Some shows are off this week in connection with last Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday. Of this week’s repeats, none are worth noting here.
There are two items last week worth noting. Drunk History, a Comedy Central program, aired an episode focused on space. The segments focused on Wernher von Braun, Carl Sagan and Anne Druyan, as well as Alexei Leonov conducting the first space walk. And on the November 25 edition of the Late Show, Stephen Colbert noted the recent National Institutes of Health action to retire its last research chimps. In a show of solidarity Colbert released the show’s test ape.
As it happens, the science and technology guests this week are in the daytime. Tomorrow Neil deGrasse Tyson will be on The View. Tuesday we have another appearance from a cast member of The Big Bang Theory, when Kunal Nayyar appears with Ellen DeGeneres. On Friday Chi-Lan Lieu makes one of her semi-regular visits to The Talk as a technology correspondent.
The agencies working to update federal regulations on human subjects protection (colloquially known as the Common Rule) have extended the deadline for public comments. Originally set for next Sunday, December 6, it has been extended to January 6, 2016.
(I know in my original post I had made noises about making more detailed comments on the request for comments. I will do my best to make the original December 6 deadline.)
The extension has been made in part due to requests received from the public for additional time to comment. Given that the comment period for the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released in 2011 was also extended one month, this extension is not surprising.
It would be nice if the Administration would get off of its annoying trend of very short – often 90 days or less – to comment on significant policy documents like the proposed changes to the Common Rule. Dumping these notices at the beginning of weekends or holiday periods (this was published the day before Thanksgiving) is also annoying, and undercuts any intentions on being really open and transparent with goings-on.
The tenth episode of Science Goes to the Movies was released online this weekend. Hosts Faith Salie and Doctor Heather Berlin are joined by City College Physics Professor Vinod Menon. The topic of the episode is light, or more broadly the electromagnetic spectrum. Works covered in the episode include Star Trek, Star Wars, the now-cancelled television show Extant and The Fantastic Four.
While each episode has been focused on a theme, I think this episode approaches things a bit differently. Compared to previous episodes the topic is more in the foreground of the conversation than the cultural works being referenced. I think you get more science out of this approach, but that may not work with every topic. A work of science fiction may or may not be engaged with something as fundamental to science as light, but it’s not likely to be as integral to the drama or comedy of the piece as other scientific topics. I think the show benefits from mixing its approaches, and I would encourage the producers and hosts to do so.
Of note is that during Faith Salie’s November 21 appearance as a panelist on Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, host Peter Sagal indicated that Science Goes to the Movies will premiere on PBS in January. I can’t find confirmation of this with either PBS or the City University of New York, which currently produces the program (and may well continue to when it moves to PBS).
One of the guests on Science Friday this week is science communicator (and sometimes actor) Alan Alda. He announced the topic for the Fifth Flame Challenge, a project he administers through the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. (The American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science help sponsor the event.)
The Flame Challenge is where scientists explain a basic concept (in this case, sound) in a way that is appropriate for 11 year old kids. Students are encouraged to register to serve as judges, and scientists can compete in either written or video form. Written entries are limited to 300 words, and video entries must be no longer than five minutes (and submitted through Vimeo). Winners in each category will receive $1,000 and a trip to the 2016 World Science Festival.
If you’re seeking inspiration for a possible entry, may I suggest two people who have possible expertise in this area. Randall Munroe, the artist and writer of the xkcd comic, released his second book this week – Thing Explainer. It explains many scientific and technical things using the 1000 most common words. David Rees, the host of Going Deep on The Esquire Network, has been looking at very fundamental tasks and analyzing them quite thoroughly.
Entries are due by 11:59 Eastern time on January 19. Good luck!
Chris Hadfield, the ‘retired’ Canadian astronaut, has an album out, Space Sessions: Songs from a Tin Can. It’s available through his website and the usual places, and Hadfield has released a few videos to help promote it. Proceeds from the album will be used to support music education in Canada.
What I didn’t note at the time I first heard about it is that all the songs on the album were recorded while on the International Space Station (H/T GeekWire). As he described it, Hadfield created a makeshift studio out of his sleeping pod for most of his tracks, working with a producer planetside. As with most everything else, playing guitar and singing in zero-gravity required some adjustments. I can’t tell, but I don’t have professional-grade ears. Here’s the latest video, for Beyond the Terra.
Yesterday Blue Horizon, a rocket company led by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, accomplished a major feat yesterday when it successfully landed the rocket from its New Shepard space vehicle. The rocket was launched to a height of 100.5 kilometers and returned safely, sticking its landing. The crew capsule separated successfully and landed via parachute.
Sticking the rocket landing has been the trouble for SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket. While the Falcon 9 has had trouble with the landing, it has also flown higher than the New Shepard rocket did this week. Falcon 9 rockets have delivered cargo to the International Space Station several times, and the first stage (what SpaceX seeks to recover) travels twice as high as the New Shepard did. The New Shepard rocket is not designed to go into orbit, and takes a more compact shape compared to the Falcon 9. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk compared the New Shepard rocket to the SpaceX Grasshopper test vehicle, which has made 6 successful launches and landings.
While the difference between a sub-orbital (New Shepard) and orbital (Falcon 9) rocket is significant, it is not enough (in my opinion) to completely dismiss what Blue Horizon has done. SpaceX has been innovative and done a lot to shake up the launch business. Having another private company in its metaphorical rear-view window should be a good thing, assuming nobody approaches this from a zero-sum perspective.
Either way, the next Falcon 9 recovery mission will be under a little more pressure.
President Obama recognized the latest recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier today in a ceremony at the White House. It’s the highest civilian honor a president can bestow for services to the country, and this year’s group include two people recognized for their contributions to science or science policy.
Katherine Johnson is a mathematician whose work for the government included service at NASA and its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Her 33 year career at both agencies included calculations critical to every human spaceflight program from Mercury through the Space Shuttle. As one of the first African American women who worked for NACA and NASA, Johnson has also worked hard to encourage other women and minorities to pursue education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Also recognized this week is William Ruckelshaus, a two-time Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He was the first to head the agency, serving from 1970-1973 under President Nixon. Ruckelshaus instituted the U.S. ban on the pesticide DDT. He returned to the agency as President Reagan’s second EPA Administrator from 1983-1985. Ruckelshaus also served as Deputy Attorney General and Acting FBI Director during the Nixon Administration, and was involved in environmental protection matters during the 1960s in Indiana. Now living in Washington state, Ruckelshaus has kept active in local and national ocean and environmental matters, being appointed to various panels by both President Clinton and President George W. Bush.
Congratulations to both Ruckelshaus and Williams, and the other medal recipients.