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2012 News

Wednesday 14 November 2012 – Solar eclipse

The solar eclipse over New Zealand was widely publicised and observed, but there were still people who hadn't heard of it, including my own brother (the one who's not a science teacher) and one of my tutoring students, who commented "Oh, is that why it was so dark at morning playtime!" It was the deepest solar eclipse visible from New Zealand for many years, getting to 85% obscuration in Auckland (0.87 magnitude).

Read more about eclipses.

Monday 10 September 2012 – Auckland Science Fair

The 2012 NIWA Auckland City Science and Technology Fair has been and gone, and the prizegiving ceremony was held this evening. All three of the Auckland Home Educators students that entered, placed in their categories (a 1st and two 2nds), and won an extra prize as well. The overall prize was jointly won by a study on Duvaucel's Gecko and a system for tracking customers in shops, Blurb 2012. Congratulations to them all.

Thursday 6 September 2012 – Surprise! DNA not junk after all

New research has shown that at least 80% of the human genetic code (genome) is active. Apparently a lot of people are surprised the active proportion is anything near as high as that, due to a commonly held view – now soundly discredited – that human DNA was mostly junk. The "junk DNA" belief arose because of the prevailing evolutionary worldview combined with the curious fact that only about 2% of the human genome codes for genes. DNA is so incredibly complicated we hadn't much idea at all of what the rest did, so the natural conclusion for people with an evolutionary worldview was that it didn't do anything. (The theory of evolution doesn't have great predictive power.)

The new information greatly increases our understanding of how the DNA code operates. Over 75% of the human genome codes RNA that appears to help regulate gene activity. There are also many locations on the genome where proteins bind to the DNA, again used for switching how the genes are expressed. Over four million of these switches have been identified.

The article finishes: Still, "it's worth reminding ourselves that we are very, very complex machines," [Ewan] Birney [of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Hinxton, England] said. "It shouldn't be so surprising that the instruction manual is really pretty fearsomely complicated."

The article can be read on stuff.co.nz or nzherald.co.nz, or more info here.

Sunday 26 August 2012 – Neil Armstrong has died

Neil Armstrong has died (Saturday 25 August American time), aged 82. He was the first man to walk on the Moon, and while he did not live to see people walk on any other heavenly body (or even on the Moon after the Apollo missions), he did see space tourism and private space missions just beginning to take off (pun intended). NASA Administrator Charles Bolden paid tribute to Mr Armstrong saying "As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them." Read more on CNN.

Thursday 5 July 2012 – Higgs boson possibly discovered

CERN has announced that they are pretty sure that they have discovered the Higgs boson, a particle that is thought to give mass to matter. Two teams of researchers at CERN using different detectors have independently been looking for the particle, with both teams finding good evidence that they have found a new particle, with a probability of 99.999%, that they believe is the Higgs boson. It's also possible that they have found an unexpected kind of particle. The new particle has a mass of about 133 protons.

Wednesday 30 May 2012 – transit of Venus one week away

Next Wednesday, 6 June 2012, a transit of Venus will be visible from New Zealand (weather permitting), where Venus will pass between Earth and the Sun. Venus will appear as a small black disc moving in front of the much larger disc of the Sun. In Auckland it will start at 10:15am and will finish by 4:44pm.

This is a once in a lifetime event because it happens very infrequently. Transits of Venus occur in pairs of transits eight years apart, with two pairs every 243 years (spaced at 121.5 years and 105.5 years). The last pair were in 1874 and 1882. The other transit in the present pair was in 2004 but was not visible from New Zealand. The next pair of transits will be in 2117 and 2125.

Do not look at the Sun directly – it can cause permanent eye damage. Do not look at the Sun through exposed photographic black and white film – it doesn't block all the UV light. Do not look at the Sun through a telescope or binoculars without a proper solar filter attached – it can cause instant blindness. Viewing is possible using a pair of binoculars or pinhole to project an image of the Sun onto a screen (eg, a piece of paper, a white wall, etc). Alternatively, use a "reflected pinhole", where a 5mm "pinhole" on a mirror is reflected into a dark room. The sun is quite active at present, so sunspots should also be visible.

See www.rasnz.org.nz/2012Transit/Venus2012.html for more information.

Monday 28 May 2012 – SpaceX space station docking successful

On Friday 25 May 2012 at 16:02 UTC (4:02am 26 May NZT) the first ever commercial International Space Station docking occurred, achieved by the privately owned company SpaceX. Three days earlier, on 22 May 2012, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket propelling an unmanned Dragon spacecraft, which docked with the ISS on Friday to deliver its cargo load. It is due to depart the ISS on 31 May.

"This really is, I think, going to be recognized as a significantly historical step forward in space travel – and hopefully the first of many to come" said SpaceX founder Elon Musk. He also said he can have astronauts riding his Dragon capsules to orbit in three or four years.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said "I think you know it, but you made history today. It was an effort that will revolutionize the way we carry out space exploration."

SpaceX is due to start launching telecommunications satellites in 2013 and a NASA robotic mission to Mars in 2018. Elon Musk has said he hopes to send humans to Mars' surface within 10–20 years and that he wants SpaceX to help create a permanent human presence on Mars.

Update 1 June 2012: "Launch, docking, re-entry and recovery successful," SpaceX's billionaire founder Elon Musk said in a statement provided by the company. "Welcome home, baby."

Tuesday 17 April 2012 – new gravity map released

At the end of last month the European Space Agency released a new geoid of Earth's gravity. The geoid is what the oceans' surface would look like if there was just ocean and no tides, weather, etc. Because of differences in Earth's gravity in different locations, what we call "sea level" actually varies by almost 200 metres around the planet. The lowest point at -107m is just off the southern tip of India where there is a mysterious gravity well. The highest point is at +85m.

What we call "down" is actually perpendicular to the geoid, not directly toward Earth's centre. What we call "horizontal" also lies on the geoid, not at 90° to the direction of Earth's centre.

Monday 5 March 2012 – Raspberry Pi, a $48.26 computer

British charity Raspberry Pi Foundation has announced the Raspberry Pi. "The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. We want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming."

Yes, a Raspberry Pi can play full 1080p MPEG-4 video, and be plugged into any TV with an RCA video connector or an HDMI port (and sound over HDMI is supported). There are two models; Model A has one USB port, Model B has 2 USB ports and an ethernet port. "Beyond this, mice, keyboards, network adapters and external storage will all connect via a USB hub." It boots from an SD card and will run off 4xAA cells. More information on the features is here. The Model B is available now. The slightly cheaper and lower specification Model A will be available later this year.

Wednesday 29 February 2012 – new molecule discovered by a 10 year old

10 year old Clara Lazen was playing with a molecule building toy in class and made what seemed like a stable molecule, with atoms that seemed to fit together perfectly. She asked her teacher if it was a real molecule. He didn't know, so he took photos and sent them to a university friend, Robert Zoellner, who found ... he didn't know either. He did some investigating and discovered it was a new, viable molecule that no one had thought of before.

Professor Robert Zoellner wrote a paper about it, which was published in Computational and Theoretical Chemistry. Clara Lazen and her teacher Ken Boehr are listed as co-authors. The new molecule is called tetranitratoxycarbon and is thought it might have similar explosive properties to nitroglycerin, but has yet to be synthesized (made in a laboratory). Story with video, and story at Humboldt State University.

Sunday 26 February 2012 – female teachers give boys lower marks

A British study released this month reveals two unexpected reasons why boys score worse than girls in the classroom. The first is that boys expect to score worse if they think their work will be marked by their female teacher. The second is that they're right – female teachers did score them lower, and scored girls higher, than external examiners graded them.

The study also showed girls worked harder if they had a male teacher, believing they would be marked higher. However, the male teachers showed no bias for girls, and gave them the same marks the external examiners did. Male teachers – in the distinct minority in almost all schools – scored boys more highly than the external examiners did.

Saturday 11 February 2012 – multiplication grids record matched

A year 8 student I tutor today equalled his own record time on a 10 x 10 multiplication grid, taking just 1 minute 50 seconds. He said afterward that for some reason he had found the 2 row the hardest, which implies he could still improve on his time.

Sunday 22 January 2012 – tricky questions for parents

In a January 2012 nationwide UK survey of 2,000 parents by The Big Bang UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair, almost one in three parents (30%) say they take a grilling from their curious kids on a daily basis, and it's leaving about a quarter (24%) of mums and dads frustrated and embarrassed. See how you do.

Sunday 15 January 2012 – New Zealand stationery codes

A more-or-less complete list of the standard stationery codes used in New Zealand has been included on the site. (Repeated from the stationery codes page on my Aqualab site.)

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