Thursday, June 27, 2013

Voyager 1's Weird Discovery (Picture of the Day: 6/27/13)

The most up-to-date model of the solar system's edge. Source

Voyager 1, the farthest man-made object from Earth, has discovered something that scientists weren't expecting. Our sun throws off a constant stream of charged particles known as solar wind. This solar wind radiates through our solar system in a giant sphere that theoretically protects us from much of the galaxy's cosmic rays. Furthermore, these charged particles extend the Sun's magnetic field, which is thought to be inverted 60 degrees to the galaxy's magnetic field. Recently, Voyager 1 reached the edge of the solar wind-sphere, and the prevalence of galactic cosmic rays increased as expected. The interesting thing is that the direction of the cosmic rays was strongly biased in one direction, instead of coming equally from all directions as was expected. Even more curious, the magnetic field around Voyager 1 didn't change, meaning that it is theoretically still under the influence of the Sun's magnetic field. The debate about exactly what all of this means will probably rage for a long time to come, but we could still see Voyager 1 run into the galactic magnetic field in a few days, or a few years.
For more information, check out this article.

Accommodation (Science Word of the Day: 6/27/13)

In a scientific context, the word accommodation refers to the process by which the focal length of the lens of the eye is changed so that clear images of objects at a variety of distances can be displayed on the retina and thus seen by the brain. In humans and many mammals, this is achieved through reflexive adjustments to the shape of the lens of the eye by relaxing or contracting muscles in the ciliary body.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Kirobo, the Robot in Space! (Picture of the Day: 6/26/13)

Kirobo and Mirata. Source
The robot to the left in this picture goes by the name "Kirobo", and it will soon be rocketing towards the International Space Station. Standing at 13 inches tall and just over 2 pounds, this robot was built to be a conversation companion. Toyota, the University of Tokyo, and Robo Garage have all been working together on this little fellow as a way to make a robotic companion to take away some of the feeling of isolation that comes from extended stays in space. Kirobo is specially outfitted to work in zero gravity and to survive all the hardships of space, as well as being outfitted with complex software that allows it to speak Japanese and hold a conversation. This robot will have to wait until Commander Koichi Wakata arrives at the ISS in November or December, but then they will have the first ever conversation between human and robot in space. Fun stuff!
With any luck, robotics technology will not stop here, and we'll soon see even more complex machines helping us through our every day tasks.
For more information, check out this article.

Acceptor (Science Word of the Day: 6/26/13)

A boron atom acting as an acceptor in a silicon lattice. Source
An acceptor is kind of a complicated idea. The simples explanation is that it is an impurity purposefully put into a semiconducting material because it has fewer valence electrons (outer shell electrons, the ones that bond to other atoms) and will thus create an electron hole that will move around the lattice as electrons jump to repair the hole, only to make the hole again where they jumped from. This hole can carry a charge, and thus is useful.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

3 New Possibly Habitable Planets (Picture of the Day: 6/25/13)

Planets of Gliese 667C. Source
It seems like every other week we're finding more planets closer and closer to Earth-like habitability. This new discovery of several planets orbiting Gliese 667C, one star in a three star system, may be adding to our list of habitable worlds. As shown in the picture above, three of the newly discovered planets are in the habitable zone, Gliese 667C c, Gliese 667C f, and Gliese gg7C e. These new planets are super-Earth's, meaning that they are more massive than Earth itself, but they aren't too massive for life to exist, in my opinion (I am utterly unqualified to make a determination, but I can guess). In order, their masses are 3.8 Earths, 2.7 Earths, and 2.7 Earths. Life is a tenacious thing. If there's a place in the universe where it can live, it will live there.
What's even more exciting about this system is that it is only 22 light years away. Don't get me wrong, that's still too far away for humans to reach at this point in our technological development, but it is close enough that potential future missions to these super-Earths aren't inconceivable.
For more information, check out this article or this article.

Abundance (Science Word of the Day: 6/25/13)

Instead of just meaning "a lot of", abundance means different things in the scientific community. One definition of abundance is the ratio of the total mass of some element or substance as compared to the total mass of Earth. I guess this could be called geological abundance or something, if that is easier to remember. An example of this form of abundance would be something like "the abundance of aluminum in Earth's crust is 8%" because Earth's crust is 8% aluminum.
Another definition of abundance is the ratio of the number of atoms of a particular isotope of an element compared to the total number of atoms of all isotopes of that element. For example, "the natural abundance of uranium-235 is 0.71%" meaning that 0.71% of a sample of natural uranium is the uranium-235 isotope.

Monday, June 24, 2013

IRIS (Picture of the Day: 6/24/13)

IRIS being worked on in a clean room. Source
This exciting satellite is NASA's new Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS). It is a satellite designed to orbit Earth is such a way that it is perpetually above the sunrise line so that the sun is always visible. IRIS will try to image and help us learn more about the "interface region" in the solar atmosphere, a region about 3,000 to 6,000 miles thick. This region is theoretically a key transfer point to the sun's hot corona. We don't know very much about the sun, even after having lived under it for so long, so hopefully this satellite will reveal some of its mysteries.
What's especially interesting about IRIS right now is that it will launch Wednesday, June 26. That's this week. Hopefully we'll be able to see some of the things that IRIS will reveal to us in the very near future.
To learn more, check out this article.

Absorptance (Science Word of the Day: 6/24/13)

Absorptance is "the ratio of the radiant or luminous flux absorbed by a body to the flux falling on it". Basically, absorptance is how much light something absorbs. Sweet and simple.
Of some note, the absorptance of a blackbody (an object that absorbs 100% of the energy that hits it) is 1.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

NASA Joins Mission to Mercury (Picture of the Day: 6/23/13)

Mercury. Source
NASA is jumping on board with the dual-orbiter mission to Mercury started by the European Space Agency and Japan's Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. The mission's name is BepiColombo, after the Italian scientist Guiseppe "Bepi" Colombo who developed a technique for using a planet's gravity to maneuver satellites. The European Space Agency is sending up the Mercury Planetart Orbiter, and Japan is sending up its own Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter. All NASA is sending up is a small instrument, known as Strofio, to analyze the small amounts of gases that form Mercury's atmosphere. This will all be launched together aboard an Ariane 5 rocket in August 2015. The mission will take six years to reach Mercury.
For more information, check out this article.

Aberration (Science Word of the Day: 6/23/13)

I have decided to start increasing my scientific vocabulary by one word every day, and I thought that it might be a good idea to share each word with the world. So, stay tuned to learn more science words!

Today's word is "aberration". This isn't the general "deviating from the usual" definition, however. There are two ways to define aberration in a scientific term (I'm sure that there are many more ways, but I'll talk about two).

The first definition is optical aberration. This occurs in two ways. The first way is known as chromatic aberration when the edges of an image are oddly colored. Chromatic aberration occurs when a glass lens refracts light in an uneven way, bending the colors and creating this aberrant effect. The second form of optical aberration is spherical aberration. Spherical aberration can occur with either lenses or mirrors, and it happens when the light rays from the observed object come to focus in slightly different positions as a result of curvature in the observing device.

Chromatic aberration. Source
Spherical aberration compared to no aberration. Source

The second definition is astronomical aberration. Astronomical aberration is the observed displacement in the position of a star due to the Earth's movement around the sun. The star's light appears to come from a spot slightly displaced in the direction of the Earth's movement. This is defined by the equation a = v/c, where v is the orbital velocity of Earth, and c is the speed of light.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Arecibo and 1998 QE2 (Picture of the Day: 6/19/13)

Asteroid 1998 QE2 as seen by the Arecibo telescope. Source
Back in 1998, a massive asteroid, dubbed 1998 QE2, was discovered by a team at MIT. This year, the asteroid made a close flyby of Earth, just a little over 6 million kilometers out (that sounds like a very far distance, but in astronomical terms, it's nothing). During that close flyby, it was caught on "camera" by a team manning the Arecibo radio telescope. These researchers bounced radio waves off of the giant floating space rock and were able to map its topography using a technique based on the Doppler effect. What they didn't expect to find, however, was that the asteroid had it's own little moon. That's right, this asteroid is so big that there is an object caught in orbit around it. You can see this moon as the little, white blip towards the bottom left of the picture. We are very fortunate that this asteroid wasn't closer to us.
For more information, check out this article.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Harm of Alternative Medicine (Picture of the Day: 6/17/13)

Homeopathic and alternative medicines. Source
This topic is too big to just be a "Picture of the Day", so I will be writing a full article on the subject later, but I thought this too important to go unmentioned until that post, so I'm writing about it now. The topic that I want to talk about is alternative medicine. All through the United States there are individuals selling herbal, homeopathic, or other "natural" treatments that they claim can boost a person's health or even cure diseases. The problem with all of this is that most of the time these treatments don't work, allowing the disease that they were supposed to treat to go unchecked, and oftentimes they can even be harmful themselves. When you think that you might have an illness, it is important to visit a trained medical physician and to take their advice for treatment. But even beyond that, it is always important to know what you are putting into your body. If you are prescribed a medicine or you want to take a supplement, do your research. Make sure that it has been FDA approved and that there is sufficient scientific evidence to say that it really will help you.
I very much recommend reading this article to get the scoop on harmful alternative remedies. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

A New Class of Astronauts (Picture of the Day: 6/17/13)

The new class of astronauts. Source
NASA has unveiled their new class of astronauts to be trained for potential future missions. These 8, highly qualified, individuals are living the dream. Coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, these people have been selected from a pool of over 6,000 applicants to train to be the next pioneers of space exploration.
NASA will be hosting a Google+ Hangout session today to discuss the new recruits. If you want to follow along, follow this link: or watch it on It will take place at 4:00 p.m. EDT.
For more information and a list of the astronauts names and bios, check out this article.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Gulf War Illness (Picture of the Day: 6/16/13)

Ronald Brown, a Gulf War illness sufferer. Source
I had never heard about this until today. Apparently there is a condition known as "Gulf War illness". It is unclear whether this illness is caused by PTSD, war-time experiences, or exposure to toxins, but a new study done at Georgetown University seems to indicate that the cause of the illness may be due to neurological damage, possibly from exposure to toxins.
Here are the facts, a large proportion of the soldiers involved in the Gulf War have reported symptoms that were not traceable to any known disease or damage. This mysterious ailment was named "Gulf War illness", but there are no known treatments for it. Many medical professionals consider the illness to be psychological, while some think that it is physical damage from some unknown source. This new study found damage in the pain centers of the brains of affected Gulf War veterans, which would indicate some form of exposure to a pathogen or poison. The problem with the study is that the sample size is very, very small.
By itself, this Georgetown study will not bring any major changes to how we view this condition, but it may peak interest which could cause further research and eventually could create a treatment.
For the record, I don't pretend to know what causes this illness.
For more information, check out this article.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Gene Patenting News

Representation of DNA. Source
Ever since the discovery of DNA, nations have been asking themselves "can people patent genes?". On one hand, there's the intellectual property argument. The scientists or businesses that discovery certain strands of DNA are the first ones to do it and to find a purpose for it, so shouldn't they have some control over their discovery? On the other hand, those strands of DNA existed long before their discoverers came along. In the United States, patents are held on new creations, ideas and devices that didn't exist before the patentee showed up, but the patent rules were created before DNA was discovered, so there was no precedent for anything like this.
The United States Supreme Court has brought us an answer to this question (or, at least, has brought Americans an answer). Just today (Thursday, June 13, 2013) the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that human genes cannot be patented. This ruling basically means that no one can have exclusive rights to the production and use of a preexisting human gene, a ruling that I agree with. Intellectual property arguments aside, the fact of the matter is that the discoverer did not invent the gene in question. It would be like someone saying "I invented the house cat, anyone who buys a housecat or breeds cats has to pay me." An utterly absurd argument.
Now, this Supreme Court ruling goes farther than just to ban human gene patents. The ruling also states that artificially synthesized genes do deserve patents. Human genes cannot be patented because they weren't created by the discoverer, but genes that were created by the person applying for a patent can be patented. These synthesized genes did not exist before and were the creation of their inventor. I further agree with this. I believe that a person should be able to patent their own creations, not the creations of nature.
The repercussions of this ruling are that now researchers and medical professionals can do research on genetic disorders and various genes without the threat of being sued. This opens the way for medical technologies that rely on the use and replication of human genes. In the end, it has been a good day for science.

New in Material Science (Picture of the Day: 6/13/13)

Scientists have found a way to reduce density by increasing pressure. Source
This new discovery is entirely counterintuitive, so much so that even the researchers who discovered it didn't believe it for a long time. By putting zinc cyanide in a diamond-anvil cell and surrounding it with a variety of fluids, they were able to apply immense pressures (0.9 to 1.8 gigapascals, otherwise known as 'a lot of pressure') and make the zinc cyanide actually decrease in density. They observed that, under these conditions, the compound became porous, much like a sponge, and expanded. This flies in the face of everything that we are taught to believe. After all, don't things get smaller and harder when you apply pressure? 
Now, you might ask: what's the use of all this? Well, porous materials are used for everything from water filtration to medical instruments. By making previously non-porous materials into porous materials, these scientists have opened the way for countless new innovations that will save lives and generally make the world a better place.
For more information, check out this article.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Dua's Layer (Picture of the Day: 6/12/13)

Human eye. Source
This new discovery is game changing. A researcher, Dr. Harminder Dua from the University of Nottingham, has discovered a new layer in the human cornea, the transparent tissue in front of the eye that focuses light. Previously, doctors and scientist only knew of five layers in the cornea, and it's no surprise that they didn't find this sixth layer, considering that it is only 15 microns thick (less than 3/5,000 of an inch). Apart form meaning that someone will literally have to rewrite the text books, this new discovery will also help in the treatment of disease. Already one disease, keratoconus, has been associated with a tear in this layer. Hopefully we'll see some impressive medical advances due to this discovery.
For more information, check out this article, or this article.

Final Say on the Gamma Delphinids

So, it turns out that it wasn't just me. The Gamma Delphinids really were a no-show. Earth's orbital path realigned with what it was back in 1930 when the Gamma Delphinids were first seen, and some scientists thought that this would mean that the planet would once again pass through the debris field of some unknown comet. It was a long shot at best, so it's not very surprising that nothing happened, but it's still a little disappointing.
Oh well, I still got to spend a good portion of time enjoying the wonder and majesty of the universe under the night sky.
For more on this and when other meteor showers can be seen, check out this article.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Segue 2 (Picture of the Day: 6/11/13)

Dark matter distribution around the Milky Way galaxy, Segue 2 highlighted. Source
Back in 2007, a tiny galaxy was discovered orbiting the Milky Way galaxy (our galaxy). Containing somewhere around 1,000 stars this galaxy is the smallest yet discovered. Our current models of the universe predict that we should find many of these dwarf galaxies, but our previous inability to detect them has thrown some doubt on our theories. The detection of this new galaxy offers us some insight into the origin of the universe and may back up our models.
A paper is being published that talks about this galaxy and the "dark matter halo" that it finds itself trapped in, but that stuff is beyond me, so I won't embarrass myself trying to explain it. 

Gamma Delphinids Update

My girlfriend and me.
Early this morning, my girlfriend and I woke up to drive out into the dark fields of Iowa to try and catch a glimpse of the mythical Gamma Delphinids meteor shower. We were out there for about an hour from 3 to 4 a.m. (CDT) when the meteor shower was supposed to be at its peak. We did see a couple shooting stars, but nothing on the order of a meteor shower. Sadly, it appears as if the Gamma Delphinids either didn't hit, or didn't hit when they were supposed to. If you still want to catch this display, you might try going out tonight around 9 to 11 p.m., but in all likelihood, the meteor shower will be a no-show.
I'll keep following this story and see if there are any new developments, maybe we missed it due to improper timing.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Possible Rare Meteor Shower (Picture of the Day: 6/10/13)

A meteor from the Perseid shower. Source
A couple of scientists, most notably a fellow named Peter Jenniskens, believe that we could be in for a rare treat tomorrow morning. The Gamma Delphinids meteor shower, which hasn't been seen in over eight decades, could be returning with as many as two meteors every minute (that's a lot, if you were wondering). This meteor shower was first seen on June 10, 1930, but it hasn't been seen for a long time now. There are some theories going around that this meteor shower is caused when Earth travels into the debris field of a previously unknown comet that traveled through our solar system a long, long time ago.
If you want to see this meteor shower, be looking into the southern sky at the Delphinus constellation at around 8:28 UT, 1:28 a.m. PDT, 4:28 a.m. EDT and cross your fingers. It will help to be there a little early as the time of the shower is not known. There is also a very good chance that nothing will happen, so don't be disappointed.
For more information, check out this article.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Ancient Monkey (Picture of the Day: 6/5/13)

Archicebus achilles, possibly the oldest primate. Source

About 10 years ago, a tiny fossil was found in China by an unassuming farmer. Now, a group of researchers are reexamining this fossil and have found something incredible. This tiny, fossilized animal may be the oldest primate yet found, the farthest ancestor of humanity. They have named this 55 million year old creature Archicebus achilles, where Archicebus roughly translates to "ancient monkey". This creature is small and very far removed from humans, but it could be a link in our evolutionary chain.
Evidence from the creature's sharp teeth and small body indicate that it climbed through trees and ate insects. The fossil is currently being sent to France to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility to be bombarded with x-rays in order to peer through the stone around the fossil and image the entirety of the skeleton, in much the same way x-rays are used in a doctors office.
For more information, check out this article.