Actor Wants to Return to School, Get Ph.D. in Physics

Now here’s something I’m glad to see, and it’s a shame it doesn’t happen more often.

From CNN “Oscar-nominated Actor’s Big Love: Physics”:

Terrence Howard is more than a leading man.

He cemented that status with an Academy Award nomination last year for his performance as a pimp-turned-rapper in Hustle & Flow. He takes the lead again in Pride, opening Friday.

But his big-screen work represents only one of his passions.…He’s a musician, currently at work on his debut album. He studies physics for fun…

He was destined to be an actor, he said. It was practically the family business. Howard’s great-grandmother, Minnie Gentry, was a stage star, and his grandmother, mother and uncle were actors, too.

But deep down, he really wanted to be a science teacher.

“My main love is still physics,” he said. “I want to go back to school and get my doctorate in it.”

When prompted, he effortlessly explains wave-particle theory and the law of entanglement.

But it might be awhile before he can return to school. Howard is booked up solid for the foreseeable future.

Piece of Earth’s Crust At Least 3.8 Billion Years Old

New Scientist informs us of the discovery that a piece of Earth’s crust has been found in Greenland, as dates back to at least 3.8 billion years. It’s significant because until recently, it was thought that continental plates had not formed until much later.

For reference, life is thought to have originated around 4 billion years ago (there are questionable fossilized unicellular organisms dating to 3.5 billion years ago). The oldest rock found so far is 4.04 billion years old, and tiny zircon crystals have been dated to 4.4 billion years ago. Earth itself is estimated to be 4.57 billion years old.

Why Humans Have Trouble With Anthropogenic Climate Change

I came across an interesting editorial today in the Los Angeles Times. Daniel Gilbert writes about how our evolutionary history and biology make it difficult for us to deal with problems like anthropogenic climate change (global warming):

Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.

(continue reading at the L. A. Times)

He lists several major reasons why it’s tough for humans to be really moved to take action against problems like this, and brings up a number of good points. He discusses reasons such as difficulty observing the slow rate of change, and the long delay before major adverse affects. This difficulty affects us in multiple ways; it’s relevant to medicine as well:

That’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn’t.

I run into this problem with patients all the time.

Of course, one thing that tends to set us apart from other animals is our ability to remember, transmit, and record information, meaning we can decide to take steps that aren’t always consistent with our instincts or evolutionary heritage. It’s up to us to step up and solve this problem, instead of hoping it will go away on its own.

Hinode Reveals Sun’s Surface Activity

NASA just released some great images and video clips taken by Hinode, a Japanese space telescope studying the sun. As described by New Scientist,

The restless bubbling and frothing of the Sun’s chaotic surface is astonishing astronomers who have been treated to detailed new images from a Japanese space telescope called Hinode.

The observatory will have as dramatic an impact on our understanding of the Sun as the Hubble Space Telescope has had on our view of the universe beyond, scientists told a NASA press conference in Washington, DC, US, on Wednesday.

(continue reading at New Scientist)

Sun's surface
Image credit: Hinode JAXA/NASA

They’ve released several images, including the one I’ve featured here (see the high-resolution version). The caption states

Taken by Hinode’s Solar Optical Telescope on Nov. 11, 2006, this image reveals the fine scale structure in the chromosphere that extends outward above the top of the convection cells, or granulation, of the photosphere. The structure results from the interaction of hot ionized gas with the magnetic field.

The video clip below really shows off the sun’s surface activity. You can see a higher-resolution version at NASA’s web site, along with other video clips from Hinode.

This incredible activity is taking place along the entire surface of the sun, all the time. It’s amazing: the sun appears unchanging and placid from Earth, yet its surface (and interior) are alive with activity.

Hinode (formerly known as SOLAR-B), is a satellite with three instruments: the Solar Optical Telescope, X-ray Telescope, and Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer. Its purpose is to study the sun. It is primarily run by JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, in collaboration with the space agencies of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. Read more at NASA’s page.

U.S. Government Scientists Instructed Not To Discuss Climate Change, Sea Ice, and/or Polar Bears

According to CNN (emphasis mine),

Polar bears, sea ice and global warming are taboo subjects, at least in public, for some U.S. scientists attending meetings abroad, environmental groups and a top federal wildlife official said Thursday.

Environmental activists called this scientific censorship, which they said was in line with the Bush administration’s history of muzzling dissent over global climate change.

…Listed as a “new requirement” for foreign travelers on U.S. government business, the memo says that requests for foreign travel “involving or potentially involving climate change, sea ice, and/or polar bears” require special handling, including notice of who will be the official spokesman for the trip.

Two accompanying memos were offered as examples of these kinds of assurance. Both included the line that the traveler “understands the administration’s position on climate change, polar bears, and sea ice and will not be speaking on or responding to these issues.”

(Read the entire article.)

This is intolerable.

Comet McNaught Video

The fine folks at NASA recently released a very cool video of Comet McNaught. Taken by the STEREO-A spacecraft, this video was assembled from photographs taken on 17 January 2007. The camera is extremely sensitive, and even Venus (lower left) and Mercury (upper right) are bright enough to cause “desaturation streaks.” The head of the comet is quite bright and produces a large amount of desaturation, but once it passes out of the field of view, one can see the beautiful tail.

I really hesitated to upload and post this video. Of course, as a work of NASA, a division of the federal government, it is in the public domain. But the lower resolution really doesn’t do the comet justice. I post this lower-resolution version because I want to make it more accessible, but please, if you are at all interested in this, view one of the higher-resolution versions available at the STEREO web site (or download the highest-quality version, in the Quicktime format). The fine detail in the tail can’t be seen in the version below.

Still, it is amazing, no?

Regenerating Sea Squirts

A couple weeks ago, in my post “Growing Body Parts,” I briefly discussed the ability of some animals to regenerate damaged body parts. New Scientist reports today on an animal capable of far more dramatic growth.

Israeli scientists studying a species (Botrylloides leachi) of sea squirt found that just a fragment of a blood vessel could regrow a full, adult sea squirt. The article states

Out of 95 fragments they examined, 80 underwent whole body regeneration (WBR). Cells first grouped into hollow spheres, then cell layers in-folded and organs developed until after two weeks an adult sea squirt had grown, capable of sexual reproduction.

Sea squirts are invertebrates that live in the water. They are somewhat close relatives of us, probably the vertebrates’ closest relatives. The most recent ancestor of sea squirts and all the vertebrates (including humans) lived perhaps 565 million years ago. The vertebrates, along with sea squirts and lancelets, make up the phylum Chordata.

Book Meme #2

I am a strong advocate of reading. I think books are extremely important and I enjoy reading immensely. On this weblog I tend to focus on nonfiction, though of course nonfiction is important as well. So when I saw this post at JD2718, I thought it looked like a neat idea. I attempted to trace this back to its origin but was unsuccessful. I am also unsure as to the source of this list or what criteria were used in compiling it. Feel free to use this in your own weblog (or in a comment here, if you like).

The rules are as follows:

  • Place books you’ve read in boldface.
  • Place books you wish to read in italics.
  • Leave books you aren’t interested in normal (roman) type.
  • Movies do not count.
  1. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown)
  2. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
  3. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  4. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
  5. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Tolkien)
  6. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)
  7. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (Tolkien)
  8. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)
  9. Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
  10. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry) Continue reading “Book Meme #2”

Lunar Eclipse

As you may have known, there was a total lunar eclipse several hours ago. The moon was already totally eclipsed by the time it rose over the United States, but was still a beautiful sight. There will be plenty of high-quality photographs available online, I’m sure, so let me share with you some rather bad photographs I took. I was not planning to take any pictures, but it was such a beautiful occurrence that I felt compelled to try. It is not easy to photograph a partly glowing object at night, let me tell you. In the first photograph, perhaps a quarter of the moon is illuminated. (The glow makes it appear more illuminated in the photograph.)

partial eclipse of the moon Lunar eclipse. Credit: Darmok.

In the second photograph, the moon is minutes away from emerging from Earth’s shadow. There is only a small “bite” missing. Again, the glow overwhelmed my camera.

lunar eclipse Lunar eclipse, almost over. Credit: Darmok.

Phases of the moon Phases of the moon. Source: Wikipedia.

The moon orbits Earth once every 29.5 days—hence the origin of the word month. Of course, half of it is lit and half is in darkness at any time, just like Earth, but we see different parts of the moon as it orbits us. When it’s between Earth and the sun, the dark side faces us and we call it a new moon. As it orbits, we see more of the lit side, until when it is on the side of Earth opposite the sun, we see the fully lit side and it is a full moon. Incidentally, this also means that specific phases correlate with specific times on Earth. For instance, since the full moon just mentioned is on the opposite side of Earth from the sun, that means it is over Earth’s night side, and is the highest at midnight. It is not visible at all to the day side of Earth. (See this Wikipedia illustration for more.)

So how do eclipses fit in? When the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, it casts a shadow on Earth, and the part of Earth in the shadow sees the moon pass in front of the sun and cause a (solar) eclipse. Similarly, when Earth is between the sun and the moon, as it was for this event, the moon passes through Earth’s shadow and we see a lunar eclipse.

You might think that there should be two eclipses every month—every new moon should cause a solar eclipse and every full moon should cause a lunar eclipse. But the moon’s orbit is inclined very slightly (around 5°) relative to our orbit around the sun. As a result, the moon usually passes just above or just below the sun. Only occasionally will an alignment occur and an eclipse be possible. Therefore, solar eclipses will always occur during new moons, and lunar eclipses, as this one was, will occur during full moons; however, the converse is not necessarily true.

Update: New Scientist has an article on the eclipse, including some photographs.

Crossing Saturn’s Rings

The Cassini imaging team (CICLOPS, the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations) just released some new images of Saturn today. Among them is this incredible time-lapse video from photographs Cassini took as it crossed Saturn’s ring plane. You can see how thin the rings are as the orbiter crosses them.

The spacecraft crosses the ring plane twice each orbit. This video represents approximately twelve hours and so runs around a thousand times faster than real time. Cassini starts on the sunlit side of the rings, then crosses to the darker side. We see six moons during the video, though the smaller ones aren’t really visible at the low-resolution version of the video I’ve shown here. A high-resolution version is available at the CICLOPS web site and is definitely worth the download. The first large moon is Enceladus; the second one is Mimas.

The Cassini spacecraft was launched from Earth on 15 October 1997 as part of the Cassini-Huygens mission, a joint project between NASA, the ESA (European Space Agency), and the Italian Space Agency. It entered into Saturn orbit on 1 July 2004. It is the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn and the fourth one to visit it (after Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, and Voyager 2).

(Thanks to the Bad Astronomer for the link!)