AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: Astronomy

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist who popularized science with his books and frequent appearances on radio and television. His greatest contribution to science has not been his research; but rather, his ability to foster an interest in science for all kinds of people.

Born in the Bronx in 1958, Tyson was a talented and passionate student. He became fascinated with astronomy, which notable astrophysicist Carl Sagan as his role model. He received his Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Columbia University in 1989. However, he says that his path towards astrophysics was plagued with societal pressures that almost prevented him from pursuing his career multiple times.

Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium, a published author, radio show host, tv show host, and social media influencer. He has revolutionized how people learn about science. He has worked to create easy and digestible forms in which science can be taught to the average person. He has done this through the Startalks radio show. He has also utilized television with his show Cosmos, where he explains astronomical phenomena through advanced computer-generated imagery. Recently, he has been active on TikTok, where he can be found answering science-related questions that are given to him by fans.

Cosmos spacetime odyssey titlecard.jpgThe title card for Cosmos, starring Neil deGrasse Tyson

Tyson comes from an African American and Latino background, but refuses to speak on anything regarding his race. Regarding race, he said in a 2014 interview, “I don’t give talks on it. I don’t even give Black History Month talks. I decline every single one of them. In fact, since 1993, I’ve declined every interview that has my being Black as a premise of the interview.” This is because he does not want his success conflated with the fact he is a minority. He claims that race should have nothing to do with his career because he wants people to know him for his knowledge of astrophysics and not his skin color.

Bill Nye takes a selfie with Barack Obama and Neil deGrasse Tyson.


Astronomers: The Next Climate Change Culprit

     An article published in October 2020 on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s website, discusses two of the six papers published in Nature Astronomy in September 2020. The papers discuss astronomers and the large amounts of carbon they emit due to their long flights to meetings and their energy-eating telescopes. These carbon emissions have added to the global warming crisis and the Greenhouse effect. The Greenhouse effect occurs when gases (most commonly Carbon dioxide, Methane, and Nitrous oxide) absorb solar radiated heat that is projected off of the earth’s surface. The trapping of this heat in the atmosphere ultimately increases the overall global temperature. Water, “the moderator of temperature”, has a high specific heat and therefore a high heat of vaporization, as it takes a large amount of energy to raise the temperature of water 1 degree Celsius. Water molecules can absorb large amounts of heat emitted within earth’s lower atmosphere, and radiate this absorbed heat out in all directions. When this heat is released, the water vapor lowers the temperature of the surface it leaves, creating a cooling effect to monitor the temperature. However, in the case of global warming, water vapor acts as a greenhouse gas.  The vapor molecules holds heat within them, and some of the heat is projected back onto the surface, further adding to the Greenhouse effect.

      The first paper in Nature Astronomy discusses a study done by delegates at the 2019 European Astronomical Society (EAS) meeting in France. After sitting through a heatwave during their meeting and sweating through their shirts, the delegates decided to calculate the amount of carbon dioxide they emitted from their meeting travels. They found they produced 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide (1900 tons in total) per delegate. This is more than the average resident in India emits yearly! Besides flights, supercomputers are the next leading cause of astronomers’ carbon emissions. Another study showed that each Australian astronomer produced 37 tons of CO2 equivalent per year. 60% of those carbon emitted came from supercomputers and their energy usage.

     The second paper published discusses the work of MPIA’s Faustine Cantaloupe and her colleagues that uncovered 30 years of weather records from the Paranal Observatory in Chile, operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). They discovered temperatures in Chile rose 1.5°C each year. This increase in temperature causes complications for Paranal’s very large telescope, which does not function past 16°C. Ironically, the carbon the astronomers are producing is hindering their ability to use their telescopes.

     In hopes to combat carbon emissions from astronomers and to help decrease global temperatures, MPIA’s Knud Jahnke plans to set up supercomputers in Iceland, using the environmentally friendly geothermal energy power plants there. Geothermal power plants dig boreholes and use the steam from hot water to run power turbines, harnessing energy without carbon emissions. I recently went to the Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant in Iceland, which uses geothermal energy to heat the famous Blue Lagoon in Iceland! After seeing the power plant in action, I think that installing more supercomputers in Iceland would prove to be very effective and could help reduce their carbon footprint immensely. 

   Here is a photograph of Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant in Iceland! 

                                                                        Photo by Author

     This year, the European Astronomical Society meeting took place again, but this time they were virtual due to Covid-19. The team of delegates continued their studies and calculated the carbon costs for the new 2020 meeting and discovered that they emitted 582 kilograms of carbon during the entire meeting (based on computer energy usage)- about one–three-thousandth of the previous 2019 meeting in total. The EAS is currently studying a hybrid format for future meetings. 

Do you think Zoom and virtual meetings could help solve the EAS’s carbon-producing problem? Comment down below! 

Supermassive Black Hole Turns Star Into Spaghetti


According to an article by Rafi Letzter, a black hole in a nearby galaxy recently devoured a whole star, turning it into “spaghetti.” The star was orbiting in the nucleus of the galaxy 2MASX J04463790-1013349 about 214 million years ago when it was sucked into its demise. At the center of the galaxy, lies a supermassive black hole. As the star made its way too close to the black hole, the black hole stretched it out through the process of spaghettification and consumed it. The light from this event reached Earth 214 million years later. Scientists had witnessed events like this in the past but never this close to home.

What is Spaghettfication?

Matt Nicholl, an astrophysicist from the University of Birmingham, describes this process of ‘consumption’ as a “tidal disruption event.” Spaghettification occurs because of the sharp increase in gravity when an object approaches a black hole. The gravity on side of the object (in this case a star) facing the hole is much stronger than the gravity on the other side. This difference in pull stretches out the object like spaghetti, hence the name spaghettification. Black holes’ consumption of stars reminds me of the role of lysosomes in the cell. Like black holes, lysosomes consume. They engulf dead organelles and other waste in the cell. In case you were wondering about the size of the star, it had about the same mass as our sun and lost half of that mass to the black hole!

Has Spaghettification Ever Been Witnessed in Its Entirety?

No, but this event was the closest scientists have ever gotten. The physical stretching process has never been seen; however, scientists did see a flash of light coming from the solar system, which is a sign of a tidal disruption event. When a star is ripped apart, some of its innards end up swirling around the black hole and shine briefly before disappearing into the hole. At the same time, clouds of material and dust blast out into space. This blast blocks parts of the black hole from being viewed. Over six months, the scientists watched, studied, and recorded the material flow into space as the tidal disruption faded. This rare sighting also confirmed the relationship between the flash and the blast of material.

So What?

Not only was this an interesting phenomenon, but the event, named AT 2019qiz, could help researchers discover more about tidal disruption events and the role of gravity in black holes.

Black holes are some of the most captivating scientific anomalies in existence. They exist all over the universe, yet scientists know very little about them. I’d love to hear your thoughts/questions in the comments! If you would like to research black holes further, here is some more usual information. Try not to get sucked in!




HUMANS ON MARS!?!?!?!?!?

For many years people have known that there is water on mars, in its solid state at least. Furthermore, Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere has served to preserve the various topographical grooves that prove that there was ONCE liquid water on mars and that it flowed quite freely.


What piqued scientists’ interest was the discovery just a few months ago that some of these grooves, the smaller ones usually only 5 meters wide, would appear during Mars’ warm season, grow several hundred meters long, and then disappear when the climate turned cold. Additionally, the streaks often showed up on steep slopes and looked very similar to images of water flowing downhill on Earth’s surface.

Field erosion 01

The anomalous nature of these ephemeral grooves compared to the extremely wide ancient river pattern on Mars’ surface, led researchers to further investigate these sites.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) now equipped a new instrument used for the spectroscopic detection of minerals, meaning that it carefully takes pictures of the surface of an object in various wavelengths of light (x-ray, ultraviolet, etc.) in order to reveal higher levels of specific compounds and minerals, was the exact instrument for the job. In this specific case, researchers used the MRO to scan for salt in the unusual streaks.

Why Salt?

I’m glad you asked… Scientists have decided that, based on Mars’ surface samples, any salts on Mars’ surface must be magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate, and/or sodium perchlorate; all of which are minerals that suggest that water could’ve been absorbed into the soil* from the atmosphere, via deliquescence, or from below the surface in an aquifer. When the MRO detected those salts and perchlorates in the streaks it was a definitive “Yes” to the question of, “Is there still LIQUID water on Mars?”


A hypothetical artist’s rendering of how big the aquifer could be on Mars. The Mars rover failed to detect the buried water because it was both extremely deep, and covered by a thick layer of frozen nitrogen.

The significance of liquid water on Mars is that, in the event that human’s travel to Mars, they would be able to begin growing plants. Plants that would not only provide them with food but also the most necessary commodity humans need to survive, oxygen. Plants need four main ingredients to survive: water, sunlight, nutrients from the soil and carbon dioxide. Up until this point, water had been the only missing piece to the puzzle, as Mars’ atmosphere is almost 95% carbon dioxide and is so thin (about 100 times thinner than that of Earth) it obstructs very little solar radiation [sunlight].

Equipped with my Celestron Powerseeker, my family and I took every opportunity we could to look into the depths of space, or at least the depths of our celestial neighborhood. We watched intently as the full lunar eclipse and the blood moon converged overhead. We spectated as the ISS sped across the sky in about 30 minutes on a cloudless night. When I first saw on Yahoo News that NASA had confirmed that there was liquid water on Mars, I was both excited at the new discovery and puzzled as to why everyone was so excited… anyone who has seen a picture of the planet already knew that Mars has water in the form of ice at it poles. Overall, my fascination with space led me to topics such as these. Although hundreds of questions were answered for me, many still remain:

Will NASA attempt to send humans to Mars? If so, when and where can I buy my ticket?

Will further studies find living organisms such as bacteria and protists in these water-streaks?

How big is the aquifer that the streaks could’ve originated from?

Will NASA attempt to establish a colony in Mars? If so, will the first infants born on Mars be considered “Martians”?

*soil being a relative term for the matter on the surface of Mars

For Cool Images of Mars’ Water Streaks see

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