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!)

When I was a kid, I had a junior detective wristband. (Maybe you did, too.) It was colorful and plastic, the kind of toy you’d find in a cereal box. And it had a tiny plastic magnifying glass, because every junior detective needs to be able to see tiny things in detail. That’s how you solve mysteries.

I magnified ants. And flower pollen. And feathers. I magnified almost everything I could find. And the close-up views from that tiny magnifying glass offered some amazing lessons about the world. (Wow — butterfly wings have scales!)

In nanotechnology, scientists do the same thing, but they have much better toys.

Nanotechnology is the study of things at the atomic and molecular levels. Very, very, very tiny things. Scientists use specialized microscopes and other laboratory instruments for nanotechnology research. They’re solving mysteries.

nanotubeTake this model of a nanotube, for example. It represents one way that carbon atoms can be structured. Nanotubes are very strong, maybe one hundred times as strong as steel. They’re very tiny, just a fraction of the width of a human hair. They conduct heat and electricity. Scientists are still learning about the properties of carbon nanotubes and about the ways we can use these structures.

If you’re curious, you’ll have a rare opportunity this weekend to take a behind-the-scenes peek into nanotechnology research on the UNC campus. Morehead is hosting NanoDays on Saturday, March 27.

You can learn more about nanotechnology with hands-on activities for the family. Discover where you can find examples of nanotechnology in your own home. Tour research labs with scientists from the UNC Department of Physics and Astronomy (that’s where the cool research toys — I mean, laboratory instruments — live).

It’s fun, and it’s free. Come check out NanoDays.

Junior detective wristbands might be the coolest cereal box toy ever.

Todd Boyette and other members of the North Carolina delegatiion with their Chinese counterparts

Todd Boyette (3rd from right) and other members of the North Carolina delegation with their Chinese counterparts

Greetings from Beijing, China! I am traveling with 11 other North Carolinians as guests of the Beijing Association of Science and Technology. We actually make up the entire U.S. delegation, which is a tremendous opportunity for North Carolina. Traveling with me are: Dr. Fran Nolan – leader of the delegation and Executive Director of the NC Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative; three members of the NC House of Representatives – Susan Fisher (Buncombe), Maggie Jeffus (Guilford) and Joe Tolson (Edgecombe, Wilson); Robin Bergeron of Guilford County Schools; Becky Grant – CEO of Greensboro Children’s Museum; Lew Ebert – President of the NC Chamber of Commerce; and four high school student-winners of the NC International Science Challenge – Shilani Chudasama, Victoria Jones, Victoria Melbourne and Chelsea Sumner.

One of the first items of business once we arrived in Beijing was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Beijing Association of Science and Technology. This is a five-year agreement that formalizes a training and exchange relationship between the United States and the Beijing Association of Science and Technology (BAST). Morehead Planetarium and Science Center joins the NC Science, Math and Tecnology Center and the Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative to form the U.S. side of the partnership. This is a tremendous opportunity for Morehead. The MOU was signed during a formal signing ceremony at BAST Headquarters. I have attached a picture of the participants right after signing the agreement. I look forward to utilizing this partnership to enhance our efforts at Morehead.

Todd Boyette has been director of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center since 2006.

Orion the Hunter

Orion the Hunter

How well can you see the stars from where you live? Through March 16, you and your family can collect scientific data right outside your house (or anywhere you choose) for GLOBE at Night, an annual worldwide project to measure light pollution.

Participating is easy:

1)  Go outside at least an hour after sunset between now and March 16, and wait 10 minutes or more for your eyes to adjust to the dark.

2)  Find the constellation Orion, and compare what you see with the GLOBE at Night magnitude charts.

3)  Go online to report your results.

The Globe at Night Web site provides helpful activity packets with printable magnitude charts. A few weeks from now, the organizers will release a map of light pollution levels worldwide—including your data point.

To experience skies that may be darker than at your home (or maybe not, depending on where you live), join Morehead Planetarium and Science Center for a skywatching session. We’ll be at Little River Regional Park on Friday, March 19, and at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake on Saturday, March 20. Both sessions are 8 to 10 p.m. and are weather permitting.

You can also visit Morehead at 8 p.m. on either April 23 or 24, when we will use our new technology to present the live planetarium program “Our Vanishing Night.” Telescope observing will follow, weather permitting.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager. One year while leading a stargazing seminar at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, she and the seminar participants documented a sky of limiting magnitude 6 at Ocracoke Island, NC. How dark is YOUR sky? Please leave us a reply.

Phobos

The Mars Express orbiter will skim the surface of Phobos at a distance of just 50 km on March 3, 2010. For comparison, this image of Phobos, taken by NASA, was captured at a distance of 9,670 km.

Mars has two moons: Phobos and Deimos, named for the minor Greek deities Fear and Panic (what could go better with a planet named after a god of war?). On March 3, Mars Express – a Mars orbiter operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) – will set a record for the closest-ever flyby of Phobos when it skims over the moon at a distance of only 50 km (about 30 miles). ESA scientists hope that by venturing so close to the rather lumpy moon, Mars Express can gather data that will help answer lingering questions about Phobos.

Earlier Mars Express flybys have determined the mass and volume of Phobos, using a variety of instruments. Surprisingly, the data suggest that parts of Phobos may actually be hollow. The March 3 flyby should help to either confirm or negate this idea.

Another goal of the flyby is to determine the internal chemical composition of Phobos, in the hopes that such information may help scientists determine the origin of this moon. There are three current theories about Phobos: one, that it is a captured asteroid; two, that it formed at the same time and from the same basic materials as Mars; and three, that it was formed from debris shot into Mars’s orbit by a large meteorite strike.

The Mars Express orbiter is only one of many experiments designed to discover more about our planetary neighbor. If you would like to know more about past, present, and future Mars exploration, come see the live show Mission to Mars, one of two Science 360 shows on MPSC’s spring schedule.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360. In case you're wondering, Deimos has also been explored at close range: in 1977, the NASA Viking Orbiter II flew over this moon's surface at a distance of only 30 km.