Monday, June 20, 2016

Mark White on the Chapman Stick

The Chapman Stick is such a beautiful instrument. Ever since I first saw the character Gurney Halleck (played by Patrick Stewart) playing a modified version of the Chapman Stick in David Lynch's film version of Dune, I've been interested in these polyphonic, multi-stringed tapping instruments. I just heard some fantastic playing on a Chapman Stick by a guy named Mark White. Here's a sample of some of that playing for your listening pleasure:

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Depths of Time in a Starry Night Image

Image Credit: Brad Goldpaint
The APOD today is beautiful! The above image, taken by Brad Goldpaint, shows a starry night scene over the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California, U.S.A. 

The trees in the image are themselves quite old, dating back several thousands of years, with one tree named Methuselah dated to 4,847 years old and another tree (not yet named) dating back to 5,065 years in age (these trees are considered to be the oldest known living non-clonal organisms). Some of those bristlecone pines stood long before Galileo turned his telescopes to the heavens; those trees bathed in starlight generations before Eratosthenes of Cyrene calculated the circumference of the Earth and developed a science of chronology; and some of those trees opened their branches to the world before people started laying the stones that would become the Great Pyramid of Egypt.

Goldpaint's night scene also shows the planets Saturn and Mars, of which the curators of APOD remark are "seemingly attached to tree branches, but actually much farther in the distance... These planets formed along with the Earth and the early Solar System much earlier -- about 4.5 billion years ago." In my recent talk, "This Thing is Older Than Your Mom" (which I gave for the 3rd Season finale of Famelab USA), I spoke of the oldest solid materials to have formed in our solar system. The calcium-aluminum-rich inclusions (CAIs) and chondrules that can be found in some of the most primitive meteorites are materials that formed before the planets as we know them. Those materials and others in primitive meteorites have given us insight into the earliest processes in our solar system, including the timing of the formation of our planets. That's how we can say that Saturn and Mars are over 4.5 billion years in age. The lives of the bristlecone pines would seem just a short blink of time relative to the ages of Saturn, Mars, the Earth, and our solar system. 

However, the oldest of the old, the most ancient of the ancient and venerated of the venerable, in this beautiful image are the stars stippling the night's sky and the band of white of our Milky Way Galaxy. At best, a single person may be able to see 2000 or so stars at night, yet we can see the illumination of our sky in a milky white band due to the illumination from hundreds of thousands of millions of other stars in our galaxy (most shining from somewhere near the plane of the galaxy). Some of those stars may be much younger than our own Sun and planets, while most of them are quite older. Sadly, a recent report in Science Advances estimates that at least 80% of the world's population lives under light polluted skies, so that as much as one third of the global human population can no longer see the Milky Way at night (we are truly stealing our history from our children by taking away the night's sky). While we should take a moment of pause and reflection at the fact that most people cannot observe the Milky Way, at least we can look on images like Goldpaint's picture at the top of this post and consider the depths of time that have passed on our planet, in our Solar System, and in the Milky Way Galaxy that surrounds us. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Winners from the 2016 International Earth & Sky Photo Contest

Popping open Astronomy Picture of the Day on my laptop this morning revealed a fantastic image of the night's sky over Reine, Norway, with the yellowed lights of an island village tucked beneath glacially carved landforms while the night's sky above swirls, alight with the green ghostly glowing of the Aurora Borealis:

The photo, taken by Alex Conu, was the 1st prize winner in the 2016 International Earth & Sky Photo Contest. The theme for this year's contest was "Dark Skies Importance" and the photos were judged in many criteria under two main categories, showing the viewers of the images the beauty and glory of the night's sky, and also showing how terrible the light pollution problem has become (you may have heard of the recent study showing that at least 80% of all humans live under skies affected by light pollution).

If, like me, you love to see fantastically beautiful images of the night's sky, then definitely check out this video showing off several of the best photos from this year's contest:

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

NASA's "Mars Explorers Wanted" Posters

NASA and Kennedy Space Center have unveiled a new series of posters available for free download. These posters, called "Mars Explorers Wanted", show some of the possible jobs that will need to be filled by Mars explorers of the near future. You can find the full series here: Mars Explorers Wanted.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Scientific Studies on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

In case you missed it, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver ran a fantastical piece recently on how the American public tends to utterly fail at understanding scientific studies. Our own lack of critical thinking and scientific literacy has made it far more likely for people to misread and misunderstand the results and conclusions of scientific studies, not to mention the fact that there are now way too many people who will believe utter bullshit as long as someone makes it sound "sciency". 

For instance, I recently saw this piece of shit post going around on Facebook claiming that research had found that people with blue eyes were able to hold their alcohol better. Of course, that's not really what any researchers had claimed. The report in question was recently published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics (you can find it here: Sulovari et al. 2015). In that research, a study of a subsample of 1,263 Americans of recent European decent had shown that there was a possible correlation with lighter eye color and the predisposition for alcohol dependence. The authors of that paper themselves pointed out that replication of the study would be necessary before accepting their conclusions, even though a study of only 1,263 people is very unlikely to be too conclusive given all of the possible complexities of such a sample-size limited study. The research in question is exciting and may be an indicator that there is some relationship between the genes that cause eye color and the genes that may make us more likely to become dependent on alcohol, but it in no way implies that having blue eyes makes you a better drinker or a tougher person or anything ridiculously silly like that. 

I highly recommend checking out the following video from Last Week Tonight. You can trust me, I'm wearing a lab coat!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

This Thing is Older Than Your Mom!

On May 13th of this year, I had the honor and the pleasure of competing in the Famelab USA science communication competition's national final. 

Famelab allows early career scientists and communicators of science an opportunity to improve their skills through educational workshops while also competing against one another by giving short (3 minutes or less) speeches using no slides and, at most, one prop. For this year's final event, I gave a speech titled "This Thing is Older Than Your Mom", where I talked about my favorite meteorite from my personal collection and about how old some of the materials in meteorites can be. 

Delivering this talk was another step along the way for me to build a career as a communicator of science. I fumbled a bit on the Q&A session of the event, but it was still a lot of fun and a huge learning experience. For the two days leading up to the final event, we were given a masterclass to develop our skills led by the magnificent Malcolm Love.

I'm so happy to have had the opportunity to share some of my knowledge with a wider audience through Famelab. If you're interested, you can see the other talks I've given before at Famelab events by checking out the page they created for me.