Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Demystifying the Expert - Chris Hughes

From left to right: Hosts Klebert Feitosa & Anca Constantin, Expert Chris Hughes, Panelists Trevor Knickerbocker, Keri DeTullio, Alan Chen, & Shelby Imes
On Thursday, November 6, 2014 JMuseCafé held the event of the semester. In case you hadn’t noticed, this year’s JMuse Café events have a bit of a new format with the recent collaboration with JMU Physics & Astronomy professors Anca Constantin and Klebert Feitosa. If you attended either of the events (or read my post about the first one) you would know them as the hosts of the Demystifying the Expert series: four events intended to bridge the gap between the science faculty and the JMU/Harrisonburg community. Each event is comprised of the hosts, an expert, and a panel of four comedians from New & Improv.’d working together to figure out what the expert’s expertise is through a series of games and discussions. Though this new format came with the new hosts, they can’t take all of the credit   - the series is based on a Boston NPR radio show entitled You’re the Expert.
Our Expert of the Evening, Chris Hughes
For the event on November 6, our expert was Chris Hughes, a professor in the Physics & Astronomy department and the director of the center for Material Science at JMU. In the following sentences I’ll iterate the only background information our panel was given before trying to discern Hughes’s expertise. He received his Bachelor’s in Science from Davidson College and his Ph.D. from UNC – Chapel Hill. He did some post-doctoral work at NC State University before coming to JMU in 1997 (making him the second most senior member of the department’s faculty). He has served as a council member for the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), spending one term on the board as the chair of the physics and astronomy division. He has received two CSM awards: the Distinguished Teacher award in 2008 and the Distinguished Service Award in 2013. While not a dancer himself, Hughes has taught three semesters of the Physics of Dance as a GSCI 104 class as well as countless semesters of GSCI 121. His enthusiasm for teaching the Physics of Dance comes from his wife (who was a dance major in college) and his two daughters who have taken many dance classes. Donning a baseball-themed tie and having brought a bag full of baseball bats, the panel knew baseball would inevitably be a topic throughout the evening. However, Hughes can’t really play baseball. Despite this, he has been on the board of the Harrisonburg Little League Association for the past five years.
As I said earlier, the panel of comedians comes from New & Improv.’d – JMU’s only improvisational comedy troupe, bringing laughs to JMU since 1998. You can see them perform at TDU, for other JMU events, and around town at local venues. On the panel for this event we had Trevor Knickerbocker (a senior Intelligence Analysis major who mistakenly took a Quantum Physics class for fun), Keri DeTullio (a senior Media Arts & Design major who does things wholly unrelated to science), Alan Chen (a sophomore Physics major who hoped his major would be more helpful this time around), and Shelby Imes (a freshman who was so proud of finding the event that she couldn’t care less about anything else). While not on the panel, the audience was joined by two other members of New & Improv.’d, Amanda Anzalone and Macy Pniewski.
Before jumping into the first game, the expert was given the opportunity to ask the panelists a question. Hughes opted to go with, “I can’t dance; can you?” Keri responded by saying that she danced for 13 years, but she doesn’t dance anymore. Trevor prefers to dance as though no one were watching.  Repeating the sentiment of Men Without Hats, Shelby responded with, “you can dance if you want to,” before revealing that she danced for 12 years, but only because her parents wanted her to keep busy in high school.
Our Wonderful hosts intently listening to Hughes
(and definitely keeping track of points)
As Game 1 (a quick series of yes-or-no questions) began, the point system was introduced. Not unlike the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?, these points would eventually be meaningless, but the competition aspect did add an interesting element to the games. In order to start strong, Alan decided to keep things simple, making sure the Hughes’s shirt was, in fact, blue. Trevor asked if he does steroids since he’s into baseball – to which Hughes sarcastically (?) said yes. Digging deeper, Shelby asked if, in his field, he would be able to make steroid, rendering another no. In the following series of questions, the audience learned that no costumes are involved in his work, he doesn’t have to touch gross things, and his research has nothing to do with sports or sports injuries. They also learned, that if unleashed upon society, his work wouldn’t be harmful to anyone despite it involving chemicals and combining physics and biology. Rather than hone in on correct answers, the panel seemed to be getting stumped. As this portion of the questions came to an end we learned that Hughes neither makes nor prescribes pills and the closest guess anyone had made pertained to making plastics and had something to do with gold. To help the panel get closer, the rules were changed, allowing for any questions to be asked (not just yes-or-no ones). It was during this portion that we learned that if his work were to become a product, doctors or police officers, etc would most likely use it and he makes microchips (but not the people-tracking kind). The audience also learned that he utilizes plastic and gold because the former is cheap and the latter is a good conductor that reflects infrared light very well.
After being asked if he intends to put gold inside people, Hughes gave the audience his three-minute-elevator-speech that efficiently outlines exactly what it is that he does when’s at work and not teaching. He’s making chips roughly the size of a CD, with channels roughly the size of a human hair, intended to carry very small amounts of fluids throughout them. Such a chip could be used for DNA sequencing, or moving biological samples around more easily. The gold is used to heat up the fluid; this is done by shining infrared light through one layer of gold and having it reflect off of the second layer of gold so it is trapped within the channels. As one of the panelists put it – he makes DNA ramen. With the panelists having gained a slight understanding of his work, a few more questions followed. Alan asked how much gold is used in each piece. Hughes explained that the amount of gold used is about a few thousand atoms thick, and a few million across; he is able to do this via a vacuum deposition process that requires him to suit up in what he referred to as a “bunny suit”. He explained further that one of the biggest challenges with this work was to get plastic and gold (two materials that don’t like to stick to things) to stick to each other. Completely by accident, a summer research student of his visiting from High Point University and then a JMU student working in his lab the following semester were able to use chloroform to make this happen.
Comedians from New & Improv.'d
As the first game came to a close, each of the hosts had a question for the expert. Tying the events together, Constantin mentioned that the last event had an astronomer (Shanil Virani) for an expert. She then asked if there were any questions Hughes would ask as a material scientist that an astronomer would never ask. Hughes replied that an astronomer would never ask, “How can I make this out of something else?” This is one of the core questions of material science – is there a better material out there and can the material of something be changed? Following up Constantin’s questions, Feitosa asked how Hughes became interested in material science and how it fits in with his hobbies. He said he simply really likes baseball and dance although they’re completely separate from his research. The enthusiasm for material science stemmed from working in his family’s machine shop growing up. He would be able to end the day having made something that hadn’t existed when the day began. Material science interested him because he was able to make things. He began his work as a material scientist doing work with microfabrication.
At this point, we moved on to the second game: Jargon & Acronyms. During this portion of the evening, the panelists were given a handful of phrases or acronyms Hughes encounters in his work with novel nanocomposite polymers and fabrication of microfluidic devices. It is then up to the panelists to figure out (or at least guess) what these phrases mean. Starting lightly, the audience learned that “nano” refers to an iPod Trevor used to have in addition to being the prefix that stands for 10-9. Hughes explains that many of the things he works with are nanometers in size. Next, the audience learned that a Reynolds number is used to describe fluid flow, with large values describing very turbulent flow. In his research, Hughes looks to work with fluids that have very low Reynolds numbers. They then learned that MOCVD stands for metal organic chemical vapor deposition and EOF means electro-osmotic flow. The latter is how fluid flows through the tiny channels mentioned above; by applying a voltage, the ions in the fluid are pulled, causing flow. This is necessary when dealing with fluids that have such low Reynolds numbers.
The last jargon/acronym questions dealt with Hughes’s hobbies instead of his research. First, the audience learned that the Froude number has nothing to do with pirouettes (despite dealing with dance) and isn’t 42, but rather a ratio involving the length of the leg and the force of gravity. Lastly, he explained what a Magnus force is. When you have a rotating projectile whose rotational axis is not parallel to the direction of motion (for instance, a baseball), the velocity of air with respect to the projectile is different for either side of the projectile. This difference in velocities surround the projectile causes its path to curve – like a curveball.
Overhead view of the panel and audience
In the last game, the panelists get to ask a series of random rapid-fire questions so the audience can get to know the expert better. It was during this portion that the audience learned that Hughes was born in Lexington, Kentucky and his favorite animal is the otter. His favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate and if he weren’t a physicist he would probably be a journalist. His favorite subject in school was history and clowns are definitely creepy (not funny). In order to work in his labs, students should be nanometer-sized and he has a profound love of Diet Coke (he actually smuggled one into the event). His college nickname was doc (or when his friends wanted to annoy him Chief Jackie) and his best friend is his wife.
Following the last game, we went to the audience for questions. One audience member asked how doctors, police officers, etc could use Hughes’s research. He explained that the idea behind the work is that it will help people process DNA more efficiently and on-site rather than sending it off to a lab and waiting. Lastly, he was asked what the best science joke to pull out at parties is. This question stumped Hughes because there are so many good ones. Constantin, however, was able to chime in with a classic: 2 atoms are hanging out. One has lost and electron and is very sad, lamenting, “I’ve lost an electron,” to which the other atom asks, “are you sure?!” and he replies, “I’m positive.”After the questions, the evening came to a close and the panelists spoke of all the wisdom they had gained throughout the evening such as, “Keep chloroform for those spontaneous moments.”          

-Keely Criddle
JMuse Café/Physics & Astronomy Blogger

JMU students at the International American Vacuum Society (AVS) Symposium

On November 11th 2014, Harkirat Mann and Brian Lang presented at the AVS 61st International Symposium and Exhibition their research on "Infrared and thermoelectric power generation in thin ALD thermoelectric films" in collaboration with Janne Niemelä and M aarit Karppinen of Aalto University (Finland).  The section in which the students presented for was Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD) for emerging applications.  Before the presentation, the students got to hear a lot of great talks given by graduate students from all over the world, and see the startling size of the crowd...  After they finished presenting, they went to the main hall to see the exhibitions.  This was their favorite part of the trip, because of all sorts of amazing vacuum technology they could see, as well as get a massage! Brian commented; "This was a great experience to practice presenting in front of a large crowd, and a very educational experience hearing about the different technologies"

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Sharon Koh - JMU Physics Alumnus of the Year

    On Friday, October 31 we were visited by the JMU Physics Alumnus of the Year, Sharon Koh. She spent the afternoon with faculty members, touring the department, and then she gave a seminar talk to the junior and senior physics majors discussing the work she’s done since graduating from JMU. After her talk, I was fortunate enough to sit with her for a few m
inutes and ask her a few questions to share with our readers. Below is a transcription of our conversation:

Can you start by giving us a brief outline from the time of your work at JMU until the present?

I got my Bachelor’s from JMU in 2002. I double majored in Chemistry and Physics and I double minored in Material Science and Mathematics. I went to Northwestern for grad school and finished that in 2007. My PhD was in Chemistry with a focus on materials chemistry; I worked with Tobin Marks and Mark Ratner. From there I went to Milliken and worked 6 years in industry, and now I’m at the Naval Research Laboratory as an ASEE postdoctoral fellow.

What would you say is your favorite project that you worked on?

That’s kind of a difficult question. Nobody’s asked me that before. When I was at Northwestern, probably the most interesting thing to me was the band structure stuff that I did just because nobody had ever done it before. So it was a good challenge that actually panned out. When we initially did it, we saw flat bands and we thought, “Okay, this isn’t interesting, we can’t publish this.” But then we were able to digress from there and, because we were creative enough and came up with different areas and reciprocal space to study, we actually were able to make the band structures turn into something that was useful and productive.
At Milliken, the carpet-printing project was probably the most interesting project because I was project manager, but I was involved in some of the science even though I wasn’t the engineer. I was doing manual work with the rest of the guys, putting those bars up in the plant when we went to commercialize, so we basically took it all the way from a prototype that was 1.5 inches all the way to 168 inches in a year and a half. They originally wanted us to do it in less than that; they’d given us 8 months originally. We could have done it, but there would have been a lot of flaws. We finally convinced them that we needed a little extra time. After we converted that broad loom machine I moved on to my other projects, but the rest of the engineers stayed on and ended up converting some tile machines over because they were so happy with the results, so it was a good success story. Also, because of that, we bought some equipment for the machine shop as well that they hadn’t had before, and because it was such a success on the broad loom, they ended up upgrading that machine to something bigger that could do more, which was a good capability for the company.

How long have you been at the Naval Research Laboratory and what have you been working on?

I’ve been there since December, so almost a year. I’m looking at decomposition of energetic materials; specifically we’re looking at nitromines and RDX materials. In the literature for the last 30-40-50 years, it’s been a known compound, but still, people don’t know how it works, because it’s so dangerous and the nature of how something like that detonates is so quick, it’s hard to have instrumentation to capture what’s going on. Experimentally is sometimes the best way to capture things, but if you can’t capture it experimentally, you have to develop models to better understand them. So that’s what we’re working on.

What was it like to go from carpets to explosives?

It was very different – it was interesting to read about them though. It is definitely interesting literature. Always when you start a new research project, what you end up doing is reading. Because you’re in a new area, you have to understand what’s already been done; you don’t want to start blindly, and so you end up reading a lot of papers, especially the first two weeks you’re on any new project. It was definitely interesting to see what other people had said about these energetic materials, and what’s even kind of scary is how all over the board the literature is about these materials. There’ve been so many studies out there, and almost everything gets published because nobody really knows what goes on, and that’s scary. I think now it’s starting to get to the point where people are starting to understand a little better and they’re starting to narrow down what gets published, so we’ll see what we can contribute to that.

 - Keely Criddle
JMuse Cafe/Physics & Astronomy Blogger

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Demystifying the Expert: The 1st Event in Images

   With the first event 3 weeks behind us and the second one only 2 weeks away,  it's time to start getting excited about the JMuse Café Demystifying the Expert series again! In case you've missed the previous post and the advertisements around campus, this series of events serves as a means by which to connect the scientific community of JMU with the general public in a unique and fun way through improv comedy. Each event consists of a panel of comedians from JMU's only improv group, New and Improv'd, and an expert whose expertise is unknown to both the panel and the audience at the beginning of the event. Throughout the evening the expert is demystified through games, discussions, and brief Q&A sessions. As we prepare for the event on November 6 with our expert  Chris Hughes, we've put together several pictures from the first event for those of you who weren't fortunate enough to attend:
Brief introductions of (from left to right) the Hosts, Shanil Virani, and the panel of comedians
Did I mention there's food?
Hosts Dr. Klebert Feitosa and Dr. Anca Constantin having the time of their lives! 
A member of the live audience enjoying the show
Many JMU students were in attendance!
The wonderful panel of comedians
An action shot of our panelists interacting with the expert
We had a brief break, but not the expert! The questions continued all evening
The view of the event from above

-Keely Criddle
JMuse Café/Physics & Astronomy Blogger

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Physics undergraduate showcasing research in nuclear astrophysics as the modern alchemie

Evan Meekins presenting in front of the JMU STEM Executive Advisory Council on Oct. 17, 2014

Evan Meekins, a JMU junior majoring in physics and mathematics, has recently shared with the JMU STEM Executive Advisory Council his research efforts in the field of nuclear astrophysics related to the understanding of the nucleosynthesis of the rarest of all stable isotopes naturally occurring on Earth, the so-called "p-nuclei".

How nuclear reactions in stars and stellar explosions such as supernovae have forged the elements out of hydrogen and helium leftover from the Big Bang is a longstanding, still timely research topic in nuclear astrophysics. Although there is a fairly complete understanding of the production of the chemical elements and their isotopes up to iron by nuclear fusion in stars, important details concerning the production of the elements from iron to uranium remain puzzling. Current knowledge is that the nucleosynthesis beyond iron proceeds mainly via neutron capture reactions and subsequent electron decays to the valley of stability. But some 35 proton-rich stable isotopes, between Se-74 and Hg-196, cannot be synthesized by neutron-capture processes since they are located on the neutron-deficient side of the valley of stability. These proton-rich nuclides are generally referred to as p-nuclei. Among them, the two isotopes of molybdenum, Mo-92 and Mo-94, are the most abundant.
Evan Meekins has recently carried out successfully cross section measurements for understanding the production of Mo-93 via neutron photodesintegration of Mo-94, an experiment proposed by Evan's research advisor, Dr. Adriana Banu (an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at JMU). The measurements were performed using the most intense quasi-monoenergetic gamma ray facility in the world located on the campus of Duke University at Durham, NC. Data analysis is in progress. Stay tuned for our experimental findings!

Moreover, Evan Meekins has also had the chance to showcase his work related to the nucleosynthesis of the p-nuclei during the Conference Experience for Undergraduates (CEU14) held in Waikoloa, Hawaii (October 7-11, 2014) in conjunction with the 4th joint meeting of the American Physical Society  Division of Nuclear Physics (DNP) and the Physical Society of Japan.

Poster presentation at the CEU14, Hawaii

The goal of the CEU is to provide a "capstone" conference experience for undergraduate students who have conducted research in nuclear physics, by providing them the opportunity to present their research to the larger professional community and to one another. Additionally, it enables the students to converse with faculty and senior scientists from graduate institutions about graduate school opportunities.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Demystifying the Expert - Shanil Virani

Image from Thursday Night's Event
From Left to Right: Feitosa, Constantin, Virani, Knickerbocker, Faalasli, Anzalone, Chen
Image From https://www.jmu.edu/jmusecafe/
What were you doing at 6:30 pm the evening of Thursday, October 2, 2014?? I’d like to hope that you were attending the first of four JMuse Café events centered on Demystifying the Expert. But, seeing as the room wasn’t nearly large enough to contain the whole of the JMU student and faculty body, there’s a good chance you weren’t in attendance. Luckily for you, I’m going to give you a recap of everything you missed, and, in doing so, I’ll hopefully convince you not to miss the next event in the series (which is Thursday, November 6 in the Flex Space located on the third floor of Rose Library – so go ahead and mark that on your calendar).

The purpose of the Demystifying the Expert series is to provide the public with a forum in which they can informally learn about science in a fun and unique way. With the combined effort of the JMU Physics and Astronomy department and JMU’s New and Improv.’d Comedy Troupe, learning has never been more entertaining. Two physics professors have coordinated the series of events alongside New and Improv.’d: AncaConstantin and Klebert Feitosa. Dr. Constantin’s work outside of the classroom is studying galaxies and their formation and processes, and Dr. Feitosa (also known as Dr. Bubbles) studies just that: bubbles! (As a student doing research in his lab – it is every bit as much fun as it sounds.) New and Improv.’d, founded in 1998, is JMU’s only improv comedy group. They perform multiple shows each semester, both on campus at TDU and throughout the community. Be sure to follow them on social media so you can learn more about them!

            The four talks organized for the 2014-2015 academic year are comprised of one expert and a panel of comedians trying to discern just what the expert’s expertise is. Thursday’s panel was comprised of Trevor Knickerbocker, Mikail Faalasli, Alan Chen, and Amanda Anzalone. Trevor is a senior Intelligence Analysis major that took a Quantum Physics class for fun. Mikail is a senior Business major; the only science he knows is the science of making money. Alan is a sophomore Physics major who politely asked the audience to remember not all physics is not astronomy (but all astronomy is physics!) when hearing his answers throughout the evening. Amanda is a junior Media Arts & Design major with double majors in Business French and Creative Writing, aka nothing to do with science. That being said, she felt 100% confident in the evening’s program.

Amanda felt so confident, in fact, that she is returning to the panel for the event in November. When I asked her about how Thursday went, she replied with, “It's such a fun experience and an amazing feeling being able to help bridge the gap between science and the student body. We are trying to show them that science doesn't have to be a feared subject!” That last statement means so much when coming from a student who isn’t actively pursuing a career in science. Science can have this stigma of being inaccessible to non-scientists, but all it takes to get people interested and informed is a relaxed setting where people can laugh and learn.

Dr. Virani at the John C. Wells Planetarium
Photo Credit: Daniel Stein
Our expert for the evening was Dr.Shanil Virani. The panel was not given very much information about the expert before they began picking his brain. What they were told is Dr. Virani is currently the Director of the  John C. Wells Planetarium located in Miller Hall. He the organizer of the monthly star parties on east campus and the public science talks that happen twice a semester. He earned his PhD from Yale University and before that he worked at the NASA Chandra Space Telescope. As an avid promoter of informal science education, he was named a NASA Solar System Ambassador two years in a row, 2013 and 2014 - which is no small defeat.

Following the brief introductions was a series of games and discussions, starting off with a series questions from the panel to the expert. There was only one catch – the questions had to be yes or no questions. From this first game, we were able to discern that Virani is an astronomer who takes pictures, doesn’t study things within our solar system, and is capable of answering yes when asked if he could answer seriously “To infinity and beyond!” when asked at a cocktail party what he studies. It has something, but not everything, to do with black holes and nothing to do with parallel universes (because, “this is
science”). We learned that Dr. Virani can see all black holes, however, not all astronomers have that ability.

When it became apparent that the panel was not going to coax any more information through yes or no questions, there was a brief time where Dr. Virani was able to discuss his work.  As the panel had been able to discern, Virani primarily studies black holes – but how does one study something one can’t see? To explain, he had the audience rub their hands together then stop and notice that their palms were hotter. Then he had them rub their hands together faster, imaging they were doing so at the speed of light and imaging just how hot that would cause their hands to be (around the order of millions of degrees Kelvin, in case you were wondering). Though we cannot see black holes, we can detect them and the lurking galaxies that host them by looking for certain wavelengths of light  - gamma rays and x-rays.  Around each black hole is an accretion disk made up of matter that will eventually fall into a black hole; these disks are extreme environments, allowing us to study and test exotic physics such as Einstein’s theory of general relativity. By studying what happens to space and time around black holes, humanity can be one step closer to developing a grand unified theory (or as Virani called it, “The Holy Grail of Physics”) that describes the behavior of nature in our universe.

Every single galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its center, and Dr. Virani’s purpose in studying them is to understand how they grow and evolve and the influence they have on their host galaxies. Observation has shown that there exists an intimate connection between the formation of a galaxy and the black hole at the center. Dr. Constantin raised two questions: why should we care about black holes and would we be here without them? To answer the first question, Virani explained that in order to better understand black holes, humanity has to develop the skill sets and technology to do so. These skills and advancements help humanity progress, sustaining civilization and pushing us into the future. For the second question, the answer is no. We know that black holes can form when stars collapse inward on themselves once they have exhausted their fuel. It is in the centers of stars that all heavy elements (more massive than Lithium on the periodic table) are formed. As Carl Sagan once said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.”

After the discussion came two more games, the first of which consisted of 5 quiz-like questions concerning acronyms and jargon within Dr. Virani’s field of expertise. Through this game we learned that AGN stands for active galactic nuclei (not aperture globular neutrino, one of the 4 choices to the question), which are very bright cores of galaxies. Next we learned that a galaxy is an enormous collection of stars, gas, and dust bound together – because the answer with the most words is usually the right one.

Between the second and third questions, Dr. Virani briefly went into just how vast our universe is. The Milky Way Galaxy, the large spiral galaxy in which we reside, is home to about 100 billion stars. Over the last 3 years, we have determined that, on average, each star has about 5 planets orbiting it. Considering that there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, one question arises: how am I supposed to understand such a large number? The answer is quite simple: you can’t. According to Dr. Virani, these numbers are “astronomically” large (pun intended…). When you study astronomy, you deal with things that are very, very large, and when you study an atom you deal with things that are very, very small. In our lives we don’t experience these extremes; so, while we can determine such values as the mass of the earth, our sun, and even the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, these numbers are still incomprehensible in our every-day life.

The remaining 3 questions in the game taught the audience that a photon is a particle of light, not a potato from Star Trek, a QSO or quasar is an incredibly bright galaxy core, not a powerful wizard you don’t want to mess with, and lastly the Chandra Space Telescope was not named after a NASA administrator, but a well-known Indian-American physicist who received a Nobel Prize in physics. Chandrashekhar earned this honor by discovering the Chandrashekhar limit while on a boat trip from India to Cambridge, UK. He determined that, when at star has at least 1.4 the mass of our sun, there is nothing to prevent it from becoming a black hole when it collapses.

The Very Large Telescope in Chile
Photo from eso.org
When studying the sky through observation, a dark sky is the most important thing to have. It is because of this that Chandrashekhar was able to do the work he did on a boat, and it is also why observational astronomers do a lot of work in Hawaii – the night sky is dark and clear and the elevation makes it an ideal location for telescopes. One of the panelists chimed in, asking how often astronomers run into evil villains at these remote locations near volcanoes. Ironically enough, one of the James Bond movies was filmed at the Very Large Telescope in Chile, showing that astronomers are both undeniably cool and not very skilled with a thesaurus.

The last game was a series of rapid-fire questions about Dr. Virani through which we learned that his favorite astronomer is Carl Sagan (because he is fantastic), his dream job when he was little was astronaut, and he would go to Mars in a heartbeat (who wouldn’t?!). Astrology isn’t real, there is no known center of the universe, and if Virani had to be on dancing with the stars, he’d dance with Dr. Constantin. The most important question asked was, “If you had to let people know one thing about what you do, what would that be?” This entire blog post could be (alas, it is not) reduced to his answer: “Black holes are at the center of every galaxy and we don’t know why.”

As the evening came to a close, questions were opened to the audience. The first, and possibly most important, audience question was concerning the reluctance to fund space research. Virani’s answer was that it boils down to a lack of nationwide science literacy. There is a disconnect between the people who understand science and the people who don’t. Because of this disconnect, there are many social controversies concerning scientific topics that are by no means scientifically controversial (climate change, evolution, etc.). It is for this very reason that this series of events exists – to help the public connect with scientists and promote a well-informed understanding of the implications of the work scientists do.
Because this is already on the verge of being too long, I have spared you many of the details of Thursday evening’s event (which says a lot about the event concerning how much I’ve told you). What you should come away from this thinking is, “Wow, I really missed out on an awesome event and I know where I’m going to be on the evening of November 6.” For further information on upcoming events, visit the Facebook pages of JMuse Café and JMU Physics and Astronomy!

-Keely Criddle
JMuse Cafe/Physics & Astronomy Blogger

Monday, September 29, 2014

Last Week on Mars

An artist’s representation of MAVEN in orbit
Photo from lasp.colorado.edu/home/maven/
As summer has officially come to a close, on the forefront of everyone’s mind is the snowy winter ahead of us. What I’d like you to think about today, however, is not a change in weather, but rather a change in climate – and not here on Earth. If you have been paying attention to the news this weekend, you might already be aware that NASA’s latest Mars orbiter, MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), successfully reached its orbit just before 10:30 pm the evening of September 21, after 10 months of traveling through space. With global attempts at Mars missions beginning in 1960, the past 54 years have seen just under a 60% success rate. This includes fly-bys, orbiters, landers, rovers, and now, MAVEN. Why has so much time, effort, and money been put into learning about Mars when the success rate is so low? The simplest answer to this question is to determine whether Mars once did, can currently, or will ever support life - but it goes further than that.

Throughout all of the missions to Mars, many differences have been observed between our home planet and the red planet, yet many parallels can be drawn between the two. While the differences have been able to change the human perception of how planets work, the similarities have the potential to teach us more about our Earth. Does the past of Mars look anything like present day Earth? If so, how did Mars come to be what it is now? Could Earth be on a track towards the same fate? The MAVEN spacecraft is another installation in mankind’s search for knowledge about Mars. MAVEN’s primary goal is to help us understand the upper atmosphere and what controls it. During the mission, the spacecraft will dip low enough in its orbit to gather information where the lower and upper atmosphere meet - providing data from the whole upper atmosphere. Through an understanding of the upper atmosphere, we will be able to discern how it has changed and how those changes may have impacted the surface of Mars. In conjunction with the rovers on the surface of Mars (most notably Curiosity, which successfully landed in August of 2012), MAVEN will put us one step closer to being able to answer the questions listed above.

An Artist’s Representation of Mangalyaan
Photo from http://www.isro.org/satellites/mars-orbiter-spacecraft
            In other news - just 3 days after MAVEN reached its orbit, another triumph was made in space exploration – India’s first interplanetary mission (another orbiter named Mangalyaan) successfully reached its orbit around Mars. About 50 years ago, the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) was founded, marking the beginning of India’s space program. When looking at the history of missions to Mars, it is quite impressive that India’s first attempt at Mars exploration was a success – a feat that no other space program has been able to accomplish. What is even more impressive is how much the mission cost; according to an article posted on extremetech.com, the cost of Mangalyaan in US dollars is about $74 million. This is just about 11% of the cost of MAVEN, which rang in at around $672 million. Mangalyaan was primarily intended as a demonstration of the technology India has acquired as opposed to pursuing a specific research goal (like MAVEN). This accounts for the majority of the cost disparity between the two; however, the idea that a successful Mars mission could cost so little (when compared to previous missions) gives hope that a future of more cost effective space exploration is possible.

The MAVEN team at the launch site the day before launch
Photo from lasp.colorado.edu/home/maven/
The importance of the missions to Mars isn’t limited to the knowledge gained, but encompasses the achievements of mankind. These projects take upwards of 10 years to come to fruition, with countless people working on them. Successful missions aid in the progress of science while simultaneously displaying how far we have come as a species. To be able to launch a spacecraft one night, knowing that 10 months later it will be orbiting Mars is something that was inconceivable just under 400 years ago when Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens discovered the planet.

For More Information about MAVEN visit lasp.colorado.edu/home/maven/
For More Information about Mangalyaan visit isro.org
To learn more about the Mars missions visit mars.nasa.gov
And to learn about the people involved in MAVEN visit mars.nasa.gov/people/

Keely Criddle
JMuse/Physics & Astronomy Blogger 2014-2015