Congrats to Vanessa E. Wyche: the first Black female director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Wyche is also a strong proponent of innovation and inclusion and STEM education.

Shout out to Vanessa E. Wyche on her promotion from deputy director to director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the first Black woman to hold the position.

[…] She is responsible for overseeing a broad range of human spaceflight activities, including development and operation of human spacecraft, commercialization of low-Earth orbit and Johnson’s role in landing the first woman and first person of color on the surface of the Moon.

Wyche was most recently deputy director at Johnson, a position she held since 2018. Other key leadership positions Wyche has held at NASA include: assistant and deputy director of Johnson; director of the Exploration Integration and Science Directorate, flight manager of several missions of the retired Space Shuttle Program, executive officer in the Office of the NASA Administrator, and led additional center-level technical and program organizations. Before joining NASA in 1989, Wyche worked for the Food and Drug Administration in Washington D.C.

via her NASA page

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein discussing ‘The Disordered Cosmos’ on NPR’s Short Wave

Buy the book!

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist at the University of New Hampshire, specializing in questions about the earliest parts of the universe. As a physicist, it’s her job to ask deep questions about how we — and the rest of the universe — got to this moment.

Her new book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred does exactly that. It’s an examination of the science that underpins our universe and how the researchers seeking to understand the universe shaping us, in turn shape the science.

(via NPR)

Links about the 2021 solar eclipse

And not a Jaffa Cake in sight!

So, once again, I missed the solar eclipse (the last one I missed was in 1999 when I had the opportunity to see it on holiday in Tunisia but decided to carry on playing on the hotel arcade machine).

For those who don’t know what a solar eclipse is, it’s when the Moon gets between the Earth and the Sun, casting a shadow over Earth in the process. It can only happen during the phase of a new moon but not every new moon. But different factors affect what kind of eclipse you get (more on that later), including:

Today’s was an annular eclipse meaning the sky gets a little darker and lasts no longer than 12.5 minutes. It’s like a cousin of a partial eclipse and they aren’t as rare as total eclipses.

Eclipse links

Can a black hole suck in another black hole?

You won’t BELIEVE the answer!

An awesome question with an awesome answer by Neil Tyson (without a pedantic “well, actually” in sight)

And once you’ve finished watching the video below, you can read this Forbes article about the question (but only read it after you’ve watched as not to spoil the fun).

Kalliroscopes create fluid vortexes that mimic hurricanes

The grandson of a famous impressionist painting invented the kalliroscope and that’s what you call following a legacy.

Kalliroscopes are devices that use rheoscopic fluids to create swirling vortexes. They were invented by artist Paul Matisse (grandson of Henri Matisse) and they mimic some of the universe’s greatest natural wonders like hurricanes and galaxies. Because of that, they can help in the study of fluid dynamics.

Kalliroscopes use mica, metallic flakes, or even fish scales suspended in fluid, between two thin chambers to allow movement and visualisation.

Below you can see an example of one in all its majestic beauty.

A Q&A with Christine Darden, the 40-year NASA engineer

Read this awesome Q&A with one of the greatest Black mathematicians of our time.

A Black woman who was a mathematician, aeronautical engineer and worked for NASA for 40 years researching supersonic flight and sonic booms? I stan!

Christine Darden took part in a Q&A for Quanta Magazine last month and discussed her time at NASA, Girl Scouts, and how to make fast planes quieter.

My favourite part of the Q&A:

What was it like? Did you ever talk with the male engineers in those early years?

Yes, I often did after getting an assignment. Once, an engineer asked me to complete his work by writing a computer program. It was an interesting assignment. When I finished, he said my program gave incorrect answers. I reviewed and ran it again. He laughed and said, “That’s still not right.”

I didn’t like the laugh. My work wasn’t wrong. I looked at the work he had done prior to giving me the assignment and found one sign error. When I corrected his mistake and ran the code again, the numbers looked good.

Was he gracious? 

No. But he didn’t laugh anymore.

Read the interview in full on the Quanta website.

Quanta-related: The quantum internet

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein on women of colour in STEM

The theoretical physicist offered some ‘fresh perspectives’ in this interview from 2019.

I discovered Chanda Prescod-Weinstein via an article referenced in a Tatiana Mac talk (which also formed the basis of an article I wrote about being black in digital marketing).

Entitled ‘Diversity is a Dangerous Set-up‘, Chanda reviewed a book called ‘Race on the Brain: What Implicit Bias Gets Wrong About the Struggle for Racial Justice‘ by Jonathan Kahn and, to cut this short, said:

Trying to use science to analyze and fix racism is a dangerous proposition […] A focus on implicit bias at the expense of an attention to both explicit bias and the impact of bias may in fact be harmful to the fight for equality.

It’s a long piece but you must read it.

But back to the point of this article. Chanda is a theoretical cosmologist, an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy and the University of New Hampshire and a Core Faculty Member in Women’s and Gender Studies. And she’s awesome.

In 2019, she spoke with Nam Kiwanuka about her origins in theoretical physics, why she was drawn to cosmology, the ways women in STEM were marginalised and her experiences as a queer Black woman within that.

Stream it below.

See also: 7 Blerds from history, the digital lives of Black women in Britain, and Georgina Baker: a Black female engineer making history.

Uranus will be visible tomorrow so be prepared

It’s not every day the world gets to see Uranus and 20th January has opened up a great chance for everyone to catch a glimpse.

Uranus might not smell great (tl;dr: it’s full of water, methane, ammonia fluids, and hydrogen sulfide which makes it smell like rotten eggs) but it’s still part of our lives and now’s the chance for everyone to witness it in all its glory.

According to NASA, 20th January is the day we’ll all get an “easy opportunity” to observe Uranus, which is known for its elusiveness.

Of course, you’ll need some binoculars or a telescope to help you spot it but here are some tips from CNET and NASA:

“Wait for the sun to go down and then look for the crescent moon a couple of hours after dark. From the moon, look up and find Mars, which has a reddish-orange glow. ‘Scan your way over from Mars toward the moon, and you should be able to find the faint, bluish disk of Uranus.'”

Don’t miss this opportunity to see Uranus as it doesn’t come around very often.

Other space stuff: Earthbound (the Nintendo game) launched into space and what if the Earth suddenly turned into a black hole?

The Gömböc is a self-righting shape

It’s like balancing an egg on its bottom except the Gömböc is much more unique as this video explains.

A Gömböc is a shape that has two equilibrium points—one stable and one unstable—instead of a minimum of 4 like other shapes. That makes it self-righting so wherever you put it, it’ll always go back to that single point of equilibrium.

The shape, created by Hungarian mathematicians Gábor Domokos and Péter Várkonyi, derives from a type of tortoiseshell (which only 3 species have, such as the Indian star tortoise).

There is something about a turtle on its back that twists your heart. With neck craning toward the ground and legs waving to no effect, it is the image of helplessness. But, malicious kids aside, turtles almost never end up upended. And it turns out that the apparent risk factor for that predicament—the turtle’s rigid carapace—is less a liability than an asset, surprisingly well-suited to the turtle’s goal of righting itself. The secret is in the mathematics of its shape.

via Natural History Mag

The Action Lab made a 5-minute video for it on their YouTube channel explaining the Gömböc in more detail.

Stream it below.

How to hold up a table with strings

Thanks to tensegrity, you can rest a dumbbell on a table help up by strings. No, I’ve not been drinking any eggnog or wine, why?

You’ve probably heard of string theory but this is quite different. Using strings and a 3D-printed table, The Action Lab have made what’s called a tensegrity structure:

Tensegrity allows strain to be distributed across a structure. While buildings built from continuous compression may not show this property, more elastic structures like our bodies do. These structures can be built on top of smaller units that continuously distribute strain.

Definition via Hackaday

In a nutshell: a tensegrity structure uses isolated parts and tension to retain its shape without touching each other. The strings hold the tension and connect the components in a network.

The video below shows how those strings can hold weight so well and how vital they are in tensegrity structures. They start with demonstrating a string holding the weight of a pair of scissors, and some cardboard before showing the 3D-printed table. It looks like an illusion but I assure you it’s real. Isn’t science cool?

Stream it below.

What if the Earth suddenly turned into a black hole?

Death after 21 minutes of free falling? There could be worse ways to go and none involving black holes.

I just read something fascinating, probably impossible but terrifying nonetheless.

Ethan Siegel wrote a lengthy Medium post on what we would experience if the Earth suddenly turned into a black hole. It’s an incredible read and you don’t need a physics degree to understand the fundamentals. In essence, it’d go something like this:

  • As the black hole developed, the Earth would fall in on itself
  • We’d free fall inside it too but not really feel anything for about 20 minutes
  • Then we’d turn into “spaghetti” and it would be quick and painful
  • Everything would be atomised

And while gravity is involved, it’s not the only force at play:

As it turns out, gravity doesn’t need to be the only force: just the dominant one. As the matter collapses, it crosses a critical threshold for the amount of mass within a certain volume, leading to the formation of an event horizon. Eventually, some time later, any object at rest — no matter how far away from the event horizon it initially was — will cross that horizon and encounter the central singularity.

Can this happen while we’re alive? Or at all? The short answer is no.

Right now, the reason Earth is stable against gravitational collapse is because the forces between the atoms that make it up — specifically, between the electrons in neighboring atoms — is large enough to resist the cumulative force of gravity provided by the entire mass of the Earth. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising, as if you considered the gravitational versus the electromagnetic force between two electrons, you’d find that the latter force was stronger by about a factor of a whopping ~10⁴².

So we’re safe against spontaneous black holes. But coronaviruses? The jury is still out on that one (when it should be inside).

Why is Richard Feynman so revered?

Richard Feynman is one of the most famous scientists of all time but what made him so loved?

Without knowing much about him, I watched a BBC film about Richard Feynman called The Challenger. It told the story of how Feynman (played by William Hurt), helped to discover why the Challenger space shuttle disaster happened. Two years after the Rogers Commission Report was released, Feynman from kidney failure brought on by liposarcoma.

But how did he become such an admired and beloved teacher? Open Culture gave its thoughts on the man and his lessons:

If Richard Feynman had only ever published his work in theoretical physics, his name would still be known far and wide. As it is, Feynman remains famous more than thirty years after his death in large part for the way he engaged with the public.

His famous book, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, is free to read online, Bill Gates called him “the best teacher he never had”, and many of his lectures are available to watch online. In short, he made science accessible to anyone willing to learn and he was incredible at what he did (he won a Nobel Prize in 1965 jointly with Julian Schwinger and Shin’ichirō Tomonaga.)

But the essence of Richard Feynman was in his wonderment at discovery and not fearing the unknown:

I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and the many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little but if I can’t figure it out, then I go into something else. But I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things. By being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose which is the way it really is as far as I can tell possibly. It doesn’t frighten.

That, in itself, is a lesson we can and should all take with us as we try to navigate through this thing called life.