Tag Archives: Science

COSMOS: it’s time to get going again

9 Mar

“The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the Cosmos stir us. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.”

– Carl Sagan, in COSMOS

Those words are how the legendary Carl Sagan began the first episode of the first COSMOS series back in 1980. It was a time when humans were proud of their scientific accomplishments, dreamed of what else might be discovered, and were excited by the unknown.

Now, it’s 2014.

Carl has long since passed.

Science is (in some corners anyway) considered an ‘opinion’.

And in spite of living in a world that is very much driven by technology, and scientific discovery, we have in some ways slipped backwards. The significance of science has been forgotten. The passion for discovery has taken a backseat – particularly amongst political leaders. The notion that we as a species can improve our lives here on Earth by looking to the Cosmos has been forgotten.

“It’s time to get going again.”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Tonight on FOX (and National Geographic Channel) the rebooted version of COSMOS begins. It’s a 13-part series, written in large part by Carl Sagan’s compadre Ann Druyan.

The 2014 COSMOS revival is hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He, like Carl before him, not only is an utterly brilliant man, but he also has a way with words. Tyson can turn potentially dry science talk into poetry.

He can excite the imagination.

And that is perhaps what I hope to see most from COSMOS tonight, and in the days, months, and years to come. I want to live in a time where people are excited by their imaginations, and the possibilities of what might be.

Whether we’re talking (now seriously) about potential human flights to Mars within the next decade, voyaging to asteroids, finding an Earth 2.0, or perhaps ultimately discovering life elsewhere in the Cosmos (either nearby or distant) – the exploration of space excites and unites humanity in a way unparalleled by other endeavours.

A show like COSMOS has the potential to sew the cultural seeds in a new generation that are necessary for all this to happen.


No pressure though, Neil.

It’s also going to be interesting to explore how full-circle the new series will come, with the original:

I expect veterans of the original series will enjoy those sorts of nods, and it will add a pleasant undertone to the reboot.

It’s also worth mentioning a kudos to an unlikely man in all this: Seth MacFarlane.

The man behind such shows as Family Guy and American Dad.

By all accounts, a reboot to COSMOS was already in the works for PBS by Tyson and Druyan. Then MacFarlane got wind of this, called Tyson, had a chat about becoming involved, and then took it to FOX.

With MacFarlane’s involvement brought a different, and I would argue valuable, perspective to the project. He thought COSMOS should be a spectacle, to such an extent that even non-science minded folks will tune in.

This is important, since ultimately those are the folks that need to be ‘won over’ by the significance and potential of science.

Related: Intuition gives way to data in exploration of the Cosmos

MacFarlane and Fox’ involvement also likely upped the production budget handsomely, and so the new series will be able to deliver visually and experientially in a way that a PBS series wouldn’t have been able to.

“There has never been a more important time for COSMOS to re-emerge than right now because of the fact that we have, in too many ways, roundly ignored and rejected science when it used to be a source of pride for the country and the species.”

– Seth MacFarlane

It goes without saying that I plan on spending my next 13 Sunday evenings in front of my television, and I expect others will also be parked in front of the TVs.

More significantly though, I hope people will wake up Monday morning re-energized about science and the potential for humanity’s real-life exploration of the Cosmos.

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

– Carl Sagan, in COSMOS

I look forward to continuing the journey.

How to: film canister rocket launch

8 Mar

Put this into the category of ‘fun things to do in the kitchen’ (while wearing proper eye protection).

The yard might be a better place for this one though, so you don’t put any film canister dents into your ceiling. When it takes off, it does have quite a pop (but equally it is pretty light).

What you need:

– 1/2 an Alka Seltzer tablet (aka sodium bicarbonate)
– 1 film canister
– 15mL of water
– wear eye protection

What you do:

– Put 15mL of water into the film canister (fill it about 1/2 way)
– Drop in the 1/2 Alka Seltzer into the water
– Put the lid on tight and give it a quick shake
– Put the canister down, upside down

Within a few seconds, the Alka Seltzer will partially dissolve. As it does this, it will give off some CO2 gas. As the pressure mounts, the film canister will get to a point where the lid can no longer contain the amount of gas inside.

When this happens, the lid pops off to release the pressure.



Thanks to Mr. Newton, we understand that when the pressure is released in a downward direction, the equal and opposite force reaction occurs, propelling the film canister up.

And in this particular example, I calculated the launch speed is 5.8m/s.

How I calculated this: the GoPro was shooting at 60fps, so each frame = 0.017 seconds. Looking at the footage, the canister moved about 10cm in a single frame. Using V=d/t, moving 10cm in 0.017s works out to 588cm/s or 5.8m/s.

Simple as that.

Modifications to try:

– Change the ratio of Alka Seltzer and water.
– Use vinegar & baking soda instead of sodium bicarbonate & water.
– If your camera doesn’t shoot at 60fps, just divide 1 by however many frames it shoots per second (e.g. if it films at 24fps, each frame is 0.04 seconds: 1/24=0.04).

Of course this little rocket doesn’t entirely do justice to how real rockets launch, in terms of fuel, ignition process, etc. – but it does provide a great little demo of Newton’s third law (with a little of the second law mixed in for good measure).

Jesse and I did this one on TV last week in the second half of our weekly Beyond The Sun space segment on Sun News Network, talking about a couple real-life rocket launches:

How to: homemade impact crater

8 Mar

This is a fun experiment to do at home, and it’s a pretty easy one as well. Good for fun yourself, and equally great for the kids or a classroom.

The video above gives a pretty good demo, and here’s the full explanation:

It’s great to do out in the yard where a bit of mess doesn’t matter, or at least do it on a hard surface that can be easily cleaned (lots of flour/cocoa dust gets thrown around!).

What you need:

– Medium/large container, at least 5-10cm deep (large Tupperware can work)
– bag of flour
– Sprinkles
– Cocoa powder
– Marble (or a small rock, like a piece of gravel)
– always wear eye protection when doing science experiments!

What you do:

– Put a layer of flour in the container, about 3-4cm deep (or more if you’d like)
– Put a thin layer of sprinkles on top of the flour
– Use a sieve or sifter to dust a thin layer of cocoa powder on top of that
– drop the marble into what you just made, and check out the impact crater

What you made should be reasonably flat, and each ‘batch’ can be used for several impacts (use your finger to gently flatten it back out if you need to).

What you see is a representation of how the different layers of soil (represented by the flour/sprinkles/cocoa powder) become energized and ejected by a meteorite impact.

The homemade crater impact

The homemade crater impact

You can try impacting your meteorite at different angles, from different heights, and at different velocities – though be careful throwing it too hard.

It’s worth noting though that no matter how hard you throw, we just can’t duplicate the amount of energy that’s released when an actual meteorite impacts something in space (whether we’re talking about it hitting Earth, the Moon, or Mars, etc).

Jesse and I also did this one on TV not too long ago, talking about the impact spotted on the Moon at the end of February:

Comet ISON lives!

29 Nov

UPDATE: While it appears that some small portion of ISON’ nucleus has survived, there is significant discussion if the surviving ‘piece’ is little more than dust. When concrete information is available as to the fate of ISON, I’ll provide an updated story.

This article, written by Harrison Ruess, was originally posted on Sun News Network.

Initial observations of Comet ISON’s close encounter with the Sun on Thursday suggested that it was vaporized during its solar fly-by. However new observations on Friday morning suggest that at least a portion of the comet’s nucleus – its rocky core – may have survived.

A hint that ISON may have survived appeared in an image from the joint NASA/European Space Agency observatory SOHO, which showed ISON appearing to brighten again.

If ISON had been destroyed as originally suspected, it’s unlikely that it would be seen getting brighter today.

Comet ISON passing the Sun, courtesy SOHO/ESA/NASA
Image sequence from SOHO, courtesy NASA/ESA

“After perihelion, a very faint smudge of dust appeared in the (SOHO) images along ISON’s orbit. This surprised us a little…We watched and waited for that dust trail to fade away. Except it didn’t,” wrote Karl Battams, astrophysicist and computational scientist based at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC.

“Now, in the latest (SOHO) images, we are seeing something beginning to gradually brighten up again,” he continues.

Battams’ working theory is that large chunks of ISON broke off in its journey past the sun, but part of its core remains intact.

As this is a very dynamic situation though, Battams cautions: “just be patient on this and the truth will unfold in time!”

If a large portion of ISON survives intact, it would be visible to the naked eye in Earth’s night sky in the coming weeks.

For the latest, you can check out NASA’s ISON page.