15 Jun 2010
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If you read this blog regularly, you know that Denise Young announced the North Carolina Science Festival here. In the weeks since her announcement, it seems like a million things have happened! Here are the biggest things:

There’s a NC Science Festival website

  • … that lists dozens of NC Science Festival events …
  • … all over the state, from Asheville to the Outer Banks …
  • … and you can search the list by date, location, target age group or other characteristics.

And there’s a Facebook page where you can …

  • … meet other people who like the NC Science Festival (and science in general!) …
  • … and get updates on the newest additions to the events list …
  • … and discuss the events you attend (tag photos, too!).

But that’s not all! You can also …

  • … follow the NC Science Festival on Twitter
  • … and check out the NC Science Festival blog
  • … and keep checking for a super-big announcement in early July! (It’ll rock your science world.)

Let’s face it, if you don’t keep an eye on the NC Science Festival news, you’re going to miss all the fun Sept. 11-26, 2010. So stay connected!

You gotta check out the event list -- everything from winery tours (yes, that's science -- chemistry and horticulture!) to "Snaketacular."

Rubber Tree

Rubber, which comes from the sap of trees, is a huge industry in North America. But the ancient Mayans were masters of the material long before Charles Goodyear came onto the scene.

Rubber is a common ingredient in a wide variety of consumer products, from tires to pet toys to shoes. But rubber as we know it has been around only since 1839, when Charles Goodyear invented the “vulcanization” process that takes raw rubber (which is naturally sticky and brittle) and heats it with sulfur to strengthen its chemical structure. As inventions go, vulcanization was a biggie, leading eventually to the use of around 10 billion pounds of rubber each year in North America alone! Yet, research has shown that our culture came very late to the rubber game.

Scientists at MIT have now proven – after 14 years of research – that the ancient Mayans had mastered their own rubber-production process as early as 3600 years ago. The Mayans mixed sap from the Panama rubber tree with sulfur-containing juice from the morning glory vine in varying ratios to produce strong rubber for balls, sandals, adhesives, statues, and even rubber bands. By the 16th century, the Mayan rubber industry was producing 16,000 rubber balls per year (in addition to a wide variety of other rubber products). Much of this rubber was produced on the outskirts of the Mayan civilization and sent in to the capital city as tax payments.

So, in addition to astronomy, art, and mathematics, we can now add “chemical engineering” to the long list of Mayan accomplishments. Just so we’re clear, though: one thing the Mayans did NOT do was predict the end of the world in 2012.

Speaking of 2012, don’t miss your last chance to see Science 360: The Truth Behind 2012 before it comes off the Morehead schedule for the summer. The show’s final dates are Saturday and Sunday, June 5-6 and Saturday and Sunday, June 12-13. Visit the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center homepage for times.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

For the past year, Morehead’s been working with an Artist in Residence, David Colagiovanni, who has been not only creating new content for the dome, but thinking more in-depth about how we use and interact in the dome environment. David’s a professor in the UNC-Chapel Hill Art Department and we’ve stolen him away to work on dome stuff in his free time.

Last month, he presented his work on the dome to a packed house and we’ve convinced him to stick around for another year and push some of his ideas even further. Meanwhile, we asked one of our multimedia students, Colby Ramsay, to put together a short documentary about David and his work on the dome. And for all you gear heads, yes, he’s using the RED Camera. Check it out:

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager. He wants to use the RED camera, too.

Evening planets on May 24, 2010

Three planets are visible in the current evening sky: Venus, Mars, and Saturn.

But how do you tell a planet from a star?

1)      By how it looks.

Whereas stars twinkle, planets generally shine more steadily. Planets can also look very bright—especially Venus. Currently in the western evening sky, it’s the brightest object other than the Moon. Also in the evening sky are Mars and Saturn, which are roughly as bright as the brightest stars appearing near them.

2)      By where it is.

Stars appear all over the sky, but you won’t find planets just anywhere. Because they orbit the Sun in roughly the same plane, planets always appear within a certain band in our sky—the zodiac. Right now Venus appears to be near the feet of the Gemini Twins, Mars is about to munched on by Leo the Lion, and Saturn looks like Virgo the Maiden’s earring. (Side note: Many people are familiar with the 12 astrological signs of the zodiac, but there are more than 12 astronomical constellations of the zodiac that planets can appear in. Mercury, for example, was recently hanging out inside the boundary of Cetus the Sea Monster.)

3)      By how it moves over time.

Watch a planet night after night, and eventually you’ll notice it appears to wander against the background of the stars. Learn to identify the zodiacal constellations, and then you’ll know that any “extra” star is probably a planet. For an animation of the changing positions of the planets over the next few weeks, view the May 15th Carolina Skies segment on WRAL.

Over the next few months Venus, Mars, and Saturn will appear to close in on one another. See their progress at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center’s next skywatching session on Saturday, June 19. Weather permitting, we’ll be at Jordan Lake’s Ebenezer Church Recreation Area from 9 to 11 p.m.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager.

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.

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.

Exoskeleton

Are mechanical exoskeletons science fiction, or is the U.S. military actually researching these and other projects designed to create Super Soldiers? April's Current Science Forum explored this question. Image by John B. Carnett (click image for original article).

Pop quiz: Which of these projects is currently being pursued by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)?

A) A mechanical exoskeleton that will endow an average person with superhuman strength
B) Nanotechnology that can be injected into humans and used to heal wounds or regrow organs
C) Robotic prosthetics that respond to brain signals and are covered in realistic-looking “skin”
D) Pills that can take away a person’s need for sleep or remove emotions such as fear and guilt

If you can’t choose an answer because all of these sound like something out of the latest Iron Man film, you will probably be surprised to find out that this is a trick question: all of these projects are being investigated by DARPA scientists. Some of them have already moved into the prototype testing stage – check out the Raytheon Sarcos Exoskeleton or the Boston Dynamics “Army Mule” on YouTube.

At Morehead’s most recent Current Science Forum, the audience members were treated to a discussion of these and other DARPA research projects by David DeBatto, a retired U.S. Army Counterintelligence special agent. The forum explored questions such as:

  • Is the government actually interested in developing “Super Soldiers,” and if so, why?
  • What are some of the projects that DARPA is currently pursuing?
  • What are the ethical implications of this type of research?
  • What practical applications might this research have for civilians?

If you missed this month’s event, don’t despair! May’s Current Science Forum will explore an equally interesting topic: Are designer babies on the way? Join us on Thursday, May 6 at 7:00 pm to explore this question with Patricia Devers, an assistant professor and certified genetic counselor here at UNC.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

It’s the height of spring field trip season at Morehead.

Most of the school buses in our parking lot traveled one or two hours to visit us, but groups come from all over the state. Last week, kids from Manteo came to Morehead. A Cherokee Boys Club charter bus makes an appearance almost every year. It’s fun to welcome them to the planetarium, our favorite state treasure.

For the kids, part of the fun is checking out Morehead’s gift shop after their planetarium show. It’s stocked with educational books and science-themed toys, of course. But their favorite item, the one that our gift shop manager continually has to restock, is rock candy. (If you’re patient, you can make it at home with this science experiment. But if you don’t want to wait seven days, Morehead’s your source for instant gratification.)

What else is really popular with the kids? Anything gooey and icky, like Mars Mud and Galactic Goo. Glow-in-the-dark stuff. (Especially cool: bandanas that have constellations printed on them in glow-in-the-dark paint.)

moodringAnd mood rings. Lots and lots of mood rings go home with Morehead visitors of all ages.

Did you have a mood ring when you were a kid? Mood rings feature a “stone” that turns colors — black, green, blue. Theoretically, the colors reflect your mood, but actually it’s an indication of your body temperature. There are liquid crystals that are sensitive to heat inside the “stone,” and the position of those crystals affects the wavelength of light. That’s how mood rings change color.

Believe it or not, NASA is using that same “technology” in its search for undiscovered planets. Apparently, the combination of liquid crystals and zero gravity result in better telescope viewing.

And that’s not all. Scientists are exploring the value of color-changing crystals in measuring the impact of bomb blasts in war zones. This development could provide a better understanding of how people living and working in those zones may have been affected, resulting in better medical treatment for them.

You can’t do that with rock candy.

Ron Risch, Morehead's gift shop manager, just checked his records -- 1,433 visitors bought mood rings last year!

April 1, 2010, 45 minutes after sunset

April 1, 2010, 45 minutes after sunset

Have you ever seen Mercury? Most people haven’t. Impress your friends and family by pointing out Mercury to them during the next week—the best time this entire year to see this elusive planet in the evening sky.

First, find Venus. It’s that very bright point of light low in the west soon after sunset.

Next, look for Mercury. It’s to the lower right of Venus and much dimmer. For the next ten days, these two planets appear to lie within just a few degrees of each other (less than half the width of your fist held at arm’s length).

For the best chance of identifying Mercury, go out about 45 minutes after sunset in the next week (try ~8:20-8:30 p.m. for the Triangle area). You’ll need clear skies and a view of the western horizon that is as building- and tree-free as you can manage.

If you look too soon after sunset, you may have trouble picking out the planet in the still-bright sky. Look too late, and Mercury will have dropped below the western horizon (or at least behind all those trees in your neighborhood). Later in April, Mercury disappears altogether from the evening sky.

Please join Morehead at our next skywatching session at Jordan Lake on April 17, 2010. We’ll see Mercury and Venus near the beginning. Mars and Saturn will also be visible. Bring your friends and family!

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager. She looks forward to helping people learn to identify planets and stars in Morehead's Beginning Skywatching course for adults, starting April 7. To register online, go to moreheadplanetarium.org, click Events & Activities, then Adult Classes.

I heard an interesting comment the other day from one of my colleagues: “Spring break is the longest holiday.” And in a lot of ways that’s true. At Morehead, we see a spring break surge for about two weeks because some schools break before Easter while others wait until the week after. For parents, it may just feel like the longest holiday. Unlike the holiday season, there aren’t a lot of holiday-specific activities to fill the days, and unlike summer, the period isn’t long enough to settle into a comfortable routine.

My two-year-old checks out the fish at the Georgia Aquarium

My two-year-old checks out the fish at the Georgia Aquarium

As a result, a lot of families take to the road for a vacation or a few day trips. With that in mind, let me suggest a few ideas based on my recent experiences:

  • Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. Duh. It IS my job to encourage people to come here, and with the new fulldome video system that’s easy to do. Make sure to check the calendar on the home page before making the trip on a weekday because we still have field-trip groups and a lot of shows are sold out.
  • North Carolina Museum of Life and Science (Durham). My two-year-old loves Loblolly Park and the petting zoo. While the entire museum is worth seeing,  go on a day with nice weather because so much of what they have to offer is outside.
  • Georgia Aquarium (Atlanta). If you’re making your way to Atlanta and haven’t been to the aquarium, put this on your list (and buy tickets in advance). Located close to Olympic Park, the Georgia Aquarium is world class all the way.
  • Zoo Atlanta: I think the zoo has gotten overshadowed by the aquarium, but the zoo is worth the trip. Pandas, kangaroos, a petting zoo, zebras, tigers — all in a manageable space for most kids.
  • N.C. Aquariums (Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores and Roanoke Island): I’ve heard great things about all three locations, but I can only speak firsthand regarding the Fort Fisher aquarium. If you are thinking about the Fort Fisher aquarium from your own childhood, this isn’t it. Dramatically expanded between 1999 and 2002, this aquarium is a great way to spend a morning or afternoon when you are in the Wilmington area.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list of science-themed museums and attractions in our area, state and region. We’re fortunate to have a number of high-quality options. If you are looking for something to do with the kids, check ‘em out.

Jeff Hill is Morehead's director of external relations and is sorry that he didn't have enough space to mention the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, the National Aquarium, The Health Adventure, the Schiele Museum, SciWorks, the Science Museum of Virginia, and ... (you get the idea!)


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