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The essential guide to astronomy

Frost Science

FaviconWorld Science Day 2 Dec 2016, 11:04 am

November 10 was World Science Day for Peace and Development, and for the first time, this year celebrated the work of science centers and museums across the world.

I was lucky enough to be in Paris, France, at the UNESCO headquarters, with colleagues from around the world to explore how science centers and museums can have a greater impact on their communities and work towards the sustainable development goals established by the United Nations. Led by the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), this year’s International Science Center and Science Museum Day brought together science center networks across the globe. In opening remarks, Getachew Engida, Deputy Director General of UNESCO, expressed the importance of the links between science and daily life and how science centers play a vital role in raising awareness of the importance of science, encouraging a free exchange of ideas. Curiosity is a basic human trait and scientists need to find more ways of making their work known, across geographical, cultural and economic barriers.

It was an inspirational day, with more than 60 people discussing how best science centers can use and expand their resources to better the lives of people worldwide. Participants came from Asia, Africa, South America, as well as the US and Europe. Video links to Australia, Austria, South Africa and Washington DC illustrated some of the actions that were taking place over the whole world to celebrate this special day. Speakers covered topics as varied as health trends (one of the positive areas as infant mortality has decreased), to migration (data on positive income flow to developing countries), to concerns about the rising rejection of expert knowledge and the need for developing effective methods to co-produce and integrate the public in policy development.

World Science Day

Activities took place in science centers across the globe. Over 300 science centers were delivering special activities to celebrate the day. From Anchorage, US,  a program exploring life below the land, to a special event in Alexandria, Egypt on solar energy, a party for volunteers in Singapore and special science club event on clean water and the environment, or Buenos Aires, Argentina, where young people committed to the environment held a meeting to raise awareness of the challenges. People young and old gathered in science centers to demonstrate how science can help both face and solve the challenges ahead.

Students around the world had also participated in the GLOBE Observer, a citizen science global experiment to document cloud cover in collaboration with NASA. While pictures of clouds from space are tracked regularly, the corresponding pictures from the ground upwards are not available. Over 900 observations, corresponding to 3,000 images, were made and links to satellite transit was established for some of these. This experiment is a test to see if it can enable scientists to explore clouds from a different viewpoint, enabling them to refine weather projections.

What does this mean in practice for Miami? Many of these goals are directly linked to our work: for example one related to life under the sea, or another promoting quality education, a third for good health and wellbeing. At the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, the Aquarium aims to raise awareness of the importance of life under the sea. Another major initiative is MeLaβ, a gallery devoted to increase in wellbeing while also a research program supported by Baptist Health South Florida, in collaboration with the School Board of Miami-Dade County. Establishing global partnerships offers opportunities to expand our understanding of the challenges and potential solutions while also opening minds.

They call themselves the baby science center, The House of Experiments' in Bucharest, Romania just joined the ISCSMD.

The House of Experiments’ in Bucharest, Romania joined ISCSMD.

In developing countries, science centers rarely happen without leadership by government, so one step that came out of the meeting was to explore how we could better educate governments to recognize the important role of science centers. Frost Science is a great example of a public-private partnership, where popular support and individual major donors have made this possible.

One outcome from the meeting was to explore how to encourage links between young people at science centers: we have been lucky enough to participate in two such programs in the past, one with Bogota, Columbia, exploring water issues in these two very different environments, another with Jamaica exploring urban environmental restoration. These opportunities can have a major impact on widening young people’s perspectives and understanding the global nature of many of the challenges we face.

So what would be good initiatives for Frost Science? By next year’s World Science Day, we will be open and ready to join in the celebrations.

We are the fortunate ones. Professor Romain Murenzi, the Director of UNESCO’s Division of Science Policy and Capacity Building, was the chair for the meeting. He had been the Minister for Education in Rwanda in charge of rebuilding this sector after the civil war and genocide. He spoke about how education and especially science education was essential in that country to rebuild, to give young people other options than fighting. As he said on his appointment to the UNESCO position:

I am confident that many of us will continue to work together toward the goal that we all share: using science and engineering to support sustainable development and better lives for people everywhere.”

I think we can all work towards that.


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FaviconVirtual NASA Missions with Miami Students 14 Nov 2016, 4:57 pm

What do you get when you mash up 150 middle school students, an MIT astrophysicist, 3D exoplanetary simulations in a virtual world, and real NASA data? A program called vMAX (Virtual Missions and Exoplanets), an innovative and creative science learning experience run by the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science.

Funded by NASA, vMAX is a 3D virtual world environment and quest that puts middle school students and educators in NASA-related mission simulations to planets outside our solar system. As a scientist myself, I had the pleasure of watching my students (or junior scientists, as I refer to them) in a new environment, as they took on exciting intellectual challenges in a jam-packed week of exoplanetary fun! Throughout the week, students learned multiple scientific methods and instrumentations used by scientists to detect and study exoplanets. All hands were on deck as the junior scientists participated in hands-on activities that included designing and launching water rockets as well as airlift hovercrafts. Students also had the opportunity to interact with world-class professional scientists via virtual lectures and question and answer sessions.

This unique summer science program also occurred at several other locations simultaneously across the country including, Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, CA; U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL; Sci-Port: Louisiana’s Science Center in Shreveport, LA; and New York Hall of Science in Corona, NY. This created a dynamic cross-sharing of ideas and experiences, while connecting students nationwide via avatars they created and used to navigate the virtual world environment. At week’s end, I heard many of the junior scientists express that they may now consider a career in science, which is the most exciting thing for me, both as a scientist and a educator. It’s a personal mission of mine to expose students to the extraordinary world of science, and vMAX even introduced other extraordinary worlds beyond our own.


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FaviconThe Journey of the Frost Science Oculus 24 Oct 2016, 10:41 am

Last week we reached a major milestone in the completion of Frost Science—the installation of the gigantic oculus lens of the Gulf Stream Aquarium!

The Gulf Stream Aquarium is a 100-foot wide, 500,000-gallon cone-shaped vessel with a corner-less design that allows open-water marine species such as tuna and sharks to swim continuously as they would in the actual Gulf Stream. The oculus lens serves as the massive viewing portal into the Gulf Stream Aquarium, the centerpiece of the museum’s three-level Aquarium. The 31-foot wide, 13.5-inch thick acrylic lens will put you underneath the action and offer stunning views of the beautiful creatures cruising overhead.

The lens had a long journey, starting as a mere concept, going through creation, refinement, shipping and finally, installation at Frost Science by Skanska USA Building, the construction team leading the project, along with Hill International and Acrylic Tank Manufacturing. None of this was easy with an object that weighs over 60,000 pounds!

Manufactured by Clax Italia, just south of Rome, designers used a liquid acrylic pour instead of the usual bead fabrication process so as to achieve maximum clarity. Then they bonded multiple layers and several pieces together to form the entire lens. For the four-hour journey through the narrow streets of Italy to the port city of Livorno for shipping, the lens had to remain in several pieces. Once at the port, engineers built a temporary hangar that functioned like a huge oven as they heated the pieces together into one singular lens. Craftsmen then polished the lens by hand, built a special shipping container for it, and loaded it onto a freighter for the three-week journey to Miami.

The total weight of the oculus and shipping container was 80,000 pounds! This meant that a unique motorized platform – similar to the ones NASA uses to move space shuttles – had to be used to transport the lens to the museum site in downtown Miami’s Museum Park.

How is a gigantic irreplaceable lens actually put into place? Very carefully. And with an enormous crane big enough to lift the oculus over 100 feet in the air. Next up, the Skanska team will start installing the silicone sealant that forms the final seal between the oculus and the fiber glass liner. Finally, they’ll fill the Gulf Stream Aquarium with seawater.

“With each and every construction milestone we achieve, we move closer to opening our doors to the community,” said Frost Science President, Frank Steslow. “We thank Miami-Dade County for their continued support and the residents for believing in this project. We hope Frost Science will inspire generations to visit and be the nucleus of science and technology within our community.”

Oculus being placed in Gulf Stream Aquarium at Frost Science


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FaviconThe Science Behind This Week’s King Tides 14 Oct 2016, 2:22 pm

When you live in places such as Miami and Miami Beach, tides can affect your everyday life. In fact, the higher than normal king tides, which occur several times a year, can be so pronounced that they cause flooding, even on sunny days, affecting commutes and damaging property in low-lying areas. This fall, they are occurring this week, and through the weekend.

Though “king tide” is not a scientific term, it is used by the EPA and NOAA to describe the highest tides of the year. Here in Miami they typically occur in the spring and fall, and occur when the three main tide factors align.

Tides occur when the Earth’s 24-hour rotation around its axis causes us to pass under the moon. The Moon’s gravitational pull changes the shape of the ocean, causing it to stretch out toward the Moon (and away from it on the opposite side of the Earth), resulting in high tides. Low tides are the phases between the stretched areas.

While the Moon is an obvious contributor, the Sun also plays a part. When the Moon and the Sun line up during a New Moon or a Full Moon, the Sun’s gravity kicks in as well, and we get spring tides (not named for the season) about 140% as strong as a regular tide—an effect that is maximized around the equinoxes when the Earth’s equator is also lined up.

The third factor is the Moon’s distance to the Earth as it orbits. The orbit path is elliptical, therefore weaker tides occur when the Moon is farther away (apogee) and stronger tides occur when it is closer (perigee). This week we’ll be experiencing the effects of the sun, moon and perigee alignment, thus kings tide.

As Miami and Miami Beach look to a future that may be affected by sea level rise, many point to king tides as a preview of what’s to come.


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FaviconWaves of Knowledge 11 Oct 2016, 5:05 pm

Waves can teach us a lot about where we are. Pacific islanders once used changes in ocean wave patterns to navigate and predict the location of islands, passing this knowledge from generation to generation. And about a hundred years ago, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity predicted that gravitational waves carry information about the distribution of matter in the fabric of space and time. On September 14, 2015, gravitational waves were detected for the first time, validating Einstein’s prediction.

Sharing knowledge of waves can in turn create waves of learning that just may be a key to our future. As a science educator, it’s important for me to partake in this process. I recently attended Einstein’s Outrageous Universe, a three-day course organized by the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago. The course, introduced by Dr. Michael Turner, famous for coining the term “dark energy,” aimed to share a better understanding of cosmology, to energize conversations with leading-edge researchers and to provide tools and resources that bring the frontiers of physics to planetariums and science centers across the nation.

At the conference, Dr. Daniel Holz talked about the unexpected first detection of gravitational waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), and how those waves are ripples in the curvature of space-time that propagate at the speed of light. They are caused by some of the most catastrophic and energetic processes in the universe, such as colliding black holes.

Dr. Jorge Perez-Gallego (2nd from right) working at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics.

Dr. Jorge Perez-Gallego (2nd from right) working at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics.

We also met with experts to dive deeper into some fascinating topics: New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye explored the world of Einstein himself; Dr. Andrea Ghez spoke on the black hole at the center of the Milky Way; Dr. Daniel Scolnic explained the death of stars; Dr. Michael Gladders offered insight into gravitational lensing; Dr. Rocky Kolb shared extensive knowledge on the Big Bang; and Dr. Joseph Lykken explained ideas on the future of General Relativity. The icing on the cake was a visit to the Adler Planetarium, the oldest planetarium in the United States.

I had a great time plunging into my previous career as an academic, and was reminded of the rich exchange of ideas there, and how those ideas need to be shared. Planetariums and science centers have a responsibility to make leading-edge research accessible to broader audiences, including the next generation of scientists and engineers, by means of informal science education.

This process of sharing ideas helps us better understand our world. Just think, people once thought the Earth was flat; now we can see much of the cosmos. Each generation builds on the proven ideas of their predecessors—Einstein’s model came to expand upon Newton’s, and explained some observations the latter could not. Some of the predictions of Einstein’s model are being validated now, but it is also becoming obvious that, sooner or later, a new model will expand upon Einstein’s. Who knows, maybe this new model will somehow be the result of a spark in a young mind during an inspirational visit to a planetarium like ours. Keep looking up!

The University of Chicago campus

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StarDate Online - Your guide to the universe

FaviconWar Surplus 9 Dec 2016, 1:00 am

Before World War II, radio astronomy was more of a hobby than a science. After the war, though, the field blossomed, with radio telescopes popping up around the world. And that was no coincidence. The war provided a lot of experience at operating sophisticated radio gear, and a lot of leftover equipment for astronomers to nab.

The first observations of the radio sky were made in the early 1930s -- not as a scientific endeavor, but in an effort to discover the cause of static in trans-Atlantic phone calls. By 1940, there was only one real “radio astronomer” in the world.

World War II saw an outburst of new and improved technologies. One of those was radar, which uses radio waves to detect airplanes and other objects.

Much of the technology was developed by scientists who were contributing to the war effort, including astronomers. They became skilled at making the equipment, using it, and interpreting its findings. They even did a little science. A British scientist-turned-military officer, for example, discovered radio waves from the Sun.

When the war ended, many of the scientists put their new skills to work as radio astronomers. And the military was getting rid of surplus equipment, so the astronomers could snatch it up for little or no money.

So many post-war radio telescopes consisted of antennas and receivers that had seen service during World War II. They helped turn the field of radio astronomy from a hobby to a science.


Script by Damond Benningfield



Friday, December 9, 2016
Reflections on war-time astronomy

FaviconVega 9 Dec 2016, 1:00 am

Vega, one of the night sky’s brightest stars, is disappearing from evening view this month. Tonight, it sets around 9:30 or 10 p.m., but by month’s end it will set by about 8:30. Look for it in early evening, low in the northwest.

FaviconDeparted Hero 9 Dec 2016, 1:00 am

John Glenn, one of America's original astronauts, died on December 8 at age 95. Glenn flew combat missions during World War II and in Korea, then served as a test pilot before becoming a member of the Mercury Seven astronauts in 1959. On February 20, 1962, he flew the first American orbital manned space mission aboard his Friendship 7 spacecraft, making him an instant hero. Glenn is shown at Cape Canaveral at left, boarding his capsule at top right, and during his three-orbit mission at right center. Glenn left the astronaut corps in 1964 (President John F. Kennedy hadn't wanted to risk him in another spaceflight), and eventually was elected to the United States Senate from the state of Ohio. In 1998, he returned to space aboard shuttle mission STS-95 (bottom right), where he underwent a series of medical experiments. [NASA (4)]

John Glenn, astronaut

FaviconFire and Water 8 Dec 2016, 1:00 am

The ancient elements of fire and water sit side by side low in the southern sky at this time of year. Fire is represented by the constellation Fornax, the furnace. To its east is the watery constellation Eridanus, the river.

FaviconWar Work 8 Dec 2016, 1:00 am

As 1941 neared its end, McDonald Observatory was riding high. It had been dedicated just two and a half years earlier, and its astronomers were making amazing discoveries with the world’s second-largest telescope.

But 75 years ago this week, things changed.

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan.

With the United States entering the war, there were brief concerns of an invasion through Mexico. So McDonald director Otto Struve considered removing the mirror from the big new telescope and burying it. But that plan was quickly dropped, so the telescope that now bears his name kept on working.

The working conditions weren’t easy, though. Many of the observatory’s astronomers and much of its support staff joined the war effort. Rationing made it hard to keep the facilities going, and even to travel to town to get supplies.

Yet Struve and a few others managed to keep on looking at the stars, although many of their observations weren’t analyzed until after the war. And some astronomers who were serving in the war made it back to West Texas when they could. During one of those breaks, Gerard Kuiper discovered the atmosphere of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

So McDonald stayed busy — and its telescope stayed intact — throughout the war.

More about astronomy and the war tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield


Thursday, December 8, 2016
Soldiering through a war

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