Somewhere Over, er, Around the Rainbow

Rainbows — who doesn’t love them? Everyone — no matter what age, no matter how bad their day is going — will stop and admire, even if only for a second or two, those beautiful arches of color whenever they happen to appear.

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Our infatuation with them goes back thousands of years. In many religions, they are viewed as a sign or message “from above.” In many cultures, they are a symbol of peace and hope. In this day and age, however, rainbows make fantastic social media fodder, and if there’s been a good rain, it’s almost certain that you’ll find at least one picture of Mr. Roy G. Biv.

So last week after a wet several days, Shana and I took to our Facebook machines to skim the obligatory rainbow pics posted by our friends, and we noticed something rather interesting — several shots of unusually flat, double-rainbows.

Rainbow

Being the curious science enthusiasts that we are, we wanted a logical explanation for these oddities. Shana decided to consult our go-to guy for any inquiry involving the sky — Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, University Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy.

We learned that rainbows are naturally 360 degrees, and half of it lies below the horizon where there is no moisture. As for why our rainbows in question had less arch than normal, Dr. Suntzeff explained:

“It is flat because the photo was taken during the middle of the day. The rainbow is circular around the anti-solar point. Here, the anti-sun must be way below the horizon.”

He also passed along this link that offers a very detailed explanation:
http://www.atoptics.co.uk/fz795.htm.

There you have it — rainbows are naturally circular, thus eliminating any hope for ever finding that pot of gold at the end of one.

At least they’re still pretty to look at.

(Incidentally, for those who might want to try that water-hose experiment to see the full 360-degree effect in action, I’d recommend leaving your dog, if not your adorable toddler, inside. Curious? Click here.)

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Seasonal Natures

Reports earlier this week of the first snowfall in parts of Colorado came bundled for me with a somewhat jolting reminder of something I have thus far left undone. (Yep, I can almost hear my mother, if not my co-workers, laughing.) Funny how Mother Nature has a pesky way of doing that to all mammals, hibernating and otherwise.

In tribute to summer’s last gasp and stockpiling memories to last you all winter, I come bearing humble gifts — additional photographs from Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education research scientist Dr. Carolyn Schroeder and the 2014 edition of G-Camp, an outreach program for teachers offered through the Department of Geology and Geophysics in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. Because Carolyn truly outdid herself in the way of great photos, I had decided back in July to reserve all floral-related ones for a special album I would post at a later date in order to showcase the more geoscience-specific ones in the previous blog entry. Seems like I blinked and it became September, but hopefully, the better late than never adage applies.

As Carolyn says, the mountain wildflowers (in this case, seen in places ranging from Silver and Yankee Boy Basins near Ouray to the ghost town of Animas Forks northeast of Silverton) were nothing short of stupendous — “everything from mountain bluebells and columbines to different colors of paintbrush, violets, delphiniums, stonecrop, pink elephants and etc. They painted the landscape in broad swaths of color. It is amazing that such loveliness can spring from such a hostile environment, even from just rubble.”

For those who might not want take a tourist’s (albeit a scientist’s) word for it, resident Colorado author Kathy Lynn Harris confirms Carolyn’s scientific analysis in a recent blog entry of her own. To borrow from Kathy’s fantastically picturesque words, “It’s been an especially good wildflower season. Even as September approaches, there are still carpets of white, yellow and lavender mountain daises and large swaths of bright purple fireweed. The sweet scent of pink and violet clover fills the air on our walks.”

I can almost smell the heaven! But enough of my procrastinating — go enjoy your own vicarious walk already, courtesy of another successful collaboration between Mother Nature and science.

Angel in Flight

Meet Aggieland’s “Angel,” the rare white hummingbird whose story was chronicled earlier this week, as captured by Waco photographer Dr. Spencer Moore this week at the Country Star Bed and Breakfast. Dr. Moore is one of several Brazos Valley area photographers who have visited the Country Star this week for the opportunity to see this marvelous wonder of nature who has appeared each day since Saturday, August 16. See more photos of Angel and other subjects documented by Dr. Moore at his website, Dr. Spencer Moore Photography.

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

(Credit: Dr. Spencer Moore, http://www.drspencermoorephotography.com/)

The Beauty of Rare Creatures and Social Networking

Science truly is all around us. The secret lies in being a Noticer — a term I’ve referenced before in this blog. And it’s collaborative by nature, too. (By the way, there’s an intended pun there. Read on to see. Oops, I did it again — ha!)

OK, enough with the cheesy humor and on with the real story. This past Saturday, Country Star Bed and Breakfast owners Cher and Doug McHan were shocked by an amazing sight at one of their property’s bird feeders — a white hummingbird. Albinism, a genetic condition that results in a lack of pigmentation in the skin, hair, scales or feathers of an animal, has been documented in many different species throughout the animal kingdom. When it comes to hummingbirds, most people have seen the more common jeweled-green and ruby-throated varieties, but this guy (or gal) — who’s more specifically a leucistic hummingbird, versus the extremely rare albino version characterized by pink eyes and feet — is novel by any standard, especially here in Aggieland.

Armed with her trusty sidekick — the Canon Rebel T4i camera she regularly uses to document the establishment’s most loyal visitors (deer) and other happenings for the B&B’s Facebook page and website — Cher snapped a few quick shots and posted them on social media. She also reported it to a white hummingbird banding website she found.

(Credit: Cher McHan.)

(Credit: Cher McHan.)

Saturday close-up. (Credit: Cher McHan.)

Saturday close-up. (Credit: Cher McHan.)

In short order, Cher’s Facebook friend David Harkins (a 1984 Texas A&M wildlife and fisheries sciences graduate) advised her to alert iNaturalist.org and the Birds of Texas Facebook group. He also put her in touch with his own friend, photographer Bill Morris, who visited the Country Star Monday to document the exceptional find. Meanwhile, Cher’s cousin, Doreen White, gave it a name: Angel.

(Credit: Bill Morris.)

(Credit: Bill Morris.)

(Credit: Bill Morris.)

(Credit: Bill Morris.)

(Credit: Bill Morris.)

(Credit: Bill Morris.)

Say what you will about social media’s intrusion into society, but so often it uses its powers for good. In this case, it helped put the exclamation point on that extraordinary in the everyday we talk about in our boilerplate. Good bull, er, hummingbird!

See additional images courtesy of Waco photographer Dr. Spencer Moore here.

(Credit: Cher McHan.)

(Credit: Cher McHan.)

Science: There’s a Magic to It

“It’s magic!”

It’s hard to hear yourself think, much less anything else, in a classroom full of sixth-graders, but that excited shriek caught my attention.

YAP_demo_PhysicsI was taking photographs of a Physics Show demonstration for the Youth Adventure Program (YAP) in the Mitchell Physics Building last month. The kids were in awe over a tiny cube-shaped magnet that was floating in midair around a circular disc. And indeed, it gave the appearance of something on the supernormal side of things.

“It’s not magic – it’s physics,” noted Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova, senior lecturer and champion of the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s premier outreach extravaganza.

Technically, that’s true. We actually were witnessing the principles of superconducting levitation at work. Superconductors expel magnetic fields, so when the disc is cooled to its point of superconductivity (with the help of some liquid nitrogen), the repulsion is so strong that the magnet appears to be suspended in air.

Science may be the fabric of what we know as “magic,” but it takes a lot of creativity Tatiana_YAP(and perhaps some charisma, too) to capture an audience’s imagination using only everyday objects, especially when that audience is hyperactive pre-teens. People like Tatiana, and also Dr. James Pennington who spearheads the Department of Chemistry’s Chemistry Roadshow, are masters of this.

To me, there’s a little bit of magic in that.

On the Other Hand

THIS JUST IN: Scientists are normal! For starters, just like you and me, they take the occasional vacation. That being said, I don’t know many whose curiosity ever takes the occasional break.

As proof, I respectfully submit Exhibit A — a Facebook posting from Texas A&M University astronomer Nick Suntzeff, documenting a curious find from his travels in Croatia this month. I’ll let you be the judge, from the history to the actions and their motivations, but for me, there’s no debating that Nick has a wonderful way with words!

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City seal of Trogir, Croatia. (Credit: Nick Suntzeff.)

City seal of Trogir, Croatia. (Credit: Nick Suntzeff.)

“I was intrigued with the city seal of Trogir in Croatia. What’s that comet all about? Well, there was a St. John buried in the city. When the Venetians set out in 1170 or so to fight the Byzantium enemies, the stopped in Trogir and sacked it. They stole all the relics of the saint, except they could not carry the whole damn sarcophagus of St. John — so they cut his hand off because it had the bishop’s ring. The hand was carried back to Venice. But the fleet suffered some divine intervention of a storm or plague or fleas. Anyway, Trogir recouped and demanded their stuff back, which the Venetians gave, except for the hand, which they felt they could care for better. On the eve of the feast of St. John (according to the article by A. Marinkovic), ‘the hand flew back to Trogir followed by a comet and helped by angels, and was found in the cathedral of Trogir, laid on the top of the tomb in clean linen.’

“They don’t make miracles these days like they used to. A dead hand with a ring followed by a comet and a squad of angels? Now, that I would notice as an astronomer. Even using IDL [Interactive Data Language].”

Earth to Teachers

As one of the rotating images within its website header teases, what has 72 feet, covers 3,000 miles in 16 days, can earn 3 graduate hours of credit, and is more fun than summer vacation when you were a kid?

The answer is G-Camp, an outreach program for teachers offered through the Department of Geology and Geophysics in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. As the ultimate in immersive summer extravaganzas, the two-week camp sets off for a variety of sites across Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, teaching the principles of geology in the field by allowing participants to explore and experience first-hand the processes and environments of planet Earth from past to present.

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education research scientist Dr. Carolyn Schroeder serves as one of G-Camp’s instructors. Prior to coming to Texas A&M, she taught earth science in Texas public schools for 30 years, earning Texas Earth Science Teacher of the Year honors in 1986. This past year, she returned to the classroom, teaching introductory geology courses at Texas A&M in addition to her duties with CMSE, which include serving as director of the Texas A&M-College Station Regional Collaborative for Science.

Our G-Camp tour guide, Carolyn Schroeder, pictured here at Otto's Point, Colorado.

Our G-Camp tour guide, Carolyn Schroeder, pictured here at Otto’s Point, Colorado.

“Once you have taken a field trip with a geologist, you are hooked for life,” Carolyn says. “That’s what happened to me on my first one with Dr. Mel Schroeder back in 1974, and I continue to love learning about geology and sharing that love with others, both through the classes and workshops that I teach and by informal means as well.”

Consider this your two-part vicarious pictorial education, courtesy of Carolyn and G-Camp 2014! While you’re waiting for Part 2, feel free to stop and smell/see the flowers Carolyn experienced along the way and/or follow the group on Facebook for bonus pictures and information, if not points.

Small Wonders

Gallery

This gallery contains 11 photos.

“The Noticers of the world are rare and beautiful gifts. … Pausing to delight in the simple joys of everyday life is the only way to truly live.” — Rachel Macy Stafford, The Hands Free Mama * ~ * ~ … Continue reading

Another One Bites the Dust

News this past March out of Harvard University’s Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Group detailing discovery of the possible evidence for inflation in the early universe is taking a universal beating as of late for failing to properly account for dust, perhaps in the group’s haste to leave its competition in it.

Their findings using the South Pole-based BICEP2 telescope hinge on the detection of gravitational waves, which cosmologists have long predicted would produce a specific type of polarization. They were correct in more ways than one.

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)


I remember seeing the media advisory on the American Astronomical Society (AAS) listserv announcing the Monday morning press conference at Harvard’s Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics — an unusual occurrence in my admittedly relatively young experience in science media circles, outside of announcing a Nobel Prize. Given that Harvard is a fellow partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope, I emailed Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff in hopes that he would know what could justify such a media frenzy.

He did. And per his usual, he had a strong, succinct opinion on both the breakthrough and the group’s manner of conveying it to the world: “All this drama — science did not used to be like this.”

Months before the latest round of back-pedaling in the media, Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger had been among those sounding the alarm regarding the damage done to science’s credibility and public image. I emailed Nick then for his counsel, just as I did when I saw Dennis Overbye’s New York Times feature and then another in Nature on back-to-back days earlier this month. Nick didn’t mince words. Nor should he, in my opinion. Then again, we’re both fans of implied duty and inherent responsibility.

More importantly, he offered some great comparative insight on how he and the High-Z Supernova Search Team handled their own early stage Nobel Prize-winning research that ended up proving the universe’s expansion is actually accelerating, thanks to a mysterious substance they co-discovered: dark energy.

“When we discovered dark energy, all we did was to find that the distant supernovae were too faint in comparison to what was expected,” Nick wrote. “We immediately worried that there was some sort of dust in the universe we did not know about that could cause this. We gave a simple argument as to why we felt this dust could not be causing the effect. Dust makes stuff look red — look at something through a forest fire, and it appears red. Same in the universe. We did not see this reddening.

“Also, if there was dust in the universe that we did not know about, more distant stuff should appear fainter because the light has to travel through more dust. This latter effect was difficult to measure, but we did show it was unlikely. All this was in our papers. What we did not do was to say that we have considered dust as causing the faintness of distant supernovae and then not tell the reader why we concluded this. That is what the BICEP2 paper did, and it confused us all as to why they did this.”

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background -- the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background — the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)


If astrophysicists the likes of Nick Suntzeff are confused, one can imagine where this leaves the public, both in terms of understanding this “discovery” and in their general impression of science.

First, do no harm.

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The BICEP2 kerfuffle (have always wanted to use that word!) reminds me of a previous occasion when Nick flexed his writing muscles in the name of responsible science. The result: a memorable 2011 guest post for the Last Word On Nothing blog in which he simultaneously describes and decries how science is done these days.

Reading and Writing

For the first time in I can’t remember how long, I managed to read a pleasure book cover to cover on consecutive weekends. The first was a recent gift from a dear friend, made all the more special because she wrote it. The second was one I rediscovered earlier this week in my desk at work, made doubly special not only because it was written by a longtime family friend but also because its inside front cover harbored a hidden PostIt note from my mom, hands down the best writer in the family.

Thanks in large part to Mom’s steadfast encouragement of my childhood bookworm tendencies, I’m a firm believer that being an avid reader goes hand in hand with being a good writer. Interestingly enough, the New York Times recently detailed a German study on the science of creativity using writing as the medium. Reactions to the results are mixed, with most agreeing it’s an intriguing topic if not a start.

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Me, I’m thrilled beyond words creative or otherwise that my oldest son appears to be well on his way to following in his grandmother’s dog-eared, ink-stained footsteps. Just this past week, he devoured the 487-page Divergent, plus 72 pages of bonus material.

I’m not sure if his grandmother would be proud, amused or slightly alarmed by last weekend’s topic of discussion: the comparative literary merits of Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King, courtesy of Epic Rap Battles of History. (Who says this Internet thing is all bad?!) Although my son is intimately familiar with the works of neither author, he is absolutely curious and eagerly anticipating the big moment when his dad and I pronounce him old enough to read such suspenseful classics without the 100 percent guarantee of nightmares.

All the talk of Poe instantly transported me back to high school and the many great short stories we read as parts of some amazing anthologies that, although assigned reading, imparted what for me were lifelong lessons in the exploration of creative voice and artistic expression. I mean, who could forget The Cask of Amontillado or The Telltale Heart?

But beyond them, there could be no better introduction to the fine art of foreshadowing than The Monkey’s Paw or Lamb to the Slaughter. I decided he was old enough for the latter, so I sent him the link.

Now, as for remembering to check his email? That jury’s still out.

This was us growing up (minus the pets), but all with our magazines! So glad Mom and Daddy allowed reading at the table during meals. Goodness knows we all got our fair share of bonding in over farm, ranch and dairy chores.

This was us growing up (minus the pets), but all with our magazines! So glad Mom and Daddy allowed reading at the table during meals. Goodness knows we all got our fair share of bonding in over farm, ranch and dairy chores.