Oil Spill

Oil is clearly visible on the water surface in this satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico (from NASA). But how much oil might be collecting below the water surface?

It’s a familiar refrain for many children learning math in school: “Why do we need to know this stuff?” Dr. Richard McLaughlin, a mathematics professor at UNC Chapel Hill, answered that question at the July Current Science Forum. Speaking to a sizeable crowd, Dr. McLaughlin showed how a team of researchers at UNC are using math to tackle important questions related to a topic which has captured international attention since April: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

One of those questions centers on the issue of underwater plumes: we can see the oil slick on the water surface, but is it possible that there is an even greater amount of oil underwater? Dr. McLaughlin and Dr. Roberto Camassa, also at UNC, are using the science of fluid dynamics to shed some light on this. The Gulf of Mexico, like most large bodies of water, does not have a uniform density, Dr. McLaughlin explained. The oil shooting out from the damaged pipe is hot, and coming out at high pressure. Using a water tank, Dr. McLaughlin demonstrated how such conditions may create a cloud of oil trapped beneath the surface of the gulf.

Next Dr. McLaughlin showed how his team is taking a simple mathematical idea – the parabolic formula – and using it to estimate how many barrels of oil are escaping from the leak each day. The team is using the BP Spill Cameras to fit a parabolic curve onto the leak, then applying mathematical formulas to obtain a flow rate. Using this method, they estimated the flow rate to be around 70-80,000 barrels per day – a number that is far higher than BP’s initial estimates and similar to the latest government-released figures.

If you missed the forum, you can still watch the water tank demonstration and an interview that Dr. McLaughlin and Dr. Camassa gave on a KBZK newscast - both are available on YouTube. Stay tuned to the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center homepage for information about upcoming Current Science Forum events.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

Certified Genetic Counselor Patricia Devers presented Morehead’s Current Science Forum in May.

What if you could decide what traits you want in your baby – a certain eye color, hair color, even intelligence level?

At Morehead’s Current Science Forum on May 6, reproductive genetic counselor Patricia Devers explained that because of the complexity of non-medical traits, we’re nowhere close to being capable of designing babies in the way you might select the options you want in your next car.

However, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) can currently be used to screen embryos with certain diseases or conditions. (PGD can be done on embryos created by in vitro fertilization; PGD differs from prenatal testing, which can be done only after a woman is already pregnant.)

At the Current Science Forum, Devers posed a series of ethical questions to the audience, including:

  • Should a woman who is a carrier for the sex-linked disorder Duchenne muscular dystrophy be allowed to use PGD to avoid the birth of a boy who, because of his sex, would have a 50% chance of having the disease?
  • What about a couple who wants to use PGD to avoid the birth of a boy because they already have four boys and really want a girl?
  • Should a couple be allowed to use PGD to have a child with slow twitch muscles, so that the child may be better equipped to run marathons?

Although many countries regulate the use of PGD, no laws in the United States cover its use. Instead, these questions are being answered in this country by couples and their physicians.

To join in on additional thought-provoking discussions of current scientific issues, please come to Morehead’s next Current Science Forum.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager.

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.


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.


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.

31 Jul 2009

BlogMorehead Planetarium and Science Center is committing to writing more blogs. Denise Young, Jonathan Frederick and Amy Sayle will be contributing writers. Look for their blogs beginning in August.

Denise is our director of education. Jonathan is the science programs manager and has responsibility for Current Science Forums and summer camps. Amy will blogging about the night sky and Science 360.

Jeff Hill is Morehead's director of external relations

Are you rabidly loyal to your political party? Do you wear the buttons, post the signs, make the phone calls?

Guess what? The folks who AREN’T like that are the ones who determine elections.

Surprised? Me, too. But that’s the reason political scientists haven’t yet developed a foolproof method of predicting election outcomes.

Dr. George Rabinowitz is going to share behind-the-scenes secrets about election science and voting behavior during Morehead’s Current Science Forum on Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. It’s free — be there and bring a friend. This is fascinating stuff! (And think how much more fun it’ll be to watch the debates with your newfound knowledge).

Karen Kornegay is Morehead's marketing manager.

Science cafes – or café scientifiques, if you’re French – have become another way to earn quality hipster points if you live near a science center. In short, they’re typically evening programs where grown-ups can get together, usually drink a bit of wine or beer, and discuss a current science topic with a renowned expert. Think TED talks without the thousand dollar registration fees or Britney Spears-style headsets. (By the way, if you haven’t checked out a TED talk, do so immediately. They’re the closest thing to pure, first world optimism that I’ve seen since the first space shuttle launch.
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Jonathan Frederick directs the North Carolina Science Festival, an initiative of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

Good news! You’ll soon be getting more views than just my own on this blog. I’ve recruited two new bloggers from our staff.
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Jeff Hill is Morehead's director of external relations

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