A Solar Jack-o’-Lantern!

Spoooky Sun, courtesy the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO
Spoooky Sun, courtesy the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO

Our Sun is a wonderful, active, and occasionally downright spooky star if you look at it right. As luck would have it, the Sun presented a decidedly Jack-o-Lantern face to the Solar Dynamics Observatory on October 8 2014.

Suffice to say, we could never see the Sun like this with our own eyes. Instead, the Jack-o-Lantern image was created by combining two sets of ultraviolet images that would normally be colored gold and yellow. But since it’s so close to Halloween, the SDO team went with black and orange and the result is hallow-eerie-awesome! You can view the individual images that made up the Jack-o-Lantern composite at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center website.

Even though our Sun has been relatively weak compared to recent decades, it still puts on tremendous displays of magnetic activity. Its magnetic field lines get twisted and form regions of magnetic activity on the surface of the Sun. We see these active regions as sunspots in the visible part of the spectrum, but in ultraviolet we can see the plasma suspended in these magnetic field lines. The result is spectacular:

Incandescent Sun. Credit: NASA

Happy Halloween!

This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Math.

In this week’s astronomy lab, my students needed to make some simple calculations, mostly involving some arithmetic and a little bit of algebra to convert  hours and minutes into decimal hours (for example, 1hr 30min = 1.5 hrs) and some arithmetic. Nothing too complex, but it was nevertheless a major challenge for many of my students, eliciting groans of “I suck at math”, “I’m not a math person”, etc.

I’m sympathetic, to a point. I struggled with math quite a bit as a wee lad, and even as an undergraduate astronomy major in college (don’t tell anyone). But looking back, I realize that the reason I “sucked” at math was because I told myself I sucked at math. Once I decided I no longer sucked at math, I suddenly got better at it.

I watched this happen to a student when faced with the problem of calculating the difference in time.  He was struggling with some time calculations and asked me for help. It went something like this (and yes, I’m paraphrasing):

blackjackMe: Ok, so you need to figure out the time difference between 1:16 and 1:21. What is it?
Student (tired, frustrated): Oh man, I’m just not sure right now.
Me: No problem. Let’s imagine you and I are playing blackjack together in Atlantic City—
Student: Now you’re talking my language!
Me: Cool. So you’re dealt a 7 and a 9. What do you have?
Student: 16, a really sucky hand.
Me: And the dealer is showing an 8, what do you need to do?
Student: This sucks, I have to hit.
Me: Yeah, you do, but what do you have to pull in order to make 21 and guarantee you won’t get beat?
Student: A 5.
Me: Right, so what’s the difference between 1:16 and 1:21 again?
Student: Oh geez, of course. Duh!

I got a little lucky here – I didn’t know that the student played blackjack, I just guessed. But mathematically, the problem was the same.  The context of the problem seemed to make all the difference. At the blackjack table, he no longer seemed to think he sucked at math and suddenly the problem was a piece of cake.

A lot of math phobia gets swept away when you are presented with problems in a more familiar setting. That’s why I know my students don’t suck at math, or at least not nearly to the degree they think they do. After all, math is hard, but it’s a skill you can learn.

I’ll wrap this up with a video that caught my eye this morning that dispels a lot of the myths, fears, and misconceptions about math. I’m not a genius at math by any means, and I might have to stop and think a little bit more when solving a problem than others. But I don’t suck at it, and neither do you.

Mars One-Way

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

Eleanor Roosevelt
Would you live here? Could you live here? Image credit: NASA/JPL
Would you live here? Could you live here? Image credit: NASA/JPL

Would you take a one-way trip to Mars? Think about that for a moment: would you leave your family, friends, the entire planet Earth behind to live out your days forever enclosed in a sealed habitat on a distant planet, entirely dependent on your fellow colonists and resupply ships from Earth? Here are some people who say they will:

Mars One Way by Skylar Nielsen & Vitas Brevis Films (go full screen & click ‘HD’)

It’s a thought-provoking short film which gives insight into the type of people who are willing to undertake such a journey. All of them applied to Mars One, an ambitious program to select and train the first human colonists to live out their lives on Mars. There are many reasons why this would have to be a one-way mission, but the short version is that by the time humans get to Mars, there would be no way they could survive a return to Earth. Mars’ gravity is less than ½ of Earth’s. Even if we could somehow simulate that environment on the journey to/from Mars, their muscular/skeletal structures would atrophy far too much to make survival in Earth’s 1g environment possible. That’s why the trip would have to be one-way: permanent exile on Mars.

And yet, for these people, such exile would give their lives tremendous purpose, one far different from those of us who would remain behind on Earth. It’s important to consider this because it shows that in a very real sense, humanity is going to have to change in a fundamental way if we ever become a true multi-world species.