Friday, May 27, 2011

Students' cool discoveries in astronomy and paleontology

Today I ran across three articles about students making significant scientific discoveries. All of them depended on mentors helping to set up the question and parameters of the project, but nevertheless, it's the students who gathered the breakthrough data. What an exciting way to make a contribution to the world!

In the first discovery, a 22-year-old Australian student from Monash University found a big chunk of the universe's missing mass, which scientists had been seeking for decades. During a six-week summer project, Amelia Fraser-McKelvie looked for the missing mass in filaments, huge shoelace-like galactic projections with low density and extremely high temperatures. At such high temperatures (a million degrees Celsius), the mass should be visible at X-ray wavelengths, so Fraser-McKelvie did a "targeted X-ray search." Lo and behold, she found much greater mass than had been seen before.

The second discovery also came from summer work by a university student, this one Thomas Weinreich from Brown University. While carefully sorting through microscopic grains of lunar dust, Weinreich followed a hunch of his own. Along with separating the pieces of orange glass he'd been ask to look for, he also set aside tiny crystals flecked with black spots. It turned out that these crystals, called olivine, formed around molten rock from the moon's interior. When sent out for analysis, they proved to contain water--not huge amounts, but as much as in the earth's mantle, the layer just below the crust.

Finding deep water was big news. Although some ice has been found on the lunar surface, hidden in the shadow of craters, the idea until now has been that any surface ice came from comets striking the moon. Accepted ideas about the moon's origin suggest that it was created when a huge collision struck off a chunk of the early earth. The force of the collision would have caused such heat in the broken off chunk, which eventually became the moon, that its rocks would have melted and all its water evaporated. Now this finding of water deep within the moon challenges the accepted wisdom.

The last bit of news concerned a class of fourth graders doing citizen science, where ordinary citizens help scientists collect data. This particular project is called the Mastodon Matrix Project. During excavation of a pond eleven years ago in Hyde Park, NY, workers uncovered the bones of a mastodon, an ancient ancestor of the elephant. Excavators dug out the bones along with eleven tons of surrounding sediment. Now the Paleontological Research Institute ships out one-kilogram boxes of dirt to citizen scientists--hobbyists, clubs, school groups, dedicated amateurs--to sort through looking for twigs, teeth, shells, or anything else that gives a clue to the mastodon's ecosystem.

Using plastic magnifying glasses, fingers and toothpicks, the Pennsylvania students sifted carefully through their 2.2 pounds of dirt. They found shells, a twig, and finally an eight inch long strand of coarse brown hair. Full of the delight of discovery, the students weighed, labeled, and bagged their finds and sent them to project headquarters. Sure enough, the word came back that they had found a mastodon hair. The students had uncovered something that had been missing for 11,500 years.

There's something truly empowering about making a scientific discovery. To follow a hunch or to painstakingly carry out a procedure, to see what no one has seen, to find evidence that challenges or confirms a theory, brings an intrinsic reward that has nothing to do with grades or recognition. All of these students know they've been part of something big and important--the human quest to understand how the universe works. The more such experiences kids can have, the more we'll be raising a generation with the curiosity and discipline to keep making discoveries, keep learning, and keep pushing knowledge forward.

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