Category: Investigations

Solar Flare

May 7, 2011

Today Second Life took us all the way to London to learn about how the Sun affects the Earth. We talked to Dr. Joanna Haigh, a scientist who studies how changes in the sun may affect Earth’s climate. The Sun even appeared in the auditorium during the talk!

The Sun takes part in Dr. Joanna Haigh’s talk in Second Life

The Sun takes part in Dr. Joanna Haigh’s talk in Second Life

Not only did we learn about the Sun today, we found a way to view it safely through a telescope on the Museum’s rooftop Weintraub Observatory. We could clearly see sunspots on the surface – these are “cool” regions of the Sun because they’re “only” 3000°C. (I guess that’s cool compared to the surrounding 6000°C temperatures!) Solar flares, which occur around sunspots, are solar storms that can actually disrupt communications here on Earth. It’s incredible that something 93 million miles away affects us!

Rooftop solar observations

After using the telescopes, we made our own camera out of a potato chip can (and got to eat the chips too). We cut the can into two sections, and put it back together with the lid in between – this would be the screen for the camera. We poked a tiny hole in the bottom of the can, and when we looked through it, everything was upside down and backwards! Can you figure out why?

Homemade Pinhole Cameras

The Great Energy Challenge

April 23, 2011

Who knew there was a missing link between soft drinks, forests, ocean acidity, wild fires, cement production, and volcanoes? Today Mike Gunson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory talked to us via Second Life about this “carbon dioxide puzzle” and about how we know from data that humans are a piece of that puzzle.

So when we say that burning fossil fuels releases about 8.5 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere per year, what does that mean? It’s hard to really understand a word like “gigaton” because it means 1 BILLION tons. To give you a comparison, if 1 Mazda Miata weighs about 1 ton, then you’d need 8.5 billion Miatas to make 8.5 billion tons. That’s enough Miatas to circle the Earth 850 times!

It just so happened that the Museum had a Great Energy Challenge event this day. So after we learned about how important it was to have cleaner and more efficient energy, we went through the Museum and made some clean energy ourselves!

Generating human-powered energy

Generating human-powered energy

Becoming a human yo-yo

Becoming a human yo-yo

Driving Underwater

April 2, 2011

It was the greatest video game ever: there was a control pad, and a maneuverable object. Our control pad was a computer remotely hooked up to the Marine Resources Development Foundation in Key Largo. And our maneuverable object was a real, remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in waters off the Florida Keys! Working with a scientist sitting in a habitat almost 50 feet under the surface of Largo Sound, each of us took a turn maneuvering the ROV from our lab at the Museum.

ROVs can provide tons of climate information for us, by exploring where humans can’t – underwater caves, the frozen polar regions, oil rigs and shipwrecks. They can use claws to take samples, and probes to take temperature readings, and can observe habitats without disturbing the inhabitants very much. And we were able to operate one! It may be hard to tell from the picture, but it was like a real-life game. You can see our controls on the left, and the view from the ROV’s “eye” as it follows an underwater pipe. Some took to it more quickly than others – it definitely is a skill, and not as easy as it looks!

Navigating an underwater ROV from our lab in the Museum

Greenhouse Gases: On a Tight Budget

March 26, 2011

We’re not the only ones who need to keep a balanced budget. Just like we all have budgets, the Earth has one too. If we spend too much money, our household budget gets out of balance. Likewise, with tons of excess carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, the Earth’s energy budget gets out of balance. Lin Chambers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center spoke with us today about how changes in the atmosphere (like humans adding literally tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year) can affect the climate.

So it works both ways – humans can affect the climate, and the climate affects us. We went outside and proved that for ourselves, and used Vernier temperature probes to record the temperatures of a variety of different materials and colors. Higher temperatures were recorded for darker colors, proving that old piece of advice you always get in the summer – wear a white shirt in the sun, not a black one. And what is one of the great things about the icy, white polar regions? They are like a white shirt for the Earth. If they melt, it unbalances the Earth’s budget even more. We all have to work on balancing this budget!

Comparing temperatures in sun and shade, and with different materials

Aerosols and Climate: It’s Not Just Hairspray Anymore

March 5, 2011

Every time we take a breath, we inhale gazillions of tiny solid and liquid particles in the air. These particles are called aerosols. It’s incredible that something ranging from the size of a virus to the width of a human hair can have major effects on our health, and on the Earth’s climate. Aerosols are not completely understood – but what scientists do know is that there are many kinds, both human-caused and natural, and that they definitely can affect the climate.

A lot of aerosols are natural – like sea salt, dust, or the kind ejected up from volcanic eruptions. But then there are the kinds that we humans spew into the atmosphere – like from fossil fuel combustion, cars, and power plants. We learned that these aerosols affect the atmosphere and climate because depending on the type, they can reflect or absorb the sun’s radiation.


Delivering a climate presentation


There seem to be lots of kinds of aerosols, and lots of ways they affect the climate. So we split into groups and each took one kind to research. At the end of the day, we all got to teach each other what we learned about aerosols. Check out the pollution above Beijing, China in 2009 – that’s not clouds!


Pollution above Beijing

Pollution above Beijing


Through Second Life, we also got to talk to Dr. Compton Tucker, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He talked about his work in studying an 200m diameter impact crater in the Amazon. The impact released 500 to 1000 megatons of TNT. Imagine the aerosols thrown into the atmosphere by that event!


Dr. Compton Tucker on NASA Island