Thursday, August 26, 2010

Thoughts on Virginia’s Goodwill Moon Rock

Thirty-eight years ago I stood with my younger brother on a shoreline near midnight looking eastward across 12 miles of quiet, dark water at the brilliant jewel on the far horizon. A million people lined the beaches as far as we could see. In the distance xenon arc lights crossed upon the largest craft ever to carry humans. The thunderstorm that had earlier sent tendrils of blue and orange lightning beyond the gantry had since moved far out to sea.

At the final countdown the night burst into a blaze of silent light and the sky glowed crimson to the far horizon behind us. A full minute would pass before the sound hit us, a deep shattering moan shaking our rib cages, the trees and cars. The last Apollo Saturn V rocket lifted with the inexorably slow climb of a freight elevator. Our 8mm film would show its three stages burning successively into orbit in the clear, beautiful night.

In that minute before the rocket's sound reached us, the collective expression of the human spirit, in all its aspirations, went up from the multitude on the beaches. The shouting, weeping, praying and cheering of a million voices blended into a roar that lifted with the three on their way to the moon.

Human space flight inspires in ways that more cost-effective robot probes do not. This experience fueled my drive to study physics.

These are my thoughts this summer as I had the challenge of gathering and arranging information and images about the Apollo missions to the moon. The result of this curatorial work would become part of the exciting, new installation and display of the museum’s Apollo 17 moon rock -- in a new setting that directs the visitor’s attention to one of the rarest objects on Earth.

As I worked in the Stardome room (at the north end of the Main Concourse) with the moon rock case nearby, I thought about the coincidence that I had witnessed the launch of that very mission in December of 1972.

From that mission Harrison Schmitt brought back 242 pounds of lunar material, including the Goodwill Rock that provided the plaque-mounted specimens given to every U.S. state and territory and every nation on earth in 1973.

Apollo science is still alive in some ways today. Three Apollo missions left retro-reflector arrays on the moon to bounce laser light back to Earth. These arrays allow scientists to measure daily the distance and the motion of the moon away from Earth, at about an inch and a half a year.

Another final milestone approaches. The last and final Space Shuttle flight (the 134th ) has been authorized for launch next summer. Next August the NASA will leave manned space flight to others, possibly for decades. The Space Shuttle is the most complex thing ever built, with 2 ½ million parts and 230 miles of wiring. These difficult economic times make it hard to justify the extravagance of human space exploration.

We have, however, a rich and long history of unmanned space probes. Our 1970s launches of Pioneer 10 and 11, and Voyager 1 and 2 yielded a treasure trove of dazzling images of the outer solar system and are now far beyond it. They carry gold plaques and phonograph records explaining the culture of the species from Earth that sent them.

And we continue to roll out ever more sophisticated unmanned spacecraft. A long range probe is on its way to Pluto. A replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope is under construction, with 15 times Hubble’s light gathering ability. Other orbiting telescopes are looking for extraterrestrial planets. Further unmanned probes are planned for Mars and the moon. Others may explore oceans of salt water beneath the ice on Europa and Enceladus, moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Oh, yes. We actually did go to the moon. Had we not gone, telescopes all over the Earth would not have recorded, as they did, the flights and the return journeys. Russia and the rest of the world would have called our bluff. Indeed, Russia cancelled its manned moon program largely because of the verified success of our Apollo program.

So, I return in my thoughts to the museum’s Apollo 17 moon rock, a small, three billion year-old memento of a trip made 38 years ago.

David Hagan
Museum Scientist
Science Museum of Virginia

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Remember Hurricane Andrew?

As Hurricane Danielle churns far out in the Atlantic, I am reminded of another hurricane that made landfall on this day…

On August 24, 1992, a small but extremely intense Hurricane Andrew slammed into South Florida. Andrew made landfall as a Category 5 hurricane, the 3rd most intense landfalling US hurricane and the 1st in total estimated US property damage at the time. (Katrina eclipsed it in both intensity and damage in 2005.) Andrew hit the highly populated Miami area after a 27-year lull in hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin. During the period between 1965 and 1992, only 2 hurricanes of any significance made landfall in Florida, both in the panhandle. At the same time, the coast around Miami had experienced unprecedented development, populated largely by residents from the Northeast who had no experience with Florida’s history of violent hurricanes. As a result, South Florida was devastated. Damage was extensive, estimated at about $30 billion. Fifteen people lost their lives directly due to the hurricane and another 25 by more indirect means.

Yes, hurricanes can be devastating and deadly; however, I have always been fascinated by them. (I confess - I am a weather nut.) Don’t get me wrong – I do not want them to come ashore and destroy homes and lives; however, watching them develop from a messy disorganized cluster of clouds into a perfect spiral inspires me to wonder at the beauty and power of nature. But I do prefer that all this beauty and power stay well off-shore…

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Age of Exploration and Discovery

During lunchtime the other day, I stopped by our Bayscapes demonstration garden in front of the Museum, to weed the Black-Eyed Susans. Bayscapes features native plants of Virginia that residents can use in their home landscaping which also improve water quality in the James River and Chesapeake Bay. After removing a handful of weeds, I looked up for a moment at the hundreds of flowers moving back and forth to rhythm of the wind, and was immediately transported back in time.
“Put your crayons away, and place your drawings underneath your desks. Now line up. We’re going outside to take a walk.”
It wasn’t recess time, so why were we going outside for a walk, I thought? Behind the school, my classmates and I walked in single file (more or less) following Mrs. Folkes, our first grade teacher, past the swing sets, the seesaws, the monkey bars, and across the dusty, red clay baseball field, and finally down to the edge of an open meadow adjacent to the forest woods.
Stopping at some Black-Eyed Susans hosting a couple of honeybees, Mrs. Folkes said,
“Look. What do you see?”
Without hesitation, Susan said “Two honeybees on a flower.”
“Right” said Mrs. Folkes. “What kind of flowers?”
Billy, who lived on a farm, said “Those are Black-Eyed Susans.”
“Correct. Very good, Billy. Now who can tell me what the bees are doing?”
Even though I didn’t know that particular flower, I knew what honeybees were, and what they were doing on the flowers. My dad had answered the same question when I saw some honeybees on the flowers of bean and tomato plants in his garden just two months earlier. And so, I raised my hand and said “They’re pollinating the flowers so fruits will form.”
“Very good’ said Mrs. Folkes, who reiterated the relationship between bees and flowers to the rest of the class.
As we walked, she stopped every couple of steps or so, and said “this is Queen Anne’s lace, this is an oak tree… this, an elm… here’s a maple… this is moss… look at that six-lined skink… there’s a Monarch butterfly, a bumble bee, carpenter bee, garden spider, broomsedge, and the like. “These grasses were here when the Native Americans lived here. You know, you can still find their arrowheads in the earth.”
Not only did she help us to identify all of these animals and plants, but related one or another to others, and to the history of the area. This was the beginning of a journey of exploration and discovery. Mrs. Folkes was empowering us to see, observe behaviors of insects, and to enjoy the great outdoor classroom. I was seeing and discovering for the first time the great fabric of life. The takeaway message for me that day was that I was an explorer, and could identify new species of plants and animals, things I had never seen before or had not noticed in my previous five years of life. Maybe I had, but they didn’t register with me then. But now, they did (thank you Piaget). And I couldn’t get enough.
Being raised in a traditional Greek family where history and stories are conveyed through either Greek or English language, but often in sentences beginning with Greek or English and ending with the alternate language, small children learn the stories of the Greek gods and goddesses at an early age. And so, at six years old, not really knowing how to distinguish the real world from that of mythology, I thought my first grade teacher, Mrs. Folkes, was actually the Greek goddess, Gaia, who had transformed herself to reveal her divine being. It was magical.

My first grade teacher, goddess or not, did a wonderful thing that day. She made a lifelong impression on me. She showed me how to “see” the natural world, how it was interconnected, and also how to be part of it. And that’s been one of my lifelong endeavors…Helping people not to just look at the world, but to see it as it really is, not what we’ve been told to believe it is, or how we think it is.

And so, I ask you… what, how and where were the beginnings of your age of exploration and discovery?

Eugene G. Maurakis, Ph.D.
Director of Science and Museum Scientist
Science Museum of Virginia

Happy Birthday, Voyager 2!

For an incredible 33 years, Voyager 2 has been our eyes of discovery in the outer solar system and beyond. This venerable spacecraft has been in continuous operation more than 12,000 days, sending us compelling photos and information about the gas giants of the solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Now headed into interstellar space beyond the solar system, the spacecraft is still transmitting invaluable data about the solar wind and deep space beyond the planets.

On August 20, 1977, Voyager 2 blasted off from Cape Canaveral, FL on a mission to the giant planets of the solar system. Its sister spacecraft, Voyager 1, was launched a few days later on September 5. Both original missions were intended to study just Jupiter and Saturn. However, both continued sending data beyond those planets, and thanks to these intrepid spacecraft, we have now had a close encounter with every planet in the solar system. (Pluto is now called a “plutoid” and is no longer considered a planet.)

(Just think, the computers on these spacecraft were made in the 1970’s and they are still working! Pretty remarkable, huh?)

Here are a few fast facts about the Voyager mission:

• Explored all giant planets of the outer solar system
• Explored their 48 moons and unique ring systems
• Closest approach to Jupiter - 1979
• Closest approach to Saturn - 1980 (Voyager 1); 1981 (Voyager 2)
• Closest approach to Uranus – 1986 (Voyager 2)
• Closest approach to Neptune – 1989 (Voyager 2)
• Carry a golden record with a greeting from Earth
• Now the most distant human-made object in space (Voyager 1)
• Distance from sun - 17 billion km (Voyager 1); 14 billion km (Voyager 2)
• Signal from Earth takes over 12 hours to reach spacecraft
• Crossed termination shock, where solar wind slows abruptly, in 2004 (Voyager 1); 2007 (Voyager 2)
• May have reached or will soon reach Heliopause or entry into interstellar space
• Currently, 5 teams investigating: Magnetic fields, Low energy charged particles, Cosmic rays, Plasma (Voyager 2), Plasma waves
• May continue to operate and send data until around 2020

Long-lived Voyager has been documented often in fiction and pop culture (remember “V’ger” in the Star Trek movie?). So Happy Birthday, Voyager! May you live long and prosper!

Friday, August 13, 2010


It’s Friday the 13th! How’s your day going? Friggatriskaidekaphobia or fear of Friday the 13th is believed to be the most widespread phobia in the US. As many as 21 million Americans believe Friday the 13th brings bad luck. Some take it so seriously that they stay home from work, won’t drive or fly, and may not even get out of bed.

Friday the 13th always occurs in a month beginning on a Sunday; there’s at least one and no more than three every year. The longest possible period without one is 14 months. In 2010 there’s only one - August 13; May has the only one in 2011.

As you are probably aware, there is no scientific basis for this superstition. Several studies have compared the number of traffic accidents on Friday the 13th with accidents on other Fridays. The Dutch Center for Insurance Statistics found there were fewer accidents on that date, but a British study showed an increase in accidents when compared to another Friday. No consensus there…

As with most superstitions, the origin of this superstition is mostly guesswork. No written record of Friday the 13th being unlucky appears before the 19th century. However, most superstitions are based on oral rather than written traditions so it is probably much older. Many folklorists believe the superstition evolved from separate beliefs - that 13 is an unlucky number and Friday is an unlucky day. Several theories have been proposed:

• Ancient civilizations believed the number 13 to be lucky. But when Christianity replaced pagan beliefs, all things pagan were discredited, perhaps to the detriment of the number 13.

• In numerology, twelve is considered “complete” with 12 months in a year, 12 hours on the clock, 12 Zodiac signs, 12 Apostles, 12 gods of Olympus, and so forth, while 13 ruins the “completeness.”

• In Norse mythology, Friday is named for Frigga, goddess of love and fertility. When Norse tribes adopted Christianity, Frigga was labeled a witch and banished. According to the myth, each Friday she gathered 11 other witches plus the devil (for a total of 13) to plot mischief for the upcoming week.

• The Knights Templar were founded in the 12th century to protect Christians during the Crusades. When they eventually became very rich and powerful, the king felt threatened and ordered their mass arrest on Friday, October 13, 1307.

So what are you doing today? Is it just another day or are you laying low? If Friday the 13th gives you the “willies” just keep in mind - it’s only one day and better yet, the weekend is right around the corner.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dive into Deep Sea

By Ben Remo
Science Museum of Virginia intern

Deep under the surface of the world’s oceans is a whole other dimension of life that one has to see to believe. Humans have always been fascinated with the ocean and creatures of the seas. The new IMAX movie, Deep Sea delivers to that curiosity by giving audiences an up-close look at the most bizarre and intriguing sea creatures in existence.

You will be introduced to odd creatures like the mantis shrimp and the Humboldt squid. Usually when you see any ecosystem based documentary, you recognize some of the animals. However, in this film I rarely saw an animal that I recognized. The tiger shark was the only animal in Deep Sea that I could easily identify. Every other animal in the film was new to my eyes. I was fascinated throughout the movie because most of the material was new to me. Your eyes will be glued to the screen as you watch a sun starfish navigate the ocean floor trying to catch sea scallops and you will wonder how the star ever gets to enjoy a solid meal. This and other interesting sea creature stories make the educational film irresistible.

Most IMAX movies can take us to a different place or time. This IMAX movie takes the audience to a different environment all together. Narrated by well known actors Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, the film showcases beautiful views of the most unique fish in the sea. Depp and Winslet give a play by play on predator and prey relationships as well as how marine life helps one another survive. For example, sea turtles will swim for miles to get a “shell wash” from the reef fish. The fish swim with the turtle eating the algae off its enormous shell. The narrators excel working together to explain the unique relationships and rivalries of the sea.

While there are literally thousands of underwater documentaries out there, and believe me I feel like I have seen them all after my high school oceanography class, this is the most interesting underwater video I have ever seen. It introduces education to entertainment in a way I have never seen before. The clear video and interesting situations will reach out and grab anybody, child or adult, and make them pay attention throughout the 45 minute film.

The star powered narration certainly helps out but the sights are really what set this one apart from the rest. The colorful and at times intense scenes make it hard to pull your eyes away. Throughout the movie, we visit a fried egg jellyfish with a 30 foot tentacle span, an eel with a fishing pole type contraption on its forehead, millions of plankton, and a coral reef built around a sunken ship. This is not just another fish documentary; it takes the audience so much deeper, literally and figuratively.

Words do not do it justice; you really have to see some of these things to believe them.