April 19th, 2013
04:51 PM ET

What happens to a wet washcloth in space?

By Matt Dellinger, CNN

Astronauts on the International Space Station get to do the coolest experiments. And sometimes the simplest ones can be the most impressive.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield demonstrates what happens when you wring out a soaking wet washcloth in zero gravity. The idea came from two high school students in Nova Scotia who won a contest to design a simple science experiment to be conducted on the ISS. The experiment had to use materials that were already available on the space station and was selected out of almost 100 entries.

Watch the video above to see the incredible effect of weightlessness on the water absorbed by the washcloth.

What are some simple experiments you would like to see conducted in space? Let us know in the comments below!

(The Science Seat will resume next Friday)

Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers
March 29th, 2013
04:01 PM ET

Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers

Editor's note: Jason Kalirai is the deputy project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be NASA's next big mission in astrophysics. He works at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Follow Jason’s conversations on Twitter @JasonKalirai.

Astronomy has always been the most important of all sciences to me. Astronomy defines who we are as human beings and our place in the universe. It is through astronomy that we test the laws of nature on the grandest scales and attempt to comprehend, well, everything. Telescopes aid in that study. We took a model of the newest telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, to South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas.

Since the time of Galileo, astronomers have relied on increasingly sophisticated telescopes to study the universe. With each technological advancement, telescopes open a more sensitive eye on the universe. The clearest example of this is also perhaps the most important scientific and engineering instrument ever built: the Hubble Space Telescope. Over two decades, Hubble has rewritten textbooks countless times and fundamentally changed our knowledge of the universe. Hubble continues to do this today and is the overwhelming preferred tool for most professional astronomers to conduct their research.

The James Webb Space Telescope

Just as Hubble and other NASA Great Observatories have answered questions about the universe, they have also revealed new mysteries. The future vision of astrophysics aims to answer these questions and encompasses many scales, from finding the first small galaxies that formed in the early universe to mapping their evolution over cosmic time into the beautiful large galaxies we see nearby. It includes a comprehensive study of stars and planets in our own Milky Way galaxy, both in terms of finding and characterizing younger analogs of our solar system and in exploring other Earth-like worlds for signs of biomarkers.

This bold vision requires a telescope very different from Hubble. The telescope needs to be 100 times more powerful; operate at cryogenic temperatures; orbit 1.5 million kilometers from Earth; shield from the heat of the sun, Earth and moon; and have razor-sharp vision in the infrared part of the spectrum. NASA teamed up with both the European and Canadian space agencies and aerospace giant Northrop Grumman to build our most powerful eye on the universe: the James Webb Space Telescope.

A project like this offers a unique opportunity to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists. Over the past few years, I have spoken with more than 10,000 adults and children at science centers, planetariums, international symposia, classrooms and other public events. As I share the story of the James Webb Space Telescope, I witness eyes light up with excitement.

An interactive STEM experience presented at South by Southwest

The annual South by Southwest festival is one of the largest cultural festivals in the world. SXSW Interactive brings tens of thousands of people to Austin to experience what is unfolding in the world of technology. This year, the Space Telescope Science Institute teamed up with NASA, Northrop Grumman and Microsoft Research to propose an experience that would connect the public to science, technology and engineering through direct interaction.

Global Warming is epic, long-term study says
A scientist looks at an ice core from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide coring site.
March 8th, 2013
05:29 AM ET

Global Warming is epic, long-term study says

Global warming has propelled Earth's climate from one of its coldest decades since the last ice age to one of its hottest - in just one century.

A heat spike like this has never happened before, at least not in the last 11,300 years, said climatologist Shaun Marcott, who worked on a new study on global temperatures going back that far.

Things are poised to get much worse.

Science Seat: Meet a climate change scientist
Chris Field studies climate change at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology.
February 22nd, 2013
07:00 AM ET

Science Seat: Meet a climate change scientist

By Zaina Adamu, CNN

Editor's note: The Science Seat is a feature in which CNN Light Years sits down with movers and shakers from many different areas of scientific exploration. This is the third installment.

Thousands of families were left devastated when Superstorm Sandy destroyed their homes in October. When it comes to these extreme climate events, according to Chris Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, the worst is yet to come.

Field is also a professor of biology and environmental earth system science at Stanford University and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change delegation that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He holds a doctorate from Stanford University.

CNN Light Years spoke with Field before he headed to Boston for the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science conference. Here is a transcript, edited for brevity and clarity:


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Filed under: Hurricanes • On Earth • Science Education • Science Seat • Severe Weather • Voices
'Curiosity's middle name is Patience'
December 3rd, 2012
03:48 PM ET

'Curiosity's middle name is Patience'

Here's the short version of today's Mars news: Curiosity has, in fact, detected simple organics in Martian soil, but that detection is not definitive evidence of Mars-native organic compounds. Scientists first need to make sure that the compounds detected by the Mars Science Laboratory aren't actually stowaways from Earth.

At the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting, a panel of Curiosity scientists shed some light on all the recent hype about a Big Deal Discovery on Mars. According to Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator for the SAM instrument aboard Curiosity, "SAM has no definitive detection to report of organic compounds," which actually isn't unexpected. Part of the reason Curiosity was sampling the soil at Rock Nest, a pit stop on the way to Mount Sharp, is that it was expected to be very ordinary, which is helpful for cleaning out the rover's instruments of Earth contaminants.

This declaration may seem to conflict with a statement made later in the conference, where Mahaffy stated that SAM detected "very simple chlorinated hydrocarbons" - organic compounds. The panelists qualified this statement by saying that they're proceeding methodically and scientifically, to ensure that the hydrocarbons they've found didn't hitch a ride aboard Curiosity from Earth. Even if it turns out that they didn't, there's another step before declaring the organics to be of Martian origin: The science team has ensure that the compounds didn't arrive on Mars from space.

If that sounds like bad news or no news to you, think again. Curiosity's team is very satisfied with the rover, which is four months in to a planned two-year mission. "We landed on an ancient riverbed,"  said Dr. Michael Meyer, one of the lead scientists for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "I think that's just spectacular."

John Grotzinger, the project scientist for Curiosity, said that the rover's in great shape do to more good science on top of the reams of data it's already collected, noting that all of Curiosity's instruments have checked out healthy. He compared the rover to a car getting ready for a long road trip; the "CSI lab on wheels" will begin its drive to its main target, Mount Sharp, early in 2013.

As to whether Curiosity will find evidence of life on Mars or not, Grotzinger said that such a discovery is at least months away. Right now, the team is excited about rich data that helps form a picture of what the environment on Mars might have been like in the past.

Grotzinger added, "What I've learned from this is you have to be careful about what you say and even more careful about how you say it. We're doing science at the speed of science; we live in a world that's at the pace of Instagrams."

"Curiosity's middle name is Patience, and we all have to have a healthy dose of that."

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Filed under: In Space • Mars • Robots • Science Education
September 14th, 2012
08:00 AM ET

Spiders: Creepy but fascinating

Do spiders send shivers down your spine, or do they pique your curiosity? An exhibition in New York will teach you lots about these creatures.

The American Museum of Natural History exhibit about arachnids is called Spiders Alive!

The exclamation is with good reason, since the spiders really are alive. They're safely ensconced behind glass but alive all the same. I'm not one of those people who gets freaked out by spiders, but even so, there's something inherently creepy about them. Maybe it's those wonderfully sinister names that look like they could be splashed across the title sequence of a B-movie from the 1950s: The Black Widow! The Brown Recluse! Tarantula!


340,000 votes may have come from Facebook message
Social media was shown to be quite effective in getting people to the polls, says a recent study.
September 12th, 2012
01:00 PM ET

340,000 votes may have come from Facebook message

With nearly 1 billion users, Facebook has clearly become a feature of many people’s lives worldwide. A new study suggests that the social network has the potential to get hundreds of thousands of people to engage in a single behavior – namely, voting.

Researchers report in the journal Nature that one Facebook message may have gotten 340,000 additional people to the polls for the 2010 United States Congressional elections.

The team, led by James Fowler, professor at the University of California, San Diego, designed the experiment with the cooperation of Facebook. Cameron Marlow of the data science division of Facebook collaborated on the study, too.


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Filed under: 2012 Election • News • Science Education
Comments: Edison overrated? Readers praise legacy of inventor Nikola Tesla
The site of inventor Nikola Tesla's former laboratory sits idle and boarded up in Shoreham, New York.
August 21st, 2012
07:26 PM ET

Comments: Edison overrated? Readers praise legacy of inventor Nikola Tesla

Editor's note: We're listening to you. Every day, we spot thought-provoking comments from readers. Here's a look at what readers are saying.

Call Nikola Tesla a "cult hero" if you like, but some of our readers might take issue with you. News that Matthew Inman, the creator of Web cartoon "The Oatmeal," is collaborating with a nonprofit group to create a Tesla museum has commenters singing the futurist inventor's praises. Many say they think he deserves more recognition in the annals of scientific history.

Backers raise cash for Tesla museum honoring 'cult hero'

They hashed out the legacies of Tesla and Thomas Edison, sometimes viewed to be at odds.

MDMick: "The article describes him as a 'cult' hero with far-out dreams, but Tesla was an accomplished scientist. He is the one who realized Edison was wrong by insisting on direct current public electricity supplies and it could be done more safely and much cheaper with alternating current. The modern American - and world - electricity grids are ALL based on Tesla's patents and first working systems he developed for Westinghouse. Edison tried to discredit Tesla and the 'Electric Chair' was invented to try to scare people away from AC current electricity. But Tesla was right and Edison wrong and AC prevailed as Tesla's calculations and foresight proved true - and made Westinghouse (now part of Northrup) a big name."

Kevin Schooler: "Edison wasn't wrong about direct current being useful, he was only wrong about the application. Have you ever wondered why so many electronic devices have an AC adapter? That is because they must convert AC to DC in order to run correctly and safely. The only problem is that DC loses potency over distance. I'll never understand the whole revisionist 'Tesla Angelic/Edison Evil' paradigm. The fact is both contributed enormously to modern living, but Edison happened to be a better businessman."

Was Tesla overlooked in favor of Edison? FULL POST

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Filed under: On Earth • Science Education
Graduating from space school
Costa Rican student Montse Cordero, second from right, graduates from United Space School, a summer program in Houston.
August 10th, 2012
03:49 PM ET

Graduating from space school

Editor's note: Montse Cordero is a 17-year-old student from Costa Rica participating in the Foundation for International Space Education's United Space School, a two-week summer program in Houston. She'll be blogging about her experiences in the program. Need to catch up? Check out her previous posts here.

It’s really weird to be writing a wrap-up post. It seems like just yesterday that I was writing about how I was getting ready to start space school, and I was feeling all nervous about meeting so many new people. Then again, when I think about everything I’ve learned since writing that post, it seems like it was ages ago. I think that all of the participants will agree that United Space School is some sort of time machine - a very good kind!

Since my last post, lots of things have happened. We had our final presentations Saturday and had to be at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, wearing our uniforms one last time. We had all practiced our parts and were confident in our work, and we were extremely nervous but also eager to show it to the world.

Each presentation was divided in three main parts: the presentation, questions from the audience (who were, scarily enough, a bunch of rocket scientists and space professionals), and finally our team song. The song is a United Space School tradition; each team picks a popular song, writes new lyrics for it having to do with the mission and sings it at the end of the presentation.

The presentations started with the gold team (don’t call the members yellow, or they’ll be angry and might take your funding away). The team was in charge of mission control, budgets, space law and such. The members explained how everyone’s budget was split, where they got the money from, which teams had the most and why, what their mission control center would look like, and how they dealt with space law. Questions were asked and then came the song. As everyone clapped and they returned to their seats, it hit me: We were up next!

Maroon team, my team, was up. We covered the design of our rocket, how it worked, from where we would launch, our marketing strategies, emergency protocols and education opportunities (what I talked about). Everything seemed to go well. I’d forgotten what I had prepared to say, but I just decided to explain what I knew, and it went pretty well.

It was time for questions, the most nerve-wracking part. We got lots of questions. Most we knew the answers to, but there were a few things that we hadn’t even thought about. Then it was finally time for our song, and our rendition of a modified "Call Me Maybe" sounded pretty good in my opinion.

The presentations went on. The red team had a good idea on how it was getting to Mars, the green team had quite an interesting habitat, and the blue team had a full plan on how it was exploring the red planet. The questions were tough, and the songs amazing.

After the last one, Rob Alexander (executive director of the Foundation for International Space Education) said that officials knew they had grilled us pretty hard but they wanted us to know we had impressed them and he was going to recommend to the board we all graduate. Lots of cheering followed, and before we knew it, we were out of there.

A few hours later, we had a pool party. It felt great yet weird to know that we were done with our projects. We swam, we played volleyball in the pool, we had diving competitions, and we ate. Some of us had S’mores for the first time (man, they’re good). None of us wanted to think it was one of our last activities together; we just enjoyed every second to the max.

The next day was graduation. Even though space school is a two-week program, graduation is a big deal. We arrived at the university all dressed up. We knew it was our last time together. Everyone had shirts to sign, things to share and hugs to give.

The ceremony finally started. We were all sitting with our teams for one final time. Speeches were given, and then the mentors were called out one by one. Each mentor got a certificate; they talked briefly about their teams, and then they called their team members one at a time and we were given our diplomas.

To finish, Alexander gave out some special awards. The first one was for leadership and sportsmanship during the United Space School vs. NASA All Stars match, and Stephen Orr from Kentucky got it. The award was a Houston Dynamo hat signed by all the players.

Then came the presentation of the flags in which they gave flags flown over Johnson Space Center to outstanding students. The honorees were Sally Bruce and Adrian Robb from New Zealand, Garrett Garneau from Kentucky and me. I was excited when I heard my name. I knew I’d done the best job I could, but I did not expect to be recognized, especially with such an amazing award.

There were lots of hugs and plenty of tears. As soon as I hugged the first person goodbye, I started crying my eyes out. It took us forever to say goodbye - no one wanted to leave. Pictures kept being taken, with people promising to keep in touch. Slowly people began to go.

The landing of rover Curiosity on Mars was the same night, and a few of us got the chance to go witness it at Space Center Houston. There were tons of activities there. I was glad to find out that a few friends were there as well. I ended up watching the launch with them, and it was tremendous fun.

It was nice being able to let my inner space nerd out with other people.

We went back home late and packed and stayed up all night. The next morning we said our final goodbyes to our hosts and were dropped off at the airport. I hate goodbyes, but I guess no one likes them.

After the program, I realized that I not only got some amazing space knowledge as expected, but I also made new friends, learned new teamwork skills and learned about how people live all around the globe.

Being with a host family taught me about how other people’s families work. It allowed me to see how similar we are yet how different. I will miss them all dearly.

I will finish high school in a few months, and then I’ll be applying to universities for math and physics programs. I love space, and I hope to one day work for the development of this science frontier. It’s time to put into practice everything United Space School 2012 taught us.

Has America really underinvested in science education?
July 26th, 2012
06:33 PM ET

Has America really underinvested in science education?

By Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Alex Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. Hank Campbell is founder of Science 2.0. They are authors of the forthcoming book Science Left Behind. The views expressed are their own.

On Global Public Square last month, Fareed Zakaria made the case that the U.S. economy is struggling in part due to poor investment in science. He based this conclusion on two claims: First, that federal research and development (R&D) investment has declined over the past several years and, second, that American students have fallen behind in science education.

The first claim, while true, only tells part of the story. As we discuss in the upcoming Science Left Behind, American R&D investment has been relatively consistent for the past 30 years, never dropping below 2.3 percent of GDP. Though the federal portion of U.S. R&D investment has fallen during this period, the private sector has actually picked up the slack. Indeed, the most recent estimate for 2012 shows that the U.S. will spend approximately 2.85 percent of its GDP on R&D.


Filed under: 2012 Election • Science Education • Voices
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