Archive | January, 2013

In Search of Earth’s Siblings: Kepler Mission Seeks Life-Sustaining Planets in the Milky Way

29 Jan

Venus is often referred to as Earth’s “sister planet.”

After all, they orbit the same sun. Venus is just a bit smaller than Earth. And the two are only about 26 million miles away from each other – veritable next-door neighbors in the cosmos.

But other than size and proximity, the two planets have little in common. The surface temperature on Venus is nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit. (And you thought Florida was hot in the summer.) The atmosphere is almost entirely made of carbon dioxide. In short, astronomers are fairly certain life doesn’t exist on Venus.

So, other than perhaps the courtesy title of “sister,” you can cross Venus off the sibling list. In fact, the closest thing Earth may have to a solar system sibling would have to be Mars. While there is still no proof, some scientists believe it’s possible there is some form of life on the Red Planet, although it would almost certainly be microbial – bacteria and viruses than we would refer to on Earth as germs.

But astronomers have not given up hope that life – perhaps closer to what we have come to know on Earth — might exist on another planet outside of our solar system. In fact, NASA is taking steps to try to answer that age-old question with its Kepler mission. The Kepler spacecraft is in orbit around the sun, currently about 40 million miles away from Earth. From the spacecraft, the brightness of about 145,000 stars in a swath of the Milky Way Galaxy is being monitored. A very slight reduction in the brightness of an individual star is an indication that a planet might be orbiting around it.

Kepler-22b, the first confirmed planet outside our solar system to be orbiting its sun at a distance hospitable to life, is shown here in an artist's rendering of what it might look like. It is located 600 light years away and its radius is about 2.4 times that of Earth.Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

Kepler-22b, the first confirmed planet outside our solar system to be orbiting its sun at a distance hospitable to life, is shown here in an artist’s rendering of what it might look like. It is located 600 light years away and its radius is about 2.4 times that of Earth.
Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

Through the Kepler findings, astronomers are able to take a closer look at those “potential planets” to determine if they actually exist, and if so, how far they are away from their sun, according to Elliott Horch, associate professor of physics at Southern. Ground-based telescopes and equipment are used for this purpose. (One of the Earth-based devices used to prove or disprove the existence of a planet was actually developed by Horch with funding from the National Science Foundation.)

A “sweet spot” distance between a planet and its sun would increase the chances of the surface temperature on that planet being hospitable to life. That distance – known scientifically as a “habitable zone”– varies based on multiple factors, but a requirement is that water can exist as a liquid on that planet. The Earth is an average of about 93 million miles away from the sun.

Horch says the Kepler mission is already producing fascinating results. “It really is a remarkable project – one that may help us one day answer the age-old question, ‘Are we alone?’”

He points to several Kepler accomplishments:

  • A total of 105 planets have been found so far that are within the potential “life zone” distance from their sun. That number is expected to rise significantly in the months and years ahead. The first of these 105 “confirmed planets” orbiting in this habitable zone is known as Kepler-22b, located about 600 light years from the Earth.
  • About 2,700 stars are being closely studied as possibly having planets that could sustain life.
  • Based on results from the project so far, experts estimate that about 16 percent of stars similar to our sun have a planet similar in size to the Earth orbiting it.

So what? Just because a planet orbits a star within a certain range doesn’t prove that life exists on it, let alone any form of intelligent life, right?

That’s correct. But as Horch points out, it’s a significant step toward finding out. He notes that astronomers could then hone in more closely on those potential “Earth-like planets” to determine if life is likely, such as by conducting more research on the average density of those planets.

“After that, things gets much more difficult,” Horch acknowledges. “But perhaps a next-generation satellite or satellite array could determine a planet’s bulk atmospheric properties or even take an image of the planet.”

And those actions would move us closer, by far, in determining whether or not we are alone in the universe.

Do you think life exists on other planets? And if so, is there intelligent life out there?

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8 Ways to Write a Stronger College Admissions Essay

22 Jan

January and February can be a stressful time if you’re a high school senior.

The glorious days of fall – when the promise of one’s future is close enough to be exhilarating, but not so close as to be anxiety-inducing – are over. Yet, the inevitable thaw of spring, when  college plans are finalized and “senioritis” can set in, is still a few months away. Instead, the cold, hard realities of weather and life coincide — prompting students to choose from among the colleges to which they would like to apply.blogcollegeessayphoto

And while filling out forms can be both tedious and time consuming, the oft-dreaded essay is often the biggest source of stress for students when applying to schools. After all, except for the interview that some schools require, the essay is the last opportunity to stand out from the crowd — to show the admissions offices that you are a thoughtful student with good writing skills and are worthy of acceptance.

Kimberly Crone, associate vice president for academic student services at Southern, has plenty of suggestions on how to write the application essay. Her experience includes dealing with various aspects of the admissions process, including how to write an attention-grabbing essay. Here are some tips she offers:

  • Respond to the topic. You can be the best writer in the world, but if you don’t address the main point or question of the essay, it may not matter. Creativity is encouraged, but don’t stray too far from the topic.
  • Highlight your distinctiveness. Colleges often look for individuals who bring something unusual (in a good way) to the school. If there is an opportunity to talk about your accomplishments, activities or interests, try to include something that sets you apart from most other students.
  • Remember your audience. It’s a good idea to do a little research about the school in terms of its location, values and mission, as well as its academic and athletic offerings. If there is an opportunity to link what you do to what they offer or value, that’s a plus.
  • Mind your grammar, words and humor. Properly delivered, a good sense of humor can be an effective communication device. But a joke or humorous anecdote may not come across the same way in writing as it does verbally. Remember, you can’t use inflection, pitch or other speaking devices in an essay and that can change the context. Also, if you do attempt to use humor, be sure that the comment is tasteful.
  • Write in your own voice. Don’t try to be someone you’re not, or write in a way that is so bland that your voice ceases to come through.
  • Follow the instructions. This applies to the parameters of the essay – length, format, etc. If the application asks for 800 words, don’t submit an essay of 2,500 words. It not only risks putting the readers to sleep, but it calls into question both your ability to comply with basic rules and to outline your thoughts concisely and coherently.
  • Proofread. Everyone makes mistakes in their initial drafts. Even Thomas Jefferson made revisions to his copy when writing the Declaration of Independence. Some readers are less forgiving of typos and other careless errors. You might get away with one or two minor errors, but a pattern of mistakes indicates sloppy work. Most schools don’t want students who don’t pay attention to essential details.
  • Get feedback. Your essay should reflect your own thoughts, in your own voice. But that doesn’t mean you can’t share your drafts with others to get their suggestions on how to improve them. Accept those suggestions that you think make sense and discard those that you don’t like.

For those who have read college admission essays – administrators, teachers, parents – what advice would you offer students?

To Cram or Not To Cram — Is That Really the Question?

14 Jan

We’ve all been there.

It’s the night before a big exam and it becomes painfully obvious you are underprepared. We’re not talking about the last minute jitters of a perfectionist who has kept up with their studying. (That person may simply need to give the material one final review or get a couple of questions answered.) No, this is a situation where a few weeks of readings, practice drills and other assignments were neglected — regardless of whether the cause was your own procrastination or because life truly threw you some curve balls.

That leaves only three options — beg and plead with your teacher or professor for extra time (generally not a winning strategy), study for a half hour and hope for the best (good luck with that one), or cram.

blogcramphotoHey, cramming isn’t so bad, right? It’s just 4 or 6 or 10 hours of concentrated study. And by tomorrow at the same time, it will be over. Most of us have heard the admonitions against cramming — basically that it doesn’t work that well. Yet, faced with the reality that we are not ready for the exam, ‘tis better to cram than not to cram. And sometimes we’re able to cheat the Test Reaper entirely with grades that are as good as usual.

But while we may be able to salvage a decent grade with a lengthy, intense night or two of studying, research has demonstrated that it’s a poor long-term learning strategy, according to Cheryl Durwin, assistant chairwoman of Southern’s Psychology Department. The reason has to do with the physiology of how the brain works.

Durwin says that when we learn, the information first enters sensory memory. But only that information that we pay attention to and process in some way will get remembered and stored in our working memory. The working memory is what we rely on for tomorrow’s test. “When students cram, they try to stuff too much information into working memory, which typically holds only 5 to 9 chunks of information before it becomes overloaded,” Durwin says.

But for long-term learning — the kind needed for cumulative final exams, future courses and life skills — cramming fares even more poorly. To truly retain what we learn for the long run, the information must be stored in our long-term memory. And that just doesn’t happen well when we study something for 24 or 48 hours, and then stop rehearsing it, as we commonly do after a test. And soon the information is lost from the shorter-term working memory.

“A better approach is to use distributed practice — studying over an extended period of time,” Durwin says. “Break up material into small, manageable parts and study one part each night. Don’t just read the information. After each section, try to summarize what you read in your own words. Write questions in the margins about things you don’t understand, so you can ask your instructor or look up answers. On the night before the exam, review and quiz yourself. This way, you avoid overloading working memory and important information will be stored in long-term memory for later use.”

OK, you might say, that sounds great for the future. But what about that exam you have coming up in two days? If you must play catch up for a test, Durwin says two days of cramming is better than one. Three days is better than two. She suggests the following to get the most out of cram sessions:

  • Focus first on material that is close to being learned, but not yet mastered. In other words, stuff you almost know, or mostly know. Then, proceed to increasingly more difficult information.
  • Use any study technique that makes information more meaningful. It might involve making flash cards or writing study notes. But be sure to put information into your own words and generate an example that is familiar and relevant to you. This helps prevent merely parroting words and phrases you do not understand.
  • Create organizational tools, such as timelines, concept maps, bubble maps, flowcharts, compare/contrast charts and diagrams. The better you organize information, the more likely you’ll remember it.

What techniques have you found to be useful in preparing for an exam at the 11th hour?

Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions Alive (At Least Past Groundhog Day)

4 Jan

It’s easy to make New Year’s resolutions.

With just a bit of self-reflection, we pronounce that next year is going to be different. We intend to change our lives for the better in some significant way – whether it be losing weight, exercising more, or being a more patient person. “And this time I mean it,” we say. “I’m really going to do it.”

The hard part, as many of you know from experience, is carrying out those resolutions over time. And now that the holidays are over and the new year is here in earnest, our wills are put to the test. The cold weather can deter us from our appointed rounds at the gym or the track. The party after work makes cake or chips seem more appealing than the carrots and celery sticks that we know we should be eating. And if a winter full of snowstorms, ice and hazardous driving conditions comes our way, our patience is bound to be frayed by the time March rolls around.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

So, except for those with an iron will, is it possible to make and actually complete our New Year’s resolutions? Yes, says Jim Mazur, a professor of psychology at Southern. Jim has conducted extensive research over the years with regard to choice making and impulse control.

Here’s what he suggests:

  • Develop a strategy. Even though the starting gate has opened for the new year, it’s not too late to make some early-year adjustments, if necessary. You know your weaknesses, so consider options that minimize the chances of succumbing to those temptations. If working out with a friend helps get you out of the house on those cold, dark nights, engage them with the idea. If you have a hard time saving money, consider automatic savings deduction plans.
  • Enlist the help and support or a family member or friend. This person can help prevent you from cheating on your own rules. Knowing that this person is around will make it more difficult for you to eat that second slice of pie.
  • Reward yourself frequently for good performance. This is especially important when you have chosen an ambitious goal. It may seem like losing 20 pounds will take an eternity. But if you break it up into 4-pound segments, it’s psychologically a little easier. Treat yourself to a reward when you reach those intermediate goals. Maybe go to a movie you wanted to see, or buy yourself a new piece of clothing that caught your eye.
  • Set up reminders of your long-term goal. The problem with keeping many resolutions is that the goals are long-term, but the temptations are immediate. The way to help deal with those temptations is to post a picture or other reminder about your long-term goal. If saving for a new car is your resolution, you can put a picture of the car you want in your wallet so you’ll see it every time you go to buy something.
  • Keep systematic records of your performance. This works well for those who have resolutions that can be measured in some way. Seeing your improvement over time can motivate you toward continued progress. It can also help put setbacks into perspective.
  • Expect occasional setbacks, but keep moving forward. Progress rarely happens in a straight line. If you gained back 3 of the 10 pounds you lost over 3 months, you are still ahead of the game. It’s not unusual to fall down a few times, or even many times, in your quest. Those who are truly successful are those who dust themselves off and get back up.

Please share with us any techniques you – or people you know — have deployed in making good on New Year’s resolutions. And remember, even if we only accomplish half of what we set out to do, we are that much better for it.

Good luck!

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