We just uploaded our latest Science 360 – The Developing Brain – to YouTube. Scientists are learning more every day about the human brain develops, from embryo to fetus to baby. They’re also studying the ways that external factors affect the brain’s development. This Science 360, led by Casey Rawson, Science Content Developer for Science 360, examines some of those scientists’ findings and what else scientists may discover about the developing brain.


Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager and is still mildly obsessed with Radiolab. But I can quit at any time. I swear.

Replace the mosquitos with microscopes, the campfires with chemistry, the tents with technology … and you’ve got Summer Science Camps at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center!

In June, July and August, Morehead offers one-week, half-day camps for children in grades K–8. campEach camp is filled with fun, science-based activities, with themes like “Aquatic Addresses,” “Dinosaur Detectives,” “Test Pilots” and “CSI: Chapel Hill.”

For middle school students, there’s even a full-day option called “SciVentures,” an intensive program that combines on-site activities with field experiences. For 2010, “SciVentures” will focus on emergency medical science, with behind-the-scenes guidance from UNC Health Care and UNC School of Education.

The camps are fun, educational and very popular. Morehead members are eligible for early registration, and they save $15 on the cost of each camp (so if you aren’t already a member, this is a great time to join). Members at the “Lunar Level” even qualify for concierge registration!

So how — and when — can you get all the details about 2010 Summer Science Camps?

If you’re a Morehead member, check your mailbox for the winter issue of Sundial magazine — it’s scheduled to be mailed on Jan. 4. You’ll find the camp registration guide inside Sundial. Within a few weeks, you’ll also receive a letter with registration instructions (the letter will be mailed on Jan. 18).

Not a member? You’ll find all of the information you need about Summer Science Camps posted on Morehead’s Web site, beginning Jan. 11.

Morehead’s online registration system opens for members on Feb. 8 and for the general public on Feb. 15, so you have plenty of time to plan.

Gee, a s'more would taste good right now.

In a celestial tug-of-war between our Sun and the planets, there is one clear winner.

Today is the winter solstice, and those of you paying attention to pop culture might also note that today is exactly three years from December 21, 2012 – the day that Earth will end (if you believe everything you read on the internet). If you saw our first blog post on the 2012 apocalypse claims, you know that modern Mayans are scoffing at the idea that one of their ancient calendars predicts the end of the world. But that hasn’t stopped people from suggesting all kinds of end-of-the-world scenarios for 12/21/2012. One of the most popular is the planetary alignment claim – which says that the planets will align, and the resulting gravitational forces will damage our Sun.

There are two questions here: one, will the planets align on this date? And two, would an alignment damage our Sun, producing fatal effects here on Earth?

The first question is easy to answer. Since planets have such predictable orbits, we can use simple computer programs to track planetary positions for any date – past, present, or future. Try it for yourself at this site – do you see any alignment on December 21, 2012?

The answer to the 12/21/12 alignment question is a simple NO – the planets will not be aligned on that date. But if they were aligned, what would happen?

This question has a simple answer as well, and the answer is: NOTHING. Our Sun is gigantic compared to any of the solar system’s planets. In fact, the Sun makes up 99.8% of the solar system’s total mass. Gravity depends on mass, so the result of any celestial tug-of-war between the Sun and its eight planets is a foregone conclusion: the Sun is going to win, every time.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, stay tuned to the MPSC blog and plan to attend our Science 360 show “The Truth behind 2012” when it opens in early February 2010.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360, and she has no plans to start stockpiling toilet paper in preparation for December 2012.

radiolab_You like science, right? Who are we kidding, of course you do. And you enjoy listening to the radio, right? Maybe even a little NPR when you’re feeling saucy? Well, my friends, you should check out Radiolab if you haven’t yet.

Radiolab is an incredible NPR show that has been around since 2005 and is produced out of WNYC in, you guessed it, New York City. But don’t judge it harshly because you don’t like Yankee radio. No, no, no. Radiolab delves into really interesting science topics, pulls out the fascinating bits and tells a great story along the way. This isn’t some boring science recording from 1954 that sounds like Troy McClure is doing the voice over. No, this is kind of like a This American Life about science with better audio editing. So if you’re an documentary audio geek like me, you’ll appreciate the production values that quite possibly surpass most NPR shows out there – which is saying a lot.

Unfortunately, WUNC does not broadcast it so go to the Radiolab website or download free podcasts from iTunes. My favorite so far is the story on parasites. Listening to a story about them is much better than getting them. Trust me.

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager. He can't believe he had never listened to Radiolab until a couple weeks ago.

Geminid meteors appear to originate from the constellation Gemini the Twins (Image: Stellarium)

Geminid meteors appear to originate from the constellation Gemini the Twins (Image: Stellarium)

The annual Geminid meteor shower peaks tonight (Sunday night, Dec. 13 – Monday morning, Dec. 14).  Yes, it will be cold.  But there are four reasons why it’s worth bundling up and heading outside to look:

1) You can view the Geminids as early as 9 or 10 tonight, with the most meteor activity expected around 1 or 2 a.m.  Compare this with other major meteor showers, which require going out at an insane hour for the best viewing.

2) This is a strong, reliable shower. From a dark location, you can expect to see an average of one or two meteors (“shooting stars”) streak across the sky each minute.

3) No moonlight will wash out dimmer meteors from view, as they did for last year’s Geminids. This time the Moon is a waning crescent and won’t rise till almost dawn.

4) As I write this, the Clear Sky Charts for most of North Carolina, including the Triangle area, predict clear skies this evening.

To view the Geminids, wear really, really warm clothes, a hat, and gloves, and wrap yourself in a sleeping bag or blankets. Find a safe location without too many trees or unshielded outdoor lights nearby to hurt your view.

Allow your eyes about 15 minutes to adjust to the dark, and watch the sky from your sleeping bag or reclining lawn chair. The Geminids are named for the constellation they appear to radiate from, but you do not need to know how to find Gemini to spot the meteors.

Check the Web sites for Sky and Telescope and the American Meteor Society for details about the peak, duration, and origin of the Geminid meteors.

If you want to learn to identify those Gemini twins as well as what else is up in the night sky over the next few months, you can register for Starry Winter Nights. This adult class happens Wednesday evening, Dec. 16. And if you missed the 2009 Geminids, we can re-create them in the star theater with the push of a button.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager. She looks forward to teaching Starry Winter Nights in Morehead's climate-controlled star theater.

Mayan Calendar

The ancient Mayas viewed time as cyclical, as evidenced by their round calendars. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve been paying attention to pop culture over the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard some rumors about 2012 – specifically, about December 21, 2012. The 2012 buzz includes everything from a giant rogue planet hitting Earth to a fatal alignment with the galactic center. MPSC will be addressing the 2012 apocalypse claims in an upcoming Science 360 program, debuting in early February 2010. Meanwhile, we’ll be blogging about the claims, so check back often for new installments.

Before going into any details about what 2012 proponents claim will happen, we should first answer the question, “Why December 21, 2012?” The answer has to do with an ancient Mayan calendar.

The ancient Mayas used at least three different calendar systems, all of which operated simultaneously. There was a 260-day calendar (most likely based on the passage of Venus through the night sky), a 365-day civil calendar, and the “long count” calendar, which was used to record historical events. It is this last calendar that is being offered as “proof” of a December 2012 apocalypse.

The long count calendar marked the passage of time through lengthy cycles which cover about 5125 years each. The Mayas set the beginning date of the current cycle as August 11, 3114 B.C. (when they believe the world was created). That puts the end of this long count cycle on December 20, 2012. So what will happen on December 21? Will there even be a December 21?

2012 apocalypse promoters would like to you believe that the answer is no. But the Mayas themselves disagree. There are references in Mayan documents to dates both before this cycle began and after this cycle ends. There are also Mayas still living today, mostly in Guatemala, and they are not preparing for an apocalypse! If anything, the end of such a long cycle of time would probably have been a cause for celebration among the ancient Mayas.

So what will happen to the Mayan long count calendar on December 21, 2012? It will simply roll over to a new cycle, just as our desk calendars have to be replaced in January of each year.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, stay tuned to the MPSC blog and plan to attend our upcoming Science 360 show “The Truth Behind 2012” when it opens in early February 2010.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

Ever hear of DragonflyTV? If you’re a kid, you probably have. It’s an Emmy Award winning PBS Kids program that shows real kids doing real science and makes it fun. Last season, DragonflyTV decided to do a series on the world of nanoscale science and technology. And since our exhibit, “Zoom In,” already has lots of cool things to do regarding the nano world, when DragonflyTV went to North Carolina, they came over to Morehead to shoot an episode. The episode is called “Where’s Nano” and features our own Exhibits Manager, Michele Kloda. Learn more about the episode or just sit back and watch it on the ol’ YouTube.

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager. He doesn't have cable so he watches the Boob tube on the Youtube.

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Check out the new commercial we’re going to be playing before planetarium shows this Fall. Just a reminder that there’s more at Morehead besides what’s beneath the dome. The video stars a number of our current Afterschool program students.

By the way, when you’re watching one of our YouTube videos, hit the subscribe button. That way we can let you know when a new Morehead video gets uploaded. It’s not bad spam, it’s good spam. Like on a Hawaiian pizza.

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager. And he does like Hawaiian pizza.

Astronomers estimate that our own Sun is about 4.6 billion years old, give or take a few million years.

And then there’s “Star of Bethlehem” (celebrating its 60th birthday this year), which claims a place among the longest-running planetarium shows in the world. “Star” examines the legendary star from a scholarly perspective, exploring the astronomical events that could have caused such a phenomenon.

Star of Bethlehem“Star” was among the original Morehead productions during the planetarium’s first year of operation. For years, its arrival was marked with the appearance of a plastic star that glowed at night atop Morehead’s roof. (That tradition ended a few years ago when a November storm damaged the plastic star beyond repair.)

Over the years, “Star” has been updated to reflect new scientific knowledge and to showcase new technology, so today’s version probably doesn’t look anything like the “Star” of 1949. In fact, if you look carefully, you’ll even spot a dinosaur in the current version. (UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp once said that a dinosaur appeared somewhere within every Morehead planetarium show. How many have you spied?)

“Star” is still among Morehead’s most popular planetarium shows and has become a seasonal tradition for many families. This year, “Star” begins Nov. 27 and continues through Jan. 3.

Frisbees, cake mix and the very first credit card all appeared around the same time as Morehead's "Star."

Bella is having a very bad day and is not up for remembering her astronomy.

Bella is having a very bad day and is not up for remembering her astronomy.

Today is the new moon. A different New Moon happens Friday, when the second movie made from Stephenie Meyer’s popular Twilight book series opens in theaters.

Although Twilight fans may not care, our heroine Bella Swan’s knowledge of lunar phases is questionable. In the book’s title-inspiring scene, in which her vampire boyfriend Edward leaves her and she wanders through the woods for hours, Bella thinks, “Tonight the sky was utterly black. Perhaps there was no moon tonight—a lunar eclipse, a new moon.”

Bella correctly equates “new moon” with “no moon.” A new moon is above the horizon only during the day, and the only lit part is the far side that we can’t see.

But Bella’s phrasing suggests a few astronomical impossibilities:

1) In her distress, is Bella thinking a lunar eclipse and new moon are the same? Her thoughts are ambiguous. But a lunar eclipse can happen only when the moon’s phase is full. Never when it’s new. Not even in fictional worlds with vampires.

When the moon is new, it’s between the sun and Earth, as Meyer describes on her Web site. A lunar eclipse, however, requires a different geometric line-up: Sun-Earth-Moon.

Lunar eclipse geometry

Only in this configuration can the Earth’s shadow cover (eclipse) the moon. MrEclipse.com explains why lunar eclipses don’t happen every full moon, and NASA’s lunar eclipse page lists dates of past and future lunar eclipses.

2) Even during a lunar eclipse, Bella wouldn’t have “no moon tonight.” The moon remains visible when eclipsed by the Earth’s shadow. Although the moon darkens, sometimes almost to the point of invisibility, it won’t completely disappear because Earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight. An eclipsed moon usually looks reddish (not to be confused with the reddish tint the moon can take on when near the horizon, regardless of its phase).

This total lunar eclipse did not happen at new moon. (Credit: Fred Espenak)

This total lunar eclipse did not happen at new moon. (Credit: Fred Espenak)

3) Even with no moon, the sky wouldn’t look “utterly black” in Forks, Washington, where Bella wanders the woods, unless there was a regional power outage. Because of light pollution, there are no truly dark skies in the entire state. But we can forgive Bella for exaggerating in her distraught condition.

Six months later (warning! spoiler ahead!), things brighten up for Bella when she reunites with Edward in Italy. There they further mangle the solar system by experiencing an impossible sun. That’ll be another blog post.

Do you have an example to share of impossible astronomy in a book?  Please post a comment.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager. She doesn't let impossible astronomy get in the way of enjoying a good story.