Tuesday, February 21, 2017

STEM in the Sky

by Eileen Neary
Junior Project Manager

When I was a kid, I went to this awesome weeklong science camp. We looked through kiddie telescopes, made weird substances out of flour and baking soda, and practiced our STEM skills before the acronym “STEM” was even coined.

So when I heard about NASA’s STEM in the Sky Astronomy Series where kids can look through telescopes and see outer space, I naturally felt some serious envy.

At NASA’s Wallops Facility Visitor Center, kids have the opportunity to head outside for a couple hours and learn about all things space. An expert team from the Delmarva Space Sciences Foundation was even scheduled to allow guests the super-rare opportunity to view the sun, its sunspots and flares with a solar telescope (!!!). Which is exactly as cool as it sounds. Unfortunately, due to the sky having a mind of its own, that particular event was canceled.

The good news is that additional installments of Stem in the Sky are scheduled. They will focus on the planet Jupiter, solar eclipses and more. Reading about this program, I suddenly found myself falling down the rabbit hole (or should I say wormhole?) of other children’s educational space programs.

Stem in The Sky was funded in part by the Competitive Program for Science Museums, Planetariums, and NASA Visitor Centers, or, in “short,” the CP4SMPVC. Each year, the CP4SMPVC funds events for students and educators across the country. Grants have been awarded in almost every state. Many of these events tie in to STEM and NGSS curricula. The best part? Through the programs offered since 2008, millions of participants have taken part in all-day activities, seminars, afterschool programs, overnight astronomy experiences, special planetarium and science center exhibits, camps, and more.

So far there have been three projects awarded in PSG’s home state, Massachusetts, two of which are still ongoing. The first is through the Museum of Science in Boston. It has been running since October 2016 and will continue until October 2018. Called From Project Mercury to Planet Mars, the project includes a planetarium show about the challenges of a human journey to Mars and a “large-scale engineering design challenge activity” that also teaches about Mars exploration.

The second is at the Boston Children’s Museum. It has been running since January 2015 and will continue until January 2018. Our Sky is an educational series of programs for kids aged 3–10 to help them “gain an appreciation for celestial objects and phenomena as a foundation for understanding of Earth and Space Science.” The Our Sky series helps “inspire practical applications of STEM skills by children and adults as they explore celestial objects together.”

For the full list of CP4SMPVC awardees, past and present, and a map of events, click here. What a great time to be a space-loving kid!

Did You Know?
The United States is currently building what will be the largest solar telescope in the world. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) is scheduled to be completed in 2018. The DKIST is located at the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Blindsight and the Power of the Unconscious

by Sarah Dolan
Fall 2016 Intern

A patient left blind by two strokes—referred to in studies as “TN”—stands at the end of a hallway. Littered before him are a series of obstacles: a trash can, a paper shredder, a tripod and more. Without using a cane, he walks down the hallway, moving to avoid all the obstacles on his first attempt. When told that he succeeded, TN was shocked. Some unconscious instinct had caused him to avoid the obstacles on the first try.

This instinct has been documented as occurring when the eyes and brain are healthy, but the primary visual cortex—the part of the brain that is necessary for sight—is damaged. This type of brain damage often occurs in stroke victims. Because of this, signals that travel from the eyes through the optic nerves cannot be processed. Patients with otherwise healthy eyes are left unable to see. However, for some reason, patients with this specific form of blindness are sometimes able to respond to visual stimuli that they are not consciously aware of at all. This phenomenon is known as blindsight.

In 1974, psychologists Elizabeth Warrington and Lawrence Weiskrantz investigated one case of blindsight where the patient had been left blind in one eye after a surgery that was meant to cure headaches. The eye was still functional, but the visual cortex had been damaged. Warrington and Weiskrantz tested the patient by putting a screen in his blind spot and asking him to point to a shape when it appeared in different places on the screen. They also tested him with vertical and horizontal lines, asking him to identify which type of line was showing on the screen. The patient insisted that he couldn’t see anything, but was correct around 80 percent of the time: much more than chance alone would allow.

Despite multiple documented cases, the actual cause of blindsight remains a mystery. There are several viable theories, however. Weiskrantz and Warrington suggest the processing that causes blindsight occurs in parts of the brain other than the visual cortex. They argue that the bundles of fibers that travel from the optic nerve to the midbrain still transmit information, and that the midbrain unconsciously interprets these signals. Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Davis who has also studied blindsight, argues that this phenomenon is a result of portions of healthy tissue in the visual cortex. These sections of live tissue, he says, are too small to allow a patient to consciously register visual stimuli, but they do result in blindsight.

Research on blindsight allows us a little more understanding of the human brain and how we perceive our surroundings, both consciously and unconsciously. It also raises more questions for scientists—the answers to which I’ll be very interested to see.

Did You Know?
About 30 percent of the brain’s neurons are designated for visual processing. To compare, touch uses around 8 percent, while hearing uses 3 percent.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


by Amanda Gutierrez
Fall 2016 Intern

In the 2015 movie The Martian, NASA astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars and must spend months living in “the Hab,” which is essentially a large temperature- and atmosphere-controlled bubble made from a specialized canvas-like material. While this is—quite literally—something straight out of a sci-fi novel (Andy Weir’s eponymous 2011 novel), scientists at NASA have partnered up with Bigelow Aerospace to develop something similar for their first trip to the red planet.

On April 8, 2016, Bigelow Aerospace and NASA sent the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the International Space Station (ISS). BEAM is a cylindrical compartment that is stored as a compressed disk and can be expanded to a full-sized space. BEAM was developed to act as a potential work/living space for astronauts on long deep-space voyages. But first, the BEAM technology must be put to the test! BEAM will stay on the ISS, in its expanded form, for two years.

During this trial, the astronauts living aboard the ISS will check BEAM periodically to collect data and evaluate its structural design. Following its stay on the ISS, BEAM will be detached from the station—but don’t worry! In the atmosphere, BEAM will break apart and burn up, so no harmful particles will make it to Earth’s surface. This is actually an oft-used practice for releasing spacecraft in space, and it certainly keeps space garbage from building up.

The BEAM is an attractive alternative to building larger space stations because of its potential for efficiency. Materials intended for space must be sent (via rocket power) through our atmosphere and away from the planet’s gravitational pull. Because of this, the lighter the materials are, the better! The canvas-like material that forms BEAM is lightweight, which makes it easier to send into outer space. Additionally, BEAM is compactible, which saves room on the rockets, which leaves more room for other materials, which saves money.

Some interesting specs: BEAM weighs about 3,000 pounds. Once in space, it can be expanded to its full size, which is about 565 cubic feet. The materials used for BEAM’s walls form layers that deflect various space debris, shield radiation, regulate temperature and protect against leaks. Interestingly, BEAM has no windows. Who knows . . . maybe one day?

To get an idea of how BEAM works with the ISS, check out this animation of its installation—it’s out of this world!

Did You Know?
In October of 2016, President Obama gave a speech committing NASA and private space-tech companies to a manned mission to Mars by the 2030s. BEAM is one of the many steps in getting NASA ready for this awesome feat!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

All Pride, No Prejudice for Janeites at the Jane Austen Convention

by Abbrianna MacGregor
Fall 2016 Intern 

Literary aficionados know the deal. You may tear your eyes away from the page, but you never fully exit a beloved fictional universe’s comforting grip. Caught up in a yearning to live an alternate reality, you wish you had a confidant to talk giddily with about this pressing matter.

Well, the opportunity to indulge one’s devotion with those equally passionate comes around annually for Jane Austen superfans, also known as “Janeites.”

The annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) takes place for three days in either the United States or Canada. Participants indulge their literary infatuation with crafting activities, a Regency Ball, lectures on Austen’s work and much more.

Jane Austen has managed to stay relevant over 200 years after her death, and pop culture continually reaffirms her legacy. The 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries featured the popular Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Other recent film adaptations featured big names—Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett in the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice and Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan in Love and Friendship in May of 2016.

Austen’s popularity is also strengthened by exhibits dedicated to her, such as “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity” at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. The exhibit featured Austen paraphernalia such as Austen-silhouette cookie cutters and Austen volumes owned by celebrities, such as a copy of Mansfield Park that belonged to actor Stephen Fry.

The accessible themes in Austen’s literature also account for the author’s continued relevance. “It is a truth universally acknowledged” that her ability to engage the reader passed the test of time. Her stories also emphasize self-discovery and feature complex heroines the reader becomes attached to. Evidence suggests that Austen will continue to be cherished for years to come despite the fact that her novels take place in a long-ago era.

All things considered, it’s no wonder Austen celebrations such as JASNA exist. Janeites will unite once again in 2017 in Huntington Beach, California, for another group gathering centering on their beloved author.

Did You Know?
American Idol success story Kelly Clarkson bought a turquoise and gold ring that belonged to Jane Austen at a London auction. This prompted a series of events in which the UK government imposed a ban on the export of items considered national treasures, and the Jane Austen House Museum had to raise $250,000 to match Clarkson’s bid and reclaim the ring.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Google This: App Makes Art Accessible

By Amanda Gutierrez
Fall 2016 intern

In high school, my class took a field trip to the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The opportunity let me experience the amazing collection of art nestled in southern California. Not everyone can get to the Getty—or to other museums throughout the world—but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the chance to see the amazing collections that are out there. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could see great works of art from your own home? Now, thanks to Google, you can!

 In July of 2016, Google released their Arts & Culture feature, which brings users closer to the art world. The technology exists as an app for both iOS and Android devices and is also available as a website. Arts & Culture provides information for users regardless of whether they are able to visit Google’s museum partners.

If you are lucky enough to be viewing an artwork in person, at certain museums you can use a smartphone camera, point it at an artwork you want to know more about, and the app will find out the name and any more info it has on that piece. For those who cannot get to every museum they want to, the app also allows users to look at an immense catalog of high-quality images of artwork from around the world. With this app, people can delve through Google’s collection from about a thousand museums in 70 countries.

This newest Google feature also lets you check out the museums’ hours, locations and current exhibits in case you want to plan a visit. For a select number of exhibits in Google’s partner museums you can take a virtual tour using virtual reality viewer! If you don’t happen to have one on hand, the website version of the app will let you take a pseudo-tour of some exhibits and locations.

Once you’ve found a piece of art that intrigues you, you can zoom in on the high-resolution image to see the minute details of the piece. It may not be the same as seeing the artwork in person, but the chance to virtually inspect the aesthetics may take a close second.  

On the app or the website, you can delve even further into art history and look through a specific artist’s work by date, material, art movement and even color. Or you can organize an artist’s collected works by popularity. Think about watching a famous artist’s style develop right before your eyes—sounds pretty amazing to me.

Did You Know?
With 19 museums and galleries, 9 research centers and the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum in the world. It is estimated that the full collection of the Smithsonian comprises around 156 million items.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

StoneCycling: Sustainable Building, Brick by Brick

by Sarah Dolan
Fall 2016 Intern

Reduce, reuse, recycle. The “Three Rs” remind us of the ever-increasing importance of sustainability. From little things like throwing a plastic bottle in the recycling bin rather than the trash can to larger lifestyle changes, environmental responsibility is something on many people’s minds. A company based in the Netherlands is working to build on (or, in their case, build with) our understanding of sustainable waste is.

Ward Massa and Tom van Soest both come from a design background, having graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven, located in the Netherlands. Together, they founded StoneCycling in 2013. The company converts industrial waste from the ceramic, glass and insulation industries into new building materials. These “WasteBasedBricks” bring together sustainability and design. By taking waste that would ordinarily end up in a landfill and putting it to new use, StoneCycling is changing the way we recycle. “The problem is that waste is still seen as waste,” Massa said in an interview with the Smithsonian. “We think waste is an opportunity to make new things.”

Each one of the WasteBasedBricks has a different “recipe,” creating a unique look and feel. These recipes are kept secret, but the company claims “if you are really curious” you can give them a call. StoneCycling collaborates with architects and demolition companies to procure the waste. Their goal is to “erase the word waste from the dictionary” by showing that all materials can be repurposed and reused.

StoneCycling’s recent projects include a house in Rotterdam and a pavilion in Amsterdam, both of which are made completely from recycled—or “upcycled”—waste. The house is a four-story home built in the city center of Rotterdam. It is made from over 33,000 pounds of waste! StoneCycling’s pavilion was located in FabCity, a temporary campus in Amsterdam. It was built in honor of Amsterdam hosting the European Union in the spring of 2016, and was moved at the end of June. The pavilion, called the “TrueTalker,” had a campfire in the middle, with light peeking out between the spaced pattern of the recycled bricks. The campfire offered an invitation to sit down and share ideas, just as the politicians do when the European Union convenes.

Did You Know?

StoneCycling isn’t the first to come up with the idea of 100 percent recycled houses. Prince Edward Island in Canada is home to three “bottle houses”—each made out of thousands of glass bottles held together with cement. The first bottle house, known as the six gabled house was built over a six-month period in 1980, using around 12,000 bottles!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

It’s a Sine! Scientists See Math on the Mind

by Amanda Gutierrez
Fall 2016 Intern

As a student majoring in Writing, Literature & Publishing, it may come as a surprise that I loved math during high school. On par with my love of mathematics, was my love of science. Math and science are like two peas in a pod. But what’s the science behind math? Scientists have recently been conducting studies that examine the correlation of brain activity and mathematics.

One study located a specialized region in the brain that lights up like a firework when a subject is asked to work with numbers—as in Arabic numerals like 1, 2, 3, not words like one, two, three. This brain spot, discovered by scientists at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, is about one-fifth of an inch in diameter and is located in the same area of our brain that processes certain visual information. Although we all learn and process math uniquely, this Stanford study shows that there seems to be at least one portion of the brain specifically intended for numerical information.

Another study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, sought to further understand how the brain sees math. This study compared how sighted and non-sighted individuals process mathematical information. When all participants were asked to complete mathematical problems, the same region of the brain was activated.

But, for the non-sighted participants, so was another region—one used for comprehending visual information in sighted individuals. This area did not become active when sighted individuals were asked the same math problems. The more complex the math problem, the more activity the researchers saw in this area. The research indicates that the brain is capable of processing mathematical information in various areas, even if these areas seem to have originally been designated for another purpose.

A third study, conducted by researchers at the INSERM–CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in France, compared the brains of advanced mathematicians and non-mathematicians. The study showed that an area of the mathematicians’ brains activated in response to math-based questions. That same area did not activate in the brains of those who were less mathematically inclined. It seems that by training to be mathematicians, these participants altered how their brains process math!

The area that lit up for the mathematicians seems to be connected to the areas our brains use when processing spatial and numerical information (such as recognizing that two grapes on a plate is more than one grape on a plate). Additionally, the study suggested that the brains of the mathematicians seemed to reallocate resources from other regions of the brain, such as those used for visual facial recognition. This further supports the suggestion of the brain’s plasticity as observed by the Johns Hopkins study.

Each of these three studies multiplies our understanding of mathematical brain function and how the mind works—hopefully, one day soon, research will all add up to a complete sum of mathematical understanding!

Did You Know?
An adult human brain has about 100 billion neurons. Development of these neurons starts at birth and continues into adulthood. Neurons, unlike many other types of cells, do not reproduce themselves. And some of the neurons in your brain today are the same ones that you had when you were born!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Make Way for Hedgehogs!

by Sarah Dolan
Fall 2016 Intern

Growing up I would sometimes pass afternoons in search of critters in my backyard. I would find all sorts of creatures indigenous to the Northeast. Garter snakes, worms and tiny red newts were all exciting finds. Had I grown up in Great Britain, it would have been very likely that I discovered a different animal, one very popular in British gardens these days: the hedgehog.

New research by the University of Hamburg suggests that Great Britain’s indigenous hedgehogs have changed their lifestyle to adapt to growing urban development. Hedgehog populations in urban areas are often higher than those of the surrounding countryside. Researchers tagged 14 hedgehogs with GPS temperature sensors and monitored them for 10 months. They found that urban hedgehogs travel far less at night than rural ones do—only 12 acres, compared to 123. Urban hedgehogs tend to sleep in private gardens during the day, then go out at around 9 p.m. after people and dogs have gone indoors. The study also found that urban hedgehogs follow the same hibernation patterns as rural ones, unaffected by human activity, noise and availability of food sources (read: trash) over the winter.

However, hedgehogs aren’t fully out of the woods. Their urban numbers have declined in Britain by one-third since 2000, and rural numbers have halved. Habitat destruction from farming and urban development is putting the species in further danger. As hedgehogs live in bushy areas with natural vegetation, urban gardens and parks are crucial to their survival.

In order to help preserve habitat for urban hedgehogs, the British Hedgehog Preservation Society has founded the Hedgehog Street initiative. The campaign encourages citizens to cultivate gardens that hedgehogs can use as a habitat. It also encourages citizens to cut small, 5-by-5-inch holes in the bottom of their fences so that hedgehogs can pass through. This helps to increase the animal’s roaming areas and grant them access to more areas around the city. (You can see a map tracking hedgehog sightings, as well as the “hedgehog highway,” here.) As of December 2016, there were over 41,000 registered “Hedgehog Champions” on the site.

Hopefully with the help of these conservation efforts these spiny animals will thrive and Great Britain’s beloved animal will be around for years to come.

Did You Know?
When encountering a strange smell, such as turpentine or tobacco, a hedgehog will lick it up. (Hedgehogs are very resistant to toxins.) The animal will then lather the substance over its quills. Scientists don’t know why the hedgehog does this. Some theories are that doing so disguises their scent from predators, poisons the tips of their spines or kills parasites that may be on the animal.