Friday, February 19, 2016

Rocking the House and Demystifying the Expert

This past Thursday, Dr. Anca Constantin and Dr. Feitosa hosted the 5th JMU Demystifying the Expert.  They were joined by Geology professor Dr. Steve Whitmeyer, and JMU's comedy troupe "New & Improv'd".

For those unfamiliar with Demystifying the Expert, the routine focuses on explaining scientific ideas through comedic games and trivia.  Usually each entry focuses on a single faculty member, and what kind of research they do.

After proper introductions, the night opened up with a 20-questions style game, where New & Improv'd asked Dr. Whitmeyer yes or no questions regarding his field of study.  Knowing that he focuses on some form of geology, the comedians asked "relevant" questions ranging "Do you work with earthquakes?" to "How precious are your stones?"  The comedy rolled in loud and fast, and the audience loved it.

With the audience's full attention, Dr. Whitmeyer explained that he studies plate tectonics and the effects they have had on not only our terrain, but also on how we adapted our societies to said terrain.  He then used the example of JMU's own Bioscience building, which was to be built on caves that needed to be filled in before construction.  This prompted the comedians to ask what "JMU was trying to cover up" down there, with the panel agreeing that Jimmy Hoffa is most likely down there.

Our hosts then shifted the topic to various headlines relating to Geology, such as Pakistani islands eroding away, earthquakes throughout Oklahoma, the return of the Grand Canyon rapids, and the effects of fracking on earthquake systems.  This lead to discussions about the "living" nature of the Earth, how quickly islands can form and be eroded away, and the plausibility of Christopher Walken's devious plot in "James Bond 007: A View to Kill."

In the next game, the comedians were challenged to decipher different Geological terms, acronyms, and shortenings.  While they were very proficient at knowing/guessing some of them, other terms like Pseudotachylite were apparently "abstract touching thing."  This discussion lead into the evolution of geological ideas, the new movement to crowd-source science to the masses for research, and the ability to take our knowledge of Earth's geology and apply it to other planets, such as Mars.

The evening was filled with science and laughs, and many thanks to all of the people who made it possible.

Be sure to check out the next Demystifying the Expert on March 24th! 

Friday, February 12, 2016

NASA Engineering Leader Jill Prince Comes to JMU

This past week, JMU was fortunate enough to host NASA Engineering Manager Jill Prince for a series of talks. 

Ms. Prince has a deep history in astronomical research, joining NASA Langley in 2001 and supporting the flight mechanics team for the years that led up to the Phoenix Mars landing in 2008.  Afterwards, she served in an array of NASA administration positions for many years, eventually leading her to be appointed to Manager of the System Engineering Office in 2015.  Ms. Prince has also been awarded a number of accolades, including the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal and the Women in Aerospace Achievement Award.  She first spoke at Wilson Hall on Thursday to the general James Madison student body, and then again to the JMU Physics & Astronomy Department on Friday.

The NASA engineer opened up her talk discussing the prospects, goals, questions, history, and philosophy of NASA.  She then went into the more current Mars-based operations, such as MAVEN, the Mars Orbiter Mission, and the Curiosity Rover.  She also discussed future missions, such as perfecting the Trace Gas Orbiter and the ExoMars Rover.

Ms. Prince then went on to discuss how NASA plans to continuously study and eventually land advanced systems on Mars, starting with Earth-based systems and then slowly reaching farther towards the Red Planet with satellites and such.  The focus of these steps, Prince explained, is to make future missions to Mars self-sustaining Earth-independent, which involves mining asteroids and increased solar tech.  These processes also include fulling mapping the topography of Mars, cataloging the materials available at its surface, and understanding Martian weather patterns, such as dust storms.

Also displayed in her presentation were the rockets, Block 1 and Block 2, to be used on the eventual manned mission to Mars.  Block 1 is meant to transport people, while Block 2 is meant to transport the majority of the equipment to Mars.  She also discussed the sophisticated Orion spacecraft, which will be used to land the astronauts on Mars, and the various challenges it faces, most notably Mar’s thin atmosphere and rugged terrain.  Many of the other challenges she discussed involved protecting our astronauts, such as radiation poisoning and providing/creating enough fuel for the trip home.

Many thanks to Ms. Prince for taking a break from her astronomically important schedule to talk to us here at JMU!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Another One Goes to Einstein: The Discovery of Gravitational Waves

Nearly a hundred years ago, Einstein put forth a theory that suggested the existence of gravitational waves, which alter space-time in massive astrophysical events.

According to the New York Times, such an astrophysical event (the collision of two black holes over a billion light years away) has been observed and is in agreement with Einstein's theory.  The wave function which resulted from this event was observed by both the LIGO facilities in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington.  These reading were in agreement, giving great evidence that the theory could be a physical law.

Congratulations to the LIGO team and everyone involved in this groundbreaking observation!

Monday, February 01, 2016

That's no moon!

Word has spread around about a new object circling the Sun, and the discussion has begun about whether or not this "Planet Nine" is even a planet at all.

While NASA has said that the 'planet-ness' of Planet Nine is still a theory, many people are already speculating the object's composition, both atmospheric and mineral.  However, this has proven difficult due to the object's distance from the Sun and background radiation from the Milky Way.

What we do know about the object, as posted by Science Magazine, is that the object has around the mass of 10 Earths, it has an orbit of 15,000 years, and there's only a 0.007% chance that these observations are just coincidentally the six previously known objects that orbit around Neptune.

As more information surfaces, this is sure to be a thrilling debate and discovery in the astronomical community!

More importantly, how does Pluto feel about all of this?

Hear Planetarium Director, Shanil Virani's take on the discovery announcement of Planet Nine as part of his #OurIslandUniverse series on NPR!

JMU goes to CUWiP 2016!

On January 15th, Olivia Cypull, Devin Buennemeyer, Tara Jobin, Gillian Schuneman, and Yvonne Kinsella represented JMU at this year's Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics.  The meeting was hosted by the APS, Old Dominion University, and Jefferson Lab in Norfolk, Virginia.  They were joined by over 200 other academic women

The conference is not only important in encouraging more women to participate in STEM fields, but to also open up great opportunities for those who attend.  These opportunities include, but are not limited to, meeting colleagues in similar academic field, discovering research opportunities outside of one's home university, and even learning about appealing graduate programs.  The conference also hosted a plethora of different workshops that focused on the different obstacles, opportunities, and communities for women in the sciences.

Olivia Cypull, pictured above, presented her research with Dr. Fietosa regarding the study of soft matter physics.  Among the 40 posters presented, Olivia's poster presentation was awarded as the best in show, and was praised for its conciseness, depth of information, and interesting topic material.

Congratulations to all of the women who presented and represented James Madison University STEM!