This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

14Apr/11

Science saved my soul…

Here's one of the more inspiring and insightful videos that I've seen in quite some time.  Truth be told, I know very little about the author or what their background is, but they've clearly got a knack for touching on the beautiful things in life.

One of the things I like best about this video is the fact that they aren't simply trying to bash one way of life without offering an alternative.  You get a real sense of the way in which an understanding of the world has enriched this person's life, something that science offers to all of us if we are willing to investigate enough.

A lot of people seem to think that scientists are obsessed with the minutiae, always waiting to pick apart an argument and spoil everybody's fun.  In reality, scientists are far more than this.  They're individuals who can look at anything, from a leaf to a snapshot of our galaxy, and find something wondrous, amazing, perplexing, and worth studying.

This video truly captures some of the best parts of being an inherently curious person, and it makes me proud to call myself a scientist.

2Mar/11

The Sun just tried to punch us

As we've all learned before, the sun is a terrifying beast of energy and magnetic fields that often likes to throw superheated particles, plasma, and many other anti-earth things in our direction.  Well, NASA is hard at work at imaging this gigantic beast, and they managed to capture a doosie of a video.

What you see is a 90 minute time lapse of one of the sun's famed "solar flares."  Essentially, this is what happens when a particular area on the sun undergoes a rapid change in the orientation of its magnetic fields.  As a result, an enormous amount of energy is expelled in the form of a giant arc of plasma.

These solar flares can do all kinds of strange things like mess with telecommunications and the earth's magnetic field.  The really big ones can even have strong effects on the earth's surface, such as  in 1859, when a giant coronal mass ejection resulted in several telegraph poles bursting into flames.

No one is sure what exactly causes these huge fluctuations in activity, although areas of the sun that are generally more active do tend to have a larger number of flares.  One thing is for certain though, they are fascinating, beautiful, and a force to be reckoned with.

via NASA.gov

21Dec/10

Sunspots!

I just finished reading Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, and doing so has inspired the astrologist in me to start appreciating the vast and unknown universe that makes up 99.99999% of existence.

Lucky for me, there are plenty of amazing people who devote their entire lives to this cause, such as the folks at the Swedish Solar Telescope.  Located in La Palma, Spain, the telescope recently released a stunning high-res image of one of our sun's most interesting phenomena - sun spots.

Seen above as the dark core that is surrounded by the red hot exterior of the sun, one might think that these are actual "holes" in the sun's exterior.  Actually, they're made up of the same gas that exists everywhere else in the sun, so why do they look so different?  The answer is magnetism.

As They Might Be Giants so righteously declared, "The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas."  It exists as an unbelievably hot ball of fusion in which hydrogen and helium (among other things) are being heated and dispersed at an incredible rate.  This process occurs primarily at the Sun's core, and as these gases make their way outwards towards the surface, it creates a turbulent and chaotic environment in which gases are constantly heating and cooling and moving every which way.

So, where is magnetism in all this?  Well, scientists aren't really sure, but the thought is that as the turbulent sea of gas at the sun's surface moves around, it does so in such a way that creates an incredibly powerful magnetic field.  This creates pockets of magnetic pressure that allows the gas contained within that pocket to cool down, resulting in the dark holes that we know as "sun spots."  (as an aside, by cool, I mean, not quite as earth-shatteringly hot...it's still around 4000K!)

While sun spots themselves do not affect the earth, the magnetic fields that create them certainly do.  Rather than go into the details (I'm just a neuroscientist, after all), I'll appeal to this slightly frightening picture.

Pretty crazy huh?  Those lines emanating from the sun represent its magnetic field, and those around the earth represent our "magnetosphere," a strong magnetic field created by the earth that "protects" us from all sorts of hellish activity the sun routinely throws our way.

So, the next time you're looking at the simple little ball of yellow in the sky, think about all the chaos that's going on were you to take a closer peak at its surface.  Think about the massive oceans of gas that are turbulent enough to eject particles millions of light-years into the solar system, and then you can pick your jaw off of the floor.

via Astronomy Picture of the Day

If you're looking for a more detailed description of this process, then check out the Exploratorium's guide to sun spots.  It covers everything from history to the cutting edge of research in this field, as well as the many ways in which the sun interacts with the Earth's atmosphere.

30Nov/10

Has NASA discovered extraterrestrial life?

Just wanted to give all of you a heads up in case you haven't heard about this yet.  Apparently NASA has made some sort of "Astrobiology Discovery" and they're going to be discussing it during a press conference on Thursday.

For those unfamiliar with NASA's attempts to find life outside of our own atmosphere, Astrobiology is essentially a field that attempts to describe and investigate the conditions under which life can emerge and propagate in the universe.

Until now, we've found quite a few clues that life could exist (or at least existed in the past) in our galaxy.  For example, investigations of mars suggest that there were once large oceans of water that carved out the numerous ravines, canyons, and mountains that are spread all around its surface.  However, we still haven't found any definitive evidence of currently living organisms.

Granted, nobody has any idea what they're actually talking about (though there have been hints that it may have something to do with Saturn's largest moon, "Titan"), but they have noted that this is likely going to "impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life."  It may be a long shot, but I can't help but be excited about this.

A live stream of the conference will be broadcast this Thursday, December 2nd at 2:00pm eastern time (11:00am PST).  Check out http://www.nasa.gov/ for the video.

Update: So it looks like this announcement may have something to do with large amounts of arsenic on Saturn's largest moon, Titan.  One of the members on the team has been trying to find evidence of organisms that live off of arsenic in California, so maybe this has something to do with what they've found...only time will tell!

via NASA