Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982
(Credit: Getty Images)
The Aurora Borealis (Credit: Getty Images)

Hello again Science Fans!

I consider myself very lucky to have seen the Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights. I was in Quebec on vacation when my family went out for a walk after dinner. I looked up and asked “what’s that?”. Neither my father, who spent World War 2 in Finland, nor my mother, who grew up in very upstate New York, had ever seen the Aurora before, so this was a first for all of us. The display was spectacular, similar to the picture above, and lasted about 45 minutes.

But we didn’t hear anything, which made it all the more eerie. Yet some people claim to be able to hear the Aurora, and now a Finnish study confirms that they sometimes do make a noise that some people can hear.

We’ve been following along and reporting on the progress of the James Webb Space Telescope as it is readied for launch on December 18. According to NASA officials, there are around 300 single point of failure items that could doom the mission, and 50 or so unique deployment steps before the telescope will be up and running. Here’s a video about the deployment process that NASA put out.

Meanwhile, we’re back in communication with the various rovers and satellites on and around Mars. For two weeks, Mars was on the other side of the sun from Earth, so communication was very limited. Now that we’re back in touch, Ingenuity will be attempting its 14th flight. This one is to test how well the helicopter can fly as the Martian atmosphere warms up in response to the Martian summer. The atmosphere on Mars is about 1% the density of Earth’s and it gets thinner when warmer.

Jezero crater, the site of the Perseverance rovers landing, is now confirmed to be the bed of an ancient lake. An outcropping of rocks inside the western side of the crater had previously been seen in satellite photos and looked like a river delta. Perseverance’s pictures of this area from inside the crater confirm this.

Perseverance has some built-in navigation capabilities that allow it to pick a smooth path around rocks and other obstructions. Given the radio delay caused by the distance between Earth and Mars, it is impossible for scientists to “steer” Perseverance in real time, so this capability is crucial for safe navigation. NASA released a time-lapse video showing how AutoNav works on Mars.

The “Great Resignation” is a thing. The COVID pandemic is causing many workers to reevaluate their jobs and goals and a significant number of them are leaving their jobs, resulting in some industries experiencing severe shortages of help. In the US, 2.9% of the entire workforce quit in August. That’s 4.3 million Americans! And this is not limited to the US. The experience helps rewire people’s brains. This proves the panedemic is about more than just a serious illness but has affected unexpected aspects of day to day life.

With the news that COVID vaccine boosters will now be recommended, we move into a new phase of prevention. We’re very fortunate to have easy access to vaccines in the US. In many countries, vaccines are simply still not available. You may wonder why the boosters haven’t been tweaked to better match the variants. Here are some points to consider as it is not a simple question to answer.

The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use mRNA technology, and this is the first time it has been used to create a product. Some skeptics wonder how a vaccine could have been developed so fast, fueling conspiracy theories. Moderna prepared their recipe in about 48 hours! This article from The Atlantic explains how this was possible, and why mRNA vaccines may be the key to vaccines for other diseases including Malaria and cancers.

Geordi La Forge, the fictional character on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” played by LeVar Burton, wears a visor that allows him to “see” without using his eyes. This visor uses brain implants to stimulate the areas of the brain that would normally receive information from the eyes. In the science fiction meets science department, a blind woman in Spain was able to “see” for the first time in 16 years by direct stimulation of her visual cortex. Amazing stuff!

Enjoy the rain, and have a great week in Science!


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