The third video in our Science 360: The Truth Behind 2012 series focuses on the planetary alignment. Some people think that the planets of our Solar System will align and the resulting gravitational forces will damage our Sun. Once again, this 2012-doomsday scenario has a lot of scientific evidence against it. Check it out and find out why the planets won’t be aligning and, even if they did, it wouldn’t cause a disaster.

The Truth Behind 2012: Planetary Alignment

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager.

Oil Spill

Oil is clearly visible on the water surface in this satellite image of the Gulf of Mexico (from NASA). But how much oil might be collecting below the water surface?

It’s a familiar refrain for many children learning math in school: “Why do we need to know this stuff?” Dr. Richard McLaughlin, a mathematics professor at UNC Chapel Hill, answered that question at the July Current Science Forum. Speaking to a sizeable crowd, Dr. McLaughlin showed how a team of researchers at UNC are using math to tackle important questions related to a topic which has captured international attention since April: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

One of those questions centers on the issue of underwater plumes: we can see the oil slick on the water surface, but is it possible that there is an even greater amount of oil underwater? Dr. McLaughlin and Dr. Roberto Camassa, also at UNC, are using the science of fluid dynamics to shed some light on this. The Gulf of Mexico, like most large bodies of water, does not have a uniform density, Dr. McLaughlin explained. The oil shooting out from the damaged pipe is hot, and coming out at high pressure. Using a water tank, Dr. McLaughlin demonstrated how such conditions may create a cloud of oil trapped beneath the surface of the gulf.

Next Dr. McLaughlin showed how his team is taking a simple mathematical idea – the parabolic formula – and using it to estimate how many barrels of oil are escaping from the leak each day. The team is using the BP Spill Cameras to fit a parabolic curve onto the leak, then applying mathematical formulas to obtain a flow rate. Using this method, they estimated the flow rate to be around 70-80,000 barrels per day – a number that is far higher than BP’s initial estimates and similar to the latest government-released figures.

If you missed the forum, you can still watch the water tank demonstration and an interview that Dr. McLaughlin and Dr. Camassa gave on a KBZK newscast - both are available on YouTube. Stay tuned to the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center homepage for information about upcoming Current Science Forum events.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

Here’s our next video in the Science 360: The Truth Behind 2012 series. In this one, we’re focusing on the “end of the Maya calendar.” Does the Mayan “Long Count” calendar mark the end of a 5,126-year era and herald an apocalypse? As with the other 2012-doomsday scenarios, the Mayan calendar claim has a good deal of scientific evidence against it. Check it out and find out why the real Maya will probably not be hiding in caves, but throwing a party.

The Truth Behind 2012: Mayan Calendar

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager. He will be partying like it's 5126. Yes, Prince will be there.

30 Jun 2010
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We’ve been doing Current Science Forums at Morehead for nearly three years now. The mission is simple: Encourage discussion about current science events and research in the news, led by a scientist or comparable expert in the field.

But I don’t think we’ve ever had a more timely topic than we have for July: “Oil Rigged: Quantifying the BP Oil Spill.”

You’ve seen the images from below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, and you’ve seen the news coverage — scary stuff. And it can be hard to decipher what’s fact and what’s fiction.

Luckily, we’ve got a lot of experts at UNC who can help us understand the issues more clearly. One of those experts, Dr. Richard McLaughlin, will lead our Current Science Forum on Thursday, July 1, at 7 p.m. He’ll help us understand why some oil rises to the surface and other oil remains trapped underwater, challenging attempts to measure the impact of oil spills.

If you’re interested in learning more, we hope you’ll join us. Like each monthly Current Science Forum, the July 1 presentation is free. It’ll be in Morehead’s Banquet Hall (second floor, east end of buiding), and it’s informal.

Believe it or not, killer whales are among the animals that live in the Gulf of Mexico. They are found only in deeper water (600 feet or more in depth).

We’ve taken our popular Science 360 presentation, “The Truth Behind 2012″ and made it into eight short videos that we’ll be releasing once a week for the next two months. If you’ve been paying attention to pop culture at all in the past year or so, you’ve probably heard some rumors about 2012, whether it’s from the movie that came out earlier in the year or other sources. We’re going to take all of the disaster theories and debunk them one by one.  Look forward to seeing ones on the Mayan calendar, the pole reversal, the rogue planet Nibiru, solar eruptions and more. Just subscribe to our Youtube channel and you won’t miss an episode. Our first is about the theory that a giant asteroid is set to strike the Earth.

The Truth Behind 2012: Asteroid Strike!

For more information about The Truth Behind 2012, check out our other previous blog posts about the subject:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Jay Heinz is Morehead's Digital Production Manager. He fears no asteroids.

Higgs Boson

Scientists created this simulated image to show how the Higgs Boson would likely appear on visual detectors at the LHC. But one scientist thinks that listening to the data is a better method to detect the Higgs particle.

If you are familiar with the Large Hadron Collider or “LHC,” a huge physics experiment underway in Europe, you may be aware that one of the project’s aims is to find the elusive Higgs Boson, also known as the “God Particle.” The Higgs Boson is thought to be the reason that everything else has mass, but no one has ever actually observed the elusive particle. The LHC hopes to do just that by colliding protons in a giant underground racetrack and observing the particles that are created as a result of the collisions.

One issue that has come up with the LHC’s strategy is how to recognize a particle that has never been seen before and about which very little is known. Scientists are currently evaluating the collision data by looking at images of particle tracks on computer screens. But one scientist, Dr. Lily Asquith, believes there is a better way to identify the short-lived particles – by listening to them.

Dr. Asquith has developed a way to convert the data produced at the LHC into sound. Based on what scientists theorize about the Higgs, she has simulated the sounds that would be produced by a Higgs particle if one were created. The idea is that human ears are better at distinguishing sounds than the eyes are at distinguishing visual patterns. The sounds that Dr. Asquith has created using LHC data sound almost like bizarre, slightly-scary musical numbers – appropriate, perhaps, for a horror film. You can hear them here or download them here.

On a related note (pardon the pun), there is someone else trying to make sweet science music: one Higgs Boson (the person, not the particle), an English composer who writes “music inspired by the edges of science.”

To find out much more about the LHC and particle physics, come to Morehead Planetarium and Science Center to see the free Science 360 show “Why Antimatter Matters,” now showing Tuesday – Sunday on the Science Stage (formerly the NASA Digital Theater).

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.

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.

Hot, humid days are beginning to wash over Chapel Hill as they do every year about this time. Summer doesn’t officially begin until the solstice, but the not-so-lazy days of summer begin around here as soon as the first minivans and SUVs full of excited summer campers begin their pilgrimage toward Morehead like that endless line of baseball fans making their way to an Iowa cornfield at the end of “Field of Dreams.”

For our guests, there are friends to be made at camp.  A new “Magic Tree House Space Mission” to be seen in the fulldome theater. And thrills and chills galore to be had in “Science Live!” Yet, I feel fall in the air. You say, Jeff, relax and enjoy the summer. I say summer is almost over in my world. You see, most of my team lives a cycle (or more) in advance of what you actually experience at Morehead.

Right now, we’re working on the 2010-2011 field trip brochure.  Planning for September’s North Carolina Science Festival is in high gear. We’re polishing plans for relaunching “Starry Nights” as a monthly program in September. We’ve already lined up the honored guest and musical acts for November’s Jupiter Ball (you’ll have to wait to find out who they are). And we have multiple grants to write between now and fall’s first frost.

So why am I telling you this? It’s simple really. We’re here to serve you and to deliver programming that interests and inspires you, your families and your schools. Now is the time to give us your ideas and suggestions for new programs and improvements for the coming year. We want to hear from you. And don’t forget to sunscreen this summer!

Jeff Hill is Morehead's director of external relations and all this talk of fall has him thinking about football.

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.