2013 in Review

Favorite Science News

Russian Meteor

No story from this past year  captured my attention and fascination like the meteor that fell in Chelyabinsk, Russia. On February 15, in the early morning sky, a 19-meter-long piece of rock from the outer reaches of the solar system came crashing into the early morning sky.  Let’s just take a look at some of the footage captured by numerous dash cams (on a side note–thanks to all the insurance-conscious Russians for installing dash cams!):

Not only was this falling meteor an absolute beautiful thing to watch, but meteors of this size are relatively rare and don’t usually land in a populated place. This was a wonderful scientific opportunity to study this event with numerous videos, GPS data, and real-time coverage via social media.

But the event was not over.

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Comet ISON – A Final Goodbye or See Ya Later (Waaaay Later)?

UPDATE 12/4/13: Well, the human fangirl side of me is disappointed to announce that as of yesterday, NASA officially declared Comet ISON dead. But, the scientist in me is excited that there is so much data to pore over from the breakup of this comet very near the sun. With so many instruments following this comet, we have more capability now more than ever to view the makeup of this ancient comet, where it came from, and maybe will teach us more about comets in general. What a fascinating little comet, and even though I won’t be able to watch it selfishly in my night sky, I still feel very lucky to have been around to witness its demise. 

Right now, there is a comet well on its way to the sun. Will it survive its journey, which has been millions of years in the making? And if it does, will we ever see it again?

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Astronomers have been tracking comet ISON for quite a while now and many had predicted it would be one of the brightest observed comets for many years. While we haven’t seen the expected brightness from ISON yet, that may change if it survives its trip around the Sun.

Comet ISON racing towards the sun (Extra bonus-- Comet Encke!)

Comet ISON racing towards the sun (Extra bonus– Comet Encke!)

 

We will find out this Thanksgiving. On a NASA audio press conference today, many astronomers were offering their “bets” as to whether comet ISON would survive, with many giving it a 30-40% chance of survival. This comet has been fascinating from a scientific standpoint – many scientists use the words “odd” and have said it has behaved quite strangely. Of course, that only piques scientific interest all the more.

It’s important to note at this point that you very likely won’t be able to see anything on Thanksgiving, what with the whole staring into the sun and all. I, for one, will be letting NASA’s instruments do the work for me. There are some great resources for watching Comet ISON online, including from NASA and the Bad Astronomer.

IF it survives — again, this is the big IF — it is expected to be visible again in the Northern Hemisphere around the 1st or 2nd week of December. Even more awesome – it will be visible during sunrise AND sunset (before it became too close to the Sun, it’s only been visible at sunrise). UPDATED: There is some confusion as to this point that was brought up during the press conference. I’ll continue to keep you updated.

Comets don’t come around very often. This is a great opportunity to gather your kids, friends, family, etc. and to use all the tools we have available to watch one of the best shows our universe has to offer. I know I’ll be watching–how about you?

So. PRETTY.

The Cassini spacecraft, which is currently traveling around Saturn taking all kinds of beautiful pictures, continues to outdo itself.

Saturn

Saturn is gorgeous and stunning just by looking into a small telescope here on Earth, but when viewed like this, it’s breathtaking. My favorite part of the picture is the view of Saturn’s super weird hexagonal clouds on the North Pole, which continues to vex (hex?) astronomers as to the exact cause of this beautiful mathey shapey thing.

Movie Review – Gravity

You know, going to the movies is a rarity for me. It’s even more rare for me to shell out extra money to see a movie in 3D, and even MORE rare to pay extra extra money to see an IMAX movie. So I had a “treat yo self” moment yesterday and went to see the new movie Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, in IMAX 3D. Apparently I wasn’t alone.

Before getting into the review, I have a love/hate relationship with movies set in outer space. I love that space movies exist to further interest in space–I do not love the fact that 95% of them are so ridiculous and are centered nowhere near the truth. I’m looking at you, Armageddon! With that being said, I always have to temper my expectations when I see space-themed movies. But I gotta say…my expectations were raised seeing the Gravity trailer:

So was it worth it?

Yes. YES. Freaking YES. End of review.

Okay, okay, not quite the end of the review. But based on the visuals, which were absolutely stunning, this movie would be worth seeing. It was gorgeous. Stunning. Breathtaking. And, to my surprise, most of the visuals were accurate, i.e., that’s how material acts in space. It was absolutely worth shelling out a few extra bucks for IMAX and 3D. In fact, I highly recommend it. While I was thinking how I would feel if I watched the movie in a regular theater, or even at home, well, that’s where my thoughts change, but just a little bit.

First of all, there are some inaccuracies. SPOILER ALERT: You can’t just jet over to the International Space Station while your shuttle is attached to the Hubble Space Telescope. Different altitudes, different orbits. You also can’t take a Soyuz capsule over to the Chinese space station. All of these things are inaccurate. But you know what? WHO CARES because the movie is still awesome. Also, Sandra Bullock really does an incredible job as well.

There was a feature in a recent Entertainment Weekly issue that showed everyone how the movie was made. Reading that before seeing the movie only enhanced my Gravity-watching experience. It really is a technical marvel and well worth it.

And now we have reached the end of my movie critic soapbox.

Today, We Remember the Challenger

Today is the anniversary of the 1986 Challenger disaster. I’m posting this not to start our Monday off on a somber note, but to remember the lives not only of the astronauts lost that day, but also of other astronauts who have given their lives to such a worthy endeavor.

Today, we remember:Challenger crew

  • Francis Scobee, Mission Commander
  • Michael Smith, Pilot
  • Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist 1
  • Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist 2
  • Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist 3
  • Christa McAuliffe Payload Specialist 1
  • Greg Jarvis, Payload Specialist 2

For those of us who were alive and able to remember January 28, 1986, it was a day we will never forget. Most people remember Christa McAuliffe, who was a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire. As a part of the Teacher in Space project, Christa would have been the first civilian in space. Millions of school children were watching that morning as the Challenger disaster unfolded, with many of us not knowing exactly what had happened.

It was a reminder that putting people into space is hard. Very hard. But we humans are an ever-reaching species who will endeavor to explore, and as long as there are humans around, we will always be pushing the limits of what we can achieve.

So today, we give thanks to those who have gone before us for their dedication, their pioneering spirit, their bravery, and their courage. We will always remember you.

Life Lesson #3 – Don’t Be Afraid of Making Mistakes

Science history is full of mistakes. You will seldom meet a scientist who hasn’t stumbled onto something by accident, had an experiment go awry, or just plain messed s%$t up.

Sometimes scientists didn’t so much make mistakes as just getting it plain wrong. Lots of really smart people were into alchemy, which is the idea that you can change one element to another, like lead into gold. Others believed for centuries that the Earth was the center of the universe, and some even believed that the Earth was only 6,000 years old (Some people actually still believe this. If you believe this, you should probably read this blog with an open mind and learn some science.). Of course, we know now that each of these things are wrong. As our collective scientific hiveminds grew, we all moved forward as a society.

Beautiful Mistakes

Sometimes mistakes benefit society in ways that no one could have predicted. You know plastic, right? It’s pretty much everywhere and we wouldn’t know what to do without it. Well, it turns out that the man who invented it was just looking to make a shellac alternative.  In the mid-1960s, two Americans that worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation that had been predicted decades earlier.

The best example of a beautiful mistake is probably penicillin. Before penicillin was around, many people died from bacterial infections that we don’t think twice about today. such as strep throat, gonorrhea, and pneumonia. According to the American Chemical Society, in 1928, Alexander Fleming was a Professor of Bacteriology at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. As he returned from a holiday to his lab, Fleming began sorting through petri dishes filled with Staphylococcus bacterium. He noticed that one dish was a little peculiar – the bacterium weren’t growing around some  mold that had found its way onto the petri dish. Fleming found that his “mold juice” could kill many harmful bacteria.

If at First You Don’t Succeed. . .

Of course, not every great invention was “accidentally” discovered. The vast majority of scientific advancements were made through painstaking, backbreaking work. But every time a scientist conducts an experiment in which nothing “worked”, this still leads to an enhancement of science. Science lets us look at what works and what doesn’t work. Experiments are meant to help us figure this out. How will we move forward and grow without mistakes?

I played basketball in high school. When I was a freshman, instead of playing for fun, I was afraid of making mistakes. Therefore, I didn’t play as well as I could have. I often think back about that time and wish I could tell my younger self to just go out and have fun.

I try to remember this advice every day, both in my professional and home life. Go out. Live. Do. Don’t be afraid.

Social Media and NASA – A Marriage Made in Space

I love NASA. With a long history of innovation, leadership, and doing more with less, I’m a huge admirer. With that being said, I try to be objective in my criticism of NASA, especially with major flaws that resulted in the loss of human life such as the Challenger and Columbia disasters – both of which were preventable.

However, I have to give it up to NASA. Being a government agency, the expectations that they would embrace the quickly changing world of social media were not that high, at least in my mind. But they’ve done everything right when it comes to their social media strategy, especially when it comes to their recent successes such as the Mars Curiosity Rover.

It’s All About the Master Plan

It’s not just the number of social networks NASA participates in. These social networks include your usual Twitter, Facebook, and Google plus, but also a YouTube channel, flickr, slideshare, UStreamTV, and Foursquare accounts. Here’s what makes NASA the master of their social media domain (oh Seinfeld. . .you will live on forever): NASA incorporates every NASA-related account into their social media plan.

Think of the main NASA social media accounts as the “Main Hub”. NASA has a TON of related accounts, such as the Curiosity Rover’s Twitter account, JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) social media accounts, Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center. . . .just the list of Twitter feeds alone would be enough to keep you busy.

Each of these “sub-accounts”, if you will, connect with the main NASA accounts, and they both feed into each other. A great deal of planning goes into their coordinated messaging, but what makes NASA so special is they allow each subaccount to be creative and do their own thing.

The picture below, courtesy of Wired.com, is a visual of what it may have looked like when the rover checked in on Foursquare. Needless to say, it may be a while before anyone unseats Curiosity as the Mayor of Gale Crater.

It’s Also About Throwing Out That Plan

The other thing about social media that you always have to keep in mind is the speed at which things happen. As a social media manager, you have to know what to respond to and what to filter out. That’s why you get paid the big bucks (HA-you do not get paid the big bucks. . .I know because I am ONE OF YOU). Let’s say that you’ve spent a few months getting ready for an event. Everything’s laid out, you’ve charted your timeline . . .the event starts, and. . .your plans change. Maybe your feedback isn’t what you expected, maybe the traditional media has picked up on your campaign and taken it in a direction you weren’t expecting. You have to be adaptable to the flow of where social media takes you. Plan for what you know, gird yourself for what you don’t.

So, to recap so far: Have a plan, but be adaptable. This last point is, what I think, what makes NASA truly exceptional in the social media world.

Make ‘Em Laugh

Want to engage your followers? Be funny. Want to encourage behavior change? Be funny. Want to spread your message throughout your partners and beyond? Be funny.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Sometimes the subject matter does not lend itself to humor. Being funny and witty is one of the hardest things to do in real life, let alone in 140 characters.

But research shows that these messages resonate with the public. For instance,  let’s look at a tweet from Curiosity:

First of all, you have to take something very sciencey, fit it into a tweet, and make it understandable. NASA not only did that, but they really brought their point home with their awesome use of hashtags. We all know that #pewpew is the international language of lasers, and that’s the take-home message here. Lasers are cool. Curiosity shot freaking lasers. If you learned nothing from the tweet other than that, that’s the point. Here’s another example:

This tweet accomplishes the same goals as above, and also endears itself to those of us who grew up in the 80s with an Inspector Gadget reference. Pop culture references are a great touch, but you just have to be careful not to use them too much. At a certain point, it can turn into a gimmick.

#Pewpew, NASA. #Pewpew.

To wrap up, I give laser kudos to NASA for their use of social media to not only share information, but to share it in a way that’s entertaining and meaningful at the same time.