Out of This World Ideas, Warped Space, and a Planet That Never Was

An attendee at the 2012 Montreal Comiccon displays the Vulcan salute, a hand gesture consisting of a raised hand, palm forward with the fingers parted between the middle and ring finger, and the thumb extended.

Vulcan salute

Something important happens every day of the year. For example, imagine celebrating the New Year one day and getting an opportunity to celebrate a new celestial body on the next. Well, it almost happened.


On January 2nd in 1860 attendees at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris, France were told of the discovery of a (hypothetical) planet dubbed Vulcan. The noted French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier, attempting to explain peculiarities of the planet Mercury’s orbit, suggested that another (unseen) planet, purportedly located in an orbit between Mercury and the Sun, was the cause of the astronomical aberrations.

Verrier, though intellectually brave for sharing his hypothesis, was incorrect. How do we know? Although there was an extensive search for Vulcan that planet was never found. The strangeness of Mercury’s orbit, the most eccentric orbit of all the planets in our solar system, have been explained by Albert Einstein‘s fascinating theory of general relativity. The short explanation is the Sun’s mass warps space-time around our resident star which, in turn, affects the orbit of the body closest to it, the small but speedy Hermean planet.

Related resources:

Just for fun:

Reaching Out: World Autism Awareness Day

Today is World Autism Awareness Day. Why should you care? Stop and think about the following information: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 88 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Even more alarming is that this represents a 78% increase in rates of ASD since the CDC conducted its first report on the disorder in 2007. If communication is the essence of being human, we have a responsibility to help those who struggle with ASD.

According to the AutismSpeaks.org, the nation’s largest autism science and advocacy organization, ASD disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by:

  • difficulties in social interaction
  • verbal and nonverbal communication and
  • repetitive behaviors.

In addition, autism is much more complex than most people realize. As Dr. Nancy J. Minshew of the Center for Excellence in Autism Research (CeFAR) at the University of Pittsburgh points out, what we think of as autism actually encompasses a number of intricate disorders of brain development. Even more challenging is the need to understand what, at the genetic level, contributes to ASD. Doing so requires an enormous amount of first-hand information from those who struggle with ASD.  Fortunately, the National Database for Autism Research (NDAR) and other participating organizations (such as NIMH, NICHD, NINDS, NIEHS, and CIT/NIH ) are safely collecting and sharing information to better understand what causes and how to treat ASD.

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Fresh Start: Quadrantids Provide Early Morning (Meteor) Shower

According to NASA, the Northern Hemisphere will experience a spectacular celestial treat in the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, January 4th. Around 2AM (EST), the 2012 Quadrantids (a meteor shower) will dazzle die-hard astronomers. Plan to catch the event? If so, brew some coffee and stay awake for the show!

Image of a rare early Quadrantid, captured by a NASA meteor camera in 2010Here are a few suggested activities/resources to keep you alert while you wait:

History, Poetry, Music, Math, and Science…a Perfect Storm of Learning


On this day, November 10th, in 1975, the freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald (a taconite carrier) sank during a storm on Lake Superior. All of the crew, 29 nine men, perished. The event was memorialized in the lyrics of singer Gordon Lightfoot‘s popular ballad, the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Though sad, this historical event presents an engrossing opportunity for students and teachers to collaborate and engage in interdisciplinary research. It’s a perfect storm of learning.  Delving into what lead up to the tragedy allows pupils to explore elements of:

Diving into this and other historical events, using them as case-study investigations into why and how things happen, makes learning more rewarding and allows students to integrate technology resources in a more meaningful manner.

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Water, Water Everywhere?

I discovered the CUAHSI Hydrologic Information System after listening to today’s episode of EarthSky on Georgia Public Radio. This looks like a useful resource for collecting real-world data for use in biology and environmental science classrooms. For example, if students are collecting information for a science fair project about the level of nitrogen in watersheds, they can turn to the Hydroseek search engine.