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Awesome Science: SOFIA

May 31, 2010 Leave a comment

There are some things about science that are just plain awesome.

Take this airborne telescope for example. The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a joint project between NASA and the German Space Agency (DLR) consists of a 2.5 metre reflecting telescope carried in the back of a Boeing 747. This is just too friggin awesome to NOT talk about!

SOFIA_Airborne

SOFIA with its aft bay doors open, exposing the 2.5 metre reflecting telescope.

SOFIA is designed for infrared (IR) astronomy, the study of wavelengths in the IR region of the electromagnetic spectrum (wavelengths from 0.75 to 300 μm). IR astronomy can be limited from surface observatories because a large amount of IR radiation is absorbed by the water vapour present in the Earth’s atmosphere. By cruising at altitudes above 40,000 feet, SOFIA flies above the densest part of the atmosphere and allows easier study in the IR spectrum.

On May 26, 2010, SOFIA made its first in-flight observations. It observed the planet Jupiter at different wavelengths in the IR spectrum.

First_SOFIA_image

First in-flight observations made by SOFIA. The planet Jupiter was photographed at various wavelengths in the IR spectrum.

SOFIA is scheduled to be fully operational by the year 2014, and is scheduled to be operational for about 20 years.

For more information on SOFIA, you can check out its official site: http://www.sofia.usra.edu/

or you can check out its mission page on the NASA’s website: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/SOFIA/index.html

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An Uphill Battle: The Importance of Science

May 30, 2010 2 comments

Let’s be honest. Nobody likes math.

Hell, I have a Physics degree, and I don’t even like math!

My girlfriend tells me about how her father used to help with her math homework growing up. These sessions would often result in shouting, crying, and hurling of textbooks. I have heard similar (and scarier) stories from other friends when they tried to do their Science homework. So is it really surprising that science is so unpopular, not only in children, but in the general population?

I try to make the argument that science is worth learning, even if you won’t be working in a scientific field. “But why?” is the reply I always get, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?”

I will have to admit, I have a hard time coming up with an everyday scenario in which one would need to know about the Nitrogen Cycle, or atomic structure, or quantum mechanics. It can be an uphill battle trying to explain the importance of scientific thought. But science is more than just a subject in school. Science is a skill, a method of thinking. Science gives you the tools to take observations and make rational conclusions.

So one may never NEED to know what Maxwell’s equations are, or how a laser works, or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But being able to think rationally and critically about things in this world can, and will, be useful to everyone. It could prevent you from shelling out your hard earned money on scam artists and Snake Oil salesmen. Or it can help you explain to your mother why she shouldn’t be wasting her money on that magnetic bracelet which supposedly cures all her ailments.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad people in this world. People that will take advantage of those around them in order to make a few bucks. Channelers, psychics, faith healers, and the like, all profit monetarily from their “services” and have never been able to scientifically prove their claims of extraordinary powers. And in a world that finds it easier to take people at face value, or rely upon anecdotal evidence rather than scientific studies, these predators have found the perfect targets for their craft.

Luckily, you can prevent yourself from becoming a target, or a victim, and I promise it won’t be nearly as painful as memorizing all the noble gases on the periodic table like in Grade 10 science class. It could be as easy as a quick Google search, or looking something up in an Encyclopedia, or just asking a teacher or a Scientist.

You have heard this tip a million times before, but ask yourself: “Does this seem too good to be true?”, because if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. And this is actually a very scientific, rational question to always ask yourself when confronted by an extraordinary claim. Because what you are really asking is: “Does this claim make sense based on the knowledge I currently have about the world?” Every Scientist asks themselves this question when they perform a new study or experiment. Because if what you observe does not make sense, it requires more investigation, or may be entirely false.

So even if science and math were not your favourite subjects in school, that is OK. You can still take away real-world skills from them. Skills we can all agree are important to have, and be able to use everyday. And for those of you who loved science growing up (like yours truly), try to convince your friends and colleagues that scientific thought is important too. Because the big picture is this: there are far too many pseudosciences and crackpots out there taking advantage of people. The problem is exacerbated by poor science reporting and the unpopularity of science in general. It truly is a battle out there, and we need more people on our side.