Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

Remembering Ingenuity with the SciSchmooze

A close-up view of Ingenuity on Mars, as seen from the Perseverance rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Hello again Science Fans!

In the era of planned obsolence and less than robust construction, it is refreshing to see that some things are still over-engineered and over-built. The Mars helecopter, Ingenuity, certainly counts as one of the later. Ingenuity was designed to make 5 flights. It was intended as a test to see if it could fly through the thin atmosphere of Mars.

Ingenuity was dropped from the belly of Perseverance, the Mars rover, shortly after landing. It not only flew the planned 5 missions, but continued on in a new role, helping scout clear paths for Perseverance to take towards new exploration targets.

Flight #72 proved to be the last, with one of the helecopter’s blades having been damaged. With more than 2 hours of flight time since April, 2021, Ingenuity proved once again that we can build things that capture the imagination of those of us back on Earth. Ingenuity will be missed!

Scientific Method

One of the very first things I learned in my high school science classes was the definition of the scientific method. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

As new tools become available that provide new data, old, accepted hypotheses can find themselves challenged, and revised, or discarded altogether. This month there have been several such challenges to existing theories based on new findings from the James Webb Space Telescope. The JWST’s resolution is so much better than anything we’ve had before that it is able to see further back in time, further than we’ve ever seen before, and it is finding things that shouldn’t be there, at least based on the standard models of Cosmology. While some find these types of challenges exciting in that they give cosmologists new opportunities to refine and correct their hypothesis, others are reluctant to see their previously accepted research challenged and proven wrong.

Other images from the very early universe show galaxies that defy what we thought we knew about how galaxies form. JWST has also discovered objects emitting radio signals that scientists can’t explain, such as this pair of “rogue” planets (free-floating planets not orbiting a star).

If you find astronomy interesting, you might like to subscribe to Dr. Becky Smethurst’s YouTube channel. She is an astrophysicist at Oxford University with an ability to explain things in English, rather than astrophysicistese. This video goes into some depth on the challenges to current cosmology ideas. Fascinating stuff.

By the way, The US Postal Service is issuing two stamps featuring images from the JWST. Unfortunately, both are used for Priority Mail, so most of us will never see them, unless you specifically go the Post Office and buy them. It would be nice if the USPS issued some similar stamps for “regular” mail!

Earth-Space Interface

Last Sunday, an asteroid entered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke up some distance west of Berlin, Germany. This asteroid was only the 8th one to be discovered before it reached Earth’s atmosphere, giving astronomers around 95 minutes to prepare to witness and record the entry. Dr. Franck Marchis, senior astronomer and director of Unistellar Citizen Science at the SETI Institute in Mountain View was deeply involved in the mobilization, as this story from the SETI Institute relates. And it seems that chunks of meteorite about the size of a walnut have been found in Havelland, Germany. Somehow I can’t imagine how you could scour acres of land looking for 2 cm rocks, but it seems the researchers found some. By the way, there’s a picture in that article of one of the meteorites next to a wooden folding ruler for scale. That sort of folding ruler used to be common in the US too (in inches, of course). I had one from my father that, alas, was stolen a few years ago. They are still commonly used and available in Germany in hardware stores. I almost bought one this past summer, if not for the fact that they were all in metric.

Another offshoot of the Unistellar Citizen Science work is called UNITE, and it involves amateur astronomers around the world in the search for exoplanets. This story from the Mercury News shows how members of UNITE from around the world, including Fadi Saibi and his 14 year old daughter from Sunnyvale, helped identify TOI-4600c, a planet orbiting a star around 815 light-years away.

We’ve been following the OSIRIS-REx mission which returned samples from the surface of asteroid Bennu to Utah in September, 2023. While the probe returned much more material than expected, most of it couldn’t be accessed because two bolts securing the top of the cannister would not come off. Engineers had to design a new tool and finally were able to get the canister open. Dr. Becky’s video also contains a segment on this recovery effort, explaining why it wasn’t as simple as grabbing a socket from your tool box!

The animal kingdom

This could be a Disney movie script. An invasive ant is causing a chain-reaction involving acacia ants, elephants, lions, and zebras. The web of life is complex!

Speaking of elephants, one of their cousins, a 14,000 year old female wooly mammoth, has been in the news. By analyzing chemicals in her tusk, researchers have written her biograpy, as well as that of a 17,100 year old male mammoth, with some pretty specific and surprising results.

This spring, much of the eastern US will be noisy for a few weeks as cicadas from two different broods are expected to emerge from the earth, breed, and die. Different broods return to the surface of different cycles with different periods. This year, Brood XIII, a 17-year group, and Brood XIX, a 13 year group, will emerge at the same time, something that hasn’t happened since 1803!

US Forest Service, via Wikimedia Commons

I grew up in New Jersey which hosts Brood II, next due to appear in 2030. I vividely remember them appearing when I was in fifth or sixth grade. They were everywhere, and the sound was constant, and loud.

I was once given a parakete as a gift. Occasionally, when I was away, friends would take care of him and would try to teach him to swear at me. They didn’t succeed. Over in Britain, five swearing African Gray parrots who taught 3 other parrots to swear will now be put in with 92 non-swearing ones in hopes that the 8 will lean not to swear. What could possibly go wrong?

We know that animals see the world differently then we do. Their eyes are different. Some can see frequencies of “light” that we can’t. Others rely more on other senses as their eyes aren’t that good. Have you ever wondered what the world would look like if you could see what the animals see? How would such vision affect our perspective of the world? Scientists have come up with a computer model that can predict what the world looks like through their eyes for us to see. Here’s how it works for honeybees and UV-sensitive birds.

We’ve written before about a project to remove dams in the Pacific Northwest on the Klamath River. The aim of the effort is to restore water flow and ecology of the area along the river to what it was before. Earlier this month, a gate was opened on the Iron Gate Dam, beginning the restoration of water flow on the Klamath, and hopefully leading to restoration of salmon native to the area.

A Women’s Health Anniversary

Tuesday marked the 51st anniversary of “Roe v. Wade”, the case that guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion. The history leading up to this legal decision is more complicated than I knew, as historian Heather Cox Richardson explained in her daily column on the 21st. Of course, on June 24, 2022 the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving it to the individual states to determine this issue.

Have a great week in Science!


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