Nominations: The Universe Today Top 10 Scientific Endeavours of 2008

2008 has been a landmark year for space science and physics endeavour. We’ve peered deep into the cosmos and fitted new pieces into some of the most intriguing universal puzzles. We’ve explored other planets with technology we wouldn’t have recognised a decade ago. We’ve assembled some of the most complex experiments to test theories of the very small and the very big. 2008 has built strong foundations for the future of the exploration of the Universe in so many ways…

This week, Time Magazine published the top 10 “Scientific Discoveries” of 2008. Technically, as many readers pointed out, a few of the entries are not “discoveries”, they are “achievements”. Although this might have been the case, space exploration and physics dominated, with the #1 slot going to the LHC and #2 slot going to the Phoenix Mars Lander (#4 and #6 went to the Chinese spacewalk and exoplanets respectively). After reading the superb suggestion put forward by Astrofiend (thanks!), it was the push I needed to want to create a Universe Today version of a “Top 10” for 2008 (I’d love to do a top 20, but I have to find some time for Christmas shopping).

This top ten will focus on the last 12 months of Universe Today articles, so take a journey through the year’s events in space science and physics to find your favourite scientific endeavour of 2008. If you can’t find the article, just leave the name of the specific endeavour and we’ll do the rest. Please leave all nominations in the comments box below…

You have one week to get your nominations in (so your deadline is December 19th), and I’ll compile the list of winners hopefully in time for Christmas. The nominations will be considered not only according to popularity, but also chosen by your unbiased Universe Today team…

So, get nominating! You have 7 days…

“Leap Second” to be Added to World Clocks

If you ever feel like you need more time, here’s some great news: you’re actually going to get it. On December 31, 2008 a “leap second” will be added to the world’s clocks at 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). This corresponds to 6:59:59 pm Eastern Standard Time, when the extra second will be inserted at the U.S. Naval Observatory’s Master Clock Facility in Washington, DC. This is the 24th leap second added to UTC, a uniform time-scale kept by atomic clocks around the world, since 1972. Coincidentally, Fraser and Pamela’s most recent episode of Astronomy Cast is about time, so if you want to know more about time and the atomic clocks used to provide precise timekeeping, check it out.

Historically, time was based on the mean rotation of the earth relative to celestial bodies and the second was defined in this reference frame. However, the invention of atomic clocks defined a much more precise “atomic time” scale and a second that is independent of the earth’s rotation. In 1970, an international agreement established two timescales: one based on the rotation of the earth and one based on atomic time.

Atomic clocks do not use radioactivity, but they use the exact frequency of the microwave spectral line emitted by atoms of the element cesium, in particular its isotope of atomic weight 133 (“Cs-133”). The integral of frequency is time, so this frequency, 9,192,631,770 hertz (Hz = cycles/second), and this provides the fundamental unit of time, which are measured by cesium clocks.

The problem is that the earth’s rotation is very gradually slowing down, which necessitates the periodic insertion of a “leap second” into the atomic timescale to keep the two within 1 second of each other. The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) is the organization which monitors the difference in the two timescales and calls for leap seconds to be inserted or removed when necessary.

Since 1972, leap seconds have been added at intervals varying from six months to seven years, with the last being inserted on December 31, 2005. The U.S. Naval Observatory is charged with the responsibility for the precise determination and dissemination of time for the Department of Defense and maintains its Master Clock. The U.S. Naval Observatory, together with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), determines time for the United States.

Source: US Naval Observatory

Teddy Bears Go To Space

I don’t think this is what Iran has in mind about launching animals into space, but … you never know. Four teddy bears voyaged to the edge of space on Monday, December 1st via high altitude helium balloon. This was done as an experiment by a student organization at Cambridge University in England, along with a science club and community college. The bears were lifted to 30,085 meters above sea level, and the goal of the experiment was to determine which materials provided the best insulation against the -53 ° C temperatures experienced during the journey. Each of the bears wore a different space suit designed by 11-13 year-olds who were took part in the experiment. But the main goal of the endeavor was to give young students the opportunity to try their hand at a real mission in sending objects into space.

“We want to offer young people the opportunity to get involved in the space industry whilst still at school and show that real-life science is something that is open to everybody” says Iain Waugh, chief aeronautical engineer of student-run Cambridge University Spaceflight.

“High altitude balloon flights are a fantastic way of encouraging interest in science. They are easy to understand, and produce amazing results,” said Daniel Strange, treasurer of CU Spaceflight.

Prelaunch of the high altitude balloon.  Credit: CU Spaceflight
Prelaunch of the high altitude balloon. Credit: CU Spaceflight

The payload which carried the bears was designed by CU Spaceflight and contained several cameras, a flight computer, GPS and a radio. During the 2 hour and 9 minute flight, the radio broadcasted the location of the payload to a chase team on the ground. The team predicted the landing site using wind speed data and arrived in time to see the payload and teddy bears drift slowly back down to earth by parachute.

CU Spaceflight is a student-run society aiming to reduce the cost of sub-orbital spaceflight. They have launched several payloads to near space on high-altitude helium balloons and are currently designing a system to launch a rocket from a balloon platform to outer space for under £1000 per launch. They have run several outreach events and are currently holding the UK Space Challenge 2009, as part of the University of Cambridge’s 800th Anniversary. Twenty four teams of science students aged 14-18 are competing to design a scientific experiment that will be taken to near space on a high-altitude helium balloon.

More images of the flight.
More information about Cambridge University Spaceflight.

Source: CU Spaceflight

Studying the Life Cycle of Butterflies and Spiders in Space


Space biology experiments have just arrived in the classroom. With a focus on hundreds of K-12 students, a University of Colorado, Boulder payload will be launched on board Space Shuttle Endeavour on November 14th carrying spiders and butterfly larvae. The purpose? To provide an educational research tool for youngsters, helping to develop their interest in biology and space science. The butterfly larvae will be studied over their complete life cycle in space; from larvae to pupae to butterfly to egg. Web-building spiders will be studied to see how their behaviour alters when lacking gravity. Both sets of experiments will then be compared with control subjects on the ground… I wish I had the chance to do this kind of research when in school. I wish I had the chance to do this kind of research now!

This program is an excellent example of using a national asset like the International Space Station to inspire K-12 students in science, technology, engineering and math,” said BioServe Director Louis Stodieck, principal investigator on the project. BioServe has flown two previous K-12 payloads as part of their CSI program on other shuttle flights to the International Space Station (ISS).

This particular experiment will study the activities and feeding habits of web-building spiders when in space, compared to spiders in the classroom. The hundreds of students from several locations in the US are involved in the project and will learn valuable research techniques along with boosting their interest in the sciences. After all, it isn’t every day you get a chance to carry out cutting-edge research on the world’s most extreme science laboratory!

The second set of experiments will be another space/Earth comparison, but this time a study of the full lifespan of painted lady butterflies. Four-day old pupae will be launched into space and watched via downlink video, still images and data from the ISS. Partners in the project include the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, CO and the Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Education Outeach.

BioServe is a non-profit, NASA funded organization hoping to include payloads on each of the remaining shuttle flights until retirement. “Between now and then, we are seeking sponsors for our educational payloads to enhance the learning opportunities for the K-12 community in Colorado and around the world,” added BioServe Payload Mission Manager Stefanie Countryman.

The full details on the project can be found on the University of Colorado pages.

This is where the strength of the International Space Station really comes into play. Real science being carried out by schools in the US to boost interest not only in space travel, but biology too. It’s a relief, I was getting a little tired hearing about busted toilets, interesting yet pointless boomerang “experiments”, more tests on sprouting seeds and the general discontent about the ISS being an anticlimax.

Let’s hope BioServe’s projects turn out well and all the students involved are inspired by the opportunities of space travel. Although I can’t help but feel sorry for the confused spiders and butterfly larvae when they realise there’s no “up” any more (I hope they don’t get space sick).

Source: UC Boulder

The LHC Will Revolutionize Physics. Can it Revolutionize the Internet Too?

We already know that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will be the biggest, most expensive physics experiment ever carried out by mankind. Colliding relativistic particles at energies previously unimaginable (up to the 14 TeV mark by the end of the decade) will generate millions of particles (known and as yet to be discovered), that need to be tracked and characterized by huge particle detectors. This historic experiment will require a massive data collection and storage effort, re-writing the rules of data handling. Every five seconds, LHC collisions will generate the equivalent of a DVD-worth of data, that’s a data production rate of one gigabyte per second. To put this into perspective, an average household computer with a very good connection may be able to download data at a rate of one or two megabytes per second (if you are very lucky! I get 500 kilobytes/second). So, LHC engineers have designed a new kind of data handling method that can store and distribute petabytes (million-gigabytes) of data to LHC collaborators worldwide (without getting old and grey whilst waiting for a download).

In 1990, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) revolutionized the way in which we live. The previous year, Tim Berners-Lee, a CERN physicist, wrote a proposal for electronic information management. He put forward the idea that information could be transferred easily over the Internet using something called “hypertext.” As time went on Berners-Lee and collaborator Robert Cailliau, a systems engineer also at CERN, pieced together a single information network to help CERN scientists collaborate and share information from their personal computers without having to save it on cumbersome storage devices. Hypertext enabled users to browse and share text via web pages using hyperlinks. Berners-Lee then went on to create a browser-editor and soon realised this new form of communication could be shared by vast numbers of people. By May 1990, the CERN scientists called this new collaborative network the World Wide Web. In fact, CERN was responsible for the world’s first website: and an early example of what this site looked like can be found via the World Wide Web Consortium website.

So CERN is no stranger to managing data over the Internet, but the brand new LHC will require special treatment. As highlighted by David Bader, executive director of high performance computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the current bandwidth allowed by the Internet is a huge bottleneck, making other forms of data sharing more desirable. “If I look at the LHC and what it’s doing for the future, the one thing that the Web hasn’t been able to do is manage a phenomenal wealth of data,” he said, meaning that it is easier to save large datasets on terabyte hard drives and then send them in the post to collaborators. Although CERN had addressed the collaborative nature of data sharing on the World Wide Web, the data the LHC will generate will easily overload the small bandwidths currently available.

How the LHC Computing Grid works (CERN/Scientific American)
How the LHC Computing Grid works (CERN/Scientific American)

This is why the LHC Computing Grid was designed. The grid handles vast LHC dataset production in tiers, the first (Tier 0) is located on-site at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. Tier 0 consists of a huge parallel computer network containing 100,000 advanced CPUs that have been set up to immediately store and manage the raw data (1s and 0s of binary code) pumped out by the LHC. It is worth noting at this point, that not all the particle collisions will be detected by the sensors, only a very small fraction can be captured. Although only a comparatively small number of particles may be detected, this still translates into huge output.

Tier 0 manages portions of the data outputted by blasting it through dedicated 10 gigabit-per-second fibre optic lines to 11 Tier 1 sites across North America, Asia and Europe. This allows collaborators such as the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York to analyse data from the ALICE experiment, comparing results from the LHC lead ion collisions with their own heavy ion collision results.

From the Tier 1 international computers, datasets are packaged and sent to 140 Tier 2 computer networks located at universities, laboratories and private companies around the world. It is at this point that scientists will have access to the datasets to perform the conversion from the raw binary code into usable information about particle energies and trajectories.

The tier system is all well and good, but it wouldn’t work without a highly efficient type of software called “middleware.” When trying to access data, the user may want information that is spread throughout the petabytes of data on different servers in different formats. An open-source middleware platform called Globus will have the huge responsibility to gather the required information seamlessly as if that information is already sitting inside the researcher’s computer.

It is this combination of the tier system, fast connection and ingenious software that could be expanded beyond the LHC project. In a world where everything is becoming “on demand,” this kind of technology could make the Internet transparent to the end user. There would be instant access to everything from data produced by experiments on the other side of the planet, to viewing high definition movies without waiting for the download progress bar. Much like Berners-Lee’s invention of HTML, the LHC Computing Grid may revolutionize how we use the Internet.

Sources: Scientific American, CERN

TV Alert: Mythbusters and the Moon Hoax Myth


On Wednesday August 27th, at 9 p.m. ET/PT in the US, the famed “Mythbusters” on the Discovery Channel will take on one of the biggest myths ever: the belief the Apollo Moon landings were faked. Some folks who lived through the 1960’s never believed the moon landings actually happened, and some how this belief persisted. In 2001 the Fox Channel aired a show “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?” and the belief grew. But now the Mythbusters take on the HB’s (hoax believers) who say they have scientific evidence the moon landings were faked. Adam and Jamie will fight bad science with their usual good science. The results? We’ll have to wait and see until tonight. But here’s a preview:

I can’t wait!

For more info:
Mythbusters website.
Article on CollectSpace about the show, includes quotes from Phil Plait
Phil Plait’s Review of the show and links to his previous articles about the show
Phil’s debunking of the Fox moon hoax show

Large Hadron Collider Rap Is a Hit


Puzzled about particle physics? Want to know what the inside of the Large Hadron Collider looks like? Like music, fun and science? Want to know for sure the LHC won’t create a black hole that will swallow the Earth? Find all of the above in a rap song created by Kate McAlpine, 23, who used to work in the press office of CERN, where on September 10, the LHC will be powered up. The song has been a hit on You Tube, and has been downloaded over 400,000 times. Physicists say the science in the song is “spot on” and provides a rhythmic tour of the mysteries of modern physics and the workings of the LHC, while noting that “the things that it discovers will rock you in the head.” Without further ado, here it is:

McAlpine wrote the rap during her 40-minute morning commute to CERN. “Some more academic people are not too happy and they think it kind of cheapens the science and dumbs it down,” she says. “But I think mostly people are excited to have this rap out there. And a lot of people at CERN just think it’s great, so that’s exciting.”

Source: Telegraph UK

Podcast: Gravity

Topics about Gravity

You seem to like a nice series, so here’s a new one Fraser and Pamela have been thinking about. Over the course of the next 4 weeks, they’re going to cover each of the basic forces in the Universe. And this week, they’re going to start with gravity; the force you’re most familiar with. Gravity happens when masses attract one another, and we can calculate its effect with exquisite precision. But you might be surprised to know that scientists have no idea why gravity happens

Click here to download the episode

Or subscribe to: with your podcatching software.

Gravity Show notes.

Tyson and Sykes Duke Out the Great Planet Debate; Flatow Almost Flattened

A debate today between astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson and planetary scientist Mark Sykes, moderated by NPR’s Ira Flatow, addressed the issue of Pluto’s planetary status. There was lots of arm-waving and finger-pointing, endless interruptions, disagreements on details big and small, and battling one-liners. The two scientists sat at a table with the moderator between them and Flatow was often obscured by Tyson and Sykes getting in each other’s faces in eye-to-eye confrontation. At one point, Flatow was hit by Tyson’s ebullient arm motions. Yes, it was heated. But it was fun, too. It ended up being not so much a debate between the Pluto-huggers and the Pluto-haters as a disagreement over the lexicon of astronomy and planetary science and, primarily, the definition of a planet. Pluto’s planetary status was definitely not decided here, and the debate concluded with an amicable agree-to-disagree concurrence that the scientific process is an ongoing, evolving practice. But it wasn’t without fireworks.

At the start of the Great Planet Debate, Flatow laid down the ground rules, which included no throwing of perishable items, but that was about the only rule that didn’t get disregarded. Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York and host of Nova ScienceNow, and who is in the camp that Pluto is not a planet, began his opening statements with “It’s simple. The word ‘planet’ has lost all scientific value.” He went on, saying “planet” doesn’t tell you much and you have to ask all sorts of questions such as is it big or small, rocky or gaseous, in the habitable zone or not, etc. “If you have to ask twenty questions after I say I’ve discovered a planet, the word has lost its utility.” Tyson said “planet” had utility far back in time when there wasn’t much else we knew about, but we know so much more now. “If we’re going rely on one word and put them all in one pot, what are we doing as scientists and educators? The time has come to discard the useless words and invent a whole new system to respect the level of science we have achieved…We’re in desperate need of a new lexicon to accommodate this knowledge,” he said.

Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute, and who believes Pluto should be reinstated as a planet, began, “How we categorize things is part of the science process. It is natural for humans to group things together with common characteristics as a tool to better understand and how they work. This applies to biology and astronomy as well.” He continued that we have discovered planets around other stars and continue to find Kuiper Belt objects that will need to be classified, so classifying objects is not a useless task. The IAU (International Astronomical Union) bit the bullet and decided on a classification, but unfortunately, Sykes said, what they came up with was not very useful.

That was the end of decorum, as Tyson interrupted with, “You wanted a definition. They gave you a definition and now you’re complaining about it!”

“Absolutely,” said Sykes, wanting to continue, but Tyson quickly chimed in, “And let me add…”, where Sykes butted in with “You have to let me start before you add!”

Flatow looked around and said, “I think I’m in a danger zone here.”

Thus began the debate.

Mark Sykes
Mark Sykes

Sykes said that any definition has to have a reason, or a purpose. According to the IAU’s definition, planets have to orbit the sun, they have to be round, and they have to have cleared their orbits, among other things. There was immediate confusion with this definition, which Sykes said was a little “goofy.” In order to be a planet, an object has be bigger the farther away it is from the sun, and it ignores the physical characteristics. He believes it’s useful to group things together that are similar and then have subcategories. So, you have planets, under which are terrestrial, gas giants, ice planets, etc.

Tyson said that even for him, the IAU’s definition falls short of taking the total amount of information to task. “If you only want to call round things planets, that puts Pluto in the same class as Jupiter. I happen to like round things. But what other lexicon might be available to group similar things together?”

“That’s why god made subcategories,” said Sykes. “It’s good to have a good general starting point for classifying things.”

Neil de Grasse Tyson
Neil de Grasse Tyson

Tyson humorously pointed out this debate is big only in the US, which he attributed to Disney’s creation of the lovable, dimwitted cartoon bloodhound named Pluto. School kids, grownups, op-ed writers all say Pluto is their favorite planet. “I am certain that the word ‘plutocracy’ is traceable to what Disney has done, so it’s hard to extricate the sentiment we have for the planet from the dog.”

Sykes said the IAU didn’t expand our perspective on planets, but narrow it. “The planet count went down, and what was the justification of that? The proponents have never given a good explanation of what was motivating that perspective.”

Tyson said numbers aren’t important, but words and definitions are, and we definitely need new ones.

Both scientists gave good arguments for their cause, and since I’m decidedly on the fence with this issue, I found myself leaning towards one option or the other, as each one spoke. Sykes, who wants to see Pluto reinstated as a planet, wants to take what we have and make it better, while Tyson, who thinks Pluto is a comet, wants to start over with new and better words and definitions.

It was an entertaining and educational debate with two well-spoken and intelligent scientists who sometimes weren’t very polite, however. (Sykes said, “When were’ not fighting we get along fine.”) The most important thing, they both agreed though, was that scientists are actually talking about this issue in the public eye and people are interested. But more importantly, the public is seeing the scientific process in action. They said this debate shouldn’t be about making things easy, or worrying about “not confusing the public.” Learning science shouldn’t be rote memorization of lists of objects, but a discussion of how objects are similar and different. “My recommendation to school teachers,” said Tyson “is to get the notion of counting things out of your system and comb the solar system for the richness of objects. Ask about different ways to combine the different objects in our solar system and have a discussion about their different properties.”

The debate will be available online, and we’ll post a link to it here when it is.

Sykes ended with his closing argument: “We both have issues with what happened with the IAU, its part of an ongoing presentation, but the important things is that the public gets to see the debate, and it’s not a battle over what list and what numbers you have, but the debate of the issues. That’s more important whether either of us have convinced you of one perspective. Science in this country is too much memorizing lists promulgated by those in authority. This is helping to expose the messy side of science. This debate is good and positive.”

Tyson ended by saying how charmed he is at the level of public interest in this subject. “How many sciences get to have their issues debated in the op-ed pages and comics?” He said he was happy with the word “planet” until all the data started pouring in from our explorations. “There should be a way to celebrate a new way to think about things. There ought to be a way to capture that” he said.

Obviously, this is not the last word on the subject from either scientist, or either side of the debate.

But that’s a good thing.

For more info on the Great Planet Debate.

Former Astronaut to Bike Across US for Education

Former NASA astronaut and Rocketplane test pilot John Herrington has a new state-of-the-art vehicle of choice: a bike. But it’s a touring bike fully loaded with a GPS, laptop, broadband phone, and digital and video cameras. Herrington is embarking on a cross country bike trek to promote and encourage student participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Herrington, once a college dropout who went on to fly in space in 2002 on the STS-113 mission, hopes he can help make a difference and impact on children by sharing his experiences and providing web-based, hands-on activities using STEM skills to solve problems while following his journey. Herrington also wants to encourage children to pursue their dreams and seek out exciting opportunities. “The generation that grew up in the age of the Apollo program and the journey to the moon was motivated by the excitement of space and the possibilities that it brought to the nation,” said Herrington. “Those kinds of possibilities to explore the unknown and make new discoveries still exist, but we must motivate students to learn and have a way to connect what they learn to what they do on a daily basis.”

Herrington began his coast-to-coast tour yesterday (August 13) from Cape Flattery in Washington state and will finish at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The trip is expected to take three months, and Herrington will stop at schools along the way to talk about his “journey to the space program, the wonders of flying in space and the need for students to realize their potential that lies within,” he said.

Herrinton by the Pacific Ocean at the start of his "Rocketrek" tour

Students can log into Herrington’s blog for daily updates and new problem solving challenges. Herrington, the first Native American in space will be especially focusing on Native students, hoping to kindle imagination and motivation. “I was once an unmotivated student, looking for something that sparked my fire,” he said. “I found it as a rock-climber on a survey crew, learning the application of mathematics from the side of a cliff. That experience inspired me to return to school and ultimately led to my career as an astronaut.”

As part of the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour in November of 2002, Herrington conducted three spacewalks to help in construction of the International Space Station, logging just under 20 hours of EVAs. He left NASA in 2005 to join Rocketplane Global as a test pilot. He left Rocketplane in December 2007 to pursue other opportunities, which obviously, includes biking.

“Sometimes it takes someone outside of our normal circle of friends and family to shine a light in our direction and help us along,” Herrington continued. “As I set out on this bike ride and try to make the learning practical and fun, I hope to also show students that it takes commitment and effort, both mental and physical, to accomplish your goals.”

Herrington getting his bike ready for takeoff.  Credit:  Rocketrek
Herrington getting his bike ready for takeoff. Credit: Rocketrek

Here are the topics Herrington will be focusing on in his educational endeavors:

Caloric intake and heart rate in relation to overall health
Hydration, dehydration, hypothermia
Weather, wind velocity, ground and air speed, relative motion
Bike composition and weight/ comparison to space shuttle/station
Bike maintenance and repair
Getting power to electronics (i.e. batteries, solar)
Global Positioning System (GPS)
Digital camera technology
Velocity and torque
Mass and weight
Friction and measurements
Basic math
Addition and subtraction
Geometry, trigonometry and physics

News Source: John Herrington’s RocketTrek site