## Sunday, April 26, 2009

### Teaching Kindergarteners About Einstein's Theory

I was recently given a very interesting idea, how would I describe my research in gravitational wave astrophysics to a class of kindergarteners. How indeed! Kids can be very intuitive if nudged properly. I believe that even complex topics, if presented in the proper way, can be comprehended by children. Here is a possible interaction that I came up with.

Me: So you all know about the planets orbiting the Sun right?

Kids: Yea, like Mars and Jupiter?

Me: Correct, just like Mars and Jupiter, but don’t forget about Mercury, Venus, Earth, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Planets are pretty big aren’t they?

Kids: They’re huge!

Me: Right, they’re huge. And that means they are very heavy. They weigh a lot. But did you know that there are things in space that weigh even more than a planet, even more than the Sun?

Kids: Really? Wow, that’s cool. How much bigger?

Me: Well that’s a good question class. There is something called a black hole that can weigh 20 times as much as the Sun, and really big black holes can weigh more than a billion times as much as the Sun. Incredible huh?

Kids: No way, really? That’s big.

Me: And who knows how many stars we have in our solar system?

Kids: [After a moment of hesitation] We have a star in our solar system?

Me: Sure we do. It is called “the Sun!” The Sun is a star.

Kids: Oh yea, right, we knew that!

Me: Well, maybe you didn’t know that most stars (but not our Sun) have companions, and the two stars circle around each other. And many black holes circle around each other.

Kids: Oooh, that’s awesome. Do they go around very fast?

Me: You bet they do! In fact, they go faster and faster over time, and eventually they crash into each other making an even bigger black hole. But right before they crash, they throw out a lot of energy, sort of like a blast, and the energy is called “gravitational waves.” After millions of years travelling to reach us they rain down on Earth.

Kids: You mean the waves are hitting us now? Does it hurt?

Me: Exactly! They are always raining down on us, constantly, but they are so weak we never notice them at all. In fact, we have to try very hard to notice them at all. So far nobody has actually found one.

Kids: So how do we know they’re real if we can find them?

Me: Good question! It is because nearly 100 years ago, a great scientist named Albert Einstein stayed up late one night and thought about this, and he said the waves should exist. One day soon, we’ll be able to find the waves and prove Albert was right.

Kids: We’ve heard of Albert Einstein. He was very smart so he must be right.

Me: Yes, he was smart, but the way science works is that thinking something isn’t enough. You must figure out how to prove it. You have to figure out an experiment to prove it. So a lot of very smart scientists from around the world are working on this big problem.

Kids: This sounds like fun. We want to become scientists one day too so we can prove things like the waves.

## Saturday, April 25, 2009

### NEED HELP: Kids and Science

When I was a kid, our country was consumed with the Apollo missions, rockets, moon walks, and science in general. I felt a compulsion to be a part of America’s push for science so I engaged myself in model rocketry and electronics. It was exhilarating to see a rocket of my creation soar upward in a flash. And I felt a sense of accomplishment in adding a timed release camera as a payload in my rocket so it would take pictures as it reached the flight’s zenith, looking downward at me staring up to the sky.

It was a magical time for science that captured a nation’s attention. Fast forward over 30 years, and the climate couldn’t be more different. Our children no longer aim to be scientists. Children no longer look up to scientists as role models. And certainly most kids are not intent on becoming a scientist anymore. What happened?

I’ve been troubled by this de-evolution for years. I’m tired of polling my friend’s kids about math and science, only to hear them proudly declare “I’m not good in math,” even when it’s not true just to save face in front of their peers. And the risk of being viewed as a geek by admitting a love for math has never been greater for girls trying to stay afloat in the school popularity contest. This is one of the reasons why I started this blog. Something has to change to attract more kids to a life of science. Let’s all do our part. Anyone who knows or loves science should reach out to any kids they know and try to convince them that science is fun, science is cool, and science can save the world.

## Wednesday, April 22, 2009

### Physics 2010: An Assessment of and Outlook for Physics

The Board on Physics and Astronomy periodically surveys all the branches of physics and the process occurs every 10 years or so. The survey process, which takes several years, encompasses atomic, molecular, and optical science, plasma physics, condensed matter and materials physics, elementary particle physics, nuclear physics, and gravitational physics. The most recently completed decadal survey, Physics in a New Era, was capped off with the release of its overview volume in 2001. A new survey called Physics 2010 currently in progress. By clicking on the icon above, you can read the entire survey book online free of charge.

## Tuesday, April 21, 2009

### Smallest Exoplanet Yet is Found

A new exoplanet discovery was announced today at the European Joint National Astronomy Meeting in England. The planet is called Gliese 581 e, the smallest extra solar planet yet found with a lower limit of mass of about 1.9 times the size of Earth. The star, Gliese 581, around which the planet orbits is 20.5 light years away in the constellation Libra. Gliese 581 is a low-mass, red dwarf star, the kind most likely to have Earthlike planets.

So far, there have been more than 340 exoplanets discovered, but most have been large "Hot Jupiters" that cannot harbor life. Veteran planet hunter Michel Mayor of the Geneva Observatory described his team's findings at the conference. Mayor and his colleagues, detected the tiny planet indirectly by the wobble method, the pull the planet exerts on its parent star.

"Gliese 581 is a truly fascinating exoplanet system," said planetary scientist Sara Seager of MIT. "It is like a gift that keeps on giving."

The holy grail of exoplanet research is to find a planet that combines both, the approximate mass of Earth and conditions favorable for water. Planets circling around their host star at a distance where liquid water can exist are in the so-called "habitable zone."

## Saturday, April 18, 2009

NEW Science Book Alert! An excellent introduction to LHC physics for the layperson. I like this book because it was written by a Fermilab scientist, talk about straight from the horse's mouth! New book, published 2009. When I go to CERN to pay a visit to LHC, I'll be bringing this one for light reading on the plane.

## Friday, April 17, 2009

### Kepler's "First Light" Images

NASA's Kepler mission, the Earth-like planet hunter, successfully launched on March 6, 2009. Just over a month later, and the spacecraft has taken its first images of the star-rich sky where it will soon begin searching for extra-solar planets similar to Earth.

The image on the right is one of the "first light" images showing the mission's target patch of sky, a vast starry field in the Cygnus-Lyra region of the Milky Way galaxy. This image shows its entire field of view, a 100-square-degree portion of the sky. The region contains an estimated 4.5 million stars, more than 100,000 of which were selected as ideal candidates for planet hunting.

"Everything about Kepler has been optimized to find Earth-like planets," said James Fanson, Kepler's project manager at JPL. "Our images are road maps that will allow us, in a few years, to point to a star and say a world like ours is there."

The Kepler mission has a wonderful project website at: http://kepler.nasa.gov/. The website features an excellent collection of learning activities for children grades K-12, and beyond. Kepler activites are thought provoking exercises for hours of science family fun.

## Tuesday, April 14, 2009

LHC is the world's largest and highest energy particle accelerator built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). LHC is located in a 27km tunnel on the Swiss and French border. LHC collides protons at the speed of light in hopes making discoveries such as the Higgs Boson, and dark matter. Much has been reported in the mainstream press about LHC creating micro black holes that will engulf the Earth, but this is a far-fetched scenario. After an unsuccessful launch last year that resulted in a \$23 million repair bill, LHC is scheduled to go back online in October 2009. Check out the following video tour of LHC and CERN.

### Help classify galaxies with Galaxy Zoo

Galaxy Zoo is fun for the whole family!
Galaxy Zoo is an open and public experiment in bringing astrophysics to the masses. Just visit http://www.galaxyzoo.org/ to register. Thousands of people from around the world already play an important role in classifying galaxies using simple visual techniques. A short training tutorial is provided for all participants.
The site presents images of galaxies taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and you are asked to classify them as spiral, elliptical, merger, irregular, etc. The reason people are doing this task instead of computers is that people are actually better and faster at visually classifying astrophysical objects. Imagine that! I've been doing this for over a year now and I have a wonderful time at it. I've noticed a few people scratching their heads when I classify galaxies while sitting around in Starbucks. They probably think I'm a mad scientist which delights me no end.