May 21, 2013
The National Air and Space Museum honored the late pioneer astronaut Sally Ride recently with a panel discussion entitled “Sally Ride: How Her Historic Space Mission Opened Doors for Women in Science.”
Ride, who became the first American woman in space aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, was an outspoken advocate for women scientists and improved science education. Her highly decorated career included two trips and more than 343 hours in space, work at NASA’s headquarters, positions on the committees that investigated the Columbia and Challenger disasters and a professorship at the University of California, San Diego. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, which develops science programs, books and festivals for fourth through eighth grade classrooms.
The panel was broadcasted live on NASA TV from the museum’s “Moving Beyond Earth” gallery and moderated by Tom Costello of NBC News. It featured space and science education luminaries Ellen Ochoa, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center; Rene McCormick, director of Standards and Quality at the National Math and Science Initiative; Linda Billings, professor at George Washington University; Dan Vergano, USA Today science writer; and Margaret Weitekamp, the museum’s curator of space history.
The group reflected on Ride’s game-changing influence in a traditionally male-dominated field and her progress in promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, as well as some of the hurdles America still must overcome to ensure gender equality in the sciences, such as lingering cultural stereotypes that prevent women from pursuing STEM careers and a lack of mentors to encourage them. A number of studies in recent years have shown that women still remain significantly underrepresented in STEM careers, particularly at higher levels, so the panel focused on the steps that must be taken to interest girls in science at a young age and to retain this interest as they prepare to enter the workforce.
“I think a lot of it is just trying to educate girls on what careers are like in those fields,” says Ochoa, an astronaut herself who followed in Ride’s footsteps as a PhD student at Stanford and believed in the possibility of being an astronaut because of her. “A lot of girls think it’s very much a solitary career. And while there are women scientists and engineers who may work alone in labs, it’s much more common that it’s more of a team effort.”
Ride had such an influence, Ochoa says, because she insisted on consulting her female colleagues when she had to make decisions about accommodating women in space travel instead of answering on her own, giving women a collective voice in the industry. Also, says Ochoa, “She did such a great job on her mission that whether or not women should be assigned to flights was no longer a question. There were still a lot of people who didn’t want to see women flying in space at the time, but they couldn’t point to any good reasons after her flight.”
In the panel’s audience was Tam O’Shaughnessy, Sally Ride Science’s chief operating officer and Ride’s life partner for more than 25 years. O’Shaughnessy launched the science education program with Ride and three other friends, and the group now is expanding their educational outreach by digitizing the books and trainings they have created to make the materials available online. Ride may be gone, O’Shaughnessy says, but “she’s still part of the company. She was our leader for 12 years, and her vision is part of our DNA now.”
Ride died at 61 last July from pancreatic cancer. Earlier this year, the Space Foundation posthumously awarded her its highest honor, the General James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award.
March 27, 2013
Though you might not know it judging from the forecast most places, spring has indeed arrived. And despite the unpredictable D.C. weather, the snow, sleet, cold rain and wind hasn’t kept the tourists away. Crowds are gathering in the nation’s capital for the first glimpses of the cherry blossoms. For those of you interested in making the most of your visit, the editors over here have released two new spring-themed tours to help showcase the seasonal delights both inside and outside along the Mall.
The Gardens tour will take you to our many well-maintained plots around the Mall to see more than just a few pink blooms by the Tidal Basin, including heirloom plants, geometric splendors reminiscent of the grandest of European gardens and even a Victory Garden.Meanwhile, our Spring Fling tour will take you inside to show off the riches of the Smithsonian’s arts and sciences collection and celebrate the season with baseball legends, a tree you can wish on, bouquets in paint and even a spring from space.
Head here to download the visitor’s app and get your step-by-step directions, custom postcard feature and greatest hits from the museums.
March 15, 2013
The perfect wave. Even the most water-phobic know this is what motivates a surfer. But many may not know, there is a calculable science behind the phrase.
Experienced surfers know that the art of the sport has a lot to do with the science of the ocean. Eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater, for example, told the New York Times he checks no fewer than five different sites for reports on wind, swell and weather before he heads out. He knows that his home state of Florida has a shallow and long continental shelf, helping create small, slow waves that are perfect for beginners. He says that, “millions of years ago, lava poured out and just happened to form a perfect-shaped bottom,” producing Hawaii’s legendary Pipeline.
Now filmmaker Stephen Low joins Slater as the surfer takes on Tahiti’s most extreme surf break, Teahupo’o, in the new 3-D film, The Ultimate Wave Tahiti, debuting March 15 at the Natural History Museum’s IMAX theater. Accompanied by Tahitian waterman Raimana Van Bastolaer, Slater uses his intimate knowledge of the world’s waves to explain what makes Teahupo’o so special.
One of the most accomplished athletes in the world, Slater got his first surfboard when he was just eight. He still lives in Cocoa Beach, where he grew up going to the ocean with his parents. But Slater is more than just an athlete, he’s been actively involved in the design of his own surfboards. “Some waves are flatter in the curve of the face,” Slater told Smithsonian contributor Owen Edwards, “and provide less speed. Others are bigger, faster and hollower [on the face]. You have to adjust the shape of the board accordingly. For curvier waves, a curved board works best.”
In 2011, Slater donated the board he used at the April 2010 Rip Curl Tournament in Australia to the American History Museum. It was designed specifically for the competition site at Bells Beach by Santa Barbara company Channel Islands Surfboards. Needless to say, he won.
“No two waves are the same,” says Low. “Yet, all waves share common traits. . . to many the wave at Teahupo’o is indeed the ‘ultimate wave.’”
The film combines Slater’s years of experience and expertise with information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create a film that is at once educational and engaging.
March 8, 2013
In a relatively short time, global emissions of carbon dioxide increased massively. Through the greenhouse effect, they raised temperatures around the planet by an average of 7 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit; they also changed the chemistry of the oceans, triggering a surge in acidity that may have led to mass extinctions among marine life. Overall, during this era of rapid change, global sea levels may have risen by as much as 65 feet.
Reading this, you could be forgiven if you assume we’re talking about a scenario related to the present-day climate crisis. But the previous paragraph actually refers to a 20,000-year-long period of warming that occurred 55 million years ago, an event scientists call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (or PETM for short). Scott Wing, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum who has studied the PETM for more than 20 years, says, “If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially what we’re doing right now.”
As we embark on an unprecedented experiment with the Earth’s atmosphere and climate, the PETM is suddenly a hot topic among scientists in many disparate fields. “It’s an event that a lot of people are interested in, because it is the best example we have of a really sudden global warming connected to a large release of carbon,” Wing says.
Although scientists still don’t fully understand what triggered the PETM, it is clear that more and more carbon was injected into both the atmosphere and the oceans, initiating the climate change. This carbon may have been supplied by volcanic activity, the spontaneous combustion of peat or even the impact of a particularly carbon-rich comet. Additionally, the initial warming likely led to a release of methane gas from the seafloor, acting as a positive feedback that led to even more climate change. It’s also clear that all this warming wreaked havoc on the world’s ecosystems, leading to extinctions and altering the ranges of numerous plant and animal species.
There is, of course, one key difference: During this previous episode, all that warming took several thousand years. This time, carbon emissions are rising ten times faster than during the PETM, with the warming happening in a century—the geologic equivalent of a blink of an eye.
Scott Wing researches the PETM by digging for ancient plant remains in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin. Over several decades of work, he has constructed a general picture of what types of plants thrived before, during and after the warming period, attempting to identify the sorts of trends in plant life we can expect as we change the climate going forward.
“During the warm period, essentially none of the plants that had lived in the area previously survived—their local populations were driven extinct,” Wing says. The area had been dominated by ancestors of the types of plants that live in temperate deciduous forests today, such as dogwood, sycamore and redwood trees.
But as the region heated up, these were replaced by a variety of plants related to the present-day bean family, most commonly found in warmer, drier areas such as southern Mexico or Costa Rica. “We believe that what happened is the dispersal into this region of plants that were living somewhere else, probably much farther south,” says Wing. His team has also uncovered evidence that the warmer climate led to a greater level of insect pest damage on the plants that did survive the PETM.
His research has, however, turned up one trend from the PETM that could be a reason to hope ecosystems can someday rebound from climate change. After roughly 200,000 years, long after the PETM subsided and temperatures returned to normal, many of the temperate plants that had lived in the Bighorn Basin finally returned.
“One possible explanation,” Wing says, “is that there were cooler climates in the nearby mountains that served as refuges for these species.” In that scenario—one that he and his research team plan to more closely investigate as they continue to excavate and piece together the fossil record—these types of plants would have waited out the PETM in the relatively cold highlands, then returned to recolonize the basin afterward.
If our climate continues to change as rapidly as it has over the past few decades, though, such a scenario seems less likely—immobile organisms such as plants need hundreds of years to gradually migrate from one area to another. Thus, one key aspect of preserving our planet’s ecosystems, in addition to limiting climate change as much as possible, is slowing it down as much as we can.
February 15, 2013
Today, at around 9:20 a.m. local time in Chelyabinsk, Russia, a massive 11-ton meteor burned up in the sky, triggering a sonic boom that damaged buildings and shattered windows in six cities and reportedly injured hundreds. Eyewitnesses say the meteor’s shockingly bright flash as it burned up (10 seconds into the Russia Today video above) was briefly brighter than the morning sun.
That this event happened today—the same day a 147-foot wide asteroid will whiz extremely close to the Earth at 2:26 p.m. EST—seems to be a coincidence of astronomical proportions, as experts say the two events are entirely unrelated. But unlike the asteroid, which will cause no physical damage, the meteor’s sonic boom as it entered the atmosphere, fractured roughly 18 to 32 miles above the ground and subsequently rained fragments over the region, led to as many as 900 injuries, 31 hospitalizations and widespread damage including the collapse of a rooftop at a zinc factory .
So, what caused this massive explosion? “For one, meteors move extremely fast—faster than the speed of sound—so there’s a ton of friction being generated as it comes through the atmosphere,” says Cari Corrigan, a geologist with the Natural History Museum who specializes in meteors. “If there are any weaknesses in it already, or if there is ice that melts and leaves empty fractures—like freezing and thawing in a pothole—it could easily explode.”
To get a knotty bit of nomenclature out of the way, meteor refers to a variety of pieces of debris—made up of either rock, metal, or a mix of the two—that enter the atmosphere from outer space. Before doing so, they’re called meteoroids. Most burn up entirely during their descent, but if any intact fragments do make it to the ground, they’re called meteorites. Meteors are also called “shooting stars” because of the heat and light produced when they slam into the still atmosphere at supersonic speeds—today’s meteor was estimated to be traveling faster than 33,000 m.p.h.
The distinction between this meteor and the asteroid that will fly past us later today, according to Corrigan, is a matter of size and origin. “Asteroids are generally bigger, and they typically come from the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter,” she says. The size difference also explains why we were able to predict the arrival of the asteroid nearly a year ago, but this meteor caught us by surprise: It’s impossible to spot the smaller meteoroids up in space with our telescopes.
Meteors like the one that fell today aren’t exceedingly rare, but for one to cause this much damage is almost unheard of. “There are events like this in recorded history, but this is likely the first time it’s happened over such a populated area and this level of destruction has been documented,” Corrigan says. Notable meteors in recorded history include the Tunguska event (a 1908 explosion over a remote area in Russia that knocked down more than 80 million trees covering an area of some 830-square miles), the Benld meteorite (a small object that landed in Illinois in 1938 that punctured the roof of a car) and the Carancas impact (a 2007 meteorite that crashed in a Peruvian village and may have caused groundwater contamination).
Much larger meteorites have fallen in prehistory and been discovered much later, including the Willamette Meteorite, a 32,000-pound hunk of iron that fell millennia ago and was transported to Oregon during the last ice age. The largest meteorite ever discovered in North America, it is now part of the collections of the Natural History Museum.
Early reports suggest that remnants of the meteor have fallen into a reservoir near the town of Chebarkul; testing on these meteorite fragments could provide more information on the object’s composition and origin. “It might be an ordinary chondrite—which is what 90 percent of the meteorites that we have are made of—or it could be something more rare,” Corrigan says.
While chondrites are made mostly of stone and result from the relatively recent breakup of asteroids, iron meteorites originate from the cores of more ancient asteroids, and even rarer types come from debris broken off from the moon or Mars. ”Every meteorite that we get is another piece of the puzzle,” says Corrigan. “They’re clues towards how the solar system and Earth were formed.”