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Archive for the ‘Science and Society’ Category


NASA and the Houston Symphony have joined forces, bringing the music of The Planets together with NASA images of those planets. This stunning union of great music and awe-inspiring images has taken Houston by storm, and is set to tour Europe (though only once that pesky Icelandic volcano calms down).

The Planets???

The Planets (Opus 32) is a seven-movement orchestral suite written by British composer Gustav Holst between 1914 and 1916. Of all his works, this suite remains his most famous and most performed. Each movement is dedicated to a planet. While not much was known about the planets when Holst composed this work, he crafted the movements to relate mostly to the planet’s astrological properties. There aren’t movements for Earth (not an astrological sign) or Pluto (which wasn’t discovered until 1930, and now isn’t considered a planet anyway).

Here are the movements, with Holst’s titles and my brief description:
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The space shuttle program ends this year.  Shuttles have been flying for over 30 years, but the whole program’s history — from hints and whispers to design and construction — really stretches back over half a century.

Before there was NASA, there was NACA. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was formed in 1915 to organize, promote, and conduct aeronautical research. NACA (say the individual letters, not “naca” like we say “nasa”) conducted research in a variety of fields, including experiments to improve the efficiency of jet engines and break the sound barrier. By the mid-1950s, NACA scientists were designing the X-15, a reusable rocket-powered aircraft designed to reach the extreme upper regions of Earth’s atmosphere. Project members were hopeful that the X-15 designs could serve as the basis for a reusable spacecraft. A X-15-inspired spacecraft could be put into orbit using disposable rockets and then land like a conventional aircraft. A “spaceplane,” to use the tired term. In 1958, Congress folded NACA into its new space agency, NASA. The Mercury Project began, and any dreams of a reusable spaceplane were put on hold.

In the late 1960s, with the Apollo Program well underway (and about to put a man on the Moon), NASA began to look to the future. After humankind lands on the Moon, where should an agency with limited recourses go next? Some ideas included additional Moon missions, manned missions to Mars, and manned missions to low Earth orbit to research and develop technology and infrastructure (satellites, space stations, spacecraft). For that final point, a series of tests by the U.S. military had given the reusable spaceplane idea new life: some sort of reusable spaceplane orbiter (or shuttle), combined with some reusable and disposable external components to get the shuttle into orbit, could indeed be economically and technologically feasible. The design process for a shuttle orbiter began in earnest in 1969. In 1972, the Nixon administration made it official: NASA would develop a new “Space Transportation System” (STS) to put humankind into low Earth orbit.

In the final designs for the STS Program (as the space shuttle program was formally christened), NASA contracted private firms to build a small fleet of reusable orbiters (I’ll call them “shuttles” from here on) and a combination of reusable and disposable components to send those shuttles into low Earth orbit. The reusable components include two “space shuttle solid rocket boosters,” powerful rockets that provide the vast majority of the lift and thrust needed to get the shuttle off the launching pad. They propel the shuttle for about the first two minutes of flight, then detach and land in the ocean (they have parachutes), to be recovered later for future missions. The (usually orange) external fuel tank provides the shuttle’s three engines with liquid hydrogen fuel during launch. It detaches from the orbiter after the shuttle’s engines are shut off, and the external tank falls back to Earth, breaking up in the atmosphere. The shuttle itself carries the crew, their quarters, research labs, and cargo (known as the “payload”). The payload can be anything from a satellite (like the Hubble Space Telescope), cargo, or a heavy component like a module of the International Space Station. When it’s mission is complete, the shuttle re-enters the atmosphere, protected from intense heat and pressure by the tile-based heat shield system on its ventral surface, and lands on a (very long) runway like a conventional aircraft.

The subsequent history of the STS program is best summarized by a review of the shuttle fleet NASA built, some of the prominent STS missions, and the ultimate fate of each shuttle to date. All shuttles were given the designation “OV” (orbital vehicle) followed by three numbers. If the first number is a zero, then NASA intended the shuttle for tests, never an actual mission. A one indicates that the shuttle was intended for orbital flight. All space shuttle missions are given the designation “STS”, followed by a hyphen and then a number. I have included the STS number for those most notable (or tragic) missions:
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Last week, I read a headline in the New York Times that evolutionary biologist Dr. Francisco Ayala was the 2010 recipient of the Templeton Prize from the John Templeton Foundation. Frankly, I’d never heard of the Templeton Prize before, and assumed that it was an award for achievements in scientific research. However, the prize, worth about $1.5 million, is actually awarded to “a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”

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Remember the Cassini probe? If words like “Saturn” and “Titan” and “hydrocarbons” are floating around your grey matter right now, then you definitely do! Cassini-Huygens was a probe designed, funded, and built by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). Launched in 1997, the probe set out to explore Saturn, its moons, and its ring system. Cassini is actually the larger portion of the probe (from NASA), and the part that is still functioning. It arrived in orbit of Saturn in the summer of 2004.
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To earn my Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology, I must spend several years conducting research under the watchful eye of my advisor, and make an original contribution to the realm of science. These contributions will most likely be in the form of publications in scientific journals, though I haven’t gotten to that point yet. The subject I chose to study for my Ph.D. is a small fish. Specifically, I study how these fish decide whether to be male or female, and how that sex-determining process evolved. And I conduct these studies at a cancer research facility.
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As Seattle neighborhoods go, Greenwood is a sleeping giant.  My friends and colleagues in more “hip” neighborhoods to the south view his huge residential spread of North Seattle as a rather quiet, uneventful, and inconsequential area: great for compost gardens, “U.S. out of Iraq” bumper stickers, and empty churches, but not much else.

Occasionally, Greenwood and its siamese-twinned neighborhood to the south, Phinney Ridge, make it in the news.  Seattle’s new mayor is a Greenwood resident, and rides his bike downtown to city hall each morning.  Last October, a homeless arsonist torched a number of Greenwood businesses (including my favorite Chinese restaurant) before being apprehended.  When a cougar roamed Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood at the end of last summer, the Greenwood-Phinney Ridge blog dared ask, “Has anyone seen a cougar in the neighborhood?”… a question that led to the most hilarious comment ever left on the PhinneyWood blog: “A few months ago I saw three or four cougars at Oliver’s Twist [a local bar].”

Greenwood’s core is the business and retail corridor at Greenwood Avenue and North 85th Street. On this partly-cloudy and cool Saturday, the sidewalks in the core were lined with residents walking their purebred dogs, wandering into antique shops, and meandering toward coffee shops with their MacBook Pros. The Greenwood core came to a standstill for fifteen minutes, though, as residents gawked at a rare sight: a protest

At 1:02PM, about 17 men, women, and children poured out of the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company, holding signs and chanting slogans. Their mission: protest Pluto’s loss of planetary status four years ago.

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