Beer and Burgers With a Side of Science

Astronomers and cosmologists endeavor to solve some of the great mysteries of the universe. One mystery scientists here at the AAS meeting in St. Louis are seriously trying to address is how to make science more interesting and accessible to the general public. While this issue has little cosmic implications, having a science literate population in our ever-growing technology-based civilization is not just an advantage, but becoming an absolute necessity. In attempt to tackle this concern, a group of astronomers are encouraging others to follow the lead of a concept that seems to be working: Invite the public out for a beer.

Science Cafes, or “Cafe Scientifique,” are billed as places where, for the price of glass of beer or a cup of coffee, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology. The people leading these groups are committed to promoting public engagement with science, as well as helping scientists improve their communication skills.

“Beer and science are two things a lot of us love,” said Randy Landsberg, Director of the Kavli Institute of Cosmological Science in Chicago. “We started a Science Cafe just because we thought it would be fun. We wanted to get people engaged to understand the research we’re doing, and researchers to be better at conveying the science. The drinks help.”

Meetings take place in cafes, bars, restaurants but always outside a traditional scientific or academic context.

“We want to provide a fun place to hear about science,” said Landsberg.

The group in Chicago meets at a local establishment that supports the effort by offering free appetizers. Their format is a brief introduction to the topic, (15-20 minutes) with limited visual aids (detailed PowerPoint’s are frowned upon). Then they take a break, get some beer and follow with a question and answer session for about 90 minutes. People can leave anytime they want, and the scientists are monitored. “If the speaker starts talking about derivatives, we try to rein him in,” Landsberg said.

They try to vary the topics. “It’s not all cosmology all the time. We’ve done global warming, flying snakes, biology of gender, and one entitled ‘The Dark Side: from dark energy and dark matter to Washington and science policy.'”

Ben Wiehe, the Outreach Coordinator at WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston, has been instrumental promoting Science Cafes with PBS’s NOVAscienceNOW. “Science Cafes are taking place in a lot of bars, coffeehouses, bookstores, churches, and even hardware stores. You want to go where your audience is naturally gathering anyway,” he said. “If you want teens to show up, you may have to consider whether you want to meet at a bar. But you can choose a library or some other place. Where and when you have your meetings will help determine the demographics.”

Wiehe said “field research” (i.e., checking out the local bars) is necessary to help choose a location. But the main goal of Science Cafes is to reach out to new audiences of people who don’t normally talk about science.

Surveys of Science Cafe attendees are overwhelmingly positive about the experience, with comments like, “I love coming to these. Please do this more!” and “Beer + Intellectual Stimulation = Fun.”

To keep the size intimate, the Chicago group has resorted to requiring tickets (free) to attend. They have 385 people registered on their email list, but want to limit attendance at any one event to 50-70 people.

R. J. Wyatt from the Southern California Academy of Sciences says for their Science Cafes, he likes to get people to consider alternate possibilities. “Sometimes we want to cover topics that are edgy and confrontational,” he said. “If we can assuage anyone’s fears, and get them fascinated about science you can shift people’s thinking in how they think about themselves and their world.”

Venerable cosmologist Michael Turner offered a speaker’s perspective on how to best choose a speaker.

“It’s a theorem that someone who gives a good public lecture is not necessarily a good Cafe Scientifique choice,” he said. “You’re not doing a lecture. It has to be spontaneous and extraordinarily flexible. Shorter is better, and if you’re talking about astronomy you can just show astronomical pictures, and do a four star presentation.”

Turner added, “Loose ends are really important. If you’ve explained everything and its absolutely perfect, then there will be no questions and no follow up. There has to be some ‘hanging chads’ to get people engaged.”

For more information about finding or starting a Science Cafe, see the links above, or NOVAscienceNOW’s Science Cafe page.

Potential Global Warming “Fix” Will Damage the Ozone Layer

There are many possible “geo-engineering” solutions open to scientists in the aim to stave off global warming. One of the main candidates to dim the solar energy input to the atmosphere is to inject huge quantities of sulphate particles high in the atmosphere. This mimics the emissions from a large volcanic explosion proven to cool the Earth’s atmosphere in the past. But, you guessed it, there’s a problem. New research suggests that tampering with the atmosphere in this way will have serious repercussions for the ozone layer… Now there’s a surprise!

On writing this week’s Carnival of Space, I came across an interesting discussion about the damage that can be caused by scientists tampering with weather. Nancy L. Young-Houser takes the strong view that under no circumstance is it OK to alter natural weather processes, even if the purpose is to advert a catastrophic hurricane or bring rain to drought-ridden regions. Looking at historic examples of cloud seeding for example, Nancy concludes that weather manipulation is not only morally but ethically wrong. There will always be a loser.

Ash plume of Pinatubo during 1991 eruption (USGS)

Then today, the BBC ran an article on the perils of using high altitude particles to block sunlight from entering our atmosphere. The effect of such a large-scale measure could emulate the ejected particles from a huge volcanic explosion. Sulphide particles are known to be a highly efficient means to deflect sunlight, thus cooling our atmosphere, possibly saving us from the ravages of our self-inflicted global warming. (This effect was observed in the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, pictured.) But there is a big flaw in this plan according to new research published in Science. Sulphide particles can damage the ozone layer, possibly creating another hole in the ozone over the Arctic and undo the recovery of the Antarctic ozone hole, setting it back decades.

Dr Simone Tilmes of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCar) in Boulder, Colorado, and her team analysed data and ran simulations of the sulphide effect on the atmosphere. Their conclusion? Injecting sulphide particles into the high atmosphere may lessen the effects of global warming, but it will also set back Antarctic ozone layer recovery 30 to 70 years. Sulphates are ideal particles on which atmospheric chlorine gases held in polar clouds will attach themselves to (pictured top). A chemical reaction between sulphate particle and chlorine destroys ozone molecules (O3). The effects of this chemical reaction may cause accelerated damage in troubled polar regions. This ozone depletion was also recorded after the Mount Pinatubo eruption.

Attempting to “repair” the global damage we are causing to the atmosphere by injecting even more particles at high altitudes may not be the best way forward. After all, as outlined in Nancy’s article, there are many hidden risks when geo-engineering our atmospheric dynamics. Perhaps working on the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions may be a better idea, sooner rather than later.

Source: BBC

Universe Today Astronomy Picture of the Week: NGC 3199 – The Interstellar Snow Plough

One thing is certain, Wolf-Rayet stars produce some interesting
science. In this week’s portrait we see a distorted bubble produced
by a moving star blowing a strong stellar wind into a surrounding
uniform interstellar medium – yet is isn’t uniform. What exactly is
going on here?

Hanging out some 11,736 light years away in the southern constellation
of Carina (RA 10:17:24.0 Dec -57:55:18), NGC 3199 is classed as a
diffuse nebula or supernova remnant. Discovered by John Herschel in
1834, it has been known throughout historic astronomy observations as
bright, large, crescent-shaped nebula with embedded stars, but modern
astronomy shows it as much more. It’s being pushed along by
Wolf-Rayet star 18.

Says Dr. Michael Corcoran: “Wolf-Rayet stars (named for their
discoverers) are very large, massive stars (stars which are about 20
times bigger than the sun) nearly at the end of their stellar lives.
As these stars age, material which the stars have cooked up in their
central nuclear furnaces (like carbon and oxygen) gradually reach the
surface of the star. When enough material reaches the surface, it
absorbs so much of the intense light from the star that an enormously
strong wind starts to blow from the star’s surface. This wind becomes
so thick that it totally obscures the star – so when we look at a
Wolf-Rayet star, we’re really just seeing this thick wind. The amount
of material which the wind carries away is very large – typically, a
mass equivalent to that of the entire earth is lost from the star each
year. The mass loss is so large that it significantly shortens the
star’s life, and as you can imagine has important effects on the space
surrounding the star too. We think that very massive stars become
Wolf-Rayet stars just before they explode as supernova (though no one
has yet seen such a star explode).

At magnitude 11, NGC 3199 is observable with larger amateur
telescopes, but the crescent shape is cause for study by some of the
finest research telescopes and astronomers in the world. Through
optical observations, the ring nebula and cavities around WF stars have
painted a history of mass loss in these highly evolved stellar
curiosities. By studying molecular gases associated with Wolf-Rayet
stars
, it appears that some materials seem to be avoiding optical
emission.

In reading scientific reports submitted by A. P. Marston, molecular
gas has already been observed around Wolf-Rayet Star 18 – the first to
confirm the presence of HCN, HCO+, CN, and HNC and molecules. This
makes the Wolf-Rayet ring nebula NGC 3199 very unique and filled
associated molecular gas that took the form clumpy ejecta and
interstellar material. At one time, NGC 3199’s formation was believed
to be caused by bow shock, but current data now shows the associated
Wolf Rayet star is moving at a right angle to its enveloping
environment. Could this be an indication that something else is at
work here? Astronomers seem to think so.

According to their information, it is possible the northern area of
the optically bright nebula is being torn apart by a possible blowout
of Wolf Rayet wind. This, in turn, affects the surrounding ejecta and
could very well account for the observed velocity. By modeling
molecular abundances, the central Wolf Rayet star could be contributing a
portion of its material to this nebula as ejecta. Despite its still
unsolved mysteries, NGC 3199 is a stunning portrait. J.E. Dyson and
Ghanbari summed it up best when they described it as an “interstellar
snow plough”.

This week’s awesome astronomy picture is the work of Ken Crawford, taken at Macedon Ranges Observatory.

Says Ken: “This image was taken using an Apogee CCD Camera that uses primarily Narrow Band data which is color mapped mixed with RGB for natural star colors and back ground balancing. The bright blue area shows lots of OIII (ionized oxygen) signal which really shows the direction of the star movement well. The star is said to be moving at about 60 km/s through the interstellar gas.”

Be A Carbon Hero

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NASA is quite proud of its spinoffs technology developed for the space agency’s needs in space that in turn contribute to commercial innovations that improve life here on Earth. And rightly so. Just as a quick example, improvements in spacesuits have led to better protection for firefighters, scuba divers and people working in cold weather. But the list of NASA spinoffs is quite extensive.

Just like NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) has a Technology Transfer office to help inventors and businesses use space technology for non-space applications. The latest invention touted as an ESA spinoff is a small hand-held device called a Carbon Hero that might help make people more aware of the carbon footprint they are leaving behind due to vehicle emissions.

Used in conjunction with a cell phone, the Carbon Hero receives data from navigation satellites to determine the mode of transportation being used. The device’s algorithm is able to use the speed and position of the user to determine how they are traveling, and how much CO2 they are generating. The user doesn’t have to enter any information, the data is computed automatically.

The user would get feedback on the environmental impact of different types of transportation – whether by train, plane, bike or by foot. The Carbon Hero lets the user compare one kind of travel with another and calculate the environmental benefits daily, weekly and monthly.

“If you go on a diet you want to see if all that effort has made a difference so you weigh yourself. The beauty of our system is that it’s easy; you have a “weighing scale” on you all the time giving you your carbon footprint. When you make the effort to walk instead of taking the car you can immediately see the result, so it feels more worthwhile doing it and you are more likely to stick with it,” says Andreas Zachariah, a graduate student from the Royal College of Art in London and inventor of Carbon Hero.

The device has been tested using the GPS system, but will be fully operational after Galileo, the European global navigation system is fully up and running.

Learn more about ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office.

Learn more about NASA Spinoffs.

Original News Source: ESA Press Release

Columbus to Set Sail for Space

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For European scientists and space enthusiasts, the wait will soon be over. The Columbus module, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) major component for the International Space Station, will finally be delivered to the ISS aboard space shuttle Atlantis on STS-122. The launch is scheduled for Thursday, December 6, 2007 at 4:31 pm EST. Flying along with Columbus are two ESA astronauts, Hans Schlegel from Germany, and Leopold Eyharts from France.

The ESA considers Columbus as the most important European mission to the ISS to date and the cornerstone of Europe’s contribution to this cooperative international endeavor.

Creating a human-capable science module for a space station was first proposed by Europeans back in 1985. At that time France was considering building a mini space shuttle called Hermes to fly to a proposed space station called the Man Tended Free Flyer (MTFF) to be built by Germany and Italy. But with the postponement of MTFF in 1991 and the termination of Hermes in 1993, the planned Columbus module was left with no ride to space and nowhere to go.

When the ESA joined as an ISS partner in 1995, the Columbus science module was a logical contribution for the Europeans. The module was completed in 2000, and the original date for delivery of Columbus to orbit was 2004. But that date was pushed back following the Columbia space shuttle accident in 2003.

Columbus is 7 meters (23 feet) long and 4.5 meters (15 feet) in diameter and will hold specialized experiments for multidisciplinary research into biology, physiology, material science, fluid physics, technology, life science and education. Columbus can hold ten science racks, but will launch with only five in place, as future missions will bring more science racks on board. Additionally, there are two stands bolted to the outside of the module that can be used for research on materials and for unfiltered views of space. Columbus will be attached to the Harmony node’s starboard docking port.

Schlegel will play a key role in two of the three spacewalks or EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) scheduled for the mission, helping to install and power up the laboratory.

Eyharts will stay aboard the ISS for a long duration mission, replacing Dan Tani who will return to Earth on the shuttle. Eyharts will play a key part in the installation, activation and in-orbit commissioning of Columbus and its experimental facilities.

Once in orbit, Columbus will be monitored from ESA’s Columbus Control Centre located within DLR’s German Space Operations Centre in Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich.

The American astronauts on Atlantis are Commander Stephen Frick, pilot Alan Poindexter and mission specialists Rex Walheim, Stanley Love, and Leland Melvin.

The forecast for Thursday’s launch is 80 percent “go,” decreasing to 60 percent on Friday and Saturday.

Original News Source: ESA Press Release

Killer Electrons From Space!

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Space travel is dangerous, make no mistake. So many ways to die. But now scientists think they’ve got a handle on how one of the threats operates: killer electrons from space.

Using data from a fleet of spacecraft, scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have puzzled out how electromagnetic waves accelerate normal electrons in the Earth’s radiation belts to killer velocities. These electrons are then hazardous to satellites, spacecraft, and especially astronauts.

Their research, entitled The Energization of Relativistic Electrons in the Outer Van Allen Radiation Belt was published in the July issue of Nature Physics.

They measured the fluxes of electrons striking a satellite-mounted detector, and the converted the measurements to magnetic coordinates. This showed them that the local peaks in electrons could have only been caused by the acceleration of electrons by electromagnetic waves. They still don’t understand the exact mechanism that’s causing the acceleration, though.

Two new NASA spacecraft are due to be launched in 2012 – the Radiation Belt Storm probes – these will help scientists understand the mechanism more deeply.

Original Source: Los Alamos National Lab

Before the Big Bang?

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The scientific consensus is that the Universe is expanding, having gotten its start in a single point 13.7 billion years ago. There are several lines of evidence to support this theory: the movement of galaxies away from us, the cosmic microwave background radiation, and the quantities of hydrogen and helium in the Universe.

But what came before the Big Bang? Since all matter and energy was tangled up into a single point of infinite volume and density, it’s hard to imagine how you could look to a time before that.

Cosmologist Martin Bojowald and others from Penn State University thinks it’s possible. His ideas are published in a new paper as part of the July 1st edition of the journal Nature Physics.

According to Bojowald, a mathematical technique called Loop Quantum Gravity, which combines relativity and quantum mechanics, gives a different view of the early Universe. Instead of being infinitely small and dense, it was compacted down into a ball of some volume and density.

The researchers believes that a previous Universe collapsed down to a tiny ball, and then had a Big Bounce to expand again. The previous Universe was very similar to the space-time geometry we have in our current Universe.

I’d try and explain this better, but Phil beat me to the punch and did a great article about it.

Original Source : Penn State University

NASA Working on a Folding Tether System

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[email protected] has a cool article about how US and Japanese researchers are working on a folding tether system that could help keep satellites in their proper orbits, and return spent rocket stages to Earth.

Space tethers were first demonstrated on the Gemini 11 and 12 missions, showing how spacecraft could be connected by a cable. Possible applications include artificial gravity, spacecraft stabilization, and even raising a spacecraft into higher and higher orbits through a series of tether slingshots.

The new design is nicknamed Fortissimo, and provides a new method for unfolding a tether system. Instead of unraveling a cable from a spool, this tether would look like a thin strip of aluminum foil. It would be folded up using a clever origami technique so that it unravels quickly; similar to a firefighter’s hose.

Under this design, a 1km tether could deploy in just a few minutes.

Original Source: [email protected]