What’s a safe distance between us and a supernova?

By EarthSky in ASTRONOMY ESSENTIALS | SPACE | May 11, 2018

And how many potentially exploding stars are located within the unsafe distance?

A supernova is a star explosion – destructive on a scale almost beyond human imagining. If our sun exploded as a supernova, the resulting shock wave probably wouldn’t destroy the whole Earth, but the side of Earth facing the sun would boil away. Scientists estimate that the planet as a whole would increase in temperature to roughly 15 times hotter than our normal sun’s surface. What’s more, Earth wouldn’t stay put in orbit. The sudden decrease in the sun’s mass might free the planet to wander off into space. Clearly, the sun’s distance – 8 light-minutes away – isn’t safe. Fortunately, our sun isn’t the sort of star destined to explode as a supernova. But other stars, beyond our solar system, will. What is the closest safe distance? Scientific literature cites 50 to 100 light-years as the closest safe distance between Earth and a supernova.

What would happen if a supernova exploded near Earth? Let’s consider the explosion of a star besides our sun, but still at an unsafe distance. Say, the supernova is 30 light-years away. Dr. Mark Reid, a senior astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has said:

… were a supernova to go off within about 30 light-years of us, that would lead to major effects on the Earth, possibly mass extinctions. X-rays and more energetic gamma-rays from the supernova could destroy the ozone layer that protects us from solar ultraviolet rays. It also could ionize nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere, leading to the formation of large amounts of smog-like nitrous oxide in the atmosphere.

What’s more, if a supernova exploded within 30 light-years, phytoplankton and reef communities would be particularly affected. Such an event would severely deplete the base of the ocean food chain.

Suppose the explosion were slightly more distant. An explosion of a nearby star might leave Earth and its surface and ocean life relatively intact. But any relatively nearby explosion would still shower us with gamma rays and other high-energy radiation. This radiation could cause mutations in earthly life. Also, the radiation from a nearby supernova could change our climate.

No supernova has been known to erupt at this close distance in the known history of humankind. The most recent supernova visible to the eye was Supernova 1987A, in the year 1987. It was approximately 168,000 light-years away.

Before that, the last supernova visible to the eye was was documented by Johannes Kepler in 1604. At about 20,000 light-years, it shone more brightly than any star in the night sky. It was even visible in daylight! But it didn’t cause earthly effects, as far as we know.

How many potential supernovae are located closer to us than 50 to 100 light-years? The answer depends on the kind of supernova.

A Type II supernova is an aging massive star that collapses. There are no stars massive enough to do this located within 50 light-years of Earth.

But there are also Type I supernovae – caused by the collapse of a small faint white dwarf star. These stars are dim and hard to find, so we can’t be sure just how many are around. There are probably a few hundred of these stars within 50 light-years.

The star IK Pegasi B is the nearest known supernova progenitor candidate. It’s part of a binary star system, located about 150 light-years from our sun and solar system.

The main star in the system – IK Pegasi A – is an ordinary main sequence star, not unlike our sun. The potential Type I supernova is the other star – IK Pegasi B – a massive white dwarf that’s extremely small and dense. When the A star begins to evolve into a red giant, it’s expected to grow to a radius where the white dwarf can accrete, or take on, matter from A’s expanded gaseous envelope. When the B star gets massive enough, it might collapse on itself, in the process exploding as a supernova. Read more about the IK Pegasi system from Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy.

What about Betelgeuse? Another star often mentioned in the supernova story is Betelgeuse, one of the brightest stars in our sky, part of the famous constellation Orion. Betelgeuse is a supergiant star. It is intrinsically very brilliant.

Such brilliance comes at a price, however. Betelgeuse is one of the most famous stars in the sky because it’s due to explode someday. Betelgeuse’s enormous energy requires that the fuel be expended quickly (relatively, that is), and in fact Betelgeuse is now near the end of its lifetime. Someday soon (astronomically speaking), it will run out of fuel, collapse under its own weight, and then rebound in a spectacular Type II supernova explosion. When this happens, Betelgeuse will brighten enormously for a few weeks or months, perhaps as bright as the full moon and visible in broad daylight.

When will it happen? Probably not in our lifetimes, but no one really knows. It could be tomorrow or a million years in the future. When it does happen, any beings on Earth will witness a spectacular event in the night sky, but earthly life won’t be harmed. That’s because Betelgeuse is 430 light-years away. Read more about Betelgeuse as a supernova.

How often do supernovae erupt in our galaxy? No one knows. Scientists have speculated that the high-energy radiation from supernovae has already caused mutations in earthly species, maybe even human beings.

One estimate suggests there might be one dangerous supernova event in Earth’s vicinity every 15 million years. Another says that, on average, a supernova explosion occurs within 10 parsecs (33 light-years) of the Earth every 240 million years. So you see we really don’t know. But you can contrast those numbers to the few million years humans are thought to have existed on the planet – and four-and-a-half billion years for the age of Earth itself.

And, if you do that, you’ll see that a supernova is certain to occur near Earth – but probably not in the foreseeable future of humanity.

Bottom line: Scientific literature cites 50 to 100 light-years as the closest safe distance between Earth and a supernova.

See also: http://earthsky.org/space/what-will-happen-when-our-sun-dies

Reference: http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/supernove-distance

A Manhattan Exhibit With Antiquity on the Clock

In a Roman mosaic from antiquity, a man on a street studies the sundial atop a tall column. The sun alerts him to hurry if he does not want to be late for a dinner invitation.

Sundials were ubiquitous in Mediterranean cultures more than 2,000 years ago. They were the clocks of their day, early tools essential to reckoning the passage of time and its relationship to the larger universe.

The mosaic image is an arresting way station in a new exhibition, ”Time and the Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” that opened last week in Manhattan at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, an affiliate of New York University. It will continue until April.

The image’s message, the curator Alexander Jones explains in the exhibition catalog, is clearly delivered in a Greek inscription, which reads, “The ninth hour has caught up.” Or further translated by him into roughly modern terms, “It’s 3 p.m. already.” That was the regular dinnertime in those days.

Dr. Jones, the institute’s interim director, is a scholar of the history of exact science in antiquity. He further imagined how some foot-dragging skeptics then probably lamented so many sundials everywhere and the loss of simpler ways, when “days were divided just into morning and afternoon and one guessed how much daylight remained by the length of one’s own shadow without giving much thought to punctuality.”

An even more up-to-date version of the scene, he suggested, would show a man or a woman staring at a wristwatch or, even better, a smartphone, while complaining that our culture “has allowed technology and science to impose a rigid framework of time on our lives.”

Jennifer Y. Chi, the institute’s exhibition director, said: “The recurring sight of people checking the time on their cellphones or responding to a beep alerting them to an upcoming event are only a few modern-day reminders of time’s sway over public and private life. Yet while rapidly changing technology gives timekeeping a contemporary cast, its role in organizing our lives owes a great deal to the ancient Greeks and Romans.”

The exhibition features more than 100 objects on loan from international collections, including a dozen or so sundials. One is a rare Greek specimen from the early 3rd century B.C. The large stone instruments typically belonged to public institutions or wealthy landowners.

A few centuries later, portable sundials were introduced. Think of pocket watches coming in as movable timekeepers in place of the grandfather clock in the hall or on the mantel. They were first mentioned in ancient literature as the pendant for traveling. The earliest surviving one is from the first century A.D.

Six of these small sundials are displayed in the exhibition. These were owned and used mostly as prestige objects by those at the upper echelons of society and by the few people who traveled to faraway latitudes.

A bronze sundial in the center of one gallery is marked for use in 30 localities at latitudes ranging from Egypt to Britain. Few people in antiquity were ever likely to travel that widely.

A small sundial found in the tomb of a Roman physician suggested that it was more than a prestige object. The doctor happened to be accompanied with his medical instruments and pills for eye ailment, as seen in a display. Presumably he needed a timekeeper in dispensing doses. He may have also practiced some ancient medical theories in which astrology prescribed certain hours as good or bad for administering meals and medicine.

Apparent time cycles fascinated people at this time. One means of keeping track of these cycles was the parapegma, a stone slab provided with holes to represent the days along with inscriptions or images to interpret them. Each day, a peg was moved from one hole to the next. The appearances and disappearances of constellations in the night sky yielded patterns that served as signs of predictable weather changes in the solar year of 365 or 366 days. Not to mention when conditions are favorable for planting and reaping. Not to mention good or bad luck would follow.

For many people, astrology was probably the most popular outgrowth of advances in ancient timekeeping. Astrology — not to be confused with modern astronomy — emerged out of elements from Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek science and philosophy in the last two centuries B.C. Because the heavens and the earth were thought to be connected in so many ways, the destinies of nations as well as individuals presumably could be read by someone with expertise in the arrangements of the sun, the moon, the known planets and constellations in the zodiac.

Wealthy people often had their complete horoscopes in writing and zodiacal signs portrayed in ornamental gems, especially if they deemed the cosmic configuration at their conception or birth to be auspicious.

It is said that the young Octavian, the later emperor Augustus, visited an astrologer to have his fortune told. He hesitated at first to disclose the time and date of his birth, lest the prediction turn out to be inauspicious. He finally relented.

Why Math Education in the U.S. Doesn’t Add Up

Research shows that an emphasis on memorization, rote procedures and speed impairs learning and achievement

By Jo Boaler, Pablo Zoido | SA Mind November 2016 Issue

In December the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) will announce the latest results from the tests it administers every three years to hundreds of thousands of 15-year-olds around the world. In the last round, the U.S. posted average scores in reading and science but performed well below other developed nations in math, ranking 36 out of 65 countries.

We do not expect this year’s results to be much different. Our nation’s scores have been consistently lackluster. Fortunately, though, the 2012 exam collected a unique set of data on how the world’s students think about math. The insights from that study, combined with important new findings in brain science, reveal a clear strategy to help the U.S. catch up.

The PISA 2012 assessment questioned not only students’ knowledge of mathematics but also their approach to the subject, and their responses reflected three distinct learning styles. Some students relied predominantly on memorization. They indicated that they grasp new topics in math by repeating problems over and over and trying to learn methods “by heart.” Other students tackled new concepts more thoughtfully, saying they tried to relate them to those they already had mastered. A third group followed a so-called self-monitoring approach: they routinely evaluated their own understanding and focused their attention on concepts they had not yet learned.

In every country, the memorizers turned out to be the lowest achievers, and countries with high numbers of them—the U.S. was in the top third—also had the highest proportion of teens doing poorly on the PISA math assessment. Further analysis showed that memorizers were approximately half a year behind students who used relational and self-monitoring strategies. In no country were memorizers in the highest-achieving group, and in some high-achieving economies, the differences between memorizers and other students were substantial. In France and Japan, for example, pupils who combined self-monitoring and relational strategies outscored students using memorization by more than a year’s worth of schooling.

The U.S. actually had more memorizers than South Korea, long thought to be the paradigm of rote learning. Why? Because American schools routinely present mathematics procedurally, as sets of steps to memorize and apply. Many teachers, faced with long lists of content to cover to satisfy state and federal requirements, worry that students do not have enough time to explore math topics in depth. Others simply teach as they were taught. And few have the opportunity to stay current with what research shows about how kids learn math best: as an open, conceptual, inquiry-based subject.
To help change that, we launched a new center at Stanford University in 2014, called Youcubed. Our central mission is to communicate evidence-based practices to teachers, other education professionals, parents and students. To that end, we have devised recommendations that take into consideration how our brains grapple with abstract mathematical concepts. We offer engaging lessons and tasks, along with a wide range of advice, including the importance of encouraging what is known as a growth mindset—offering messages such as “mistakes grow your brain” and “I believe you can learn anything.”

The foundation all math students need is number sense—essentially a feel for numbers, with the agility to use them flexibly and creatively (watch a video explaining number sense here: https://www.youcubed.org/what-is-number-sense/). A child with number sense might tackle 19 × 9 by first working with “friendlier numbers”—say, 20 × 9—and then subtracting 9. Students without number sense could arrive at the answer only by using an algorithm. To build number sense, students need the opportunity to approach numbers in different ways, to see and use numbers visually, and to play around with different strategies for combining them. Unfortunately, most elementary classrooms ask students to memorize times tables and other number facts, often under time pressure, which research shows can seed math anxiety. It can actually hinder the development of number sense.

In 2005 psychologist Margarete Delazer of Medical University of Innsbruck in Austria and her colleagues took functional MRI scans of students learning math facts in two ways: some were encouraged to memorize and others to work those facts out, considering various strategies. The scans revealed that these two approaches involved completely different brain pathways. The study also found that the subjects who did not memorize learned their math facts more securely and were more adept at applying them. Memorizing some mathematics is useful, but the researchers’ conclusions were clear: an automatic command of times tables or other facts should be reached through “understanding of the underlying numerical relations.”

Additional evidence tells us that students gain a deeper understanding of math when they approach it visually—for instance, seeing multiplication facts as rectangular arrays or quadratic functions as growing patterns. When we think about or use symbols and numbers, we use different brain pathways than when we visualize or estimate with numbers. In a 2012 imaging study, psychologist Joonkoo Park, now at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and his colleagues demonstrated that people who were particularly adept at subtraction—considered conceptually more difficult than addition—tapped more than one brain pathway to solve problems. And a year later Park and psychologist Elizabeth Brannon, both then at Duke University, found that students could boost their math proficiency through training that engaged the approximate number system, a cognitive system that helps us estimate quantities.

Brain research has elucidated another practice that keeps many children from succeeding in math. Most mathematics classrooms in the U.S. equate skill with speed, valuing fast recall and testing even the youngest children against the clock. But studies show that kids manipulate math facts in their working memory—an area of the brain that can go off-line when they experience stress. Timed tests impair working memory in students of all backgrounds and achievement levels, and they contribute to math anxiety, especially among girls. By some estimates, as many as a third of all students, starting as young as age five, suffer from math anxiety.
The irony of the emphasis on speed is that some of our world’s leading mathematicians are not fast at math. Laurent Schwartz—who won math’s highest award, the Fields medal, in 1950—wrote in his autobiography that he was a slow thinker in math, who believed he was “stupid” until he realized that “what is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other. This is where intelligence lies. The fact of being quick or slow isn’t really relevant.”

A number of leading mathematicians, such as Conrad Wolfram and Steven Strogatz, have argued strongly that math is misrepresented in most classrooms. Too many slow, deep math thinkers are turned away from the subject early on by timed tests and procedural teaching. But if American classrooms begin to present the subject as one of open, visual, creative inquiry, accompanied by growth-mindset messages, more students will engage with math’s real beauty. PISA scores would rise, and, more important, our society could better tap the unlimited mathematical potential of our children.
This article was originally published with the title “Why Math Education in the U.S. Doesn’t Add Up”

Reference:  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-math-education-in-the-u-s-doesn-t-add-up/

Funneling fundamental particles

Neutrinos are tricky. Although trillions of these harmless, neutral particles pass through us every second, they interact so rarely with matter that, to study them, scientists send a beam of neutrinos to giant detectors. And to be sure they have enough of them, scientists have to start with a very concentrated beam of neutrinos.

To concentrate the beam, an experiment needs a special device called a neutrino horn.

An experiment’s neutrino beam is born from a shower of short-lived particles, created when protons traveling close to the speed of light slam into a target. But that shower doesn’t form a tidy beam itself: That’s where the neutrino horn comes in.

Once the accelerated protons smash into the target to create pions and kaons — the short-lived charged particles that decay into neutrinos — the horn has to catch and focus them by using a magnetic field. The pions and kaons have to be focused immediately, before they decay into neutrinos: Unlike the pions and kaons, neutrinos don’t interact with magnetic fields, which means we can’t focus them directly.

Without the horn, an experiment would lose 95 percent of the neutrinos in its beam. Scientists need to maximize the number of neutrinos in the beam because neutrinos interact so rarely with matter. The more you have, the more opportunities you have to study them.

“You have to have tremendous numbers of neutrinos,” said Jim Hylen, a beam physicist at Fermilab. “You’re always fighting for more and more.”

Also known as magnetic horns, neutrino horns were invented at CERN by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Simon van der Meer in 1961. A few different labs used neutrino horns over the following years, and Fermilab and J-PARC in Japan are the only major laboratories now hosting experiments with neutrino horns. Fermilab is one of the few places in the world that makes neutrino horns.

“Of the major labs, we currently have the most expertise in horn construction here at Fermilab,” Hylen said.

How they work

The proton beam first strikes the target that sits inside or just upstream of the horn. The powerful proton beam would punch through the aluminum horn if it hit it, but the target, which is made of graphite or beryllium segments, is built to withstand the beam’s full power. When the target is struck by the beam, its temperature jumps by more than 700 degrees Fahrenheit, making the process of keeping the target-horn system cool a challenge involving a water-cooling system and a wind stream.

Once the beam hits the target, the neutrino horn directs resulting particles that come out at wide angles back toward the detector. To do this, it uses magnetic fields, which are created by pulsing a powerful electrical current — about 200,000 amps — along the horn’s surfaces.

“It’s essentially a big magnet that acts as a lens for the particles,” said physicist Bob Zwaska.

The horns come in slightly different shapes, but they generally look on the outside like a metal cylinder sprouting a complicated network of pipes and other supporting equipment. On the inside, an inner conductor leaves a hollow tunnel for the beam to travel through.

Because the current flows in one direction on the inner conductor and the opposite direction on the outer conductor, a magnetic field forms between them. A particle traveling along the center of the beamline will zip through that tunnel, escaping the magnetic field between the conductors and staying true to its course. Any errant particles that angle off into the field between the conductors are kicked back in toward the center.

The horn’s current flows in a way that funnels positively charged particles that decay into neutrinos toward the beam and deflects negatively charged particles that decay into antineutrinos outward. Reversing the current can swap the selection, creating an antimatter beam. Experiments can run either beam and compare the data from the two runs. By studying neutrinos and antineutrinos, scientists try to determine whether neutrinos are responsible for the matter-antimatter asymmetry in the universe. Similarly, experiments can control what range of neutrino energies they target most by tuning the strength of the field or the shape or location of the horn.

Making and running a neutrino horn can be tricky. A horn has to be engineered carefully to keep the current flowing evenly. And the inner conductor has to be as slim as possible to avoid blocking particles. But despite its delicacy, a horn has to handle extreme heat and pressure from the current that threaten to tear it apart.

“It’s like hitting it with a hammer 10 million times a year,” Hylen said.

Because of the various pressures acting on the horn, its design requires extreme attention to detail, down to the specific shape of the washers used. And as Fermilab is entering a precision era of neutrino experiments running at higher beam powers, the need for the horn engineering to be exact has only grown.

“They are structural and electrical at the same time,” Zwaska said. “We go through a huge amount of effort to ensure they are made extremely precisely.”

Reference: http://news.fnal.gov/2016/08/funneling-fundamental-particles/

From Fins Into Hands: Scientists Discover a Deep Evolutionary Link

To help his readers fathom evolution, Charles Darwin asked them to consider their own hands.

“What can be more curious,” he asked, “than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include similar bones, in the same relative positions?”

Darwin had a straightforward explanation: People, moles, horses, porpoises and bats all shared a common ancestor that grew limbs with digits. Its descendants evolved different kinds of limbs adapted for different tasks. But they never lost the anatomical similarities that revealed their kinship.

As a Victorian naturalist, Darwin was limited in the similarities he could find. The most sophisticated equipment he could use for the task was a crude microscope. Today, scientists are carrying on his work with new biological tools. They are uncovering deep similarities that have been overlooked until now.

On Wednesday, a team of researchers at the University of Chicago reported that our hands share a deep evolutionary connection not only to bat wings or horse hooves, but also to fish fins.

The unexpected discovery will help researchers understand how our own ancestors left the water, transforming fins into limbs that they could use to move around on land.

To the naked eye, there is not much similarity between a human hand and the fin of, say, a goldfish. A human hand is at the end of an arm. It has bones that develop from cartilage and contain blood vessels. This type of tissue is called endochondral bone.

A goldfish grows just a tiny cluster of endochondral bones at the base of its fin. The rest of the fin is taken up by thin rays, which are made of an entirely different tissue called dermal bone. Dermal bone does not start out as cartilage and does not contain blood vessels.

These differences have long puzzled scientists. The fossil record shows that we share a common aquatic ancestor with ray-finned fish that lived some 430 million years ago. Four-limbed creatures with spines — known as tetrapods — had evolved by 360 million years ago and went on to colonize dry land.

Read more at http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/08/18/science/from-fins-into-hands-scientists-discover-a-deep-evolutionary-link.html

To See Deep into Space, Start Deep Underground

In 1969, Neil Armstrong fired my imagination when he took “a giant leap” onto the moon. I was 11 years old as I watched him take that first step, and like millions around the world, I was riveted to the screen. Today I wonder how I would have reacted if the news anchor had simply described this incredible moment. Would I have been so excited? So inspired? So eager to learnmore? I don’t think so. It was seeing the story unfold that made it magical, that pulled me into the story.

How we see the world impacts how we view it: That first glimpse of outer space sparked an interest in science. And although I didn’t become a scientist, I found a career in science, working with researchers at Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota, explaining the abstract and highly complex physics experiments in ways the rest of us can appreciate. It isn’t always easy. Ever heard of neutrinoless double-beta decay? Probably not. If I told you this rare form of nuclear decay could go a long way in helping us understand some of the mysteries of the universe, would you get the picture? Maybe. The words are important, but an illustration or animation might give you a better idea.

Read More at: http://www.space.com/31223-deep-underground-experiments-are-next-generation-telescopes.html

See also: https://www.fnal.gov/pub/science/particle-physics/experiments/neutrinos.html

The Best Teacher I Never Had

Thirty years ago I went on vacation and fell for Richard Feynman.

A friend and I were planning a trip together and wanted to mix a little learning in with our relaxation. We looked at a local university’s film collection, saw that they had one of his lectures on physics, and checked it out. We loved it so much that we ended up watching it twice. Feynman had this amazing knack for making physics clear and fun at the same time. I immediately went looking for more of his talks, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. Years later I bought the rights to those lectures and worked with Microsoft to get them posted online for free.

In 1965, Feynman shared a Nobel Prize for work on particle physics. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of that honor, the California Institute of Technology—where he taught for many years before his death in 1988—asked for some thoughts about what made him so special. Here’s the video I sent:

In that video, I especially love the way Feynman explains how fire works. He takes such obvious delight in knowledge—you can see his face light up. And he makes it so clear that anyone can understand it.

In that sense, Feynman has a lot in common with all the amazing teachers I’ve met in schools across the country. You walk into their classroom and immediately feel the energy—the way they engage their students—and their passion for whatever subject they’re teaching. These teachers aren’t famous, but they deserve just as much respect and admiration as someone like Feynman. If there were a Nobel for making high school algebra exciting and fun, I know a few teachers I would nominate.

Incidentally, Feynman wasn’t famous just for being a great teacher and a world-class scientist; he was also quite a character. He translated Mayan hieroglyphics. He loved to play the bongos. While helping develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, he entertained himself by figuring out how to break into the safes that contained top-secret research. (Feynman cultivated this image as a colorful guy. His colleague Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize–winner in his own right, once remarked, “Feynman was a great scientist, but he spent a great deal of his effort generating anecdotes about himself.”)

Here are some suggestions if you’d like to know more about Feynman or his work:

  • The Messenger Lectures on Physics. These are the talks that first captivated me back in the 1980s and that you see briefly in the video above. The site is a few years old, but you can watch for free along with some helpful commentary.
  • Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher is a collection of the most accessible parts of Feynman’s famous Caltech lectures on physics.
  • He recounted his adventures in two very good books, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? You won’t learn a lot about physics, but you’ll have a great time hearing his stories.

Reference: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Education/The-Best-Teacher-I-Never-Had

A Ninth Planet Once Again?

Ninth Planet May Exist Beyond Pluto, Scientists Report
By KENNETH CHANG JAN. 20, 2016

There might be a ninth planet in the solar system after all, and it is not Pluto.

Two astronomers reported on Wednesday that they had compelling signs of something bigger and farther away — something that would satisfy the current definition of a planet, where Pluto falls short.

“We are pretty sure there’s one out there,” said Michael E. Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology.

What Dr. Brown and a fellow Caltech professor, Konstantin Batygin, have not done is actually find that planet, so it would be premature to start revising mnemonics of the planets.

In a paper published in The Astronomical Journal, Dr. Brown and Dr. Batygin laid out a detailed circumstantial argument for the planet’s existence in what astronomers have observed: a half-dozen small bodies in distant elliptical orbits.

What is striking, the scientists said, is that the orbits of all six loop outward in the same quadrant of the solar system and are tilted at about the same angle. The odds of that happening by chance are about 1 in 14,000, Dr. Batygin said.

Read the entire article as:
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/science/space/ninth-planet-solar-system-beyond-pluto.html

See also: http://earthsky.org/space/why-planet-nine-might-be-for-real

Benedictine University professor’s egg research hatches new discoveries on environmental change

LISLE, Ill.Nov. 30, 2015 — Eggs. We eat them, decorate them and collect them.

But what if we could use eggs to go “back to the future” and find out what happened in the past that has affected and possibly is still affecting our current and future environment?

Monica Tischler, Ph.D., professor of Biology at Benedictine University, has solved this time paradox in a way that fully preserves historical artifacts. Except she didn’t use a specially fitted DeLorean. She used X-rays.

But it wasn’t just any ordinary X-rays. It was X-rays from one of the world’s most powerful sources – the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory. Tischler is one of many researchers using the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) $467 million X-ray machine. The DOE reports that scientists from around the world go to Argonne to conduct potentially groundbreaking research.

The renowned laboratory is only a few miles from Benedictine, allowing Tischler the opportunity to break new ground without breaking the treasured, rare eggs she used to assess past environmental living conditions of native animals from across the United States.

An osprey egg being tested by Monica Tischler, Ph.D., professor of Biology at Benedictine University, during research conducted at Argonne National...
An osprey egg being tested by Monica Tischler, Ph.D., professor of Biology at Benedictine University, during research conducted at Argonne National…

Typically, researchers have to destroy their egg specimens by crushing them into fine particles so they can more easily examine the material. Doing so gives researchers a window into changes in the environment that can possibly predict future environmental changes including some that could prove hazardous to the Earth, as well as animal and human life.

Tischler first began theorizing in 2012 whether egg specimens could be analyzed using X-rays. She had access to thousands of egg specimens the late Benedictine professors Frs. Hilary and Edmund Jurica, O.S.B., had amassed over a period of decades. Those specimens are now part of the University’s Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum, which boasts a collection of more than 50,000 plants and creatures ranging from butterflies, beetles and spiders to a whale skeleton.

Monica Tischler, Ph.D., professor of Biology at Benedictine University, discusses the alignment of a sample during research using the Advanced Photon...
Monica Tischler, Ph.D., professor of Biology at Benedictine University, discusses the alignment of a sample during research using the Advanced Photon…

“We have eggs dating back 150 years,” Tischler said. “Before binoculars were invented and made bird-watching popular, many people collected bird eggs. Then when migratory bird acts were instituted in the late 19th century and made the practice of collecting eggs unfashionable and illegal, many collections were donated to museums.

Tischler, who worked closely with Fr. Theodore Suchy, O.S.B, who served as the University’s museum curator for more than 40 years, was partly inspired by the monk’s dedication to preserving the collection for future generations.

“Fr. Ted’s contribution was to take that teaching collection and make it into a museum for the public and the University,” Tischler said.

Now she has taken the use of the collection a step further.

“The next step would be to take this incredible collection and see what we can use for research,” she added. “I felt that is where my contribution could lie. While a microbiologist by training, I have a strong background in environmental research and toxicology.”

She wrote a proposal asking Argonne if she could use its advanced X-ray equipment to detect metals and inorganic pollutants in bird eggs. Argonne approved her request and in 2013, Tischler and her research team began detecting some pollutants using the X-ray beam.

But why eggs? And what does finding pollutants in the eggs really mean?

“When birds lay eggs, they excrete contaminants into the egg, and the contaminants in the eggshell reflect blood concentrates of those contaminants,” Tischler said. “These specimens represent a window into the past. The problem is that up until this research, all the techniques used to identify the contaminant in an eggshell were destructive. You take the eggshell, crush it, dissolve it in acid and examine it. It would be unfathomable to destroy these rare eggs for research.”

Using the Advanced Photon Source, Tischler designed a method to examine changes in an ecosystem by looking at these rare egg collections without damaging them. She tested the methodology with chicken eggs first to make sure X-rays would not damage the eggs.

The machine uses an electron storage ring that produces hard X-rays. The X-rays cause the elements to fluoresce, and analyzing the fluorescence allows the researchers to determine which elements are present. Researchers identified within the eggs naturally occurring elements such as calcium, iron and zinc, but also elements such as manganese, arsenic, bromine and lead, which can be considered contaminants.

Researchers examined the eggs of a variety of birds including eagles, ospreys, pied-billed grebes, common terns and peregrine falcons. Curiously, not all eggs (grebes, terns) taken from the same period and geographical location showed contaminants.

“With the eagle and osprey eggs, we could detect quite a bit of contaminants,” Tischler said. “My conclusion is my technique does not work on specimens that are lower on the food chain. It’s based upon what they eat.”

To prove her hypothesis, Tischler submitted a second proposal approved by Argonne to test a new set of eggs in order to ascertain whether the presence or absence of contaminants is related to the type of bird or its environment.

In the examination of eagle and osprey eggs from approximately the same era (circa mid-1910s), researchers found levels of arsenic and lead in addition to iron and zinc.

“You see the same contaminants in both types of bird, so it’s the environment – not the bird,” Tischler said. “The same species at the same time from different watersheds were exposed to different contaminants and we can show this. It’s a new technique to gain a window into the past to compare watersheds and compare contaminants over time.”

Benedictine undergraduate and graduate students were engaged in the research process, which developed a following on Snapchat. Student researchers helped switch out samples, operated the equipment and recorded results. This type of hands-on research has become commonplace for Benedictine students pursuing careers in the sciences.

Tischler plans to submit a manuscript with full results for publication in a scientific journal in the near future.

The College of Science at Benedictine University provides unique opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in research projects on campus, and internships through its ties to the regional science community, which includes Argonne, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Field Museum of Natural History. This experience allows students to gain expertise in a laboratory setting, connecting their classroom work to real-world applications.

For nearly a century, the science faculty at Benedictine has prepared its students to lead lives of meaning, purpose and distinction. Empowered by a values-centered Benedictine science education that emphasizes hands-on scientific exploration and discovery, alumni have gone on to realize their professional potential, build stellar careers and bring their talents to bear on society’s most pressing needs.

SOURCE  Benedictine University

Coordinating Exchanges for Learning

Were the contemporary scientific discoveries that were placed before you as a child in any way a catalyst for your own curiosities? As a youngster did you keen-fully observe the engineering of technology that was tooled for discovery? Did the Apollo or space shuttle orbiter missions inspire any meaning or perspective?  Are you a scientist, a citizen scientist?  Are more science professionals needed?

Childhood impressions are core components to who an  individual becomes. Positive influences by skilled and knowledgeable teachers, concerned even loving parents are paramount.

Although science is tractably understood through experience and the application of theories, the details are complicated, work and tenacity are required to reach any level of competence, as is a recursive process that takes years to master, the best practice being an early inception, suggesting 4th or 5th grades as optimal.

As a lot, elementary school teachers are amazing, passionate, empathetic educators who contribute directly to student successes.   They are excellent “conductors” orchestrating the development of knowledge across the disciplines, despite their lack of high proficiency at any of  the “oboe, violin, timpani, harp”, or any of the “instruments” they aptly “conduct”.

Middle school teachers build upon their colleagues base by applying their special areas of credentialed interest and skill for specific subjects, that is the mathematics teacher teaches math, the science teacher science, the music teacher music, the arts art.

Generally these teachers were trained at the bachelors level, were raised and attended nearby schools where education theories, psychology strategies, human behaviors were well studied, but elected to take a fewer rather than more science and mathematics courses.

Missing for many teachers is that detailed experience in, for example, the sciences, the associated physics or chemistry experiments, the engineering design and access to relevant applications, and or the technologies that have shaped human kind, say in biology.

Moreover, integrative strategies that rely on trans-disciplinarity where the dynamic of collaboration is used in solving relevant problems have few examples of successful implementation.

Helpful are the opportunities that any science, technology, engineering, or mathematics expert creates for students, particularly when in a collaboration with those teachers.

Traditional learning opportunities which align formally in the classroom are ideal, yet well implemented after-school programs continue to impress principals, teachers, parents, while inspiring selected students.

Needed is a coordination of professionals from companies such as John Deere, Sanford Engineering, Mortenson Construction, Moore Engineering, but also from North Dakota Universities and Colleges,   as well as from non-profits and for-profits which are practiced at informal learning strategies that include the Inspire Innovation Laboratory and Discover Express Kids.

As an example of an exchanged asset,  consider astronomy and astrophysics as an integrative topical strategy that is proven effective at sparking a middle school student’s scientific interests.

Lofting sophisticated instrumentation such as the Hubble Space Telescope into the heavens was an accomplishment built upon the successes and failures that extend from “choosing to go to the moon” by President Kennedy.

It was relatively recent that there was knowledge of other galaxies in the universe, that galaxies are clustered much the way stars are, that they collide, explode, evolve, all fascinating and a wonderful context to inspire students.

Providing tours of the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and beyond is a unique specialty of  the University of North Dakota’s Physics and Astronomy Department through an outreach project funded by the NSF-EPSCoR program.

In UND’s portable Elumenati Geodome, youngsters are treated to a highly engaging planetarium experience where craters on the moon, atmospheres on Earth and Mars, where solar system dynamics can be viewed in a 3D splendor.

Knowledge that such a program exists,  that a highly specialized and experienced professional can join in your North Dakota classroom through communications facilitated through the vehicle of the ND STEM Exchange is among its core functions.

Lining up, coordinating, managing, and assessing those opportunities is a developing role of the North Dakota STEM Exchange, a project being piloted by the North Dakota STEM Network.

For more information on the Exchange, please visit: http://ndstemexchange.com

A Century Ago, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Changed Everything

PRINCETON, N.J. — By the fall of 1915, Albert Einstein was a bit grumpy.

And why not? Cheered on, to his disgust, by most of his Berlin colleagues, Germany had started a ruinous world war. He had split up with his wife, and she had decamped to Switzerland with his sons.

He was living alone. A friend, Janos Plesch, once said, “He sleeps until he is awakened; he stays awake until he is told to go to bed; he will go hungry until he is given something to eat; and then he eats until he is stopped.”

Worse, he had discovered a fatal flaw in his new theory of gravity, propounded with great fanfare only a couple of years before. And now he no longer had the field to himself. The German mathematician David Hilbert was breathing down his neck.

So Einstein went back to the blackboard. And on Nov. 25, 1915, he set down the equation that rules the universe. As compact and mysterious as a Viking rune, it describes space-time as a kind of sagging mattress where matter and energy, like a heavy sleeper, distort the geometry of the cosmos to produce the effect we call gravity, obliging light beams as well as marbles and falling apples to follow curved paths through space.

This is the general theory of relativity. It’s a standard trope in science writing to say that some theory or experiment transformed our understanding of space and time. General relativity really did.

Since the dawn of the scientific revolution and the days of Isaac Newton, the discoverer of gravity, scientists and philosophers had thought of space-time as a kind of stage on which we actors, matter and energy, strode and strutted.

With general relativity, the stage itself sprang into action. Space-time could curve, fold, wrap itself up around a dead star and disappear into a black hole. It could jiggle like Santa Claus’s belly, radiating waves of gravitational compression, or whirl like dough in a Mixmaster. It could even rip or tear. It could stretch and grow, or it could collapse into a speck of infinite density at the end or beginning of time.

Scientists have been lighting birthday candles for general relativity all year, including here at the Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein spent the last 22 years of his life, and where they gathered in November to review a century of gravity and to attend performances by Brian Greene, the Columbia University physicist and World Science Festival impresario, and the violinist Joshua Bell. Even nature, it seems, has been doing its bit. Last spring, astronomers said they had discovered an “Einstein cross,” in which the gravity of a distant cluster of galaxies had split the light from a supernova beyond them into separate beams in which telescopes could watch the star exploding again and again, in a cosmic version of the movie “Groundhog Day.”

Hardly anybody would be more surprised by all this than Einstein himself. The space-time he conjured turned out to be far more frisky than he had bargained for back in 1907.

It was then — perhaps tilting too far back in his chair at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland — that he had the revelation that a falling body would feel weightless. That insight led him to try to extend his new relativity theory from slip-siding trains to the universe.

According to that foundational theory, now known as special relativity, the laws of physics don’t care how fast you are going — the laws of physics and the speed of light are the same. Einstein figured that the laws of physics should look the same no matter how you were moving — falling, spinning, tumbling or being pressed into the seat of an accelerating car.

One consequence, Einstein quickly realized, was that even light beams would bend downward and time would slow in a gravitational field. Gravity was not a force transmitted across space-time like magnetism; it was the geometry of that space-time itself that kept the planets in their orbits and apples falling.

It would take him another eight difficult years to figure out just how this elastic space-time would work, during which he went from Bern to Prague to Zurich and then to a prestigious post in Berlin.

In 1913, he and his old classmate Marcel Grossmann published with great fanfare an outline of a gravity theory that was less relative than they had hoped. But it did predict light bending, and Erwin Freundlich, an astronomer at the Berlin Observatory, set off to measure the deflection of starlight during a solar eclipse in the Crimea.

When World War I started, Freundlich and others on his expedition were arrested as spies. Then Einstein discovered a flaw in his calculations.

“There are two ways that a theoretician goes astray,” he wrote to the physicist Hendrik Lorentz. “1) The devil leads him around by the nose with a false hypothesis (for this he deserves pity) 2) His arguments are erroneous and ridiculous (for this he deserves a beating).”

And so the stage was set for a series of lectures to the Prussian Academy that would constitute the final countdown on his quest to grasp gravity.

Continue reading this article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/24/science/a-century-ago-einsteins-theory-of-relativity-changed-everything.html