27 Oct 2011
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Perseus holds the head of Medusa, whose eye is marked by Algol, the "Demon star." (Credit: Stellarium.org)

A star perfect for Halloween currently lies in the northeast evening sky within the constellation Perseus. It’s Algol—the “Demon Star”—and it represents the eye of Medusa.

According to myth, if you looked at Medusa you’d turn to stone. Perseus managed to chop off Medusa’s head by looking only at her reflected image in his shield.

Algol looks like a single star to us, but it’s actually a multiple star system. From our point of view on Earth, two of the stars in the Algol system orbit each other such that one star periodically passes in front of (eclipses) the other, blocking its light.

When the light from this “eclipsing binary” dims every few days, you can imagine it as the eye of Medusa, still winking after the head has been cut off.

Head of Medusa

Sorry, but you've just been turned to stone.

If you’d like to hear the full story of Perseus and Medusa along with other tales of madness, murder, and mayhem in the night sky, please join Morehead Planetarium and Science Center for a special edition of our live planetarium program Carolina Skies.  In honor of Halloween, we will have several “Scare-olina Skies” shows:

  • Adult versions: Scare-olina Skies shows on Saturday night, October 29, 2011 (at 7:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.) feature themes designed for adults and older teens.
  • Family-friendly version: Scare-olina Skies on Sunday, October 30, 2011 (at 3:30 p.m.) is designed for children ages 5-12 and their families.

Watch out! Medusa will make an appearance on the planetarium dome during Scare-olina Skies.

This is the bad news. (Image credit: Luc Viatour)

Many people’s favorite annual meteor shower, the Perseids, will peak the night of August 12/13, 2011.

The good news: That’s a Friday night/Saturday morning. For many people, this is a convenient time of the week to be outside looking for meteors—those streaks of light (also known as “shooting stars”) created when cosmic debris interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere.

The bad news: The Moon will not be cooperating this year. On August 13 it’s full, meaning the Moon will be up all night, its bright light hiding the dimmer meteors from view.

Tips if you decide to view the Perseids this year:

  • To see most meteors, go out during the last dark hour before dawn.
  • Get the Moon out of your field of view, and look toward the northern half of the sky. You’ll want a view unobstructed by trees or buildings.
  • Take a chair to sit in, and look about halfway up the sky.

For more tips, see the American Meteor Society site.

If it’s too cloudy that night or you just don’t want to make the effort, you can still see some meteors (the simulated kind) by coming to Carolina Skies at Morehead this Sunday, August 14, at 3:30 p.m. At your request, the presenter can send a few meteors shooting across the planetarium sky.

Moonlight won't interfere with the peak of the Perseids in 2012.

We’re pleased to announce that the August Science Café will focus on the science of running. Join us on Thursday, August 4th, 6 p.m. at the Back Bar in downtown Chapel Hill.

The program is free and open to the public. Free appetizers courtesy of Sigma Xi, our gracious sponsor, will be available starting at 5:45 p.m.

More details:

Barefoot or Traditional? The Runner’s Dilemma

What’s better for you? A traditional running shoe with lots of support and cushioning? Or a more minimalist approach, through either very nonsupportive shoes or barefoot running? As physical therapists and UNC researchers studying different running styles, Don Goss and Dr. Mike Gross and share insights from the scientists’ point of view.

Want to take the scientists’ running style survey? Here’s the link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/JGQN2F2.

Featuring:

Don Goss, PT, lead investigator, doctoral student in biomechanics

Dr. Michael Gross, PT, FAPTA

Thursday, Aug. 4, 6 p.m.

Back Bar at Top of the Hill

Downtown Chapel Hill

Free Appetizers courtesy of Sigma Xi (while supplies last…)

Thanks! We hope to see you there,

Jonathan

Link to our page: http://moreheadplanetarium.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=page&filename=current_science_forums.html

Jonathan Frederick works with the North Carolina Science Festival and he just bought new running shoes.

Harry Potter would have needed magic to pass his astronomy exam in book 5.

J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, must be a bit of an astronomy buff. She named a number of her characters after stars or constellations, such as Bellatrix, Draco, Regulus, and Sirius. And in her book about Harry’s fifth school year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Rowling even gave Harry an astronomy exam.

What an exam, though! Harry appeared to have an impossible task that night—to note the location of the constellation Orion in the June sky.

Rowling had Harry successfully complete Orion on his star chart, but Orion wasn’t visible in the night sky from anywhere on the planet that month. In June, when viewed from Earth, the stars of Orion lie roughly in the same line of sight as the Sun. So Orion is above the horizon only in the daytime.

To see Orion in the middle of the night in June, Harry must have used some serious magic, possibly whipping the Earth to another place in its orbit around the Sun. Let’s hope he received extra credit.

This week, we’ll use Morehead magic to re-create the night sky on the planetarium dome for two programs about what you can see this summer:

Both programs are aimed at Muggles (non-magic people, in Harry Potter’s world) who want to learn to identify what’s overhead on North Carolina summer nights. Please register online in advance.

During the Summer Skies programs, we'll see Orion's enemy, Scorpius (another Harry Potter character, known to fans who have read to the very end of the series).

The Beehive Cluster [Atlas Image courtesy of 2MASS/UMass/IPAC-Caltech/NASA/NSF

Please “catch the buzz” and join us this Saturday, June 25, when Morehead hosts a Family Science Day with a theme of “Native Pollinators.”

We will have lots of free activities!  Play Pollination Jeopardy, dance like a bee, craft a pollinator or flower, listen to a story, examine a flower with a ‘Scope on a Rope, do a scavenger hunt in Coker Arboretum, see “Science 360: Flower Power,” and have your face painted with a flower or pollinator.

Also, with paid admission to a regular planetarium program this Saturday (Morehead members free), you get a bonus: the award-winning shortJeepers Creepers” and a pollination-related tour of the night sky.

Family Science Day happens rain or shine.  Events are inside and outside the Morehead Planetarium building from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Amy Sayle will tell the Cherokee Legend of the Milky Way (a story about a wind-pollinated food) during Family Science Day.

Looks safe, but is it?

You’re invited to this free program: Swimming & Your Genes, starring Dr. David DeMarini, genetic toxicologist with the EPA. As summer approaches, we’re going to be discussing David’s research into swimming pools and drinking water.

In preparation, David was kind enough to share a little bit about himself.

Where did you grow up? Peoria, Illinois (yes, I played in Peoria). My father, Santa, ran a bar (I grew up in a tavern), and he was a first-generation Italian immigrant with only an 8th grade education.  My mom was a nurse (Irish from Iowa); it was a fun mix of cultures–we ate spaghetti with potatoes.  There are 4 boys, and 3 of us went into the health sciences (2 Ph.D. geneticists and 1 M.D. pulmonologist).

What did you want to be when you were a kid? A performer–anything would have been fine–singer, dancer, actor, musician (I’ve co-founded 2 theater companies, acted in a bunch of plays, and play piano–second-rate pop/B-way, and jazz).  My science career ended up satisfying my urge/need to perform–with lots of world-wide invitations to speak and lecture–combining my love of science and my desire to entertain.

How did you get interested in science? I always was curious about how the world worked, and science seemed to provide the most satisfying explanations to me; and I was pretty good at science in school. However, the “magic moment” came during my last semester of my senior year of college when I took genetics (from the finest teacher of my life), and I was hooked–I found my muse and my bliss–environmental mutagenesis, which has become a nearly 40-year love affair.  (I ended up doing my M.S. and Ph.D. under that remarkable genetics teacher–Herman Brockman at Illinois State University.)

In one sentence, describe your job: I examine the air, water, soil, food, urine from people, etc. for mutagenic activity and try to determine the types of mutations such substances induce and how those mutations might cause human disease such as cancer.

What’s a special talent/trick/skill/hobby you have that your colleagues don’t know about? I learned to make “cappelletti in brodo” as a kid from my Italian grandmother (la mia nona).  It is a pasta stuffed with chicken, beef, cheese, and lemon zest that is cooked in a beef/chicken broth–peculiar to the region east of Firenze (Florence) where my family is from.  I make a huge batch every winter that lasts for 6 months (thank heavens for freezers), but I have never shared this delicacy with either friends or colleagues–it’s only for “la famiglia.”

If someone wrote you a blank check to explore any aspect of your field’s research, what would you want to do and why? I would incorporate mutagenesis testing of the air and water in this country to go along with the chemical monitoring of air and water that currently occurs in order for us to know how mutagenic and thus, potentially carcinogenic, our air and water really are–based on actual toxicology measurements.

Great answers, David. We’ll see you on Thursday. Please bring some “cappelletti in brodo.”

We hope to see all of you at the Back Bar in downtown Chapel Hill by 7pm. Remember to get there early for some delicious appetizers sponsored by Sigma Xi.

Thanks, Jonathan

Jonathan Frederick is director of the North Carolina Science Festival. He's ready for someone to invent teleportation.

to attend this month’s Carolina Science Cafe. But you can chat with one!

The Star of May's Carolina Science Cafe

On Thursday, May 12, at 7 p.m., Dr. Matt Ewend, head of neurosurgery at UNC, will be at the Back Bar in Downtown Chapel Hill, talking about his world. A world that includes awake surgeries, removing tumors, using the CyberKnife, and more. We’re really looking forward to this one!

As usual, our friends at Sigma Xi will be sponsoring some appetizers and special thanks to Dr. Charles Weiss for making this event possible.

To get to know Matt a little more, check out his answers to our questions:

Where did you grow up? Saginaw Michigan, son of an insurance agent and an advertising person.  No medical folks in the family

What did you want to be when you were a kid? My grandfather was a lawyer, and that’s what I wanted to do.  I thought I could be a trial attorney.   I also thought I would like to be a sports announcer.

How did you get interested in science? I got interested in science and medicine during high school, but no real epiphany moment. I was a math major in college and came at science through the math physics pathway.    I like the clean answers that math and physics often provided better than the fuzzy answers of some other sciences.

In one sentence, describe your job: Everyday I meet people facing difficult illnesses involving the brain; my job is to help them through these times compassionately.

What’s a special talent/trick/skill/hobby that you have that your colleagues don’t know about? I got my privates pilot’s license a year ago and I am working on my instrument rating.  As a kid, I was almost as fast as Holden Thorp with Rubik’s cube.

If someone wrote you a blank check to explore any aspect of your field’s research, what would you want to do and why? I started out in medicine with an interest in cancer and this has never changed.  Given our mythical blank check, I would build a team to look at brain tumors on an individual level (think personalized medicine) to find newer targeted treatments.

Thanks, Matt, for taking the time to answer our questions.

We hope to see everyone on Thursday, 5/12, 7 p.m. at the Back Bar!

Cheers,

Jonathan


Jonathan Frederick is the director of the North Carolina Science Festival. He is currently reading East of Eden.

February 2008 lunar eclipse (credit: Jayme Hanzak)

The next time the Moon is full, it will pass into the Earth’s shadow, causing a total lunar eclipse. The action happens early Tuesday morning, December 21, 2010, between 1:33 and 5:01 a.m. Totality is from 2:41 to 3:53 a.m. (All times Eastern.)

So seeing it probably means inconveniencing yourself unless you work the night shift or will be in another time zone. (Lucky folks on the West Coast, for example, get to subtract three hours from all the times above.) If the skies are clear enough, here’s why it is worth losing sleep to see the eclipse:

1) You will see the Moon turn a weird color.

When the Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, rather than disappearing altogether, it will probably turn red. Or maybe orange, or gray, or brown. The Earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight and sends it into the Earth’s shadow, so in effect you see light from all the sunrises and sunsets on Earth. The exact color of the Moon depends on what’s in our atmosphere as well as how deeply into the darkest part of the shadow the Moon passes.

2) You can prove to yourself the Earth is round.

When the eclipse is in a partial phase, you can see that the Earth’s shadow is curved.

3) You can imagine a ferocious dog taking a bite out of the Moon.

According to a Korean myth, a lunar eclipse happens when a king’s “fire dog” attempts to steal the Moon and bring its light to the Land of Darkness. When this huge, fierce dog bites into the Moon he finds it painfully cold. His mouth freezing and his teeth singing with pain, the dog then spits out the Moon.

4) You haven’t gotten to see a total lunar eclipse in nearly 3 years.

The night of February 20-21, 2008, was the most recent total eclipse of the Moon visible from anywhere on Earth.

5) …and you may have missed that eclipse anyway.

That week I was presenting a stargazing seminar for public school teachers at the Ocracoke campus of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, where I remember good views of the eclipse. But members of the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS) reported cloud cover during the early stages.

6) …and your NEXT chance to see a total lunar eclipse from here won’t be until April 2014.

And its timing during the night isn’t any more convenient for the East coast than this Dec. 21 eclipse, so don’t wait for that reason.

To witness a simulation of the eclipse with no loss of sleep, and to learn more Moon-related stuff, please join me at the Moon Myths planetarium program:

  • A 90-minute version designed for adults and teens happens this Wednesday, Dec. 15, from 7:30-9:00 p.m. In addition to spending time under the planetarium sky, we’ll do a hands-on “moon dance” (no actual dancing required) to explore how the Moon’s orbit is related to phases and eclipses. And if the weather permits, we’ll spend a few minutes outside looking at the real thing through a telescope.

Register for either program at the Morehead Web site.

Amy Sayle is setting an alarm to catch the lunar eclipse.

Festival coordinator, Julie Rhodes, sharing exciting news with the rest of the planning team.

As you can imagine, things are pretty hectic around here as we count down to the start of the NC Science Festival.   It’s LESS THAN ONE MONTH AWAY!  And, while it’s hectic, it’s also so much fun.  I’ve done things (have tea with a Nobel Laureate; call Adam & Jamie to invite them to NC) and said things (“Can you park your NASCAR car here?” and “Do you mind if we chunk pumpkins through the center of campus?”) that I NEVER would have had the opportunity to say and do without the Festival.  So, thanks to everyone for enriching my life over these last few months.

And, that’s the whole point of the Festival – to enrich YOUR life by getting you involved in science, technology, math and engineering.  We are putting finishing touches on many things – including schedules and maps – so you’ll know when and where to show up for some awesome science action!  Take a look at the Festival schedule to see what I mean.  There are over 300 events taking place across the state between Sept. 11-26.

We want to invite you to attend as many events as possible during the Festival.  And we would love to see you in Chapel Hill on Sat., Sept. 25 for the UNC Science Expo.  There are literally hundreds of cool things taking place this day – demos, lab tours, talks, performances.  You name it – we’ve probably got it!

I look forward to hearing about your science adventures in September!

Denise

Denise Young is Morehead’s director of education and planning and co-founder of the NC Science Festival. She proposes skipping the rest of August so we can get on with the Festival!

Starlight from Arcturus opened the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.

Starlight from Arcturus opened the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.

If you want to wish on the first star you see tonight, there’s a good chance it’ll be Arcturus.

As you make your wish, you can also think about how Arcturus became famous in 1933 when its starlight opened the Chicago World’s Fair. On May 27, at 9:15 p.m. central time, several observatories aimed telescopes at Arcturus and focused its light onto photocells. The current that was generated resulted in the flipping of a master switch for the fair’s lights.

According to an article published the next day in the New York Times, “the grounds, pavilions and waterways of the fair were drenched with light. Thousands of awed beholders broke into cheers.”

Why was Arcturus chosen for this honor? It was thought to be 40 light years away, meaning that the light reaching Earth in 1933 would have left Arcturus forty years earlier, in 1893—when Chicago previously hosted a World’s Fair.

Unfortunately, they picked the wrong star. We now know that Arcturus is actually about 37 light years away.

So if you spot Arcturus tonight, you see it as it looked 37 years ago, in 1973, when the light left it. Looking deep into space is like having a time machine into the past.

To learn to identify Arcturus and other stars and constellations, come to Morehead’s skywatching session on Saturday, June 19. Or register for Starry Summer Nights; this class for adults takes place Tuesday evening, June 22, under the planetarium dome.

Arcturus is probably pretty much the same now as in 1973, but it’s still fun to think about.