We’ve been featured!

MSURJ, currently in its 11th year of print, was recently featured by the McGill Tribune as one of the best scientific publications at McGill, with a lovely segment written by Daniel Galef. At this time of the year while all of us here are hard at work putting together our newest volume, this was both a pleasant surprise and an honour.

Volume 11 of MSURJ will be published in March, 2016.

Until then, we, the MSURJ team, would like to thank our readers and contributors for their continued support.

(image: Huffington Post)

[Photo] A Silver (or Mother-of-Peal) Lining

The crew at the McMurdo Station, Antarctica, captured this beautiful example of Nacreous (a.k.a. mother-of-pearl) cloud on 25 August, 2013. (Jack Green / National Science Foundation)

The crew at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica captured this beautiful example of nacreous (a.k.a. mother-of-pearl) clouds on 25 August 2013. (Jack Green / National Science Foundation)

Located in a coastal region at the southern tip of Ross Island – a scant 1,360 km north of the South Pole – is the main U.S. research centre in Antarctica. The McMurdo Station, which is now the largest community in Antarctica and the location of the only ATM on the continent, has been open since 1956. As such a frigid location, it boasts ideal conditions for the formation of nacreous clouds (also known as polar stratospheric clouds), such as those in the picture above. For obvious reasons, nacreous clouds are also often referred to as mother-of-pearl clouds.

They are most visible within two hours after sunset or before dawn, forming in the lower stratosphere (15-25km above the ground) at temperatures of around 85C. Their bright iridescent colours are result of their composition – similarly sized, fairly uniform ice crystals, about 10µm across.

As if the aurora borealis didn’t give you enough reason to bundle up and head to the poles.

Read more about McMurdo Station here, or research the phenomenon of nacreous clouds here.

[Photo] The Borexino Experiment

The light concentrator inside the Borexino Experiment, a real-time detector for low-energy solar neutrinos. (Borexino Collaboration)

The light concentrator inside the BOREXino Experiment, a real-time detector for low-energy solar neutrinos. (Borexino Collaboration)

“BOREXino” refers to an experiment performed by an international collaboration centered on solar neutrino physics.

Neutrinos are released in radioactive beta-decays, like what happens in the sun during nuclear fusion. Given the enormity of the sun, this would correspond to a flux of about 6.5 x 1010 neutrinos per square centimeter per second hitting the earth. However, neutrinos are notoriously difficult to detect and measure. Early experiments calculated far less (about 40%) neutrinos than predicted actually hitting the earth, and did not find significant variations with either day/night or season.

The Borexino detector, located underground in the Laboratori Naxioli del Gran Sasso in Italy, is a new look at this problem. It is capable of detecting low-energy solar neutrinos in real-time, and is capable of precisely measuring the beryllium solar neutrino flux and its day/night asymmetry – and its ultrapure scintillator (acting as a light concentrator) makes for some really cool pictures.

Learn more by checking out the official website for the Borexino Experiment, or check out an excellent introduction to Solar Neutrinos and Other Solar Oddities.

[Photo] Bikini (Atoll)

Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands in the Western Pacific. This image was captured by the Landsat 8 satellite on Aug. 19, 2013 (NASA Earth Observatory / U.S. Geological Survey)

Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands in the Western Pacific. This image was captured by the Landsat 8 satellite on Aug. 19, 2013 (NASA Earth Observatory / U.S. Geological Survey)

What do a popular bathing suit style and a nuclear testing site have in common? Their name. Fun fact: “Bikini” refers to both a “very brief two-piece swimming costume” and one of the Marshall Islands, used as a U.S. nuclear weapons test site from 1946 to 1958. Why was the name of a nuclear testing site chosen to grace the scanty two-piece? It’s a bit of a mystery, but a theory floating around the internet suggests that the likeliness is a result of “an analogy of the explosive force of the bomb and the impact of the bathing suit style on men’s libidos.” We’ll leave you to decide the validity of this proposed hypothesis, though we would also beg you to note the implicit heteronormativity implicated therein.

But back to the island.

The U.S. Army’s initial test detonation packed a whopping 15-megaton wallop – a payload that was a thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. At the time, it was the most powerful explosion ever. The blast vaporized the contents of the adjacent three island and created a 2-kilometer-wide crater. Not surprisingly (especially given that natives had to be moved to other islands), there was a public outcry in response to these tests. This provoked diplomatic negotiations resulting in the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty -and gave us a catchy name for a bathing suit.

Learn more about Bikini Atoll at livescience.com.

[Photo] What Does A Social Network Look Like?

(Jeffrey Heer / Computer Science Division, University of California at Berkeley)

(Jeffrey Heer / Computer Science Division, University of California at Berkeley)

Jeffrey Heer and Danah Boyd are co-founders of the powerful program Vizster, a software which allows users to visualize online social networks in clean, interactive maps. As we see in their video demonstration of the software, visualizations that are generated can be used to highlight links between any two people in the web, estimate members of social “clusters”, and even colour-code nodes based on any parameter – such as gender or relationship status. Granted, all the data needs to be provided by the user via an XML file describing the network or from a custom MySQL database. However, if you are technologically inclined, you can use Vizster to create cool graphics such as the one shown above. That blue blob is Jeffrey Heer’s highlighting of his network on Friendster to “3 hops out” – including himself, his friends, his friends’ friends, and his friends’ friends’ friends. There are a whopping 47,471 people connected by 432,430 friendship relations included in the final network. This image was generated ten years ago, when Facebook was barely a seed of an idea – imag. It’s a very visual reminder that we are all connected, and are becoming more so, thanks to technology. With contact a few clicks of a mouse away, we are criss-crossing the world with unlikely chains of association and friendship – a trend which will only accelerate in the years to come.

See more at the NSF’s webpage, or check out Vizster’s website.

[Photo] An Augmented Reality Sandbox

The cornerstone of the LakeViz3D program is their AR Sandbox - a real sandbox which is augmented by a projection of interactive, rapidly updating topographical features, complete with simulated flowing water. (Oliver Kreylos, UC-Davis KeckCAVES / National Science Foundation)

The cornerstone of the LakeViz3D program is their AR Sandbox – a real sandbox which is augmented by a projection of interactive, rapidly updating topographical features, complete with simulated flowing water. (Oliver Kreylos, UC-Davis KeckCAVES / National Science Foundation)

The Augmented Reality (AR) Sandbox was created by the joint forces of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC) of the University of California and the UC-Davis W.M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences (KeckCAVES), all as part of the National Science Foundation-supported LakeViz3D program. The program seeks to

raise public awareness and increase understanding and stewardship of freshwater lake ecosystems, habitats, and earth science processes using 3-D visualizations of lake and watershed processes.

The sandbox itself is just that – a sandbox. Users get to shape real sand, which is augmented in real time by an elevation colour map, topographic contour lines, and simulated water (or lava) being projected onto the sand. This is a dynamic, fun way to both learn about lakes and about geographic, geologic, and hydrologic concepts such as how to read a topography map and figure out the meaning of contour lines. Accordingly, the designers of the AR Sandbox aim to make the final product “self-contained to the point where it can be used as a hands-on exhibit in science museums with little supervision,” enabling them to maximize the design’s value for education for all ages.

Want to find out more? The NSF has a picture gallery featuring 19 diagrams and pictures of the AR Sandbox, and you can also check out the LakeViz3D official website or UC Davis’ project page.

[Photo] Tongariro Crossing, aka Mt. Doom

Mount Ngauruhoe is a 7,500-foot parasitic stratovolcano located in the Tongariro Alpine Crossing of New Zealand. It's ominous profile is added to by the fact that its digitally-altered form was featured in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy as Modor's Mt. Doom. (Ryan Miller / EPOD of NASA's Earth Science Division)

Mount Ngauruhoe is a 7,500-foot stratovolcano located in the Tongariro Alpine Crossing of New Zealand. This naturally ominous profile is enhanced by the mountains featured role in the Lord of the Rings films as Mordor’s Mt. Doom. (Ryan Miller / EPOD of NASA’s Earth Science Division)

Tongariro Alpine Crossing is located in Tongariro National Park – New Zealand’s oldest national park and a dual cultural and natural World Heritage site. It has been heralded as one of the best one-day treks in New Zealand – or even the world.

Among the features of the crossing are three volcanoes: Ngauruhoe, Tongariro, and Ruapehu. The Ngauruhoe volcano is more than just an imposing silhouette; it was digitally-altered for its appearance in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with the National Park itself serving as a backdrop. Mt. Ngauruhoe is a stratovolcano, named for of their layered (or stratified) appearance. While stratovolcanoes can be picturesque, they are also deadly; most stratovolcanoes have a highly explosive history of Plinian eruptions, which are “associated with deadly pyroclastic flows composed of hot volcanic fragments and toxic gases that advance down slopes at hurricane-force speeds.” Two infamous stratovolcanoes are Krakatoa and Vesiuvius – both associated with catastrophic eruptions.

Sounds like Sauron might have found a home on Earth.

For more information, visit the entry on EPOD’s website or the Tongariro Alpine Crossing website, or watch their  their Lord of the Rings featurette.

[Photo] Glowing Catsharks: Biofluorescence at Work

(J. Sparks, D. Gruber, and V. Pieribone / National Science Foundation)

A green biofluorescent chain catshark (Scyliorhinus retifer), studied as part of the NSF-funded study, “The Covert World of Biofluorescence.” The study was the first to report evidence of widespread biofluorescence among fish. (J. Sparks, D. Gruber, and V. Pieribone / National Science Foundation)

Anyone who has heard of GFP should know that some marine organisms – such as corals and jellyfish – can become fluorescent under certain conditions. However, “The Covert World of Fish Biofluorescence” (published 8 January 2014, and freely available here) has shown that fluorescent proteins are far more phylogenetically widespread than was previously believed. Of particular interest was biofluorescence among fish. Using some blue light and specialized long-pass filters, a group of researchers from the American Museum of Natural History and some universities “identified 16 orders, 50 families, 105 genera, and more than 180 species of biofluorescent fishes.” Among the species found to display fluorescent activity is Scyliorhinus retifer – the little guy pictured above.

Read more at the NSF Website or the paper itself.

[Photo] Your Next Hiking Trip: Paria Canyon

A view of the Wave, one of the many stunning geological formations in the Paria Canyon (Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness) in Airzona. The photo is completely unenhanced. (Adam Marland/ U.S. Department of the Interior)

A view of the Wave, one of the many stunning geological formations in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area in Airzona. The photo is completely unenhanced. (Adam Marland/ U.S. Department of the Interior)

The Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness is a wilderness area created by the United States Congress in 1984 to protect the natural splendor of Arizona. A rugged 112,500 acres of winding stone corridors, narrow gorges, and geologic formations make it a hot spot for the more adventurous sort of tourist.

Among the impressive geological formations is “The Wave,” seen above. Ironically, water had little to do with the formation of “The Wave.” It is what developed out of the friable Navajo sandstone outcrops after millennia of sand-carrying strong winds being driven against its surface – a stunning display of Jurassic sedimentary structures.

Read more about Paria Cliffs at the Website of the U.S. Deparment of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management or, for a more scientific/geological approach, check out this poster by David Loopse and Joseph Mason.

[Video] A Cappella Physics

Combining unlikely duos such as Music and Physics can often lend an unexpected, entertaining twist to both. Tim Blais's "Bohemian Gravity" does just that. (Wikimedia Commons user Clustermote / Wikimedia Commons)

Combining unlikely duos such as Music and Physics can often lend an unexpected, entertaining twist to both. Timothy Blais’s “Bohemian Gravity” does just that. (Wikimedia Commons user Clustermote / Wikimedia Commons)

What do you get when you cross “Bohemian Rhapsody” with a burning passion for physics?  “Bohemian Gravity”, of course!

Allow me to clarify. “Bohemian Gravity” is a cover of the very famous Queen song “Bohemian Rhapsody.” This incredible piece of entertainment was entirely created/directed/sung/filmed/edited by McGill Physics M.Sc. student, Timothy Blais. However, this is no run-of-the mill cover; rather than singing the usual lyrics, Blais completely reconstructed the song to elucidate various concepts in Physics, including String Theory and Quantum Mechanics!

While watching the video, my first impression was “Wow, this is incredibly well done!” My second thought: “Hmm… this is starting to get pretty… catchy.” I’ve since moved on to “Why is space nonrenormalizable?!” (I might be on that last train of thought for quite a while.)

More seriously, I was surprised by what an unexpected impact this video had on me. Originally, I had only clicked on the link to the video because the YouTube thumbnail featured a bunch of floating heads all sandwiched together. To be honest, I thought that this looked hilarious and had to see what it was about. Once I navigated to the page, my attention was immediately captured. I remained utterly absorbed throughout the entire song. I was not only thoroughly entertained but also refreshingly enlightened, and inspired to learn more about physics.

Blais has done something both incredible and inspiring – he made science effortlessly interesting. He entertained, amused, and enlightened his audience in an eight minute video. Now that’s impressive.

As a science student, I love science and I definitely find many facets of science to be incredibly intriguing. However, I’ve consistently found science to only be interesting when you make a dedicated, conscious effort to learn and focus on the “interesting” parts. The interest doesn’t always come naturally – it often seems forced, as though learning cool, new science has to be an academic exercise. But it shouldn’t be. And in Blais’ video, it’s not.

Bohemian Gravity is the perfect combination of creativity, modern social outlets (YouTube, that is!), and educational information. Learning science through this video is simply effortless. By using entertainment as a tool to facilitate learning, science grows to be a more intriguing topic to be explored by a more diverse audience.

Through “Bohemian Gravity”, we see that Bill Nye was right: “science is cool!” Now we must figure out how to continue to convey that message to our generation and those to come. Thankfully, that’s a goal defined only by the limits of our imagination…it’s nonrenormalizable!