Astronomers estimate that our own Sun is about 4.6 billion years old, give or take a few million years.

And then there’s “Star of Bethlehem” (celebrating its 60th birthday this year), which claims a place among the longest-running planetarium shows in the world. “Star” examines the legendary star from a scholarly perspective, exploring the astronomical events that could have caused such a phenomenon.

Star of Bethlehem“Star” was among the original Morehead productions during the planetarium’s first year of operation. For years, its arrival was marked with the appearance of a plastic star that glowed at night atop Morehead’s roof. (That tradition ended a few years ago when a November storm damaged the plastic star beyond repair.)

Over the years, “Star” has been updated to reflect new scientific knowledge and to showcase new technology, so today’s version probably doesn’t look anything like the “Star” of 1949. In fact, if you look carefully, you’ll even spot a dinosaur in the current version. (UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp once said that a dinosaur appeared somewhere within every Morehead planetarium show. How many have you spied?)

“Star” is still among Morehead’s most popular planetarium shows and has become a seasonal tradition for many families. This year, “Star” begins Nov. 27 and continues through Jan. 3.

Frisbees, cake mix and the very first credit card all appeared around the same time as Morehead's "Star."

Bella is having a very bad day and is not up for remembering her astronomy.

Bella is having a very bad day and is not up for remembering her astronomy.

Today is the new moon. A different New Moon happens Friday, when the second movie made from Stephenie Meyer’s popular Twilight book series opens in theaters.

Although Twilight fans may not care, our heroine Bella Swan’s knowledge of lunar phases is questionable. In the book’s title-inspiring scene, in which her vampire boyfriend Edward leaves her and she wanders through the woods for hours, Bella thinks, “Tonight the sky was utterly black. Perhaps there was no moon tonight—a lunar eclipse, a new moon.”

Bella correctly equates “new moon” with “no moon.” A new moon is above the horizon only during the day, and the only lit part is the far side that we can’t see.

But Bella’s phrasing suggests a few astronomical impossibilities:

1) In her distress, is Bella thinking a lunar eclipse and new moon are the same? Her thoughts are ambiguous. But a lunar eclipse can happen only when the moon’s phase is full. Never when it’s new. Not even in fictional worlds with vampires.

When the moon is new, it’s between the sun and Earth, as Meyer describes on her Web site. A lunar eclipse, however, requires a different geometric line-up: Sun-Earth-Moon.

Lunar eclipse geometry

Only in this configuration can the Earth’s shadow cover (eclipse) the moon. MrEclipse.com explains why lunar eclipses don’t happen every full moon, and NASA’s lunar eclipse page lists dates of past and future lunar eclipses.

2) Even during a lunar eclipse, Bella wouldn’t have “no moon tonight.” The moon remains visible when eclipsed by the Earth’s shadow. Although the moon darkens, sometimes almost to the point of invisibility, it won’t completely disappear because Earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight. An eclipsed moon usually looks reddish (not to be confused with the reddish tint the moon can take on when near the horizon, regardless of its phase).

This total lunar eclipse did not happen at new moon. (Credit: Fred Espenak)

This total lunar eclipse did not happen at new moon. (Credit: Fred Espenak)

3) Even with no moon, the sky wouldn’t look “utterly black” in Forks, Washington, where Bella wanders the woods, unless there was a regional power outage. Because of light pollution, there are no truly dark skies in the entire state. But we can forgive Bella for exaggerating in her distraught condition.

Six months later (warning! spoiler ahead!), things brighten up for Bella when she reunites with Edward in Italy. There they further mangle the solar system by experiencing an impossible sun. That’ll be another blog post.

Do you have an example to share of impossible astronomy in a book?  Please post a comment.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager. She doesn't let impossible astronomy get in the way of enjoying a good story.

This month, scientists at CERN will be restarting the largest human machine ever built: the Large Hadron Collider. In honor of this scientific milestone, we invited Dr. Reyco Henning, UNC assistant professor and particle physicist, to our November current science forum.

I can’t speak for the entire audience, but he blew my mind. The scientists studying particle physics have to be some of the most intuitive and creative scientists on the planet. I can only imagine the answer a particle physicist’s child gets when he asks, “Mommy, how did we get here?”

These people spend their lives creating incredibly complex theories to be tested by mind-bogglingly intricate machines in the hopes of understanding the fundamental nature of the Universe. How did it get here? What is the origin of mass? What is the nature of dark matter and dark energy?

Some fun facts from Dr. Henning:

1. Matter is mostly empty space. If Kenan Stadium represented a whole atom, the nucleus would be the size of a golf ball.

2. In the currently accepted model, most physicists estimate that the universe is 73% dark energy, 23% dark matter, 3.6% intergalactic gas, and 0.4% stars.

3. The LHC has had over 3,000 scientists from all over the world work on it at some point.

Henning’s take home message: The LHC will be creating decades of data that will go a long way to confirming, reforming, or rejecting our current conceptions of matter and the Universe. Let’s hope that no more birds or bread get in the way.

Next month: Dr. Kevin Weeks will be talking about his team’s decoding of the an entire HIV genome. See you on December 3rd at 7pm.

Jonathan

ps — In doing a little research, I was unsure about the “largest machine claim” so I did a little google magic and came across this beauty of a blog. The Bagger 288 is no joke.

Jonathan Frederick is Morehead's science program manager.

black bats against the full Moon
Looking for a thriller of a Halloween? Morehead’s got you covered.

On Thursday, catch the newest Chapel Hill Halloween tradition — “Scare-o-lina Skies,” Morehead’s Halloween take on the classic “Carolina Skies” planetarium show. Explore the hidden stories of mayhem, murder and madness in the constellations! Regular ticket prices apply, just $6 for adults, with shows at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 29, 2009.

And now Morehead’s added “Scare-o-lina Skies: Family Edition” so you can bring your school-age kids to join the fun. Catch the family-friendly version on Sunday, Nov. 1, at 3:30 p.m. Kids’ tickets are just $5.

How about the one-of-a-kind “Laser Halloween” experience that combines Halloween-themed music with an amazing light show? It’s perfect for the family, and you can only catch “Laser Halloween” on Halloween Day itself, Oct. 31. Treat yourself to “Laser Halloween” at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. (These replace the regular planetarium shows on the schedule, just for this one day.) Laser shows are premium shows, so special ticket prices apply: $9.50 for adults, $7.50 for students and Morehead members. Sorry, no coupons or passes for premium shows.

Of course, Halloween is a major event on Franklin Street, when monsters and maniacs take over downtown! Morehead closes at 2:30 p.m. on Halloween Day. The university parking lot adjacent to Morehead closes at 3 p.m. and becomes a staging area for public safety vehicles throughout the evening, so if you visit Morehead for “Laser Halloween,” be sure to move your car by 3 p.m.

Karen is taking suggestions for an appropriate Halloween costume.

Agression

Could estrogen - the female sex hormone - cause aggression and territoriality in males?

What makes a male behave like a male? Many answers may come to mind – societal expectations, culture and environment, and hormones, to name a few. Hardly anyone would guess that estrogen – the female sex hormone – plays a role in male behavior. Yet this is precisely what a team of researchers at the University of California, San Francisco have discovered: estrogen, rather than testosterone, plays a vital role in “masculinizing” the developing brain shortly after birth. Their research appears in the newest issue of Cell.

Shortly after birth, male gonads release a surge of testosterone into the bloodstream. The UCSF research team discovered that the male brain contains a number of neurons equipped with an enzyme called aromatase, which converts the testosterone into estrogen. Once exposed to estrogen, these neurons establish a particular circuitry that is unique to the male brain and is thought to account for stereotypically male behaviors such as aggression and territoriality.

This theory is strengthened by the fact that female mice who were exposed to estrogen shortly after birth become “tomboys,” exhibiting the same aggressiveness and territory-marking behavior as normal male mice. You might reasonably wonder, if estrogen is the female hormone, why don’t all girls end up acting like boys? It turns out that ovaries typically do not secrete any hormone this early in life, which allows the brain to establish female brain circuitry.

Brain development is an extraordinarily complex subject with many unanswered questions. If you would like to learn more about this topic, come to Morehead Planetarium and Science Center to see the Science 360 presentation “The Developing Brain.”

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

LHC

Two scientists think that the LHC may be doomed by time-traveling particles. Image from CERN.

In the history of science, there have been more than a few bizarre, wacky, or unintentionally hilarious theories and studies (a few recent examples: one research team found that herring communicate via underwater flatulence; French physicists explored the profound mystery of why spaghetti does not break in half; and a Spanish research team recently investigated the “ultrasonic velocity of cheddar cheese”). But few theories are as strange as that recently set forth by two theoretical physicists regarding the planned restarting of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in December. Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya postulate that the LHC, which scientists hope will answer some of physics’ most basic mysteries, may be doomed to disaster – by time-traveling particles produced by the LHC itself.

One of the major goals of scientists at the LHC is to find the elusive “Higgs boson” – a hypothetical particle which physicists believe may be responsible for giving all other particles mass. Nielsen and Ninomiya postulate that the Higgs boson may in fact be so abhorrent to nature that if it were created in the LHC, it would cause a ripple in time such that the collider would be rendered unusable before making the particle – sort of like a person traveling in time and killing his mother before she gives birth to him. They argue that in fact this may have already happened – twice. Last fall, the LHC had to shut down following a major mechanical malfunction that occurred just days after its first-ever run. And in 1993, production on the United States Superconducting Supercollider, which was also intended to find the Higgs, was abruptly cancelled after billions of dollars had already been spent on its development.

If this all sounds to you like something out of the Twilight Zone, you’re not alone – Nielson and Ninomiya’s research is already being criticized. Meanwhile, plans proceed for the LHC to come back online later this fall. If you’re interested in finding out more about the LHC and the research that will be done there, mark your calendars for MPSC’s next Current Science Forum, “Restarting the Big Bang Machine,” where Dr. Reyco Henning will be discussing the LHC and what its operation could mean for science. The forum will be held Thursday, November 5 at 7:00 pm.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

Light Pollution

Light pollution can drastically affect the number of stars visible in the night sky. Click on the picture to enlarge. Picture from http://stellarium.org.

Step outside the average suburban home at night, and you’re likely to see the fluorescent glow of streetlights, soft yellow light streaming from the windows of homes, and security floodlighting. One thing you may not be able to see is the night sky. The light sources around us at night can scatter photons upwards into our atmosphere, creating light pollution that blocks our view of the stars – particularly those stars that are smaller, farther away from Earth, or dimmer. For many urban and suburban dwellers, the only Milky Way they’ll ever see comes in a brown candy wrapper.

Astronomers try to monitor levels of light pollution, because it has serious consequences for scientists’ ability to study our universe (Earth-bound telescopes, just like our eyes, are hampered by light pollution). Astronomers can’t be everywhere in the world, though, so to effectively keep tabs on levels of light pollution around the world, they need the help of ordinary citizens.

From October 9th through the 23rd, you can participate in the Great World Wide Star Count along with thousands of other amateur observers around the world. The idea is simple – everyone will observe the same constellation (if you’re in the Northern hemisphere, you will observe Cygnus) and count the number of stars that are visible. Then, observers will post their results online, where they can also view the project’s results. To participate, simply visit the Star Count website and download an activity guide.

If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between light and astronomy, look for the Science 360 show “Bring the Universe to Light,” coming back on the schedule at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center later this fall.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

MESSENGER took this image of Mercury on September 29, 2009, during its third flyby.  This image shows portions of the planet’s surface never seen before by spacecraft.  (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

MESSENGER took this image of Mercury on September 29, 2009, during its third flyby. This image shows portions of the planet’s surface never seen before by spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Early tomorrow morning (Thursday, October 8th) will be a good time to spot a rarely seen planet—Mercury.

About 45 minutes before sunrise, look for Mercury low in the east and hanging out just a smidgen below and to the right of Saturn. You’ll need an unobstructed horizon because even at its best placement in the sky, Mercury never appears far from the Sun.

Mercury is not only rarely seen by humans, it hasn’t been seen much by our spacecraft either.  NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, which recently flew by the planet, is only the second to visit Mercury, and in March 2011, it will be the first to orbit it. Mercury’s first visitor, Mariner 10, flew by the planet in 1974-75.

The scientific goals of the MESSENGER mission include answering questions such as why is Mercury so dense and what is its geological history and the nature of its magnetic field. You can learn more about this mission at NASA’s MESSENGER Web site.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 project manager. She's considering setting her alarm clock for 6:30 a.m. to see Mercury.

Friday, Nov. 20

Friday, Nov. 20

I can’t believe it’s already October. That means Jupiter Ball,  Morehead’s annual black-tie gala fundraiser, is coming up fast. Invitations are set to go out next week. Also by next week, you’ll be able to download an invitation or reserve your tickets online. I’d better check to see if I can still fit in my tux!

Also this year the Jupiter Committee, a wonderful group of volunteers who pull the event together, came up with another great idea, an online auction. The idea is fairly simple: an online auction has the potential to reach a lot more people than the ball itself — which usually ends up with around 300 guests each year. They’ve got a lot of really awesome items in the online auction. My personal favorite is the basketball signed by the members of the 2009 NCAA championship team. Just a guess — that’ll go for more than I can afford. The online auction preview starts tomorrow, Oct. 2. Bidding starts Oct. 10. Check it out.

Jeff Hill is Morehead's director of external relations

It is officially autumn, and here in North Carolina that means fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, squash, and, of course, pumpkins will be on display at farmers’ markets across the state. All of these fall treats, along with nearly all the other fruits and vegetables we eat, come from flowering plants.

Luckily for those of us who enjoy fresh produce, flowering plants are some of the most evolutionarily successful organisms on Earth – but their success does not come from luck. Instead, flowering plants have developed survival mechanisms that are almost as varied as their beautiful blossoms: from the color, size, and shape of their petals to their scents or pollen size, these plants are carefully designed to maximize their reproductive success through pollination.

Hornet

This rare orchid produces a chemical that mimics a distressed honeybee. Picture from UK Daily Mail.

Scientists in Germany have recently discovered that one flowering plant – a particular type of orchid – is trickier than most when it comes to ensuring its pollination. Scientists noticed that hornets displayed strange behavior around this flower – they would pounce on the center of the blossoms, as if attacking them. The researchers knew that the hornets typically prey on honeybees, and they discovered that the orchid actually produces the same pheromone released by honeybees as a distress call. The hornets pick up the scent and attack the flower expecting a juicy snack; instead, they unwittingly spread the orchid’s pollen!

This orchid is only one example of the diverse and creative world of flowering plants. To learn more about these incredible organisms, you can attend the Science 360 program “Flower Power,” where MPSC educators will share much more about the flowering plants around you.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.


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