Friday, August 30, 2013

This Week's Sci-light!

           Did you know?

Artist image courtesy M. Kornmesser, ESO
Richard Parker, astronomer at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., and his colleagues have discovered a massive star, currently 265 times the mass of our sun, in one of the Milky Way's satellite galaxies called the Large Magellanic Cloud.  Want to know more?  Read Andrew Fazekas' article Most Massive Star Discovered--Shatters Records on the National Geographic site.

Did you know?         

Credit: Yuri Beletsky, Las Campanas Observatory
Astronomers have designed and built a new camera that when fitted to the world's most powerful telescopes can take pictures with higher resolution than the Hubble telescope?  Author Andrew Fazekas explains how in Photos:  Sharpest Views of the Cosmos Ever.

        One last thing...Did you know?

There is a scholarship specifically for students who are transferring from a 2 year college to a 4 year school?  Read all about the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship and shoot for the stars!

Friday, August 23, 2013

This Week's Sci-light

My mother loved birds.  I don't know why, but I spent many hours of my childhood looking through binoculars, traveling to wild life refuges, and filling the bird feeder in the backyard.  Even these many years later, I can't see a blue heron without thinking of her and the excited look on her face.

Enough nostalgia (or perhaps too much!), today's Sci-light is about Crowdsourcing, for the Birds.  What caught my eye about this story by Jim Robbins in the New York Times was not the scientific discovery that orchard orioles are not one but two genetically distinct populations or the migratory patterns of the chimney swift, but rather how this was discovered.

Emma Rose Burgess/Associated Press
An estimated 6,000 Vaux Swifts entering a chimney in CA
A project called eBird uses volunteers to report bird sightings electronically.  One such observer was Mr. Martinka, a retired state wildlife biologist who several times a week travels to mountains and grasslands (even the city dump) near his home to watch birds.  He then reports his sightings to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a nonprofit organization based at Cornell University.  According to author Jim Robbins, "such bits, gathered in the millions, provide scientists with a very big picture: perhaps the first crowdsourced, real-time view of bird populations around the world."  Further in the article, Steve Kelling, the director of information science at the Cornell bird lab, reminds us of the importance of studying birds "because they occur in all environments.” So studying changes in their populations can help us understand environmental impacts. 

There are questions posed about the validity of the data and the computer used to analyze and learn about it.  Don't be confused by this section of the article.  This is how scientists challenge and improve their methods and understanding.  Read and look at the many sides of the story.  Perhaps you have a few suggestions or questions of your own.

In fact, that is the hook of science--someone trying a new method to answer a puzzling question.  I have often spoke to students who are interested in science about the importance of participating in science.  It is imperative for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is for you to discover your passion.

If it's birds or whatever look for a way to engage in discovery. And when you do it, take someone along.  That's what mom did and look at me now!  :)

Friday, August 16, 2013

This Week's Sci-light

I have often challenged students to recognize that our designations of Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology, etc. are categories that simply enable us to more easily understand the world around us.  Nature knows no such boundaries. 

Mojave Desert tortoise.  Photo by Michael Tuma.
Today's Sci-light also crosses boundaries.  Perhaps the picture of a Mojave Desert tortoise doesn't inspire you to imagine boundary crossing, but the story behind the picture should help you get there.  The natural habitat for this Tortoise is not limited to the California Mojave; it spans into Utah, Arizona and Nevada interacting with humans, business, as well as other desert dwellers.  Michael Tuma, USC Dornsife graduate student in Integrative and Evolutionary Biology, is trying to understand the behavior of this species who can withstand as little as 2 inches of rain a year and temperatures greater than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. (You did notice how integrated his field of study was, right?)

So far, this story sounds like a scientific investigation.  How do animals live and survive in extreme environments.  But here is where the story shifts.  In Emerging From Their Shells, Amber Dance writer for USC Dornsife explains that it is not only the natural environment that this tortoise must adapt to.  In fact, it is the impact of humans in their environment.  As businesses like BrightSource Energy, Inc, a solar energy company, move into the desert to build a solar plant, the tortoise faces loss of habitat.  And people live in the desert, too, creating roads, homes, and trash that attracts the tortoise's predators.  This is why Michael works with SWCA Environmental Consultants in Pasadena, California to help clients minimize harm. 

Michael's work is not just done in the field.  He primarily uses a computer model.  Curious about how?  Read the full article and find some great Tortoise Tidbits at the end.

Let's review.  We've touched on biology, evolution, business, environment, sociology, and computer science.  In my opinion, the Mojave Desert tortoise has crossed many boundaries!