A recent Bioblitz, in which over 100 citizens worked with scientists to identify species at Mason Farm Biological Reserve in central North Carolina.

Perhaps you’ve attended an art festival before.  Or a movie fest.  Or a Greek fest.  Or a beer fest.  But have you ever attended a science festival?  If that thought appeals to you, then 2010 is your year!

Morehead is coordinating the first ever North Carolina Science Festival to be held this Sept. 11 – Sept. 26.  The goal of the Festival is quite simple – to engage more North Carolinians in science.  We’ll do this by highlighting hands-on activities, science talks, exhibits, nature experiences, lab tours and other science-related activities taking place across the state.  Whether you’re a kid or an adult, it’s going to be lots of fun.

Please check the North Carolina Science Festival web site regularly for updates.  If you have a cool idea for the Festival, please let me or Julie Rhodes, Festival coordinator, know.

And if the North Carolina Science Festival leaves you wanting more, join Morehead staff – and about a million other people (literally!) – on the National Mall in DC for the USA Science and Engineering Festival Expo from Oct. 23-24.  Morehead is an official partner of this event.

Go science!

Denise Young is Morehead’s director of education and planning. She’s never met a festival she didn’t like.

Earth's Magnetic Field

Earth's magnetic field protects us from solar radiation, as shown in this image (an artist's conception from NASA). Is it possible that this protective shield might disappear on December 21, 2012?

So far, we’ve debunked four end-of-the-world claims in our 2012 blog series (see them all here). But those who are predicting a 2012 doomsday seem to have taken a “more is more” approach in terms of their ideas about just what will bring about an apocalypse on December 21, 2012 – one website lists 22 possible causes! One pervasive claim on 2012 sites is the idea that Earth will undergo a magnetic pole reversal on 12/21/2012, leaving us completely unprotected from fatal levels of solar radiation.

First, let’s examine the facts behind this claim:

  1. The Earth’s magnetic field has been declining in strength over the past century or so.
  2. Earth’s magnetic field does protect us from solar radiation.

Unfortunately for the 2012 crowd, that is where the facts end. While Earth’s magnetic field strength has been declining recently, it is still well above average. A graph of field strength over time shows many fluctuations – the current decline is nothing unique. While there’s no way to prove that we aren’t heading for a reversal, there is also no definitive proof that we are.

Secondly, the protection from solar radiation afforded by our magnetic field would not disappear during a reversal. While the magnetic field strength does decrease during this process, it does not fall to zero – and even a weak field can stop many solar rays. Those that do get through a weakened magnetic field would then have to deal with our atmosphere, which is as effective at stopping solar radiation as a 13-foot-thick wall of concrete! The greatest risk during a reversal would be to satellites and astronauts orbiting the Earth at high elevations, where our atmosphere is too thin to provide much protection. If previous magnetic reversals coincided with damaging levels of solar radiation here at ground level, we would see evidence of it in the fossil record – and we simply don’t.

If these arguments haven’t convinced you, then here’s one more: magnetic reversals take thousands of years to complete, not a single day! So rest easy – and don’t be afraid to step into the sun on 12/21/2012.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, plan to attend our Science 360 show “The Truth Behind 2012” when it opens on February 6.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360. Her favorite 2012 possibility is #21; the phrase "catastrophic pinball machine" conjures up some great images.

Mars HiRISE Image

Think you're seeing trees on the Martian surface? Guess again - it's an optical illusion. The "trees" are actually dark streaks on the sand caused by evaporating gases. This image is one of thousands in the HiRISE collection.

When someone says the word “Mars,” what image comes to your mind? Most likely, you picture a dusty, cratered, rust-colored wasteland. But thanks to the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), you can see our planetary neighbor like never before. The HiRISE camera, part of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, is operated by NASA and the University of Arizona and is currently the most powerful camera on any NASA spacecraft. The beautiful images it has sent back to Earth highlight the fact that while parts of Mars may seem familiar to us, other features of the Red Planet are bizarre and mysterious.

Unlike Mars rovers, which are designed to investigate only a tiny portion of Mars’s land area, the HiRISE camera orbits the entire planet and can be directed to take images of any interesting area. It has taken thousands of detailed images, all of them available to view online. Now, with the release of the HiWish public suggestion tool, you can help determine future target areas for the camera. After registering for the program, you can browse large-scale areas of the Martian surface and send in your suggestion for where HiRISE should take its next close-up image. The site also allows you to track your suggestions and receive notifications when your images are taken.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Red Planet, plan to attend our Science 360 show “Mission to Mars,” which returns to the MPSC schedule on February 6, 2010.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

The secret is revealed!

nextgiantleap_lowWe’ve installed a fulldome digital video system that will completely, radically, astonishingly change the way you experience planetarium shows. And you’ll be able to experience the immersive environment of fulldome digital video at Morehead beginning Feb. 5, 2010.

This is our Next Giant Leap — our biggest change in 40 years. And we thank GlaxoSmithKline for making this possible with a generous $1.5 million gift to Morehead. We’ve renamed the Star Theater to commemorate this change; it’s now the GlaxoSmithKline Fulldome Theater.

Be one of the first to check it out, because you’ll want to tell all of your friends about the new fulldome shows. There’s “Astronaut,” from the National Space Centre. “Black Holes: Journey into the Unknown,” from Museum Victoria. And a new fulldome version of an original Morehead production, “Earth, Moon and Sun.”

So what’s different about fulldome? There’s an app — I mean, a Top Ten List for that:

  1. New Shows

    In addition to the multimedia shows, there are changes to “Carolina Skies,” too. Now you can view the universe from any point in space, even beyond our solar system!
  2. Super HD and Better Sight Lines

    Fulldome’s 4000×4000 pixel resolution is like high definition on steroids. And the theater seating has been rearranged, so every seat faces the “sweet spot” of the dome.
  3. Surround Sound

    Yeah, 5.1 channel digital surround sound, baby!
  4. Immersion

    This is the numero uno characteristic of fulldome — the sensation that you are surrounded by the planetarium show, right in the middle of things. (Which is good until you get chased by the dinosaur in “Earth, Moon and Sun.”)
  5. More Science

    Analog planetarium projectors are great at projecting astronomy and space images, but they aren’t so good at projecting images from oceanography and medicine and other science disciplines. Guess what? Fulldome is great at projecting all kinds of science images! So as Morehead adds new shows, you’ll see more science disciplines reflected in show content.
  6. Less Equipment

    Guess how many pieces of equipment Morehead needed with its analog system? More than 50 different projectors (slide and video) in addition to the Zeiss star projector, plus dozens of custom-built special effects — at least several hundred pieces of equipment. That’s no longer a problem. The fulldome system has two projectors and an array of graphics computers that replace all of that analog stuff. This is a very good thing.
  7. Revenue

    Since fulldome is based on universal standards, the shows Morehead produces to use here can be used just as easily by any other fulldome planetarium. In fact, the new version of “Earth, Moon and Sun” has been leased to four planetariums in the U.S. already.
  8. Fresh Schedules

    Morehead can lease shows FROM other planetariums as well as TO other planetariums. So you’ll see new shows on the schedule more often.
  9. Mobility

    Can’t come to Morehead? Morehead comes to you! Morehead’s new PLANETS Portable Planetarium Program uses fulldome technology, too, so it can bring fulldome shows to schools that are too far from Morehead to plan a field trip here.
  10. Brand Identity

    We’ve been producing planetarium shows for years. Now, we’re going international. Planetariums in Brazil and Hong Kong have already asked about leasing Morehead’s first original fulldome production, and more original Morehead shows are in the works.

That all sounds wonderful, but we know you’ll want to see this for yourself. So we’ll be looking for you soon. Come experience fulldome digital video, Morehead’s Next Giant Leap!

Kudos to Laura Walters for creating the image Morehead is using with its "Next Giant Leap" theme.

Massive Terrestrial Impact

A huge asteroid like the one in this image (an artistic rendering from NASA) would likely wipe out all life on Earth. But should we be worrying about this happening in 2012?

As if Mayan “doomsday prophecies,” Sun-damaging planetary alignments, and fatal alignments with the galactic center were not enough, 2012 apocalypse proponents are also stating that on December 21, 2012, Earth will be hit by a huge asteroid that will cause mass extinction and global chaos.

As with the other 2012-doomsday scenarios, the asteroid strike claim has a good deal of scientific evidence against it. Of course, asteroids have hit our planet before – scientists believe a huge one (several miles wide) was probably responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs – and it is virtually guaranteed that Earth will be hit again at some point in the future. But precisely because of that high probability, scientists around the globe are searching the skies for what they call “Near-Earth Objects” (NEOs) that may one day strike Earth.

NASA, in conjunction with several other astronomical organizations around the globe, has been cataloging NEOs since 1998. These organizations search the sky for asteroids and comets that are in Earth’s celestial neighborhood. When one is found, advanced computer programs model the object’s future path, taking into account the object’s size and speed as well as the influences of gravity from the Sun, Earth, and other planets and moons in our solar system. As the object comes closer, we can gather more information about it and further refine this model.

But why are scientists spending so much time searching for NEOs – it’s not like we could stop them from hitting Earth, right? It may sound like something out of a big-budget blockbuster, but astronomers actually do think that we would have a chance of deflecting a comet or asteroid headed for Earth – if we discovered it well enough in advance. Proposed methods for NEO deflection include solar sails, “gravity tractors,” and rockets – but NOT nuclear weapons as seen in Hollywood, which would only break the object apart and send deadly mini-asteroids our way. Russia has recently announced preliminary plans to deflect the asteroid Apophis (which technically has a chance of hitting us in 2036, albeit a very small chance).

So, could an asteroid strike the Earth on December 21, 2012? Sure – but a strike is no more likely on this particular date than on any other. Scientists in the NEO discovery program have not found any large object that is likely to even pass close to Earth on this date, or on any other in the near future. Even if they did, it is likely that we could deflect such an object before it intercepts Earth’s orbit.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, stay tuned to the MPSC blog and plan to attend our Science 360 show “The Truth Behind 2012” when it opens in early February.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360. She prefers "Deep Impact" over "Armageddon," if only for the escaping-a-tidal-wave-on-a-moped scene.

Galactic Center

In the heart of the Milky Way lies a supermassive black hole. This infrared image of the center of our galaxy was taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

So far in our 2012 blog series, we’ve dealt with the Mayan calendar and claims of a planetary alignment. Another claim making the rounds says that on December 21, 2012, Earth, our Sun, and the galactic center will align, and something about this alignment will cause Earth to be annihilated.

This claim is trickier than most, because it turns out that we will experience a rough alignment of these three celestial objects on 12/21/2012. But don’t start investing in survival supplies just yet: it turns out that Earth, our Sun, and the black hole at the center of our galaxy align like this twice each year – and we’re still here!

We all know that Earth orbits the Sun once each year. What you may not know is that our Sun is also orbiting the center of the Milky Way galaxy. One complete solar orbit takes about 225 million years! As these two orbits are occurring, Earth, the Sun, and the galactic center experience an approximate alignment twice each year. Even this alignment is not perfect, since the Earth and the Sun’s orbits are tilted relative to one another.

2012 doomsayers make a big deal out of the fact that this alignment is occurring on the winter solstice. But the extremely long orbital period of the Sun around the galactic center means that this alignment has occurred on the solstices for years, and will continue to for quite a few more. The bottom line? There is no scientific reason to think that the approximate alignment of Earth, our Sun, and the galactic center will be any different on 12/21/2012 than it was on 12/21/2009.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, stay tuned to the MPSC blog and plan to attend our Science 360 show “The Truth Behind 2012” when it opens in early February 2010.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360, and she wonders how a 50-pound drum of coffee would save anyone if a black hole really DID suck in the Earth.

In a celestial tug-of-war between our Sun and the planets, there is one clear winner.

Today is the winter solstice, and those of you paying attention to pop culture might also note that today is exactly three years from December 21, 2012 – the day that Earth will end (if you believe everything you read on the internet). If you saw our first blog post on the 2012 apocalypse claims, you know that modern Mayans are scoffing at the idea that one of their ancient calendars predicts the end of the world. But that hasn’t stopped people from suggesting all kinds of end-of-the-world scenarios for 12/21/2012. One of the most popular is the planetary alignment claim – which says that the planets will align, and the resulting gravitational forces will damage our Sun.

There are two questions here: one, will the planets align on this date? And two, would an alignment damage our Sun, producing fatal effects here on Earth?

The first question is easy to answer. Since planets have such predictable orbits, we can use simple computer programs to track planetary positions for any date – past, present, or future. Try it for yourself at this site – do you see any alignment on December 21, 2012?

The answer to the 12/21/12 alignment question is a simple NO – the planets will not be aligned on that date. But if they were aligned, what would happen?

This question has a simple answer as well, and the answer is: NOTHING. Our Sun is gigantic compared to any of the solar system’s planets. In fact, the Sun makes up 99.8% of the solar system’s total mass. Gravity depends on mass, so the result of any celestial tug-of-war between the Sun and its eight planets is a foregone conclusion: the Sun is going to win, every time.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, stay tuned to the MPSC blog and plan to attend our Science 360 show “The Truth behind 2012” when it opens in early February 2010.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360, and she has no plans to start stockpiling toilet paper in preparation for December 2012.

Mayan Calendar

The ancient Mayas viewed time as cyclical, as evidenced by their round calendars. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve been paying attention to pop culture over the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard some rumors about 2012 – specifically, about December 21, 2012. The 2012 buzz includes everything from a giant rogue planet hitting Earth to a fatal alignment with the galactic center. MPSC will be addressing the 2012 apocalypse claims in an upcoming Science 360 program, debuting in early February 2010. Meanwhile, we’ll be blogging about the claims, so check back often for new installments.

Before going into any details about what 2012 proponents claim will happen, we should first answer the question, “Why December 21, 2012?” The answer has to do with an ancient Mayan calendar.

The ancient Mayas used at least three different calendar systems, all of which operated simultaneously. There was a 260-day calendar (most likely based on the passage of Venus through the night sky), a 365-day civil calendar, and the “long count” calendar, which was used to record historical events. It is this last calendar that is being offered as “proof” of a December 2012 apocalypse.

The long count calendar marked the passage of time through lengthy cycles which cover about 5125 years each. The Mayas set the beginning date of the current cycle as August 11, 3114 B.C. (when they believe the world was created). That puts the end of this long count cycle on December 20, 2012. So what will happen on December 21? Will there even be a December 21?

2012 apocalypse promoters would like to you believe that the answer is no. But the Mayas themselves disagree. There are references in Mayan documents to dates both before this cycle began and after this cycle ends. There are also Mayas still living today, mostly in Guatemala, and they are not preparing for an apocalypse! If anything, the end of such a long cycle of time would probably have been a cause for celebration among the ancient Mayas.

So what will happen to the Mayan long count calendar on December 21, 2012? It will simply roll over to a new cycle, just as our desk calendars have to be replaced in January of each year.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, stay tuned to the MPSC blog and plan to attend our upcoming Science 360 show “The Truth Behind 2012” when it opens in early February 2010.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.


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.


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.