Archive | Science RSS feed for this section

Striving for Improved Science Literacy

7 Oct
Science literacy is becoming increasingly important in this technologically-driven world.

Science literacy is becoming increasingly important in this technologically-driven world.

The United States has aimed to improve science literacy for years — decades, even.

It goes back at least to the days following the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first manmade satellite to orbit the Earth. That event certainly propelled the United States into action. A dozen years later, of course, the U.S. became the first country to land a man on the Moon.

As Southern prepares for its Oct. 16 ribbon-cutting of a state-of-the-art science building — designed to bolster science education in Connecticut — this seemed like a good time to take a look at the importance of science literacy, why the United States has fallen behind other countries, and what can be done to improve the situation.

Today, we look back at a Sept. 16, 2013, post in Wise Words.

Susan Cusato, who was then chairwoman of the university’s Science Education and Environmental Studies Department, offers some insights in the post.

Dogs Can See Colors — But Not Reds & Greens

18 Sep
Dogs can see colors, but not reds and greens. This is due to the number of types of cones in their eyes.

Dogs can see colors, but not reds and greens. This is due to the number of types of cones in their eyes.

It may not be a coincidence that your dog is very good at finding and retrieving the little yellow tennis ball that you throw in your backyard lawn. If that ball were green, or even red, Snoopy might have a more difficult time seeing it (though he could eventually sniff it out.)

The reason is that dogs lack the ability to distinguish between red and green – much like humans who are color blind, according to Meghan Barboza, assistant professor of biology at Southern. And anything with red in it, such as orange or pink, are also off your best buddy’s color chart.

“Something that is red or green would likely appear to be a grayish color to a dog,” Barboza says. “But they can distinguish between light and dark, so they would see some type of difference between a maroon and a light green. But they would see them as light and dark grayish colors.”

In addition, she notes that dogs can’t see orange or purple, either, because red is a part of both of those colors.
And for cat lovers who may be chuckling and thinking this is further evidence that “cats rule and dogs drool”…not so fast. Miss Meowington has a very similar color spectrum to Snoopy.

While Barboza hasn’t conducted her own studies on this subject, she teaches a class on animal physiology and is well-versed on how animals see color.
She explains that the limit on the ability to see colors stems from the number of the types of cones in the eye. Dogs and cats have only two, while humans have three. Horses also have two, but instead of seeing blue and yellow, they see blue and green, but not yellow or red.

But there are animals that have a greater number of cone types in their eyes than people. Toward the high end is the mantis shrimp, which has 16 types of cones. “Experts believe they can see a greater number of shades of colors than we can,” Barboza said. “So, a block that appears as a light green color to us would be seen by a mantis shrimp as a variety of different light green colors. And they may even see colors that we can’t see at all.”

It’s hard to imagine what those colors would look like since human eyes have never seen them.

Barboza notes that birds have a varied number of types of cones, she says. Some have two, others three or four, or perhaps even more.

She says that in general, those animals, as well as insects and other forms of life that have depended upon color to live from an evolutionary standpoint, can see a greater spectrum of colors. Bees, for example, which pollenate colorful flowers, have four types of cones. Their sense of color is probably a bit better than ours. But insects that live underground are believed to have little or no ability to see colors since sight has not been needed for them to continue their existence.

The ability of dogs to see colors has been the subject of much misinformation. Some have said they can’t see colors, while others assume they can see the same colors as us. It’s actually somewhere in between where they can see yellows and blues, but not reds and greens.

So, the next time you plan to paint Snoopy’s doghouse, remember that he’ll only be able to appreciate the aesthetic value if you use yellow or blue paint.

Why Can’t We Remember Our Earliest Years?

5 Aug

Many experts say the rapid generation of brain cells during early childhood may be at least partially responsible for our inability to remember much from the first few years of life. This phenomenon of not remembering is referred to as 'childhood amnesia,' or 'infantile amnesia.'

Many experts say the rapid generation of brain cells during early childhood may be at least partially responsible for our inability to remember much from the first few years of life. This phenomenon of not remembering is referred to as ‘childhood amnesia,’ or ‘infantile amnesia.’

You probably remember many things from your childhood – family, friends, school. And if you are like most people, you have a slew of recollections from the time you are about 7 years of age and older.

But what about people, places, things and events at ages 5 and 6? Are those memories a little fuzzier?

Go back to age 4 and your preschool days, and your memory probably gets hazier. It’s even tougher, if not impossible, when pondering your life at age 3. And if you are able to remember anything as a toddler, you are indeed the exception to the rule.

But why are people generally unable to recall anything in those first few years of childhood?

This question has perplexed psychologists, scientists and other experts. Various theories have been discussed over the years, but a clear answer seems to have been lacking.

But today, many experts believe the answer – at least in part — is connected to the rapid generation of brain cells in those first few years of life, according to Rachel Jeffrey, an assistant professor of biology and a neurobiologist at Southern. This process is technically known as “neurogenesis.”

She points out that the brain isn’t quite equipped for long-term memories in the first months of life. But the “childhood amnesia,” also called “infantile amnesia,” generally continues beyond the first months of life, extending to a few years in most cases.

“Until about age 4, there are so many new neurons being created in the brain that they are probably interfering with the long-term storage of memory,” Jeffrey says.

She points out that short-term memory is stored in the hippocampus part of the brain, and eventually released to the cortex. But the hippocampus is a part of the brain in which neurons continue to generate at a fairly rapid clip during early childhood.

“Actually, there is evidence today that some degree of neurogenesis continues into and through adulthood,” she says. “But the pace is much slower, and does not impair memory to the same extent as in infants and children. And in adulthood, we believe neurogenesis helps us deal with cognitive problems, stress and other functions.”

She also noted that emotional episodes – regulated by the amygdala portion of the brain – are often easier to recall. That’s why if a person remembers incidents from the ages of 3 and 4, they are more likely to involve crying, fear or joy.

Interestingly, Jeffrey also notes that studies have children generally have recollections of ages 2 and 3, sometimes even earlier, up until around age 10. At that point, memories seem to fade.

What is the earliest age at which you can remember?

Distant Relatives? Earth and Newly Discovered Planet Appear to Have Much in Common

27 Jul
NASA's Kepler Mission may have found Earth's 'older cousin' some 1,400 light years away. The planet is currently called Kepler 452-b, and scientists are optimistic that it might harbor some forms of life. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Kepler Mission may have found Earth’s ‘older cousin’ some 1,400 light years away. The planet is currently called Kepler 452-b, and scientists are optimistic that it might harbor some forms of life.
Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T.Pyle

In one of our first posts in Wise Words, we examined the Kepler Mission — a NASA project to search for Earth-like planets in the Milky Way Galaxy outside of our solar system. At the time — two and a half years ago — an estimated 105 planets had been confirmed as orbiting their sun in the “habitable zone,” a distance considered to be neither too close, nor too far, to sustain life.

Today, the Kepler Mission has identified about 1,030 such planets. And the most recent development is the discovery of a planet named Kepler-452b, located some 1,400 light years away, which astronomers say is likely to harbor some forms of life.

The planet has been dubbed as Earth’s cousin because of many similarities, including the apparent ability to host life. Scientists estimate that it is composed of about 60-percent water, comparable to Earth’s 71 percent. It orbits its sun in 385 days, compared with our 365 days. Kepler-452b is about 60-percent larger, but it is far from a massive planet like the outer planets of our own solar system. And it is an “older cousin” to Earth, having existed for about 6 billion years vs. Earth’s 4.5 billion years.

Another similarity is that it orbits only one star, according to Elliott Horch, an astronomer and associate professor of physics at Southern. He has assisted on some of Kepler’s projects.

“We just observed this exoplanet’s host star last week at the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii,” Horch says. “My colleagues and I were trying to see if there is a close stellar companion in addition to the planet. But like our own solar system, it would appear from our observations that this system has just the one star at the center.”

The observation was made with a telescope that includes a DSSI (Differential Speckle Survey Instrument), a device developed by Horch that sharpens cosmic images many times over. He built it for the National Science Foundation in 2008.

Horch will participate in a panel discussion as part of an astronomy forum planned at Southern on Monday, Nov. 16. The program will examine Kepler, as well as the possibility and challenges associated with a manned mission to Mars. Guest speakers will include Steve Howell, Kepler project scientist, and Jennifer Stern, a space scientist and Martian expert at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. More information about the forum will be forthcoming.

Additional information about the recent discovery can be found in a recent NASA press release.

In Search of Our Earliest Ancestors

1 Apr

Now this jaw bone is a little long in the tooth. Make that a lot long.

An Arizona State University student recently discovered what appears to be the oldest jawbone from man’s ancestors ever found. The fossil was unearthed in the Afar region of Ethiopia and is believed to be 2.8 million years old.

A jawbone (not pictured above), recently discovered in Ethiopia and estimated at 2.8 million years old, is believed to be a link between the ape man and the earliest humans.

A jawbone (not pictured above), recently discovered in Ethiopia and estimated at 2.8 million years old, is believed to be a link between the ape man and the earliest humans.

The jawbone – the left side of the lower jaw with five teeth, to be exact – contains elements of both the Australopithecus afarensis, sometimes referred to as the “ape man,” and the genus homo, which is responsible for the human lineage. It most likely involves the species “homo habilis,” an early and primitive human.

The discovery appears to fill in some scientific gaps between the two with fossils dated at 3 million years old and 2.3 million years old having previously been found. The fossils from the latter are more similar to man. The implications for this discovery, published in the journal “Science,” are major.

Michael Rogers, professor of anthropology at Southern, says the anatomical characteristics are consistent with an intermediate between Australopithecus and homo. “The surprise here is that it fits almost too perfectly as a transitional form, exactly what some have predicted would be found,” Rogers says.

Rogers – who has led many Southern student anthropological expeditions to the Afar section of Ethiopia, including a trip two months ago in Gona – says discoveries rarely fit this neatly into scientific hypotheses. But he said the discovery is exciting and potentially enlightening.

“It was found in a drier, more open grassland type of environment than that of any earlier human ancestor, which could mark a significant adaptive shift that began with the origin of our genus,” Rogers says.

“This adaptive shift also eventually included the use of stone tools, the earliest of which are found at the Gona site and are dated to 2.6 million years ago. This new find gives more weight to the suggestion that my colleagues and I have made that evidence of stone tool use will eventually be found earlier than 2.6 million years ago.”

Rogers was part of an international research team credited more than a decade ago with the discovery of those stone tools. The findings were reported in the September 2003 issue of the “Journal of Human Evolution.”

Meanwhile, the search into man’s past continues.

Fictional ‘Star Wars’ Planet With Two Suns Not So Far-Fetched Anymore

18 Feb

It turns out that George Lucas might have inadvertently crossed the line between science fiction and science when he created the planet Tatooine in the iconic “Star Wars” saga.

While the concept of a planet orbiting two suns was intended to be fictional, modern astronomy has found that such planets actually do exist in the cosmos.

Nearly half of planets discovered in the Milky Way Galaxy are believed to be part of 'binary solar systems,' meaning there are two suns in the solar system. In some cases, these planets orbit both suns. In this photo, two white dwarf stars located about 1,600 light years from Earth orbit each other. Image credit: NASA/Tod Strohmayer (GSFC)/Dana Berry (Chandra X-Ray Observatory)

Nearly half of planets discovered in the Milky Way Galaxy are believed to be part of ‘binary solar systems,’ meaning there are two suns in the solar system. In some cases, these planets orbit both suns. In this photo, two white dwarf stars located about 1,600 light years from Earth orbit each other.
Image credit: NASA/Tod Strohmayer (GSFC)/Dana Berry (Chandra X-Ray Observatory)

The Kepler mission – whose aim is to find Earth-like planets in parts of the Milky Way Galaxy – recently discovered that 40 to 50 percent of these bodies are actually part of binary solar systems. In other words, those planets are part of solar systems with two suns, rather than one.

The team of scientists that made this finding was led by Elliott Horch, professor of physics at Southern.

“Most of these planets are probably not like Tatooine, where the planet orbits twin suns that are close together. They generally orbit only one of the two stars, with the second star slowly orbiting the system at a much greater distance,” Horch says.

But Horch concedes that at least a small percentage of the Earth-like planets in these binary solar systems do orbit two suns. In some cases, that could result in planets having constant or near constant daylight.

Nevertheless, even for the large majority of planets that only orbit one of the two suns, their nighttime skies could be brighter than ours.

“This would mean that during the day on the exoplanet, the closer sun would dominate, but at night there would be an especially bright star — a night sun — that hangs in the sky,” Horch says.

If nothing else, it might eliminate the need on these planets for daylight savings time to give children some light while waiting for the school buses in the morning.

Horch developed the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument (DSSI) several years ago for the National Science Foundation. The telescopic device provides astronomers with stunningly crisp images of outer space, and is being used by the Kepler mission.

He is currently developing a portable multi-channel intensity interferometer, which essentially is a double-barrel telescope that would generate ultra-high resolutions with even more detailed information about celestial bodies.

“With my previous instrument, the DSSI, it was like putting eyeglasses on a telescope,” he says. “This new project will be like remaking the whole eye.”

Construction of this new device, like DSSI, is being funded by the NSF.

New Planet Runs Rings Around Saturn

4 Feb

Move over, Saturn. It turns out you have a distant cousin – one that is much larger, much younger and carries a lot more “bling.”

Astronomers recently discovered what appears to be a young giant planet with breathtaking rings in a distant solar system more than 400 light years away from Earth. Their findings have just been accepted for publication in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal.

Saturn (pictured above) is known for its rings, but another planet more than 400 light years away is believed to have rings that are 200 times are large. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Saturn (pictured above) is known for its rings, but another planet more than 400 light years away is believed to have rings that are 200 times as large. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

The astronomers – the University of Rochester’s Eric Mamejek and the Leiden Observatory’s (The Netherlands) Matthew Kenworthy – say the three dozen or so rings span nearly 120 kilometers – roughly 200 times the size of Saturn’s.

The planet – referred to as J1407b – has a mass estimated at between 10 and 40 times that of Jupiter, which is the heaviest planet in our solar system.

The discovery has caught the attention of Elliott Horch, a noted astronomer and professor of physics at Southern.

“This is another signpost along the journey that is going on in astronomy right now in the area of exoplanets – planets that orbit other stars besides the Sun,” he says. “How diverse the menagerie of planets that we know about is becoming!

“Imagine being close to this planet and having its rings take up a big chunk of the sky,” he adds. “What a sight that would be!”

Indeed, astronomers say that if Saturn had rings of the magnitude of planet J1407b, they would be visible with the naked eye in our nighttime sky. In fact, the rings would appear larger than the moon, despite being much further away from Earth.

The findings indicate there are gaps between some of planet J1407b’s rings, leading to a theory that moons have been formed from the rings, just as it is believed that many of Saturn’s 60 or so moons were created this way. Astronomers believe Saturn’s rings were also much larger early in its own life, before some of the material from the rings left to form moons.

Astronomers say that while Saturn’s rings are composed of ice, J1407b has rings probably made of dust since the planet’s temperature is believed to be far too hot to have ice rings.

Saturn, which has been around for about 4.5 billion years, is an old timer compared with the relatively youthful J1407b – a planet for a mere 16 million years or so.

Hey Saturn, maybe you can take the newbie under your wing…er, ring.

%d bloggers like this: