Science Fair Season

School science fair season is here! As an engineer, it is wonderful to see school kids doing science and engineering tasks. I enjoy going to see what the students have come up with and giving a little of my time to support science and engineering education.

Science Fair
Students from Parker School participate in science fair
In the past two weeks I have served as a judge for two science fairs, Parker School and Kanu o ka ‘Āina. Parker is a private school in Waimea with a well deserved reputation for excellence. Kanu is a charter school with a heavy emphasis on Hawaiian culture. Both schools make a special effort with science fairs, expecting their students to participate and go on to the county and state wide competitions.

As usual, the projects are quite the mix. Some projects are simply the usual stuff, variations on the standard projects one can find posted to the internet, standard fodder for science fairs nationwide. Not that I totally disapprove of these common projects, students can gain valuable experience when performing any good experiment, even one done many times before. It is all in the execution.

One difference you really find here in Hawai’i, is a heavy emphasis on Hawaiian culture and special problems unique to the islands. This leads to unique experiments that address local issues. Propagation of native plants, alternative energy, permaculture, issues that have a direct connection with island life. Some student explore aspects of native Hawaiian technology. I was particularly impressed by experiments in traditional dye mordants examining the effectiveness and permanency of various mordants with tumeric dye and cotton cloth.

The results are likewise quite the mixture. Experiments that result in good success, to others that do not fair so well. Looking at a growth chart with all zeros in the data table I was forced to ask… “did the plants just not grow?” …”They all died.” Still, failures can be just as good learning experiences as success, sometimes better. I am always impressed by a student who admits failure and can explain what went wrong.

Some of the students I graded will go on to the regional competitions, I expect some will do quite well. Good luck!

An Astronomy Discovery in the News

So a little telescope called Hubble takes a picture of a galaxy, a really distant galaxy over 10 billion lightyears away. Odd, it looks like this galaxy has gotten it’s act together and become a spiral galaxy, a lot earlier than we thought proper spiral galaxies would form. What do you do? Get some time on a bigger telescope and get some more data… Using Keck the OSIRIS spectrograph astronomers show that this is indeed a proper spiral galaxy, 10.7 billion light years away, which means 10.7 billion years in the past. The universe has just served up another surprise for astronomers, this is the sort of stuff we love.

HST/Keck false colour composite image of galaxy BX442. Credit: David Law; Dunlap Insitute for Astronomy & Astrophysics
Better yet, Keck gets a bit of good press for the discovery.

First spiral galaxy in early Universe stuns astronomers – BBC News

Earliest spiral galaxy found – CBC News

Astronomers find rare spiral galaxy in early Universe – The Sydney Morning Herald

Along with the sensible headlines there are those that play up the “This can’t be” angle of the discovery. For the most part the articles are fairly good, it is just the headlines that seem a little off, something to blame on the editors who write the headlines…

Hubble spots spiral galaxy that shouldn’t exist – Los Angeles Times

Astronomers Spot Ancient Spiral Galaxy From an Era When Spirals Should Not Exist – Popular Scince

Hubble spots rule-breaking spiral galaxy – 3 News

Headlines are always an issue in science reporting. Written by editors with a tendency to the excessive and sensational. Editors who often have little understanding of the science. We have seen what that can lead to, something that has been pleasantly rare with this latest discovery.

First Ancient Spiral Galaxy Discovered From 10.7 Billion Years Ago – Latinos Post

Is this the “first” spiral? We have no way of knowing. I have found no such quote from the astronomers involved with the discovery. The reason we study the early universe is that we do not know. This discovery shows that there could be others, perhaps even older.

There are other headlines, predictable headlines from the usual suspects. Every time science turns up some surprise, something that does not fit a simplistic view of the universe, those with an ideological agenda attempt to use the discovery to push their views… “Look at this! It disproves everything!!”, ” The scientists have it all wrong!!” Quite predictable…

Mystery galaxy could unravel Big Bang theory of creation – Catholic Online

And of course, scientists will need to look for other exceptions to the rule. If an inexplicable and significant number of premature spirals are found, then the Big Bang theory will need to be rewritten, or disposed of altogether, no matter how beloved it is today. After all, it is just a theory.

Yes, again you see the “It is Just a Theory” gambit, the creationists favorite canard. All a discovery like this proves is that the universe is a complex and fascinating place and that we still have much to learn.

“BX442 represents a link between early galaxies that are much more turbulent than the rotating spiral galaxies that we see around us. Indeed, this galaxy may highlight the importance of merger interactions at any cosmic epoch in creating grand design spiral structure.” – Alice Shapely of UCLA, co-discoverer of BX442

Science Illiteracy at the Star-Advertiser

We do like it when Keck Observatory is featured in the local papers. We are proud of the ‘scopes and take notice when we get some good press. The Star-Advertiser is the major daily paper for Honolulu and much of the state. I have even had some of my photographs published in the paper. Another article about Keck appeared today, but this time they simply display their ignorance of basic science.

Keck telescope helps discover 3 small planets outside Milky Way

The headline quickly had my attention. Exoplanet discoveries are coming fast with the Kepler Spacecraft / Keck Observatory team confirming alien worlds at a breakneck pace. It was the “outside the Milky Way” part that had my attention. I had no idea our current technology was capable of that! KOI-961 is a red-dwarf, a small, fairly dim class of star. It is difficult to even detect these stars at great distances, much less get the data needed to confirm orbiting planets. Something wrong here.

I double checked other sources… KOI-961 is actually fairly close to us in galactic terms, a mere 130 light years away. Given that the Milky Way Galaxy is well over 100,000 light years across, it puts KOI-961 well inside our galaxy. The article is actually reasonable, it appears to have simply taken the information from a press release, hard to screw up a cut and paste job. The headline however is where they stumbled hard.

Someone at the Star-Advertiser needs to take a basic astronomy course. Or maybe, simply check Wikipedia!

Update… They have fixed it. I forwarded the link to Larry O’Hanlon, the Keck PIO, whom I work with regularly. He called the S-A and apparently pointed out the issue. I would have loved to listen in on that conversation. The headline and text are edited now on the S-A website, but I kept a screenshot…


Outside the Milky Way?  Not really...
Outside the Milky Way? Not really...