26 Nov 2009
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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.

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.

Now you can watch the latest Science 360 from the comfort of your own computer screen (although it’s much more fun to come in to see it and check out a Planetarium or laser show while you’re at it). But right now you’re probably sitting on your couch and wondering, “Why do plants have flowers? How do flowers develop? What secrets are hidden in their genes, and how could those secrets affect our lives?” I know you are – don’t lie to me. Watch the vid below and find out the answers. When you’re done, check out some of our other videos on our youtube and vimeo channels.

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager. He is ready for lunch. No, seriously.

black bats against the full Moon
Looking for a thriller of a Halloween? Morehead’s got you covered.

On Thursday, catch the newest Chapel Hill Halloween tradition — “Scare-o-lina Skies,” Morehead’s Halloween take on the classic “Carolina Skies” planetarium show. Explore the hidden stories of mayhem, murder and madness in the constellations! Regular ticket prices apply, just $6 for adults, with shows at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 29, 2009.

And now Morehead’s added “Scare-o-lina Skies: Family Edition” so you can bring your school-age kids to join the fun. Catch the family-friendly version on Sunday, Nov. 1, at 3:30 p.m. Kids’ tickets are just $5.

How about the one-of-a-kind “Laser Halloween” experience that combines Halloween-themed music with an amazing light show? It’s perfect for the family, and you can only catch “Laser Halloween” on Halloween Day itself, Oct. 31. Treat yourself to “Laser Halloween” at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. (These replace the regular planetarium shows on the schedule, just for this one day.) Laser shows are premium shows, so special ticket prices apply: $9.50 for adults, $7.50 for students and Morehead members. Sorry, no coupons or passes for premium shows.

Of course, Halloween is a major event on Franklin Street, when monsters and maniacs take over downtown! Morehead closes at 2:30 p.m. on Halloween Day. The university parking lot adjacent to Morehead closes at 3 p.m. and becomes a staging area for public safety vehicles throughout the evening, so if you visit Morehead for “Laser Halloween,” be sure to move your car by 3 p.m.

Karen is taking suggestions for an appropriate Halloween costume.

Agression

Could estrogen - the female sex hormone - cause aggression and territoriality in males?

What makes a male behave like a male? Many answers may come to mind – societal expectations, culture and environment, and hormones, to name a few. Hardly anyone would guess that estrogen – the female sex hormone – plays a role in male behavior. Yet this is precisely what a team of researchers at the University of California, San Francisco have discovered: estrogen, rather than testosterone, plays a vital role in “masculinizing” the developing brain shortly after birth. Their research appears in the newest issue of Cell.

Shortly after birth, male gonads release a surge of testosterone into the bloodstream. The UCSF research team discovered that the male brain contains a number of neurons equipped with an enzyme called aromatase, which converts the testosterone into estrogen. Once exposed to estrogen, these neurons establish a particular circuitry that is unique to the male brain and is thought to account for stereotypically male behaviors such as aggression and territoriality.

This theory is strengthened by the fact that female mice who were exposed to estrogen shortly after birth become “tomboys,” exhibiting the same aggressiveness and territory-marking behavior as normal male mice. You might reasonably wonder, if estrogen is the female hormone, why don’t all girls end up acting like boys? It turns out that ovaries typically do not secrete any hormone this early in life, which allows the brain to establish female brain circuitry.

Brain development is an extraordinarily complex subject with many unanswered questions. If you would like to learn more about this topic, come to Morehead Planetarium and Science Center to see the Science 360 presentation “The Developing Brain.”

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

youtube-logoMorehead now has YouTube and Vimeo channels. Check them out here:

http://www.youtube.com/user/moreheadplanetarium

http://vimeo.com/channels/morehead

Right now we’ve got the trailer for our first planetarium show, Earth, Moon and Sun, as well as videos from our Science 360 series that talk about current science topics from stem cells to genetic engineering. Just hit the subscribe button at the top of each page and you’ll be alerted when we put new video content up on the site. Keep an eye out for a couple new Science 360s in the next few months as well as a sneak peak at our next planetarium show.

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager.

LHC

Two scientists think that the LHC may be doomed by time-traveling particles. Image from CERN.

In the history of science, there have been more than a few bizarre, wacky, or unintentionally hilarious theories and studies (a few recent examples: one research team found that herring communicate via underwater flatulence; French physicists explored the profound mystery of why spaghetti does not break in half; and a Spanish research team recently investigated the “ultrasonic velocity of cheddar cheese”). But few theories are as strange as that recently set forth by two theoretical physicists regarding the planned restarting of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in December. Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya postulate that the LHC, which scientists hope will answer some of physics’ most basic mysteries, may be doomed to disaster – by time-traveling particles produced by the LHC itself.

One of the major goals of scientists at the LHC is to find the elusive “Higgs boson” – a hypothetical particle which physicists believe may be responsible for giving all other particles mass. Nielsen and Ninomiya postulate that the Higgs boson may in fact be so abhorrent to nature that if it were created in the LHC, it would cause a ripple in time such that the collider would be rendered unusable before making the particle – sort of like a person traveling in time and killing his mother before she gives birth to him. They argue that in fact this may have already happened – twice. Last fall, the LHC had to shut down following a major mechanical malfunction that occurred just days after its first-ever run. And in 1993, production on the United States Superconducting Supercollider, which was also intended to find the Higgs, was abruptly cancelled after billions of dollars had already been spent on its development.

If this all sounds to you like something out of the Twilight Zone, you’re not alone – Nielson and Ninomiya’s research is already being criticized. Meanwhile, plans proceed for the LHC to come back online later this fall. If you’re interested in finding out more about the LHC and the research that will be done there, mark your calendars for MPSC’s next Current Science Forum, “Restarting the Big Bang Machine,” where Dr. Reyco Henning will be discussing the LHC and what its operation could mean for science. The forum will be held Thursday, November 5 at 7:00 pm.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

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!


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