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PRoD #2: Flipping hot Jupiters

11 May 2011

Press Release of the Day is a short, pithy, accurate summary of the day’s weirdest, most interesting, or most-fun-to-write-about science press release.

Image courtesy of CIERA

With the awesomely nonsensical headline/catchphrase/band name “Flipping hot Jupiters,” astrophysicists at Northwestern University have announced a model of planet formation that explains why some extrasolar planets appear to orbit their stars in the ‘wrong’ direction.

Among the many surprises caused by the discovery of planets orbiting other stars is the “hot Jupiter” phenomenon, in which a massive Jupiter-like gas giant orbits very close to its star. Even more puzzling, some hot Jupiters appear to orbit ‘backward’ relative to the direction their star spins around its own axis. That challenges current models of planet formation, which are based on our solar system—in which all planets orbit with the Sun’s spin.

The Northwestern model shows how interactions between two massive planets could put one of them into a backwards or “retrograde” orbit. The trick is that the planet does not reverse direction—instead, the planet’s orbit flips over.

A lot of things have to line up for this to occur: the two planets’ orbits have to start off tilted relative to each other; the less massive planet must be orbiting closer to the star; and the timing of their orbits must bring them into the right place at the right time. When conditions are right, the heavier planet periodically tugs on the other, increasing the tilt of its orbit very slightly. Add up enough little tilts, though, and the orbit flips like a pancake in slow motion.

Details of the model will be published 12 May in the journal Nature.

(249 Words)

Read the original paper: Hot Jupiters from Secular Planet-Planet Interactions (via CIERA)

Read the press release: Flipping hot Jupiters (via Northwestern University)

PRoD #1: Pyrite no pirate plunder, but fancy feast for phytoplankton

10 May 2011

Introducing a new feature at A Word for Science: Press Release of the Day (PRoD)!

Every weekday I’ll pick the weirdest, most interesting, or most-fun-to-write-about science press release I can find and write a short (<250 word) summary. Goals are to be pithy, accurate and timely—I’m doing this to develop the writing habit and improve my craft.

Today’s PRoD was written as a “headline” item for How On Earth, and was read on-air by yours truly.

Image courtesy of Flickr user nickpix2011

If you were a pirate retrieving a chest full of treasure from the ocean floor, you’d be disappointed to discover that it was only the common mineral pyrite, or “fool’s gold.” But to ocean-going bacteria and phytoplankton, pyrite is a priceless plunder.

That’s because pyrite contains iron, which is essential to all life but can be hard to come by in the deep sea.

Pyrite is emitted by hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean. Of course, we’re not talking about fool’s gold doubloons—these particles are tiny, about one thousand times smaller than the diameter of human hair. Scientists had thought that the mineral simply settled to the ocean floor.

But researchers from the University of Delaware and other institutions have shown that these tiny pyrite particles don’t settle. Instead they remain suspended in the water and are dispersed by currents throughout the ocean.

The researchers say it’s like giving the ocean a multivitamin—the iron is released slowly, providing an important nutritional supplement for the tiny organisms like phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are the foundation of the ocean food chain, and play a role in regulating atmospheric levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The discovery could shed more light on that process.

The research is published in the May 12 issue of Nature Geoscience.

(211 words)

Read the abstract of the original paper: Hydrothermal vents as a kinetically stable source of iron-sulfide-bearing nanoparticles to the ocean (via Nature Geoscience)

Read the press release: Fool’s gold from the deep is fertilizer for ocean life (NSF via Eurekalert)

SkeptiCamp Boulder/Denver 2011

7 May 2011

Apropos of my last post, today is SkeptiCamp 2011!

SkeptiCamp is like a traditional conference turned inside out—the attendees are the presenters, and interruptions are encouraged (for heckling, questions, whatever). Topics this year range from “Adventures in Quantum Time Dilation” to “The Science of Intersex.”

Things are just getting underway and I’ll be making updates periodically, probably through Twitter (@awordforscience) using the hashtag #skepticamp.

“Skeptics” – A documentary short film

7 May 2011

A short documentary about that most curious of creatures, the skeptic. Featuring Phil Plait and members of SSaSS, the Secular Students and Skeptics Society. Produced for a graduate class at the University of Colorado School of Journalism.

F—–‘ magnetospheres, how do they work?

22 April 2011

Artist's rendition of Earth's magnetosphere. How the fuck does it work? (Image courtesy of NASA)

It’s mid-November, 2010, and University of Colorado astrophysicist Peter Delamere has a public relations problem.

In early December, he will deliver a public lecture at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. The presentation should be informative about the details of his research, but must also be accessible for a lay audience.

“What do I talk about and how do I make it interesting to the general public?” Delamere muses during a conversation in his cluttered LASP office. He pauses, brow furrowed in concentration. He consults a calendar. “Wow, it’s only two weeks away.”

The trouble is that Delamere studies planetary magnetic fields, which are odd and invisible phenomena that defy easy explanation. Like gravity, magnetism is one of the fundamental forces of the universe. But gravity makes a certain intuitive sense — little things stick to big things — perhaps because we can feel its direct effects from the moment we are born. Magnets, on the other hand, are rare, unassuming and powerful beyond their size.

Those mysterious qualities can make magnetism seem a bit like magic, a perception made infamous by rap group Insane Clown Posse with the release of the music video for their song “Miracles”. The lyrics point out various mundane objects and phenomena the artists consider to be worthy of awe, and include the lines:

"Miracles" (Image copyright ICP, presumably)

Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?/And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist/Ya’ll motherfuckers lyin’ and gettin’ me pissed.

Certain geekier portions of the Internet lit up with a mixture of hilarity and revulsion when the video hit YouTube, both for its ham-fisted message and for the explicit rejection of scientific explanations. But it must be admitted that “Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?” is a profound question, and mind-bogglingly tough to answer. In another, more obscure YouTube video, the late Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman squirms defensively under the query before launching into a six-minute series of analogies that boils down to, “They just do.”

Delamere squirms, too, at times during a series of conversations in the weeks before his lecture. And for good reason: although anyone with a refrigerator is familiar with magnets, the planetary magnets Delamere and his colleagues study are no mere kitchen decorations. They are huge, invisible and unlike anything a general audience would be familiar with.

Read more…

Pope’s Astronomer Would Baptize Aliens, Rejects “Intelligent Design”

5 April 2011
This is old news—originally written for a graduate class at the University of Colorado in Sept., 2010. But I’m publishing it here, now, because I think it’s well-written and fits the theme of this blog. And because I think it’s fascinating that a man who is so logical about ID/Creationism and is willing to consider the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life also believes in non-physical souls and practices archaic rituals to “cleanse” them.

If extraterrestrial beings ever visit the Vatican, they might ask to be baptized—and could be, according to one of the Pope’s astronomers. Catholic scientist Guy Consolmagno recently [as of 20 Sept., 2010] told the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper that aliens could meet the traditional requirements for having a soul: intelligence and free will.”Any entity – no matter how many tentacles it has – has a soul,” Consolmagno was quoted as saying.

Consolmagno also commented on the Intelligent Design movement that many see as trying to place Creationism side by side with Darwinian evolution in U.S. school curricula. He told the Guardian that “the word has been hijacked by a narrow group of creationist fundamentalists in America to mean something it didn’t originally mean at all. It’s another form of the God of the gaps. It’s bad theology in that it turns God once again into the pagan god of thunder and lightning.”

Consolmagno studies astronomy and planetary science at the Vatican observatory and is curator of the pope’s meteorite collection. He was in the U.K. to speak at the British Science Festival in Birmingham.

Perception of Expertise Culturally Biased

5 April 2011
This is old news—originally written for a graduate class at the University of Colorado in September, 2010. I’m publishing it here, now, because I think it’s well-written and fits the theme of this blog.

What credentials make a scientist an “expert”? Advanced degrees? Years of experience? Dozens of peer-reviewed papers? Put it all together and, according to a new [as of 13 Sept, 2010] study, you still may not be able to convince anyone that you know what you’re talking about.

Researchers from several U.S. universities, working with the National Science Foundation, found that most people consider a scientist an “expert” only if that scientist shares their cultural beliefs. For instance, individualistic people tend to be skeptical of climate change risks, and are over 70% more likely to consider a scientist who shares that skepticism an expert. Similarly, egalitarians tend to think there are risks from climate change, and are over 50% more likely to consider a like-minded scientist an expert. Moreover, the perception of scientific consensus is also colored by cultural biases.

“The problem isn’t that one side ‘believes’ science and another side ‘distrusts’ it,” according to Yale University law professor Dan Kahan, a co-author of the study. People simply pay more attention to science that agrees with them. “To make sure people form unbiased perceptions” of scientific discoveries, Kahan thinks findings need to be communicated in ways that are not “threatening to their cultural commitments.”

“Homebrew”, a documentary short film

1 April 2011
[vimeo 21776307]

A short documentary about my friends Julie and Eric, who brew their own beer in small batches. Produced for a graduate class at the University of Colorado School of Journalism. The white balance was a little off, so most of the footage looks a bit yellow. The white balance issue has been fixed!

What Causes The Tides?

1 April 2011
[vimeo 21774655]


An audio slideshow response to Bill O’Reilly’s repeated assertions that nobody can explain how ocean tides work. Produced for a graduate class at the University of Colorado School of Journalism. I also highly recommend watching the Colbert Report’s coverage of this from 6 Jan., 2011.

NewsTeam Boulder: BalloonSat Launch

1 April 2011


A news package I produced with my partner, Leila Bighash, for a graduate class at the University of Colorado School of Journalism. We followed a group of engineering undergraduates as they launched and recovered a weather balloon, which carried small data-collecting “satellites” the students had built into the upper atmosphere. This package originally aired in the lead slot on NewsTeam Boulder, the University’s student news webcast, on 16 Nov., 2010.