Friday, March 21, 2014

March 7: Brain-gazing

This week we partnered with The Zuckerman Institute to help kick off Brain Awareness Week here in New York. This special event previewed a new visualization tool, Neurodome, designed to allow audiences to discover and explore the inner workings of the brain in a planetarium setting. The lecture was a blend of astronomy and neuroscience tracing the path of light through the Universe and into the brain. 

We started the evening with a fun quiz of "Space or Brain?" in which the audience had to guess if a given image was a picture of an object in space or a picture of part of the brain. Surprisingly most people were stumped at every turn! Next Matt Turk, a post-doc in the Department of Astronomy, spoke about how a particle of light, a photon, can travel from the farthest reaches of the observable universe and all the things that can happen to it along the way such as: reddening, scattering, absorption, and reemission. Matt left us and the light here on Earth and handed off the mic to Jonathan Fisher, a neuroscientist at New York Medical College. Jonathan and his colleagues then walked us through the various levels of the structure in the brain that the photon encounters and how Neurodome is allowing us to see the brain like never before. 

After the lecture, the audience was invited to tour to the rooftop observatories and further explore excerpts from Neurodome on our 3D Wall. 

We hope everyone enjoyed the interdisciplinary fun! 

-- Summer Ash (Director of Outreach)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

February 21: Neutral Particle Power

Every second trillions of neutrinos cross our bodies without ever noticing. Graduate student Jia Liu guided the audience through the mysteries of these tiny particles that have puzzled scientists for decades. Neutrinos were suggested by the famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli to account for the missing energy, when a neutron splits into a proton and an electron (a process known as beta decay).

Neutrinos are abundant in nature and are produced through various processes. They are produced in the core of the stars when light nuclei merge to form heavier elements, in nuclear plants when the opposite process (heavier nuclei are divided into lighter) takes place to provide energy, in supernovae explosions and even when energetic particles from outer space interact with the atmosphere.

Neutrinos come in three varieties, have low mass and interact very weakly with matter, making their detection challenging. Next, Jia showed some of the cutting-edge operating detectors like IceCube in the South pole, ANTARES under the Mediterranean sea and Super-K in Japan, that trace neutrinos from astrophysical sources.

Finally, Jia discussed some intriguing potential (fiction-like) uses of neutrinos in the future, as proposed in serious scientific journals. Some of them included the destruction on nuclear weapons, the communication with extraterrestrial civilizations and equity trading.

After the lecture, the audience had the chance to view 3D movies of the universe on the 13th floor, to participate in roof tours and hear more about neutrino flavors from graduate student Andrew Weis. Later, as the sky cleared out and observing was possible, the few who stayed had the chance to look at Jupiter, the Orion Nebula as well as the new Supernova 2014J in nearby galaxy M82, which is the closest type-Ia supernova discovered in the past 42 years.

We hope to see you in our next event, which will entail an exciting collaboration with the neuroscience outreach group!

--Maria Charisi (graduate student)