The new year’s news…

Hello, hope everyone out there in the blogosphere had a happy and healthy holiday season. Although it’s only been about three weeks since my last post, it seems like an eternity. A lot has occurred beyond just the changing of the calendar page; here are two biggies:

1) In an absolutely abhorrent act of unnecessary violence, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona’s 8th Congressional district was shot at her “Congress On Your Corner” event at a local Safeway in Tucson on Saturday. Rep. Giffords served  as chairwoman for the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee and holds seats on the House Science and Technology and Armed Services committees. She’s also the wife of NASA astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly, who was featured in a post back in October (“Double trouble…“) along with his twin brother and fellow astronaut Scott Kelly. Rep. Giffords has been a strong supporter of NASA and its continuing goal to enrich science and the exploration of space. The importance of her support was best captured in a statement made by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who emphasized her “lasting contributions to our country” and her status as “a strong advocate for the nation’s space program and a member of the NASA family.” Statements made about Rep. Giffords from public officials across the nation, ranging from her fellow members of Congress to President Obama, spoke of “an extraordinary public servant” and  a “warm and caring” Representative held in very high regard and liked by many of her colleagues. America can only hope that this great champion of science and the people can overcome this terrible act of violence.

2) On a much, much lighter note. A 10-year old little girl from Canada has become the youngest person ever to discover a supernova (and making this blogger feel like an underachiever in the process). Kathryn Aurora Gray of Fredericton, New Brunswick in Canada discovered the stellar explosion in a galaxy, called UGC 3378 (approximately 240 million lightyears away), within the faint constellation of Camelopardalis. Kathryn made the discovery along with her father, Paul Gray, and family friend David Lane. Gray and Lane have used Lane’s personal telescope to discover multiple supernovae.

A supernova is the cataclysmic end of a massive star (a star with a mass greater than ten times the mass of our Sun). Stars produce energy via nuclear fusion (the combining of smaller elements into larger ones) in their cores; the small changes in mass between the individual smaller elements and the new larger ones lead to huge energy outputs via Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc². All stars begin by fusing hydrogen into helium, but massive stars can fuse every element in the periodic table up to iron. Why stop at iron you ask? Well, the chemical bonds of elements beyond iron are so strong  that the energy required to create the element is greater than the energy liberated by the mass difference, so fusion won’t occur anymore. Instead, fusion stops and the core of the star no longer has sufficient pressure to counteract the force of gravity holding it together. Once this happens, the outer layers of the star collapse in on the star and ultimately bounce of the dense core of the star. This cataclysmic event and the subsequent shock waves it induces trigger the stellar explosion we know as a supernova. The largest stars (those about twenty times more massive than our Sun) have cores that completely collapse down and form stellar black holes while the cores of smaller massive stars collapse down to form extremely dense neutron stars. It’s these massive stellar explosions that created the majority of the rest of the periodic table we see in every chemistry class; all of the naturally-occurring elements in the universe larger than iron were actually created by generations of supernovae.

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One Response to The new year’s news…

  1. Jarman says:

    Great post again Ian. I’ve been living with the Shooting in Arizona story non-stop these past few days here at CNN and it is a tragedy for sure. They have yet to mention much of Giffords’ NASA and scientific connections besides her husband being an astronaut so it was very interesting to hear. We can only hope she pulls out of this.

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