Exoskeleton

Are mechanical exoskeletons science fiction, or is the U.S. military actually researching these and other projects designed to create Super Soldiers? April's Current Science Forum explored this question. Image by John B. Carnett (click image for original article).

Pop quiz: Which of these projects is currently being pursued by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)?

A) A mechanical exoskeleton that will endow an average person with superhuman strength
B) Nanotechnology that can be injected into humans and used to heal wounds or regrow organs
C) Robotic prosthetics that respond to brain signals and are covered in realistic-looking “skin”
D) Pills that can take away a person’s need for sleep or remove emotions such as fear and guilt

If you can’t choose an answer because all of these sound like something out of the latest Iron Man film, you will probably be surprised to find out that this is a trick question: all of these projects are being investigated by DARPA scientists. Some of them have already moved into the prototype testing stage – check out the Raytheon Sarcos Exoskeleton or the Boston Dynamics “Army Mule” on YouTube.

At Morehead’s most recent Current Science Forum, the audience members were treated to a discussion of these and other DARPA research projects by David DeBatto, a retired U.S. Army Counterintelligence special agent. The forum explored questions such as:

  • Is the government actually interested in developing “Super Soldiers,” and if so, why?
  • What are some of the projects that DARPA is currently pursuing?
  • What are the ethical implications of this type of research?
  • What practical applications might this research have for civilians?

If you missed this month’s event, don’t despair! May’s Current Science Forum will explore an equally interesting topic: Are designer babies on the way? Join us on Thursday, May 6 at 7:00 pm to explore this question with Patricia Devers, an assistant professor and certified genetic counselor here at UNC.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

It’s the height of spring field trip season at Morehead.

Most of the school buses in our parking lot traveled one or two hours to visit us, but groups come from all over the state. Last week, kids from Manteo came to Morehead. A Cherokee Boys Club charter bus makes an appearance almost every year. It’s fun to welcome them to the planetarium, our favorite state treasure.

For the kids, part of the fun is checking out Morehead’s gift shop after their planetarium show. It’s stocked with educational books and science-themed toys, of course. But their favorite item, the one that our gift shop manager continually has to restock, is rock candy. (If you’re patient, you can make it at home with this science experiment. But if you don’t want to wait seven days, Morehead’s your source for instant gratification.)

What else is really popular with the kids? Anything gooey and icky, like Mars Mud and Galactic Goo. Glow-in-the-dark stuff. (Especially cool: bandanas that have constellations printed on them in glow-in-the-dark paint.)

moodringAnd mood rings. Lots and lots of mood rings go home with Morehead visitors of all ages.

Did you have a mood ring when you were a kid? Mood rings feature a “stone” that turns colors — black, green, blue. Theoretically, the colors reflect your mood, but actually it’s an indication of your body temperature. There are liquid crystals that are sensitive to heat inside the “stone,” and the position of those crystals affects the wavelength of light. That’s how mood rings change color.

Believe it or not, NASA is using that same “technology” in its search for undiscovered planets. Apparently, the combination of liquid crystals and zero gravity result in better telescope viewing.

And that’s not all. Scientists are exploring the value of color-changing crystals in measuring the impact of bomb blasts in war zones. This development could provide a better understanding of how people living and working in those zones may have been affected, resulting in better medical treatment for them.

You can’t do that with rock candy.

Ron Risch, Morehead's gift shop manager, just checked his records -- 1,433 visitors bought mood rings last year!

April 1, 2010, 45 minutes after sunset

April 1, 2010, 45 minutes after sunset

Have you ever seen Mercury? Most people haven’t. Impress your friends and family by pointing out Mercury to them during the next week—the best time this entire year to see this elusive planet in the evening sky.

First, find Venus. It’s that very bright point of light low in the west soon after sunset.

Next, look for Mercury. It’s to the lower right of Venus and much dimmer. For the next ten days, these two planets appear to lie within just a few degrees of each other (less than half the width of your fist held at arm’s length).

For the best chance of identifying Mercury, go out about 45 minutes after sunset in the next week (try ~8:20-8:30 p.m. for the Triangle area). You’ll need clear skies and a view of the western horizon that is as building- and tree-free as you can manage.

If you look too soon after sunset, you may have trouble picking out the planet in the still-bright sky. Look too late, and Mercury will have dropped below the western horizon (or at least behind all those trees in your neighborhood). Later in April, Mercury disappears altogether from the evening sky.

Please join Morehead at our next skywatching session at Jordan Lake on April 17, 2010. We’ll see Mercury and Venus near the beginning. Mars and Saturn will also be visible. Bring your friends and family!

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager. She looks forward to helping people learn to identify planets and stars in Morehead's Beginning Skywatching course for adults, starting April 7. To register online, go to moreheadplanetarium.org, click Events & Activities, then Adult Classes.

I heard an interesting comment the other day from one of my colleagues: “Spring break is the longest holiday.” And in a lot of ways that’s true. At Morehead, we see a spring break surge for about two weeks because some schools break before Easter while others wait until the week after. For parents, it may just feel like the longest holiday. Unlike the holiday season, there aren’t a lot of holiday-specific activities to fill the days, and unlike summer, the period isn’t long enough to settle into a comfortable routine.

My two-year-old checks out the fish at the Georgia Aquarium

My two-year-old checks out the fish at the Georgia Aquarium

As a result, a lot of families take to the road for a vacation or a few day trips. With that in mind, let me suggest a few ideas based on my recent experiences:

  • Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. Duh. It IS my job to encourage people to come here, and with the new fulldome video system that’s easy to do. Make sure to check the calendar on the home page before making the trip on a weekday because we still have field-trip groups and a lot of shows are sold out.
  • North Carolina Museum of Life and Science (Durham). My two-year-old loves Loblolly Park and the petting zoo. While the entire museum is worth seeing,  go on a day with nice weather because so much of what they have to offer is outside.
  • Georgia Aquarium (Atlanta). If you’re making your way to Atlanta and haven’t been to the aquarium, put this on your list (and buy tickets in advance). Located close to Olympic Park, the Georgia Aquarium is world class all the way.
  • Zoo Atlanta: I think the zoo has gotten overshadowed by the aquarium, but the zoo is worth the trip. Pandas, kangaroos, a petting zoo, zebras, tigers — all in a manageable space for most kids.
  • N.C. Aquariums (Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores and Roanoke Island): I’ve heard great things about all three locations, but I can only speak firsthand regarding the Fort Fisher aquarium. If you are thinking about the Fort Fisher aquarium from your own childhood, this isn’t it. Dramatically expanded between 1999 and 2002, this aquarium is a great way to spend a morning or afternoon when you are in the Wilmington area.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list of science-themed museums and attractions in our area, state and region. We’re fortunate to have a number of high-quality options. If you are looking for something to do with the kids, check ‘em out.

Jeff Hill is Morehead's director of external relations and is sorry that he didn't have enough space to mention the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, the National Aquarium, The Health Adventure, the Schiele Museum, SciWorks, the Science Museum of Virginia, and ... (you get the idea!)


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