Sunday, December 30, 2012

Science News for 2012

By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover - Visitor Services Manager

Science News for 2012

Reflections, reviews, and resolutions parade before us during the week between Christmas and New Years. Deciding which scientific events of 2012 will have an impact on mankind would perplex most people.

Science News Magazine has decided on several most notable stories because they literally kept them up by breaking in the middle of the night. Their top twenty-five best stories list included “You Really Can Learn While You Sleep,” “Milky Way Will Bite the Dust,” “Earth’s New Neighbor Looks Familiar,” and “Bionic Women (and Men) Get Closer to Reality.”

New species are still being discovered on the planet. A monkey with a blue rear end and blonde mane, the world’s smallest fly, a sponge shaped like a harp, and a “cave robber” spider are among the 16,000 to 20,000 new species that will have been described by biologists during 2012.

Although scientists have described about 1.9 million species so far estimates predict 6.8 million more to be discovered. It may take another 400 years to accomplish this task at the current rate.

Having been hit with cuts to the space program NASA enjoyed the successful landing of its newest rover, Curiosity, on Mars. Enthusiastic space scientists and millions of fans watched the perfect landing online. Dubbed “Seven Minutes of Terror” for the space scientists, the remarkable touchdown was broadcast on the big screen in New York City’s Time Square. It seems we will never get over our fascination with attempting to find signs of life on the Red Planet.

Prosthetic science produced some of the most promising moments for mankind during the year. Cathy Hutchinson, paralyzed by a stroke, was able to control a robotic arm through the use of an implanted brain chip. Olympic athletes ran on high-tech carbon blades and a young man was able to climb Chicago’s Willis Tower with a thought-controlled limb. Sight in patients suffering macular degeneration may be helped in the near future by a prosthetic that will be placed in the back of the eye. It is already on the market in Europe.

A naturally occurring event presented a rare picture in the sky during June. Venus steadily passed across the surface of the sun allowing scientists to see more of Venus’ upper atmosphere and its gaseous clouds that have been such a mystery. The last time the planet crossed the sun was in 1882 and 1874 and the next time will be in 2117 and 2125.

Nicolle Rager Fuller
The biggest news in physics was unveiled by Joe Incandela of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Finally, the answer to decades of scientific questioning appeared in the form of the Higgs, a subatomic particle which will help explain why the universe looks the way it does.

While you and I are tucked in our beds and fast asleep, scientists of our world are constantly making discoveries. Read about more 2012 discoveries in “Science News Top 25” at

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Spirits Everywhere

By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover - Visitor Services Manager


Mannheim Steamroller has created my favorite versions of Christmas music for the last twenty-five years. I always get some growling from Hubby when he gets his fill of it during the holidays. A couple of years ago he changed his tune when he heard Mannheim’s “Up Above the Northern Lights on Christmas Night.”

The piece is a hauntingly dramatic musical reflection of the astronomical phenomenon scientifically known as the aurora borealis (northern) or aurora australis (southern) which usually occurs near the two poles of the earth. One of his bucket list goals is to go to see the lights in all their glory.

Proclaiming that “magic fills the air” and “spirits are everywhere” the lyrics get in your mind and won’t leave you. You can see it and hear it on with a video (see below) of the scientific wonder in action.

The lights have been observed since ancient times, but the earliest account is from Babylonian clay tablets during the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II in approximately 568 B.C.

The dancing curtains of magical colors have fascinated humans for thousands of years. Aristotle called them light torches, and Europeans of the Middle Ages thought that they were flaming heavenly castles or armies of warriors who had died in battle.

Children of Norway believed that the lights would swoop them up into the sky if they waved a napkin at them. Eskimos thought that the aurora was dancing animal spirits of deer, seals, and salmon. Inuit tribes thought that the spirits of the dead were playing football with a walrus skull across the sky.

Named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and Boreas, the Greek name for north wind, the Northern Lights can appear as patches of light, streamers, arcs, or rays painted in colors of green, blue, violet, red, and yellow. On rare occasions, when solar storms are extremely violent, the lights can be seen much further south or north than the poles.

Solar winds from sun storms send charged particles to earth in the form of clouds of gas. Earth has a protective shield called the magnetosphere. When the particles collide with the magnetic field, they cause changes and generate currents which flow along the lines of magnetic force into the Polar region. When they run into oxygen and nitrogen atoms, they produce the dazzling aurora lights.

Auroras tend to be more spectacular during periods of high solar activity which cycles every eleven years. The activity has been known to damage our electrical power grid and satellite operations. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has sent satellites on several missions called FAST, POLAR, and IMAGE to observe the activity of the Northern Lights.
The best places to see the northern lights are closer to the poles such as Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Antarctica. They happen all the time, but can only be seen with the naked eye at night.

As the song proclaims, “Christmas night...Let your dreams take flight.”

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Season of Senses

By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover - Visitor Services Manager

A Season of Senses

Without silver bells, pumpkin pie, colored lights, snowflakes, candlelight, carols, children’s smiles, and other favorite things, the holidays just wouldn’t be the same. Humans are sensory focused creatures.

We have now entered the winter wonderland of sensory awareness. With its unique collection of experiences that delight our senses, the Christmas season can enhance the enjoyment of stimuli like no other during the year.

So much of our pleasure in life as human beings comes by way of our senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and seeing. Each holiday during the year has its own special set of foods, songs, scents, colors, and textures for us to experience. Every culture around the world has its own unique celebrations with their special sensory experiences.

Our senses bring us pleasure and sometimes pain. They are our radar for the world around us and give us impressions that affect our mood and our interaction with our surroundings. Each one of us has smells, sounds, sights, textures, and tastes that connect us to our own Christmas memories.

My father’s favorite carol was the “Little Drummer Boy” so the sound of that makes me think of him. My sister and I always got a new doll from Santa when we were young, and even now I can clearly remember the smell of the vinyl as I went to sleep. My own children say that it’s not Christmas without the smell of the sausage and egg casserole waking them up.

Spreading glistening, white angel hair all over the tree was my task as a child. Since it was made of fiberglass, the pain of it and the redness of my hands lasted for a couple of days. That’s not a good memory. Who can ever forget the story of “The Little Match Girl” and its tragic descriptive ending?

If you want to increase your enjoyment this season, try some techniques to focus your senses. Take the time to breathe deeply and notice all of the specials scents around you whether they’re food or the cold, crisp air of the outdoors. Stare at the night sky and notice the brightness of the stars and the moon. Enjoy the light displays all over the city. Listen to holiday music and try to hear the softer sounds. Find a new holiday food and learn its history and how to prepare it.

Act like a kid and touch everything. Think of all the descriptive words that are unique at Christmas. Most of all, encourage your children to do all of these things with you.

Take a long walk on a dirt road and maximize the use of your senses. Notice the small things in your world. Slow down. None of your senses work their best when you rush.

Many of the things that bring us the most pleasure during the holidays don’t cost a thing. If you focus on your sensory awareness this season, you will come closer to experiencing the real meaning of Christmas-love.

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