Wednesday, December 7, 2011

NASA Tweetup: The Pretweetup-Wednesday

A few weeks ago when I found out that I was picked to attend the Mars Science Laboratory with NASATweetup, I was ecstatic as I would not have expected to have been chosen in a million years. However, I am a college student, and as a college student I do not have much money, so I would like to thank my parents and Aunt Marty for providing me with transportation and lodging for the event.

Originally, MSL was supposed to go up on Friday, so we were going to have the first round of speakers and a tour of KSC on Wednesday then nothing on Thursday and the final round of speakers and the launch on Friday. However, due to a battery malfunction the launch was postponed to Saturday. Changing my travel schedule to accommodate this was actually pretty difficult, and I realized just how isolated my little corner of the world is as it was very difficult to find flights coming back this way on the Sunday after the launch. However, registration and the tour was tentatively still on Wednesday so I had no qualms about going early, and I had never been to Florida and this would be only the second time I had been on the East Coast so I was excited to see something new.

One thing I do have to confess is that I'm not a very social person.  In large groups, I have a tendency to sit in the back and keep quiet and it usually takes me a while to feel comfortable around new people and I usually don't start talking until I feel comfortable. So when I arrived in St. Louis around noon and saw the tweet that all events had been postponed until Friday I was scared and thought that I would spend the first two days alone. Luckily, I couldn't be more wrong.

First off, NASATweeps are awesome people, besides the fact that they, as a prerequisite, are Space Nerds, they are incredibly kind and giving. From @conductor222 driving nearly an hour away from the Pre-Tweetup dinner to pick me up from the airport and driving around, to literally everybody stopping and saying hi if they saw you wearing your NASATweetUp badge; every space tweep demonstrated immense kindness and compassion, and on top of that each and every one of them was very interesting to talk to you, as they liked to talk about space which is one of the two coolest conversation topics(the other being geology).

So the Tuesday before the Tweetup passed without incident, I reached my hotel room watched NASA TV for a bit, and went to sleep. Wednesday started slowly @conductor222 picked me up and then we went and picked up @libbydoodle (who thankfully let me use her photographs as mine suck). We found KSC pretty easy; however instead of going to the press accreditation building we went to the employee badging office.
Wrong building
Correct building
They may look similar, but they were on different roads and a fair distance apart (if the press accreditation building was the bulls-eye on the dart board, we hit the wall). After we registered and met some of our fellow space nerds, we then decided to go take pictures of the Astronaut Hall of Fame (it wasn't open yet and it took us a bit to remember and decide to go to the Visitor Center.

 We took a lot of pictures, but the area basically boils down to these three sites, at least on the outside. We then decided that we should go check out the Visitor Center as it was open. I don't think any of us knew how much there was to do there, and how it would consume all our time (in a good way, like a whale with an amusement park in its stomach).
The Gate way to Nerdvana
They were ready for the holiday season

As were the Astronauts

We didn't have a solid plan when we entered the gates as there was so much to do.  We ended up seeing a 3-D Imax movie about the ISS (highly recommend it) then there was lunch. Afterwards we decided to pay our respects at the Astronaut memorial

Astronaut memorial
The memorial is amazing.  First off it is huge, and as you can (somewhat) see it has a mirrored surface with the names of the astronauts engraved into the surface and lit from behind. This creates an amazing effect which makes these heroes name seem to be floating among the clouds.

An engraving of those who have gave their lives in the pursuit of discovery
Here we then met up with @ridingrobots and @french_marc, two other NASATweetup participants, and were able to get a picture with one of them!

@ridingrobots was taking the picture

Afterwards we wandered over to the rocket park which is amazing, I have seen the ones at JSC and the Space History Museum in Alamagordo, but this puts both to shame by the shear size and quantity of the rockets.

I am still fascinated by the Saturn V
This is where we made a mistake, and wandered into the gift shop. You see, I usually have pretty good impulse control; however, I lose this when I become surrounded by amazing space memorabilia.

You look so inviting; little did I know you would take all my money!
I wanted one of everything (so I guess I did control my spending...a bit)
 @libbydoodle and I ended up spending way too much time in the gift shop and I ended up with a meteorite.

My Precious!
After an undisclosed amount of time, we left the gift shop (I really don't want to tell you how long) and wandered around a bit.  Eventually our wanderings brought us to these two amazing people

who we initially mistook as LEGO employees, which would have been really cool, but you know what assuming makes out of 'u' and 'me'. They were two engineers with decades worth of experience on the shuttle. We ended up talking to them for almost an hour which was one of the most inspirational and informative personal conversations I have ever had, and definitely the most of my conversations with strangers. They talked about the importance of hard work and STEM fields; they talked about their experiences from accidentally sitting on the shuttle toilet while moving components into the ship to the procedures they followed in their jobs. My favorite, though, was how they kept coming back to how you have to move forward, how you can't become complacent with where you are, instead you have to always be moving forward. While this was directed at the Shuttle and the 30 years we spent in the same place, their advice resonates with anybody at any stage of your life. You can become complacent and never strive to improve your lot in life, or you can push forward and achieve new and amazing things.

After about an hour, we had to cut our conversation in order to make it to Dr. John Grotzinger's talk about the geology of Gale Crater (MSL's landing site).  It was an interesting and informative talk and made me even more excited for Curiosity to start finding new evidence about early Mars. I also got the opportunity to ask him questions about graduate school and I received some advice about what I should do to get ready.

Some interesting slides from the talk

Dr. Grotzinger, if you are reading this, I would like to apologize for cornering you and asking about grad school
We then were able to explore the Explorer building which had some of my favorite exhibits

Like these awesome posters (does anyone know where you can buy copies?)
And an awesome mockup of Curiosity!
Then, as we are very much adults, Libby and I did the most grown-up thing possible; we played with LEGO blocks! NASA and LEGO were having an event where they were encouraging creativity among kids by having them build their own space themed LEGO designs. These ranged from the highly practical to the highly fanciful

Yep, these kids are having an amazing childhood
@conductor222 had already tried her hand at building, so we felt that we should try to do something as well, which were were pretty enthusiastic about so we hopped right to it. The best part was when the two engineers we talked to earlier stopped by and ended up helping Libby with her rocket and explaining what parts of the rocket would do in real life.

Libby's rocket
And I built a rover with a robotic arm. Its collecting a sample
By this time, we had filled up our day with as much space nerdery as the operating hours of the park would allow, so we headed back to the car for dinner with more space nerds and to rest up for tomorrow. But as we left, we were treated to a beautiful view of rocket park at sunset which was a great way to end the day.

New Mexico Geology: Seas of Gypsum

Sorry right now I don't have pictures of my own for this, two weekends ago I was going to meet up with family in Alamagordo then visit White Sands, but the family activity ended up taking over twice as long as planned, so it was dark by the time we finished. I will update with better pictures when I get them.

Update: Check out Ron Schott's post about White Sands, he has two amazing GigaPans of the dunes.

In second grade we took a field trip to White Sands, and I still remember that day. It wasn't too far of a drive, just on the other side of the Sierra Blanca, but it was amazing. After we passed through the military sign posts warning us of the dangers should we trespass on to the base, we drove into the national monument. It was like a sea of white stretched out before us as far as we could see; the white waves, frozen in time, just asked for a bunch of little kids to run up and down on and try to sled down. Eventually we gave up on trying to sled down the hills (damn you friction!!!) and instead took to rolling ass over teakettle down the huge dunes, burying each other in the sand and jumping off the dunes into soft(ish) piles of loose sand below us.

White sands is amazing because it is a beautifully bizarre place that illuminates some already pretty awesome geologic processes, but in an unique and beautiful way.

Dune Formation:
White Sands (which is a very original name) is the largest gypsum dune field in the world, and demonstrates the highly variable nature of dune formation. First off, there are Barchan Dunes which are crescent shaped dunes which move in the same direction of their limbs.  These dunes move incredibly fast up to 100 meters in a year (hey anything you can measure in terms of years instead of 100's or 1000's or 1x10^6 years is really fast to a geologist). Barchan dunes are common when there isn't much sand and the dunes are free to move across the desert pavement (highly cemented surface common in desert, it is this phenomena which allowed Rommel to quickly move across North Africa in WWII).

Photo Credit:
Then there are Parabolic dunes, which look like Barchan Dunes, but they are going the wrong way. This happens when Barchan Dunes move into areas with more vegetation, the vegetation bogs down the limbs of the dune first and turns them around. The vegetation acts as an anchor and makes these dunes really slow.

When there is plenty of sand, the Barchan Dunes join together into Transverse dunes, which are long lines of wavy sand. This is very common at White Sands.
Photo Credit:
Evaporite Minerals
If you are not familiar with geology, you might be curious what exactly is Gypsum, and if you are not, you should be curious (don't make the gypsum angry it is probably right behind you, hiding in plain sight). Chemically Gypsum is CaSO4*2H20, translated to  Calcium Sulfate (Sulfur plus four Oxygens) and two water molecules within the crystalline structure; it is an ionic compound, like table salt, which means it dissolves in water into ions (a +2 Ca and -2 SO4) and is precipitated out when the water evaporates. If you are unfamiliar with this, take a bowl fill it up with water and then a lot of salt into it, then hang a string where it is only just in the water and tape it to the sides. Put the bowl in a window (or under a heat lamp to speed things up) and as the water evaporates salt will precipitate on the string. SCIENCE!!

One cool thing about this mineral is that crystalline gypsum can come in three forms, satin spar, selenite, and alabaster.

Satin Spar gypsum is fibrous gypsum that has a silky luster (luster refers to the way the mineral interacts with light, so Satin Spar gypsum reflects light similar to the way silk does).

Satin Spar Gypsum in a unique shapePhoto Credit
Selenite is the transparent and colorless (geologists hate the word clear) version of gypsum. In New Mexico you can sometimes find dunes with large selenite crystals within them. A good place to check these out is the Living Desert Zoo and Garden in Carlsbad, NM, which has a whole exhibit dedicated to this feature.

Selenite Hills at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Carlsbad, NM
And Alabaster resembles the sands at White Sands, just clumped together into a soft rock.

An example of Alabaster Gypsum from
One important thing to note about Gypsum is that it is all around, as the mineral is used to make wallboard. In addition, Gypsum is used in art and other applications as Plaster of Paris. This application highlights a very cool property of gypsum, remember when I said earlier that Gypsum has two water molecules in its crystal lattice? Well if you heat gypsum you can drive off the water molecules and you end up with annhydrite which is just CaSO4 and if you know anything about making plaster casts, you know that the plaster first comes ground up in a fine powder which is the gypsum that has been ground up and heated which drives off most of the water, then you mix it with water and pour it into you want to make a  cast of. The annhydrite then absorbs the water becoming gypsum after it crystallizes thus hardens or sets. Well that's White Sands in a nutshell.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Fallibility of Heroes

I have a personal hero, and like all humans he is flawed. However, he is flawed in such a way that I have to question my admiration of him, and I am left wondering what I should think.

I have looked up to Harrison Schmitt for a few years now for a few reasons.  First he is the only geologist to walk on another world. Which is an amazing feat, and one that I dream about repeating myself (I doubt this would ever happen). As planetary geology is my dream field, this is the most amazing thing one could do in my eyes, actual field geology on another celestial object, and this alone would make him one of my favorite scientists of all time. I even have a poster taken of the Apollo 17 mission on my wall, I don't know if Dr. Schmitt is the astronaut pictured but there is a 50/50 chance that it is, and I like to think it is him.

This is the image I'm referring to

Dr. Schmitt and I also share something in common, in that we are from the same state, not only from the same state, but we are both from small, southern New Mexican towns whose entire economy rested on the exploitation of a limited resource (copper for him, oil for me). Maybe this isn't the strongest connection; however, growing up I saw the people around me and thought that my home town was like a black hole and the people born or raised there were already past the event horizon. I honestly feared for years that I would never escape, that no matter what I did, there would be no way out. Thus the idea that there were people from the crappy and poor areas of my state (one Political Science professor at my school  referred to much of southern New Mexico as the Third World within the First World) had lived the dream filled me with hope and confidence that I was not already past the event horizon, that there was a way out.

However, Dr. Schmitt is a Climate Change denier, a position I find irresponsible and uninformed. He has tried to do a tremendous amount of harm to the good science done by the climate scientists; I wouldn't be so upset about this if he wasn't a good geologist, but his body of work is impressive and he rightly won accolades earlier in his career. Thus to the uniformed his presence among the deniers seems like damning evidence.

It is becoming more and more evident that the position held by Schmitt and others like him is both wrong and dangerous. We see the effects all the time, pacific island nations looking for places to evacuate after the sea swallows their home, heat waves, storms; the evidence is so solid that the pentagon has become concerned that it poses a risk to national security. At times like these we need our best and brightest to look at the evidence without bias. It is pointless to bicker about the reality of  situation, when its consequences are already barreling down on you.

I would like to remember Dr. Schmitt as the type of person I want to be, a brave explorer who advanced the cause of science both by increasing our knowledge about the universe and by keeping scientific progress close to our hearts and in our imagination. However, these wonderful things that he did are tainted by his recent actions as a politician and I cannot separate the two, though I wish I could.

I won't take the poster down, though, because at the moment it was taken, he was doing something noble and beautiful, something that I can still strive to emulate and surpass.

For more information here is NASA biography, and in the interest of fairness, his biography on desmog blog as well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Labradorite Meme

Okay, so the whole meme labradorite meme that started recently made me really excited, not really because I'm the world's greatest fan of labradorite (I like it but there is a lot of minerals that are just as amazing), but because there was a sample of feldspar in my Mineralogy lab quiz and it showed labradorescence!

And here it is!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New Mexico Geology: Rio Grande Rift

I still vividly remember learning the words to the Beach Boys’ Surfin USA when I was five years old. I was due to graduate from my preschool and we were going to sing that song for our families at the graduation ceremony. For those of you who don’t know, the songs begin with the quintessential Californian Boys lamenting the lot in life for the rest of their countrymen. Specifically they bemoan that:

If everybody had an ocean
Across the U. S. A.
Then everybody'd be surfin'
Like Californi-a
You'd seem 'em wearing their baggies
Huarachi sandals too
A bushy bushy blonde hairdo
Surfin' U. S. A.

            While learning this song I remember trying to imagine a United States cut in half by a body of water large enough to generate waves like the ocean. I imagined cowboys surfing from Texas up to Kansas herding cattle who were chilling on rafts, or businessmen windsurfing through city streets to  their office buildings (I had a really overactive imagination as a kid). I didn't think an ocean in the middle of the continent would be such a great idea, but I thought it would be interesting none the less. On a side note, when we went over the Vietnam War in high school, guerrilla warfare was described as like your whole country being an ocean, and all your people floating in it which always made me think of this song. Yeah, I know I'm weird.
          However, what I didn’t know was that the interior of America did share some features with the ocean (the Atlantic though not the Pacific) and even more surprising, that this feature cut my home state in half. What could dry, land-locked New Mexico have with the Atlantic Ocean? It would seem that no two regions could be less alike. But somehow they are, but for that to be obvious, first we need to understand a very fundamental aspect of our Earth's surface.

Change in Location of  continental Plates from the Permian to the present, Photo Credit
While the ground beneath our feet may feel solid and static, we know that it is not. Instead the surface is made up of tectonic plates which floats on the flowing plastic of the Upper Mantle. The plates can be divided into two groups, oceanic and continental plates; the continental plates are mostly composed of granite with a thin veneer of sediments coating it and the oceanic crust is composed mainly of basalt. Since granite is composed of lighter (in color and density) than the iron rich basalt, it stands to reason that the continental plates would float above the basalt. Now look at the changes our world has undergone, specifically look at how the continents were torn apart, forming the east and west hemispheres. This formed a divergent plate boundary, and you can almost make out the change in this picture from the initial valley (in the Triassic) that the rift formed to the ocean we see now.
Plates can interact in three primary ways. If two plates strike together head on, this is called a converging plate boundary, and in this instance three different outcomes are possible. If a light continental plate and heavy oceanic plate converge, then the oceanic plate will subduct, or sink, beneath the continent. In this instance a lot of oceanic water end up mixing with the magma, this creates some seriously violent volcanoes, like Mount St. Helens. If two light continental plates crash together, they push each other up like a rug bunching up when you slip on it; this creates massive mountain ranges a great example being the Himalayas. Two heavy oceanic plates can meet, here both plates get pushed down, partially melt and form a  volcanic arc. Plates can also slide past each other, like in California at San Andres Fault, and if those movement is interrupted then the plates will lurch forward in a jerking motion causing an Earthquake.

Photo Credit:
However, none of those are what makes the Atlantic Ocean similar to New Mexico. Instead we have to discuss the third type of plate interaction, divergent plate boundaries which are places where plates pull away from each other . Like we saw in the break-up of Pangaea, this small crack in the plates can grow into a huge rift valley and eventually into an ocean! Luckily we have the opportunity to see a Rift Valley in the process of growing farther a part; we see in the aptly named East African Rift Valley the convergence of a few rifts cutting up the eastern coast of Africa. While the mechanism which cause this phenomena are not well known, the popular model among Earth Scientists involves elevated heat flow from the mantles causing bulges under the plates, forcing those plates apart.

Photo Credit:

In New Mexico we have our own example of this process, a massive structure that cuts the state in two and formed mountains  and volcanoes at its sides making it one of the two features that dominate the geology of the state (the other being the Jemez Lineament). It began about 35 million years ago and then entered a phase of major volcanism for around 15 million years, and the first phase of crustal extension occurred about 5 million years after the start of the volcanism and lasted for ten million years. The rift then took it easy for a few million years, until the northern and southern portions of the rift underwent a period of expansion in the last 10-12 million years.

Photo Credit: Originally produced by the USGS

The rift formed numerous interesting features, but I like the Sandia's the best, so that is a great place to start. Why do I like the Sandia Mountains the best? It might be because they translate to the Watermelon Mountains, it might be because my fiance is from Eastern flank of those mountains, or it might be because it was the first stop on my structural geology field trip. Whatever the reason, they are really cool. Here the crustal extension resulted in horst and graben mountains; the grabens were mostly filled in with sediments eroded off of the Sandias.

Photo Credit:

The Sandia's culminate at the crest, which is a beautiful sight and I could not more highly recommend that anyone visiting Albuquerque drive up to the top and look out over the city.

From my Structural Geology field trip

In addition to being beautiful the Sandia's also hold some amazing geologic features. First and for most is the amazing unconformity which represents a 1.2 billion year gap in the geologic feature. I have to give you my sincerest apologies for not taking pictures of it on my trip, but I'll try to get some the next time I'm in the area. However, just imagine the ancient granite crumbling into a pile of grus at its base tilted slightly with sandstone and limestone laying on top of it. The bottom of the sedimentary layers have been exposed in some places by crumbling granite, and you can walk under the rock and pull out fossils buried above your head! The Sandias also contain hydrothermal vents perforating the area which have resulted in mineral deposits (including some gold).
On the western edge of the Rift are the Three Sisters, who are now kind of old and cold but they used to be HOT...get it because they are dormant volcanoes, I'm hilarious...In all seriousness these three volcanoes are not that large, but they are awesome. These were also caused by the tectonic forces which shaped the valley, and sit on top of a 5 mile long fissure. They are dormant now, but they once spewed out basaltic lava over the area - side note you can actually see the path and level of the rain water over these volcanoes, the calcium minerals in the lava have been weathered in some parts into calcite, so that you have rocks which are black on top and white on bottom.
It would be easy to write a book just about the Sandia's, but the rift gave us more than just this, including the Organ Mountains near Las Cruces which is made up of granite, rhyolite, some sedimentary rocks and even some welded volcanics. The rift dominated much of New Mexican geology and most the North-South trending features in New Mexico were caused by the Rift (East-West trending features are a result of the Jemez Lineament. Including the very river that named the rift.
You see the Rio Grande is a fairly unique river, in that it formed within the valley, instead of forming the valley it now resides in. When the rift was opening up it created several lakes which then began to start linking up, eventually they started to flow south, and provide part of our border with Mexico. These massive forces are at their most striking at the Rio Grande Gorge which drives home more than any other site the awesome power that was tearing apart the crust millions of years ago.

Photo Credit: NM BLM
I should really go into more depth about these features; however, when I first said I would talk about this feature I forgot about how freaking huge it was and just how much the rift affects the geology of the entire state, so when I take some trips out to the areas I'll write them up, but until then why don't we just try to imagine what if the rift had expanded farther until there was an ocean across the U.S.A, do you think everybody would be surfin' like Californi-a?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

New Mexico Geology Primer

I haven’t talked about geology as much as I want to on this blog, so I have decided to change that, this was inspired by Anne at Highly Allochthonous, and in an effort to ease in (and because I won’t start anything resembling research until next semester) I’ve decided to write about a few important geological sights in my home state. Why? Because I love it here, and because it has fascinating and varied features which you could spend a lifetime exploring. In addition, I can pepper the stories with anecdotes about the great and sometimes very strange people and events associated with those sites. You see, New Mexico is very odd from our diet (depending on who you talk to it ranges from strange to a dire sin for any restaurant not to provide green chile as a topping) to music (go to a large dance or party the music will shift between dance music, country, and tejano) to the landforms (I’ll talk about that later) and it makes for an interesting place to live.
                Why is New Mexico so odd? It might be because New Mexico has the oldest, continuously inhabited settlement within the United States or the oldest center of government in the country or maybe it is because our history includes a tremendously successful Native American revolt which forced the Europeans out of the state and when they finally returned they had to play nice. Or it might be because of our more recent history of government research or the dichotomy of having the highest rate of PhDs per capita of any state in the union (at least according to History Channel’s series The States) and having the tenth highest rate of high school dropouts in the country. However I always assumed it was due to the diversity and uniqueness of the ecosystems surrounding us. In New Mexico you can take a four hour drive starting in the High planes and drive through deserts, mountains, and wetlands. It was a fascinating place to grow up in, and luckily for me my parents took every opportunity to teach me new and wondrous things about the history and nature surrounding me.
                However, eventually I grew older and wiser and learned a very important thing about New Mexico, all that diversity of nature I grew up being fascinated by wasn’t due to the biology which was just a symptom of a much more interesting aspect to the state, instead I learned better and learned that New Mexico is amazing due to its geology. So I am going to call my shots for future posts and provide some background info for the places I plan to write about as well.

                First off is the Southern High Plains, which isn’t my favorite part of the state, as it is flat and flat and oh did I mention flat? But it is the specific place in New Mexico where I was born and raised, so it deserves some attention. The Southern High Plains are flat because they used to be crossed from west to east by meandering streams which lazily spread across the planes through Texas into the Gulf of Mexico, however their waters were pirated away by the faster Pecos River—on a side note you know it is going to be an awesome class when your professor starts talking about pirating water.
                The High Plains now don’t have too much water, besides on the far western edge where that dastardly Pecos River still resides smugly taunting those he left destitute of water, and are mostly reliant on aquifers for the stuff (okay so even the parts of New Mexico with lakes and rivers rely on aquifers, the state’s drier then straight gin in a martini glass). I grew up drinking well water pulled up from the Ogallala Aquifer (at least for twelve years there was an interlude which we will talk about later); however, for a long time the discharge rates of the aquifer has far outstripped the recharge rate and the residents of the High Plane who think about such things fear very probable water shortages in the region’s future.

Sierra Blanca:
                Luckily, I did not spend my entire childhood out where short grass prairie and desert mix and intermingle, but instead I spend most of my elementary school years on a VOLCANO! Okay, well a very dead volcano, but a volcano all the same. Unfortunately for me, though, I did not know this while I grew up there and I didn’t completely appreciate it until after I had been gone for far too long. However, it was here that I first read a book on plate tectonics and the whole reason I stumbled into geology was that I was trying to understand how I was living on a mountain in the middle of the continental crust far away from any plate boundaries. Also this was where we went on my first college geology field trip, so happy memories!

                The first time I ever visited this site was during a field trip in Elementary school, and it was amazing; huge white dunes stretch across as far as the eye can see, and I could remember my child brain trying to reconcile the heat with the fact it looked like it had just snowed which wasn’t helped out by us trying to sled down the dunes—if you ever want an extremely effective illustration on static friction first go to Ruidoso in the winter and sled down a hill, then drive down to White Sands and try it there(actually do it the other way around unless you want to end your day on a downer).

                There is a lot I could say about this area, but to understand why this area is so cool all you need to do is imagine me excitedly screaming “THE CRUST TRIED TO PULL ITSELF APART HERE!” and you get the gist.

Carlsbad Caverns:
                When I was a child I loved bats, I don’t exactly remember why but I know the obsession I had about Chiroptera (which I actually memorized as a third grader) was greatly aided by the Caverns. If you have never seen a bat flight, I cannot highly recommend it enough. However, I recommend exploring a highly decorative cave like Carlsbad even more, the speleothems are amazing, and if you are healthy and wealthy enough you should walk in from the natural entrance and then take a guided tour to get a better appreciation for the beauty and grandeur of these caves. I still remember very vividly my second grade field trip down into the caverns and I’m pretty sure it had a huge effect on me growing up.

                So there you go, five posts that I want to get out as soon as possible, and as I have several of them in some level of completion. I’m going to try to finish one every week to week and half from time that this post is published.

 So I'm running really late on these, but I have the last two started, and I'll try to finish them soon.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Living in a State of Scientific Wonderment

I have noticed a disturbing trend with a lot of people, mostly that when I tell them I am a science major they give me a dumbfounded look and ask “What’s wrong with you?” or “Why would you put yourself through that?” and you know in all honesty screw them. I’m tired of playing nice about this; I’m tired of people greedily lapping up the results of science, while insulting those who participate in it. I’m tired of people who are too lazy or have let themselves be brainwashed into thinking science isn’t ‘cool’ disparage my career choice. If I’m having trouble in my class and say something about it or stay in to study instead of going to college night somebody always tells me “Well pick an easier major”.
                I didn’t chose my major so I can shill BS in class and pass, or because it would give me more time to party, and every person I’ve talked to who says they picked their major for those reasons have said that they either regret it or life hasn’t been as much fun since they left college. The traditional college experience lasts only four or five years and humans are living longer than ever, so instead of picking a career where you would live for the weekend so that those five years are easy and filled with booze, why not choose something you love and do that for the rest of your life.
                That is what I chose to do; I love my classes—every semester I look forward to learning new ideas and developing new tools for my future career. Is it going to be hard? Hell yes, I have no delusions about that, and yes I am nervous about the next few steps, but I also am anxious. I like learning, and am tired of college students who write it off as just something they have to trudge through on their way to their next kegger.
                Science lets you live your life with the wonderment and amazement of a child, science not only encourages you but rewards you for asking “why?” I am not a morning person, so I get my day started with coffee, and some mornings when I’m pouring my coffee, it will come out of the spout and seemingly defy gravity as it rushes down the side of the pot only to spill onto the counter where the pot ends. Most people are just annoyed at this momentary delay in their daily schedule. I, however, am not, instead I think about the physical properties of water, how it is a polar molecule with a slight charge at the ends like a magnet. I think about cohesion and adhesion, and sometimes if I am tired enough to let my mind wander far enough, I’ll think about how water aids in chemical reactions and by doing so allowed life to arise on this planet and how on some far off distant planet the same processes may be happening on some new life form is growing up in the water. So I’ll stand there transfixed by the beauty of the universe which was just displayed for me in that tiny little inconvenience that most would either shrug off as inconsequential or bemoan as a horrible waste of their time.
                That is the great thing about science.  If you know enough, the universe is constantly presenting its wonders to you in some form or another. For example, look at the wall in front of you; do you see its color? That is because outer shell electrons are being excited by the light striking them, jumping up in energy levels and then dropping back to their more comfortable position and as they do, they emit tiny massless packets of energy called a photon, which also acts as a wave, which then travels at the speed of light to your eye so you can perceive its color. Go walk across a grassy field, you are stomping on your cousins just removed by  over a billion years of evolution. Look up at night, see those stars? Those are balls of gas under so much pressure due to the force of gravity caused by their huge masses that they are causing nuclear fusion to occur at their cores. Every little speck of light is a hydrogen bomb factory produces massive explosions which pump out the heavier elements of our universe.  Oh and by the way, a lot of those stars have planets orbiting them, and some of those planets might even have life.
                So, if you are not a scientist, a science major, or science enthusiast, and someone tells you they are don’t ask “What is wrong with you?” but instead ask “Why?” Ask what makes them so passionate that they would dedicate a large portion of their fleeting existence to the process of science and trust me they will tell you. They will explain to you why they do what they do with the wide eyed innocence of a child and with all the enthusiasm of one as well. Because in the end, that is the reason I study science.  I like to live in a state of wonderment that can only come as a result of delving past the surface on the mundane world into the why’s and how’s of its inner workings.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Physics with Phineas and Ferb

The post below is very different from its original form which was a fun exercise with gravity; however, midway through I realized it would be useful tool to teach some physics concepts to some students I tutor. Hopefully I didn't do an injustice to the ideas presented, but also it is hopefully easy to understand by an audience without a great deal of scientific understanding.

I have a confession to make, I love kid shows, mostly the stuff from my time in Elementary School, like Doug, Hey Arnold, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Magic School Bus and I still watch those shows when the opportunity presents itself; however, recently I have developed an unhealthy obsession with the Disney cartoon Phineas and Ferb. There are several reasons for this, but mostly it is because it is a smart, well-written show that doesn’t take itself too seriously and feels free to be really geeky.

Another thing I enjoy about the show is that they try to get science right (when it is brought up) sure they violate the laws of physics all the time but it is a cartoon about tweens building rockets and rollercoasters. However, when they show physics formulas they use the correct ones, not just complicated science babble (except when using a formula for a visual gag).

However, in one episode they demonstrate a common misconception between weight and mass, which I think is very common among people raised in the US (I single out my country because the Imperial System is stupid). In the scene the kids are floating through town in a helium-filled bouncy house when they pass over their destination. So the largest kid, Buford, jumps out of their floating vehicle and grabs onto a rope to allow the kids to sink to the ground. At this point another child points out that he doesn’t weigh any more at the lower height than when he was higher, and the two boy geniuses do not correct him. Well I thought I would, as there is a fundamental difference between mass and weight, in that mass is the amount of “stuff” in an object (usually measured in grams) and weight is the force due to gravity on an object thus it is a measurement of the interaction between the mass of an object and gravity (measured in pounds or Newtons). So what’s the deal his weight shouldn’t have changed just due to a difference in altitude right? Actually yes, yes it would have, you see the effect of gravity lessens the farther from the center of mass (center of the Earth) one is from it. So Buford’s weight would have changed when he lowered his elevation, as he would have experienced a greater force due to gravity.

How much you ask? Well currently I don’t know, but I do know that there is a physics formula for that:

  • Where G is the gravitational constant (6.674*10^-11 m3/(kg*s2))
    •  Newton figured it out and he was one smart cookie, so we will go with it.
  • The little m is the mass of Buford, which according to my fiancĂ© (an Elementary Education major) would be about 50kg
  • The big M is the mass of the Earth (5.974*10^24 kg)
    •  They used a really big scale to measure it
  •  And the r is the radius or distance from the center of the Earth (6.371*10^6 meters plus the elevation of the objects (or children) in question
    • They used a really big tape measure
  • Also the F stands for force, as in the force exerted on the objects by gravity, but we can also consider this weight
So first let’s talk about assumptions first off we are assuming that the Earth is a perfect sphere (not true) so that we won’t have to change the value for the radius as the jump house floats through the air, secondly we will assume that there is no change in mass for either object during this time period. So what happens?

Well first we need to figure out how high the jump house is above the ground and then how far below the jump house Buford is when he is hanging by the rope. So since this is a cartoon I’m going to make educated guesses rather than attempt to use some type of computer software to analyze the scene and get some hard numbers. I’m doing this for two reasons first I don’t have experience with that kind of software, and second it’s a cartoon and I’m just trying to make a point.

So let’s look at this video, the scene in question starts about at the 6:20 point and it looks as if the floating jump house is about 30 meters above the ground, and the rope Buford hangs off of is about 8 meters long, so we now have all the info we need.

F1 is the original height in the jump house, and F2 will be Buford’s second lower height.

F1=[(6.674*10^-11 m3/(kg*s2)) (50kg) (5.974*10^24 kg)]/(6.371*10^6m + 30m) ^2
F1=(1.99*10^16kg m3/ s2)/ (6.371*10^6 + 30m) ^2
F1=491.1364025 kg*m/s2 aka Newtons
Converts to 110.41 lbs

F2= [(6.674*10^-11 m3/(kg*s2)) (50kg) (5.974*10^24 kg)]/(6.371*10^6m + (30-8)m) ^2
F2=(1.99*10^16kg m3/ s2)/ (6.371*10^6 + 22m) ^2
F2=491.1364025 kg*m/s2 aka Newtons
Also converts to 110.41 lbs

So for all practical purposes there is no change in weight, however if my calculator could show more decimal points you would be able to see a difference eventually. If you don’t believe me we can check Buford’s weight at vastly different elevations, to see if this changes at all.

Radius in Earth radii

Weight in Newtons


Remember, all we changed was the distance from the center we moved Buford; we didn’t change the mass of any of the objects. The cool thing is that the first row shows that Buford is about 5 thousandths of a newton lighter 30 feet in the air than he is on the ground (or a 0.001 pound difference).

Now In Graph Form! (I labeled my axis when I made this, but they disappeared!)
As you can see there is a downward trend as you move Buford farther from the surface of the Earth (note do not try to extrapolate to the left to R*0 as there the formula is undefined and also if you go below the Earth’s surface you have to start subtracting mass from your value of big M so the force of gravity becomes weaker—however if you had an Earth mass black hole you could find the force of gravity approaching zero *hint* that number would be really big! As in 49114.103 Newtons (11041.290 pounds) at R*.1)

So while they were right for all intensive purposes in the episode, two boys able to build an interstellar space ship should have known better.