Saturday, June 30, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #2

This week, our roundup theme is time.

1. First Animals Around 30 Million Years Earlier Than Previously Thought?

Credit: Richard Siemens

Still controversial, there is new evidence to suggest that animals were already scootin' around the world 585 million years ago. Trace fossils (as in, fossils that aren't actual body parts) from Uruguay have been dated by Dr. Larry Heaman of the University of Alberta, and have surprised the world. These fossils, consisting of a trackway left by some bilaterial little animal, were dated via the granite-esque rock that was intermingled with the trickier-to-date sandstone around the trackway. This is a major discovery, if accurate. Previously, the first evidence for animal life in the fossil record was from 555 million years ago (Kimberella, another bilaterial little critter, this one from Russia). Dr. Heaman is no stranger to upsetting known paleontological time scales, however. He's the same scientist whose work suggests that sauropod dinosaurs (long-necks) survived past the asteroid collision by a good 700,000 years.

2. Set Your Clocks Back!...But Just By One Second.

Tonight we get to add a leap second to the year. At 11:59 pm tonight, your second hand will tick forward...but it won't be 12:00 am at that moment. It will be 11:60 pm. You'll have to wait an extra second to get to midnight. But why?

Short answer: the world is slowing down as it goes around the sun. That makes our years longer than they used to last. Leap seconds, unlike leap days, are not regularly added in on a four-year cycle to make up for our 365 day + 6ish hour trip around the sun. Leap seconds are added in to account for the slowing of the planet. See, Earth changes speed around the sun irregularly, because of things like tidal friction (our moon pulls on us, dontcha know), molten changes in our core, and even the occasional major earthquake shifting things around. Because of these itty bitty changes that don't follow a schedule, we sometimes just need to tweak the length of our year by a second. This year is one of those years, so get ready. Tonight, you have an extra second of time. Unlike the star of our final roundup story...

3. Time's Sadly Up for the Pinta Island Tortoise

Lonesome George, the last of the Galapagos giant tortoise subspecies (the Pinta Island Tortoise), passed away this week. This extinction was a long time coming. Lonesome George was first found in 1971, after the subspecies was already presumed extinct. He's spent the last forty years being cared for at the Charles Darwin Research Center, but was never able to produce any viable offspring with other tortoises, because of genetic differences.

The species was driven to extinction by human hunting and by vegetation loss from introduced goats overrunning their home island back in the 19th and early 20th century. This is yet another tragic, cautionary tale to us all to treat our world and its creatures respectfully. I just wonder how many more of these cautionary tales we'll need before human-triggered extinctions finally cease.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror

If you haven't seen this video yet, watch it now.

Fingers crossed for August 6th, EST! (Which happens to be my birthday. This is going to be the coolest birthday present ever!)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #1

It's been an exciting week in science, so let's take a look at some of the biggest stories! 

1. Higgs Boson Discovered?!

Rumors are flying that there's going to be some sort of "major announcement" from CERN at the International Conference of High Energy Physics between July 4th and 11th. CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) is in charge of the Large Hadron Collider, where scientists have been slamming proton beams together in an attempt to "coax out" and discover the last piece of the Standard Model of physics, aka the Higgs boson particle.

In the Standard Model, the Higgs boson interacts with all other particles and is essentially the reason other particles have mass. And while scientists have found the other particles of the Standard Model, the Higgs boson has been elusive. It should exist, but it has not yet been observed.

Or has it? I guess we'll all find out soon! I'm personally skeptical, because I've seen firsthand how sneaky the Higgs boson can be.

2. Tarbosaurus Skeleton Seized; Faith in Humanity Restored


The United States government has seized what is strongly suspected to be an illegally excavated Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton that sold at auction last month for over a million dollars. Paleontologists had examined this skeleton and realized that the story the "owner" stood by just didn't match what the bones themselves said. It was clear that this skeleton came out of Mongolia, where it is illegal to excavate and remove fossils from the country. Whether or not the guy who put it up for auction knew that these bones were illegally excavated and smuggled out is still unclear. Regardless, the auction was a horrible blow for paleontology, as it carried on despite overwhelming evidence that this skeleton was smuggled and should be immediately returned to Mongolia. Protests by those in the paleontological community kicked up around the auction both online and in person in front of the auction house in Manhattan. Those protests were ignored.

However, while the auction itself was not halted, a month later the U.S. government has put a stop to the sale and has taken the bones away to begin the process of investigating the situation and getting the bones back to Mongolia. PHEW. I can't begin to explain how relieved I am, and I'm sure others in the field of paleontology must be feeling. Fossil looting is our biggest enemy, and to see it rewarded with a million dollar auction sale was as painful as a bite from Tarbosaurus itself.

I think Mongolia President Elbegdorj Tsakhia said it best: "Today we send a message to looters all over the world: We will not turn a blind eye to the marketplace of looted fossils."

3. Asteroid Zoomed by Earth, Twice as Big as Expected

Credit: URSA

Asteroid 2012 LZ1 flew past our planet on June 14th, safely missing us by over 3 million miles. Safe as that distance was, however, this asteroid has raised some eyebrows.

First of all, it was only discovered four days before it flew past us. This was because it was visible from the Southern Hemisphere, where not only are there far fewer major observatories scanning the skies, there are just far fewer people looking for this sort of stuff. The science community was just reminded of an important lesson: asteroids have a 50% chance of coming in from the Northern Hemisphere, where everyone hangs out to look for asteroids, but THERE IS ALSO A 50% CHANCE THEY'D COME IN FROM THE SKIES OF THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE.

Second fun surprise: it turns out the asteroid is twice as large as originally thought. Asteroid 2012 LZ1 is actually over half a mile across. That's one big rock.

Now, it isn't a huge deal that the asteroid's size was so underestimated. It didn't hit Earth, and we knew it couldn't hit us. But this has taught us that our current methods for estimating asteroid sizes just don't cut it for asteroids like 2012 LZ1, which happen to have a very dark surface and reflect much less light than an average asteroid.

Yay for learning lessons?

I'm reminded of Professor Moody in all this. We really need to take that whole CONSTANT VIGILANCE! thing to heart.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Summer Solstice

Tomorrow will mark the Summer Solstice for the Northern Hemisphere, leading us into the first full day of summer on Thursday. The first day of summer is also known as the "longest day of the year". For us on the Northeast coast of the U.S., sunrise will be just after 5 am, and sunset will be close to 8:30 pm. That's nearly 15 1/2 hours of daylight.

I think we all have a basic understanding of why this happens. Earth is tilted on its axis, and on June 20th, 2012, that tilt aims us "Northern-Hemisphere-ers" at the sun for longer in Earth's rotation. Nearly 64% of the time Earth spends rotating tomorrow, we'll be on the "lit up" side of the planet.

For the Winter Solstice, this is all flipped.

During the Winter Solstice, we spend most of our 24-hour rotation period on the DARK side of the planet. If you're still having trouble visualizing this, take a look at the Tropic of Cancer. For the Summer Solstice, on this side-view of Earth, you see that about 2/3 of the line is in the daylight, 1/3 in the dark. It's opposite on the Winter Solstice picture. And all this is simply a result of Earth orbiting the Sun.

So if it's so basic, why am I blogging about it?

...Because this is a perfect example of how far we've come in our understanding of the universe.

People have been observing the solstice for thousands of years. We've created monuments around the world to showcase these special days (Stonehenge, anyone?). We've spent centuries arguing about what the solstice tells us concerning our position in space. And today, the scientific explanation of the solstice seems so simple and commonplace, we barely give it a second thought.


And that is the power of science: to pursue the understanding of a phenomenon until it's figured out and explained to the rest of humanity.

Now, sadly of course, there are many people who still have no real understanding of what the solstice is about. I work with kids every day who are just wrapping their minds around this. But as far as scientific ideas go, the solstice is actually one of the ones best understood by the general public.

So tomorrow, as you enjoy your extra sunshine, just think about that for a minute. Think about how far we've come with science. Think about what we know (and take for granted knowing) now, that our great-ancestors did not. And then pause to think about what sorts of weird phenomenon science will be able to explain in the future. Just what will an everyday-person on the street have a decent understanding of in the year 3012, that would blow our minds today?

(For my writer-readers out there...consider that a prompt!)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Brainstorming and Organization

Now that I've had a chance to mess around with this blog for a couple of months, I have a much better sense of what I'd like to do with it.

First off, apologies that no new posts have been up in a while. Can I blame my awesome Californian vacation? No?

What if I showed you something adorable from my trip?

Yay elephant seals!

Now that you're distracted by cute, let's just gloss over my multi-week absence and move straight on to the important stuff:

Things are a'changin'!

As mentioned, I've got a better sense of what this blog is going to do, so it's time to add some structure.

First of all, name change. Rather than just calling this blog my default username and twitter name, PaleoPaws, I'm going to call it: Discoverific! Silly, yes, but also fun. Silly and fun is kind of how I roll, if you hadn't noticed. Please note: the actual web address HAS CHANGED to, just to keep everything tidy. Since I don't have a big following yet, I don't think this should be a big deal.

Second, design changes. My old blog layout wasn't quite what I wanted, but I found a new one that works great. What really sold me on the new design, though, was the chance to have DINOSAURS all over the top right-hand corner.

Third, posting changes. In an attempt to keep this blog regularly updated, posts will now fall into one of three categories (with the odd exception, of course):

1. Science Inspires!

These posts will focus on how science gets people going creatively. This can be cool art stuff, posts about incorporating science into writing, neat new science media, or social/environmental/educational movements. Example: the post that gave this category its name.

2. Katie Blathers On!

These posts will be more in-depth, essay-style posts, where my goal is to teach my readers something cool or get readers thinking about something around them in a new way. Example: my Part of the Family blog series.

3. Weekly Science Round-Up!

As the name implies, this will be a post highlighting some of the coolest new science discoveries and developments from the past week. No example post yet, because I've yet to actually make such a post!

So there you have it. Three basic categories.

Generally speaking, they'll be posted in order each week. Early in the week (Monday-ish) you'll likely see a Science Inspires! post, mid-week will be a Blathers On! post, and by the weekend I'll post a Round-Up. Some weeks certain posts will be skipped, I'm sure, depending on what's happening in my real life. Other weeks, there might be posts that fall outside these categories. This really is just a way to guide myself in relationship to this blog, rather than a set of hard and fast rules.

Finally, since I am an aspiring children's book author, many posts will continue to touch upon things that I feel matter both to children and to the writing community. And every now and again, you might get some insight into where I am in the process of finding an agent for my middle grade environmental adventure story, or how my new "kids in space" novel is coming along.

Thanks for reading!