How Hot Will It Get?

Muir Glacer melt, Alaska. 1882 photo taken by G.D. Hazard; 2005 photo taken by Bruce F. Molnia. Courtesy of the Glacier Photograph Collection, National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology.
Muir Glacer melt, Alaska. 1882 photo taken by G.D. Hazard; 2005 photo taken by Bruce F. Molnia. Courtesy of the Glacier Photograph Collection, National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology.

Stay tuned for the next Science at the Theater, a free public lecture hosted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It will be held on Monday April 22 at 7 pm at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.

Scientists will talk about their latest research findings on how the earth’s climate is changing, from the arctic to the rainforest. Participating speakers will address critical questions: What happens when the permafrost thaws? What do computer models predict about our future climate – floods, droughts, hurricanes and heat waves? What role do our forests play in carbon absorption? What kind of carbon tax might actually work?

Come find out what to expect and if there is anything you can do about it!

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Curiosity and Nervousness over the Mars Landing

Artist's concept animation depicting the moment that NASA's Curiosity rover touches down onto Mars.
Artist’s animation depicting the moment that NASA’s Curiosity rover touches down onto Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech image)

When I tried to make lunch plans with a friend for next week, he didn’t know yet whether he could meet me. That’s because his plans depend on how smoothly the Curiosity rover lands on Mars tonight. His research team put together the Radiation Assessment Detector that is mounted on the top deck of the Curiosity rover.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft with the Curiosity rover are approaching Mars at this moment. It’s expected to land tonight at 10:31 p.m. PDT (Pacific Daylight Time). The technical challenges involved in the Curiosity’s landing are daunting. The final minutes to landing are described beautifully in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s popular video dubbed “The Seven Minutes of Terror.”

We still aren’t sure if life ever existed on Mars. From past missions, researchers know that there used to be water there. Now they want to determine if Mars once had the kind of environment that could be habitable or conducive for the formation of microbial life.

The Curiosity rover is a car-like rover that will search Mars for past or present conditions favorable for life on the planet. It is basically a science lab on wheels, including 10 complex scientific instruments. These instruments are designed to study the chemistry of rocks, soil and atmosphere — searching for signs of past life on Mars.

One of those scientific instruments is the Radiation Assessment Detector, which is designed to characterize the energetic particle spectrum at the surface of Mars. This will allow researchers to determine the radiation dose for humans at the planet surface, as well as provide input on the effects of particles on the surface and atmosphere. The surface is thought to have much higher radiation than Earth, since Mars has a thinner atmosphere and no global magnetic shield to divert charged particles.

Although all research requires patience, hurling your research instrument at a far away planet requires both patience and guts. The landing may cause 7 minutes of terror, but the days of waiting must include its own nail-biting nervousness. When I get together with my friend for lunch, I’ll check his nails. Hopefully the landing will be a success, so he’ll be at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the next couple weeks though. I can wait.

The Eclipse is Coming!

solar eclipse
Photograph courtesy of the Exploratorium via Creative Commons.

When viewed from the Earth, a solar eclipse happens when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth so the Moon blocks the Sun. If the Moon only blocks part of the Sun, then it is a partial solar eclipse. If the Sun is fully obscured by the Moon, then it is a total solar eclipse. Total eclipses are rare at any one location, because the Moon fully blocks the Sun along only a narrow path on the Earth’s surface traced by the Moon’s shadow.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a partial solar eclipse will occur on May 20, 2012. This is the first solar eclipse to happen in the United States since 1994. In San Francisco, this eclipse will begin at 5:15 pm and end at 7:40 pm. The maximum eclipse will occur at 6:32 pm when 85% of the sun will be obscured. This partial eclipse will look the like the Moon has a ring of fire surrounding it.

Although it is tempting, you shouldn’t view a solar eclipse with the naked eye. Your eye-lens will concentrate the sun’s light onto your retina, and this can cause permanent eye damage. You can safely view a solar eclipse wearing inexpensive solar glasses (with a “CE” label), which have filters that block out 99.99% of the sun’s light and 100% of the harmful ultraviolet rays. Don’t have solar glasses? You can also safely view a solar eclipse by indirect projection – projecting the image of the sun onto a white piece of paper using a pinhole camera. The San Francisco Exploratorium has directions on how to make a pinhole camera.

You can also view the partial solar eclipse at science centers, such as the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley and the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland.

Tagging Along on a Fantasy Field Trip

The Field Trip Podcast ico
The Field Trip Podcast icon, courtesy of Kara Platoni.

Looking back, the only school field trip that I remember was our trip to the San Francisco Exploratorium. I enjoyed the fun interactive science exhibits, but what I remember best is the tactile dome. I entered into total darkness and spent the next hour feeling, crawling and sliding my way through a 3-D maze. The purpose of the tactile room is to explore a disorienting world in which you can only rely on touch. For a kid, the challenge is to do that as quickly as possible.

However, that field trip is tame compared to what Kara Platoni, Eric Simons, and Casey Miner have in mind. They’ve launched a new podcast, The Field Trip, that broadcasts their real world science adventures. To add a little more intellectual rigor, they also interview an expert guest in their radio studio for each episode. Beginning on May 14, a new episode will air weekly each Monday through June 4.

For more information on the podcast series, check out my KQED Quest blog.

Why Don’t We Get Cancer More Often?

See my KQED Quest blog on Dr. Mina Bissell’s pivotal breast cancer research at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. She will be part of a free public lecture, Science at the Theater: Health Detectives. It will be held on April 23 at 7 pm at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.

science at the theater health detectives
Image courtesy of Friends of Berkeley Lab.

Want A Net-Zero Energy Home?

Berkeley Lab presents 3 talks on “The House of the Future.” Come get a preview of tomorrow’s zero-energy home with cool roofs, smart windows, and computer-driven control systems. These talks are for a general audience, on May 10 at 7-9 p.m. at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Free admission. More information at http://www.lbl.gov/LBL-PID/fobl/.

Science At The Theater

I want to let my Bay Area readers know about an upcoming cool science lecture for the general public. Berkeley Lab presents “Just Say No To Carbon Emissions” on April 26 from 7-9 pm at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Admission is free. There will be three dynamic speakers from Berkeley Labs discussing renewable energy topics. Ramamoorthy Ramesh, a material scientist, will describe current research efforts to make cheap solar. Nan Zhou will discuss efforts to increase energy efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide emissions in China. Lastly, the geologist Curt Oldenbury will explain a strategy to reduce carbon emissions from coal and natural gas, by storing it deep underground. This event is co-sponsored by “Friends of Berkeley Lab” and “Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaboration.” For more information, check out their website.