Archive | April 2013


Update: The Battle Over Who Gets to Name PlanetsImage

Last Thursday, a team of scientists working with NASA’s Kepler space telescope described three intriguing new planets circling distant stars. They are just slightly larger than Earth and orbit in the “habitable zone” where temperatures could be right for liquid water and for life. The names of these amazing worlds? Kepler 62f, Kepler 62e, and Kepler 69c. Not to be confused with other much-celebrated recent discoveries like Kepler 64b, Kepler 22b, or Gliese 581g.

Scientific illustrations of recently discovered, potentially habitable worlds. Left to right: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, and Kepler-62f, compared with Earth at far right. (Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator and founder of a startup called Uwingu, thinks these newfound worlds should have real names, and that the general public should be able to have a say. The International Astronomical Union–the organization the organization that officially validates astronomical nomenclature–strongly objects to Uwingu’s approach, and has effectively thwarted it. After the IAU’s blistering April 12 press release attacking Uwingu, submissions to Uwingu’s fee-based online planetary naming database plummeted. Stern calls it a “torpedo attack.”

I am not a neutral party in this dispute. Uwingu has partnered with DISCOVER and its sister publication, Astronomy, to help promote Stern’s efforts to raise funds for various astronomical exploration projects. And as I noted in a previous post, I am also inherently sympathetic to Stern’s position. I do understand the IAU’s concern about allowing private companies to hijack to process of naming celestial objects–but that is not what Uwingu is doing, and several of the IAU’s statements about Uwingu (which the IAU never mentions by name, even though the identity is obvious) are highly misleading.

I am pleased to see that I’m not the only one coming to the defense of Uwingu and, more generally, to the idea that the public should have some say in the naming of new planets. On the Physics Today web site, Charles Day provides a thoughtful post on the value of getting ordinary people involved. At Universe Today (no relation), Nancy Atkinson does a great reporting job on the controversy and quotes several professional astronomers who disagree with the IAU arguments against Uwingu. Carolyn Collins, who calls herself TheSpacewriter, digs much more deeply into the flaws with the IAU approach.

The dust-up between Uwingu and the IAU would be a tempest in a teapot outside of the astronomical community, except that there is actually a lot at stake here for anyone who cares about cosmic exploration and science literacy. Uwingu is trying to perform two important services: getting the public to participate in one of the greatest discoveries of modern times, and raising money for very worthy but underfunded research and education projects. The idea the a professional bureaucracy with the stated goal of advancing astronomy and astronomical education would stand in the way of Uwingu’s efforts is both odd and unsettling.

There is still time to participate in Uwingu’s call to nominate a real name for Alpha Centauri Bb, the nearest known planet outside our solar system. In response to the slow-down that followed the IAU press release, Stern has extended his deadline to April 22. More important, Uwingu’s broader planet-name nomination process is ongoing. And the broader issue here is not going away. Having more of the general public invested in scientific discovery is a win for everyone.



Is the Ozone Hole Shrinking?

Good news for fans of planet Earth: hole in the ozone layer may be healing.

Since the 1970s, NASA and NOAA have used a variety of instruments, including satellites and balloons, to measure the ozone layer. Ozone concentrations are measured in Dobson Units (DU); the average thickness of the ozone layer is about 300 DU, or some 3 millimeters (the height of two pennies stacked together). The ozone hole is the region where concentrations drop below 220 DU. The ozone hole, depicted in red, begins forming every year in early September, when the spring sunlight ends Antarctica’s long, dark winters. Mid-1980s: Ozone layer sees a noticeable decline from its average level of about 300 DU. 1992: Ozone layer is 100 DU. 2006: Ozone layer dips below 93 DU. 2012: Total ozone reached 124 DU on Oct. 1 and 136 DU on Oct. 5 with the hole covering 8.2 million square miles (equivalent to the area of North America).

Good news for fans of planet Earth: The seasonal hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was at its second-smallest point in the past 20 years, according to new research from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Could this be the first real sign that the ozone layer is recovering after decades of destruction? 

The ozone layer, which includes oxygen and nitrogen as well as ozone, forms a protective belt in the stratosphere about 10 to 18 miles above the Earth, reflecting the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. In the 1960s and ’70s, the widespread release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals used primarily in spray aerosols, led to a partial breakdown of the layer. 

Since the 1980s, the ozone layer above Antarctica has been especially affected because the region’s frigid temperatures speed up the conversion of CFCs to chlorine, which also accelerates ozone breakdown. Sunshine in the southern spring and summer creates even more ozone-depleting gases, leading to the massive destruction of up to 65 percent of the ozone layer.

While the reduced depletion was due mostly to higher temperatures on the icy continent, scientists are hopeful that the chemical levels have dropped enough that the result is a shrinkage of the ozone hole each season. “If these trends continue for the next few years,” says atmospheric scientist Bryan Johnson of NOAA in Boulder, Colo., “we’ll have confidence things are improving.”

your finger tells a lot…………….

Finger Length Predicts Health and Behavior

Like science-backed palm reading, new studies use digit ratio to predict aggressive behavior and risk of disease.

 Researchers have discovered that a quick study of the hands — more specifically, the lengths of the index and ring fingers — can tell a lot about a person’s personality and risk of disease. Of course, your digits don’t actually control these issues; it’s closer to the other way around. 

In boys, “during fetal development there’s a surge in testosterone in the middle of the second trimester” that seems to influence future health and behavior, says Pete Hurd, a neuroscientist at the University of Alberta. One easy-to-spot result of this flood of testosterone: a ring finger that’s significantly longer than the index finger. 

Scientists are not at the point where they can factor in finger length to arrive at a diagnosis, but they’ve gathered evidence that shows how this prenatal hormone imbalance can affect a person for life, from increasing or decreasing your risk of certain diseases, to predicting how easily you get lost or lose your temper. 

Researchers continue to study what sparks these hormonal changes and have begun looking at environmental chemical exposure, stress levels and diet during pregnancy.


Measure your index and ring fingers, base to tip. (Most of the studies used the right hand.) Divide the length of your index finger by the length of your ring finger to determine the digit ratio, or finger quotient (Fq). A longer ring finger results in an Fq of less than 1 and a more “masculine” hand shape.

How Do You Measure Up?

Increased verbal aggression Fq < 1

The shorter your index finger, the sharper your tongue: In both men and women, a lower Fq can predict more verbal sparring. 

Improved athletic ability Fq < 1

A greater surge of prenatal testosterone can be an indicator of high levels of achievement in sports, as well as a mental toughness in athletics. In one study, college varsity athletes (male and female) were found to have shorter index fingers than other students.

Improved sense of direction Fq < 1

In women, a more masculine digit ratio tends to predict a better sense of direction, backing up past research that found men tend to have better spatial cognition than women.

More physical aggression Fq < 1

Men with shorter index fingers are more likely to pick fights. Women with the same hand shape are more likely to react with aggression after being provoked.

More risk taking Fq < 1

Men who experience a higher surge of prenatal testosterone, and thus have longer ring fingers, tend to be risk takers. One example: The most successful financial traders tend to have the longest fourth fingers. These behavior patterns seem to apply only to men.



This entry was posted on April 12, 2013. 1 Comment

Comet May Be Headed For Impact with Mars



If you’re among those who would like to call Mars home someday, we would suggest holding off until at least next fall. That’s when NASA says a comet may ram into the Red Planet.

Comet 2013 A1 is currently clipping along at about 125,000 miles per hour and measures somewhere between 0.5 and 2 miles in diameter. Its trajectory is set to cross Mars’ orbit in October 2014. How likely are the two bodies to hit? Not very. The chances are a mere 1 in 2,000.

But if the comet does hit the surface of Mars, it will deliver a blow equivalent to 35 million megatons of TNT. To put that in perspective, the blast would be 800 million times the energy expelled from the meteor over Russia in February, but only a third the energy of the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.