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.

F5 Tornado

Scientists working on the VORTEX2 project this month are combing the Great Plains in search of tornadoes. When completed in June, VORTEX2 will be the largest-ever study of tornadoes. Image by Justin Hobson.

Lightning flashes overhead, hail pounds mercilessly into the ground, and high winds threaten to bring down trees. Suddenly, a funnel cloud begins to snake down from the dark clouds above, kicking up dust and growing in size as it reaches the ground. If you are like most people, seeing something like this would probably make you want to run for cover. But for more than 100 scientists working with the VORTEX2 project, running for cover isn’t an option. Being up close and personal with tornadoes is their job, and over the course of the next month they will be patrolling the Great Plains region of the United States searching for these killer storms.

VORTEX stands for “Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment.” As the name suggests, the project is attempting to discover exactly how, when, where, and why tornadoes form. Currently, weather forecasters can predict tornadoes with an average lead time of only 13 minutes, and 70% of tornado alerts turn out to be false alarms. VORTEX2, which runs from May 1 to June 15 of this year, will be the largest-ever tornado study, and the scientists involved hope to deploy an unprecedented array of cutting-edge technology into and around these storms.

The original VORTEX project took place in 1994 and 1995 and helped to inspire the 1996 film Twister. Data from that project helped to significantly improve tornado forecasting. The VORTEX2 project will build on the knowledge gained from its predecessor by using more advanced data collection tools and by extending the study period by two weeks. You can follow VORTEX2’s daily progress at the project website or blog.

If you are interested in learning more about tornadoes and other severe weather events, stay tuned to the Morehead website for information about a new live show that will debut on June 15 (the last day of the VORTEX2 project): “Science 360: Predicting Severe Weather.”

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

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.

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.

math imageThere’s something for you and every member of your family at Saturday’s Family Math Game Fest.  Become a life-size game piece on a chess board.  Compete in the triMATHlon.  Construct a house of cards.  Catch a special showing of Flatland.  Investigate lasers.  Build a network.  Simulate the spread of a virus.  Find math in nature…  Doesn’t this sound like fun?

There will many, many activities that will inspire you to think about math – and the connections between math and science – in new ways.

This free event will be held from 11am-3pm.  We’ll have activities for all ages throughout the building.

A special thanks to Chris, Becca, Emily and the UNC Math Club and UNC Women in Mathematics members for supporting this event.

Please join us!

Denise

Denise Young is Morehead’s director of education and planning. She's been training for the triMATHlon for weeks - so watch out!

Try this at home:

  1. Move the best views of the Aurora Borealis directly overhead.
  2. Plug the Aurora Borealis into a nuclear generator. Set it on max capacity.
  3. Add rock music — lots of it — and crank the volume.

Or, instead, come to Morehead and enjoy the laser show experience the easy way!

I’m pretty sure that Albert Einstein wasn’t thinking about rock music when he told the world about photons in the early 20th century. But we should probably thank Albert anyway. His work was key to the development of laser technology and, by 1959, Gordon Gould had introduced the term LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) to the world.

That was 50 years ago. Since then, lasers have become ubiquitous. They can correct your vision, play your DVDs, entertain your cat and eliminate the need for a razor, along with a bunch of top-secret military and corporate stuff that Albert never imagined. Somewhere in the South, someone is probably experimenting with laser-fried chicken (coming soon to a state fair near you!).

Laser shows at Morehead Planetarium

Laser shows at Morehead Planetarium

Those applications of laser technology are everyday activities. But a laser show is a rare experience, something you might see only at your favorite concert, at the Olympics, at the Super Bowl — and, only for the next nine weeks, at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

Morehead chose the very best shows. Led Zeppelin. U2. Pink Floyd, both “The Wall” and “Dark Side.” There’s a classic rock compilation show, and there’s a special Halloween show that we’ll only offer on Oct. 31 (hint: it’s a thriller!). The technology is amazing, many generations beyond that laser show you saw 20 years ago at the Rush concert. And the Star Theater dome is an incredible arena for every show on the schedule.

These laser shows are stunning. Experience them at Morehead. Thank you, Albert!

Craig Zdanowicz took this photo during laser shows at Morehead on Sept. 18.

We’ve been conducting a survey of our Morehead members recently and one of the open-ended comments caught my eye. Someone commented that our schedules seem erratic. And they’re right — sort of.

Here’s the scoop to deciphering our scheduling patterns. There’s very little mystery to nights, weekends and summers. We change show schedules in January, June, September and November to provide guests with a variety of shows. The schedules are usually published about three to six weeks in advance of the start date and don’t change except for the occasional special event.

Amazing field tripsOn weekdays between September and May, our schedule is a bit trickier because it’s designed around school field trips. Basically, we only run shows on weekdays during that time if a group has scheduled a show. If seats remain, we open up the show to the general public. We try our very best to verify that the group is coming and how many seats they need before posting these shows on our Web site. That’s why we usually don’t post these shows to our Web site until just a few days in advance and why the schedule seems to always be changing.

However, we’ve found this method to be the best way to offer programming for the general public on weekdays during the school year. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be cost-effective for us to offer any programming for the general public during that period.

We try to offer a lot of flexibility to school groups for scheduling; but, if you want to get an idea about how our weekday schedule will look in 2009-2010, check out the PDF of our field trip planning guide

I hope this post clears up some of the mystery to Morehead’s scheduling practices. If you have questions or any ideas about better scheduling patterns, we’d love to hear them.

Jeff Hill is Morehead's director of external relations

31 Jul 2009
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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

Tom MarshburnI’ve got to admit it. I meet some pretty cool people in my job. About three years ago, we hosted Tom Marshburn as a guest speaker during the “Destination: Space” premiere weekend activities. Tom is a NASA astronaut who happens to be a North Carolinian. He’s a Statesville native and a Davidson graduate.

I remember thinking at the time what a great role model Tom is for kids. As well as being an astronaut, he’s a medical doctor and seems like an all-around nice guy. He was unfailingly gracious — even as the kids in the audience grilled him about going to the bathroom in space!

Well, yesterday on the 40th anniversary on the moon landing, Tom was living his dream and making headlines. He went space walking as part of current shuttle mission. Way to go, Tom!

Jeff Hill is Morehead's director of external relations