. And when it's time to fill the tank, he'll be able to just pull up to the back of a diner and dump in its excess french-fry grease--as he does with his many other Hummers. Oh, yeah, he adds, the horsepower will double--from 300 to 600.

"Conservatively," Goodwin muses, scratching his chin, "it'll get 60 miles to the gallon. With 2,000 foot-pounds of torque. You'll be able to smoke the tires. And it's going to be superefficient."

He laughs. "Think about it: a 5,000-pound vehicle that gets 60 miles to the gallon and does zero to 60 in five seconds!"

Monday, November 26, 2007

Thanksgiving with the Kranzes

I have been a total delinquent so far when it comes to making actual blog posts. I have lots of ideas for things to post here, but I haven't had time to sit down and write them up. Maybe later this week? Maybe.

In the mean time, please enjoy this thanksgiving parody of Apollo 13. Apparently it was put together by some employees at Johnson Space Center, and rumor has it that Gene Kranz himself now shows it to his family every thanksgiving. Of course, I can't verify that, but I can guarantee that if you've seen Apollo 13, you'll enjoy this:

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Communicating Science

Via the blog framing science, here's an excerpt from an interview on point of inquiry of Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing his strategy for communicating science in a sound bite:

GROTHE Do you think that mass media, going that route, do you think it undercuts your science education agenda because you have to speak in sound bites, you have to reduce it down to the simplest terms for the widest appeal?

TYSON: That is an excellent question. I think what I have done--and invested a fair amount of social, cultural, and intellectual effort in-- is to recognize and understand the various parameters around the media I am using.

For example, if I am invited onto the Colbert Report or the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, I am going to study previous episodes of what the dynamics are between the host and the guest and I am going to see what kind of opportunity does the guest have to speak, how many words are likely to come out of my mouth before I am playfully interpreted ...because they are comedy shows of course.

So I will then package the message I want to deliver into the context of that program. That takes effort, I think most people don't do that and I think it makes for awkward moments.

I do that willingly because I am visiting them in their medium. If they are going to come to my college class, and they are going to listen to my one hour lecture, I am not going to sound bite it for them at that time. They are visiting me in my habitat.

The moment I go into their habitat, I owe the viewer, a delivery of content that fits that habitat. So my challenge then is how do I not compromise on either the principles or the content of science yet deliver it in a form commensurate with the comedic short form sound bite or the evening news sound bite which is a little different...

For any of us who are scientists there is always the temptation to dumb down our field to share it with someone who is uninitiated in the language, in the subject matter, the jargon...there is a strong urge to do that, but it is possible to resist that I have found.

But to resist it you have to know what is going on in the mind of the person. What are the tangled pathways that may interfere with what you are about to say? When you understand that, then you can shape your content in a way that does not dumb it down but that best intersects their capacity to receive it.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Big Comet!

Comet Holmes, the comet that suddenly brightened by a factor of several million a few weeks ago, has now expanded to a diameter of 1.4 million kilometers. That's bigger than the sun! Of course, its nucleus is still tiny, it's the coma, the cloud of gas around the nucleus that is so huge. Check here for more information.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

HDTV... from the Moon!

I'm a sucker for pictures of the earth from space, as you may have guessed from this blog's title image. So I had to point out these awesome pictures of earth setting over the moon taken by Japan's Kaguya spacecraft. Also, last week JAXA released a sample of the first HDTV transmission from the moon, taken by the same spacecraft.

I got the heads-up on both of these press releases from the Bad Astronomy blog, one of the best science blogs out there.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Genetic Engineering

Note: The following is a rant on a topic outside my area of expertise. Please correct me if I have my facts wrong!

I was riding the bus back from campus yesterday when I overheard two Cornell students in the midst of a heated discussion. Their disagreement came about because, although they were both in favor of supporting sustainability and the environment, one of them couldn't believe that the other was in favor of genetic engineering. When the other student pressed the first about what was so wrong with genetic engineering, the first student responded: "It's genetic engineering, as in, engineering genes! We're creating new genes that have never been seen in nature before!"

I have some problems with this argument. First, the visceral reaction that engineering genes is somehow forbidden territory is nonsense. We have been engineering genes for centuries. Every domesticated animal and plant has been mutated by selective breeding so that, in some cases, they scarcely resemble their original species. Take a look at a Shar Pei or a Sphynx (hairless cat) and tell me those are not the result of genetic experiments. Corn is another example: it has been bred from a wild American grass to the towering stalk with bulging ears that we are used to.

Genetic engineering is only different from selective breeding in that we have much more precise control, and that new genes can be introduced. I fail to see how introducing a gene to tomatoes that makes them resist frost, or to soybeans that prevents insects from eating them, is a bad thing. It seems like a pretty fine line to walk if making crops yield more through breeding is good, but through genetic engineering is bad.

The student's comment that we are introducing never-before-seen genes is also, as far as I know, wrong. I don't think we're at the point where a geneticists have little keyboards with the letters AGCT and they can just type out a code for a gene that does what they want. Genetic engineering is limited to taking genes from one organism and splicing them into the DNA of another organism. We're not making new genes, we're making new combinations. The same can be said for sexual reproduction.

There are some valid concerns of course, and I don't claim to be an expert on this topic. One concern is that the genetically modified species could interbreed with wild species and affect the ecosystem. This is a real risk; similar to introducing non-indigenous species, a genetically modified species could out-compete its rivals and mess things up. But of course, since I feel like playing devil's advocate: isn't that how evolution works? Whether the advantage comes from
a natural or lab-induced mutation, the result is the same.

There's also the question of ethics: "Is it 'right' to modify species to fit our needs?" Again I point to the precedent of thousands of years of breeding. If it is morally ok for us to make breeds of dogs that can barely function, I think it's ok for us to make species that have a survival advantage.

As I said, I am not an expert on this topic. If you disagree with me, that's fine. If I have my facts wrong, I encourage you to bring it to my attention! I'll edit this post or make a follow-up if I'm wrong.

Good MSL News!

Alan Stern, the Associate Administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, and Jim Green, the director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, recently made a very welcome announcement to the Mars community. After a lot of work from everyone involved, the cost issues with both the descent imager MARDI and ChemCam have been resolved and the two instruments will be flying on MSL!

MARDI is a high-definition color video camera that will send back footage of MSL's landing. We will finally be able to watch a video of the landing instead of relying on telemetry to tell us what's going on and computer simulations to show what happened!

ChemCam is an instrument that sounds like it could be straight out of Star Wars. It uses a laser to vaporize a small amount of a target rock from up to 30 feet away, then analyzes the spectrum of light emitted by the superheated plasma to determine what the rock is made of. By repeatedly zapping the same place on a rock, it can blast away dust covering the surface, and even drill through thin coatings of alteration on rocks to find out how their composition changes below the surface. Finaly, since it has to have a powerful telescope to collect the plasma light, it is also able to take extremely detailed images from a distance.

It is great to hear that these instruments are both back on the mission. I'll keep you posted with other MSL developments as I hear about them.