Saturday, September 8, 2012

Science is Cool (Or Hot as the Case May Be)

A British newspaper called this "massive filament" eruption on the Sun's surface Aug. 31 "mind-bogglingly gorgeous." We are forced to agree.

I make no attempt to hide the fact that I'm a sucker for science.

I'm not smart enough to be a scientist myself (math-impaired) and I was smart enough to break my mother's heart and abandon my quest to be a marine biologist early in life.

But I am constantly in awe of the things we are now discovering, especially in space. (What else would you expect from a kid who saw the first Star Wars in a theater and was raised on black and white Star Trek re-runs on New York's channel 11, WPIX?)

This week saw a bumper crop of cool science stuff, so because this is my blog, I'm going to share it with you.

1) First up was this post on NPR Wednesday that reported on a video from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. It shows a "massive filament" eruption on the sun that occurred last Friday. (If the embed code works, the video should appear below. If not, you can see it by following the link. You'll dig the super-cool soundtrack too)

My friend Matthew jokes regularly that any problems we may be complaining about at any particular moment pales when compared to the fact that some day, the sun will expand and swallow our planet whole.

So he will probably be disturbed to know "the eruption apparently stretched out a half million miles into space," according to the British newspaper, The Register. Fortunately, NPR wrote, the sun is about 93 million miles from us. And, says NASA, the eruption "did not travel directly toward Earth," though it did give a "glancing blow" to the planet's "magnetic environment" on Monday.

Meet Enceladus, an icy, water-vapor-spewing moon that may be partially responsible for Saturn's rings.

2) Second is an equally cool discovery that some of Saturn's rings may be coming from an icy moon called Enceladus that shoots water vapor into space, probably as the result of gravitational forces.

This "water hose into the sky" was highlighted in this report, also on the NPR site, which reports: "Nobody knew these fountains were there until the Cassini spacecraft flew near enough to Enceladus to find them."

I love their description of the process:
"It turns out this moon, called Enceladus, is a snowball containing what may be a sea of liquid water, warmed by the squishes and stretches of Saturn and other moons that pass nearby (plus it may have a hot, rocky core.) All that gravity pushing and pulling on this little ball squeezes the liquid inside so it shoots up through some fissures at the top."
Enceladus — it's the dark spot inside the bright flare — getting
real close to the E ring. Sascha Kempf of the Max Planck
Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg,
says this moon is "feeding" water crystals into Saturn's ring.
"Some of that water vapor turns into ice and the crystals fall like snow back onto the moon at a rate of 0.02 inches a year; but some ice is thrown so high, it joins a ring around Saturn, one of the outer rings, labeled 'E.'"
The images above came from Cassini, which sent it back as a batch of digital information — lots of ones and zeroes — which can be turned into black and white images. Working from a series of picture fragments that Cassini transmits in small batches, artist Michael Benson put them together into a single shot, then chose the hues and levels of light based on what is called "true color," what a person would see if he happened on the scene.

Benson has a book called "Planetfall" coming out filled with images like this.

It is discoveries like this that, I would hope, help to justify the existence and continued support of NASA and its work.

Or, as comedian Andy Borowitz recently tweeted (and I paraphrase): "The next time someone asks 'where did spending billions of dollars on NASA ever get us?' the proper answer is: 'Mars.'"

3) Third and squarely back here on Earth, we bring you the tale of Tucker, a truly salty dog.

Photo by the New York Times
Tucker's nose is so sensitive, he can track orca poop in the water.
According to this New York Times article published Saturday, Tucker is "the world’s only working dog, marine biologists say, able to find and track the scent of orca scat, or feces, in open ocean water — up to a mile away, in the smallest of specks."

Tucker does his work off the coast of San Juan Island, off the west coast of Washington.

It is not easy. "Scat can sink or disperse in 30 minutes or less. But it is crucial in monitoring the health of the whales here, an endangered group that is probably among the most studied animal populations in the world."

I liked this bit:
"One thing to get out of the way quickly: orca scat really does not smell that bad. Perhaps because the animals eat mostly Chinook salmon — the tastiest kind, many human seafood lovers agree — the scent is more fish than foul."
All of which only makes Tucker's achievement more remarkable. Now consider that unlike most dogs, he cannot walk to where the scent leads him, he has to somehow signal what he wants to his boat's pilot.
Like a Delphic oracle whose every nuanced expression must be interpreted by acolytes — Tucker might lean to one side of the boat, then another, then suddenly sink back onto his green mat with his head between his paws, the scent lost — his nose for scat leads on, and all must follow.

New York Times Photo
I just threw this photo up here because I like it.
“The slightest twitch of his ear is important,” said Elizabeth Seely, a trainer who has worked with Tucker for four years at a nonprofit group called the Conservation Canines, which specializes in dog-assisted research on behalf of endangered species. She stood at his side on a recent scat-search session, signaling to Ms. Giles behind the wheel with tiny finger motions — a bit to the right, a bit more to the left, circle back — that Tucker was suggesting by his posture and level of attention.
Million-mile solar flares, icy space snowballs drizzling ice crystals into Saturn's rings, a dog that can smell whale poop; it boggles the mind.

Truly, this universe is an amazing place.

And we are only understanding it one tiny bit at a time.

What fun.

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