Science and the Wonderful Why

Curiosity.“Why? Why? Why?” Anyone who has been around small children has experienced the monotonous, often aggravating, seemingly endless barrage of the “W” word. Why does soap make bubbles? Why do feathers float and acorns fall to the ground? Why are baths important? Why are those flowers purple? Why can’t I be purple? Why do tigers have stripes and leopards have spots and lions don’t have anything (majestic manes not withstanding)? Why can rocks bounce (skip) off water? Why didn’t my rock bounce? Why does the plant in the window bend toward the light? Why are my eyes blue and my brother’s eyes brown?

It would seem that from a very young age people are hard wired to think like a scientist. It is not enough to simply know a feather will float slowly to the ground while the acorn will plummet, or that plants turn their leaves toward the sunlight. We want to know why.

I have watched nieces and nephews as well as my own children pass through the “Wonderful Why?” stage, and I have noticed that there is often a predictable progression to the questions: “Why do plants turn their leaves toward the light?” is quickly followed by: “How do they move their leaves to face the light?” and then “What if we took away the light?”

Ray Bradbury said,

Touch a scientist and you touch a child.

As children we are all scientists. It is just that some of us never grow up.

When I Grow Up, I Want To Write #PewPew Hashtags

Artist’s rendering of Curiosity using its ChemCam. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

I’m not generally a space nut, but I do get a huge kick out of the work we’ve done to put rovers on Mars. I’ve felt pride and loneliness on behalf of the earlier rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and cheered the unexpected longevity of their missions. They always felt so plucky and can-do; sort of a robotic extension of the American spirit on a daunting new frontier. Who’s a cute little robot pioneer doing incredibly valuable scientific exploration? You are! YOU ARE!

Earlier this month, hours after Mars Curiosity navigated it’s “seven minutes of terror” and successfully landed on the Red Planet, I laid in bed, having just soothed my daughter back to sleep. All that soothing had had the opposite effect on me: I was wide awake. I decided to try to wind myself back down by staring at the small illuminated screen on my phone and catching up on some tweets. What can I say? It makes me drowsy every…single…time…zzzzzzz. As I scrolled through my Twitter feed, I saw tweet after tweet from my friends and connections heralding the latest interplanetary achievement by NASA. Curiosity was on the ground! Successfully! They did it! The mood was nothing less than jubilant and awestruck, and I found myself getting completely sucked in. Yeah, this WAS super cool! I mean, we built a SKY CRANE? There was a guy with a MOHAWK? Whooo-hoo! USA! USA! USA! Continue reading

Red Rover, Red Rover

[wpvideo j5SvPhHA]On November 26, NASA launched the Mars Science Laboratory from Cape Canaveral. The science laboratory contains the newest Mars rover, Curiosity. NASA has already received the first signal from the laboratory, shortly after it separated from the rocket. The Mars Science Laboratory is flying free toward the red planet.

NASA has a wonderful video describing how the science laboratory landing is planned. The video illustrates just how complex a mission this is. To think that we can even imagine, must less carry out, such a feat of technology and engineering is amazing. Enjoy the video, and let’s hope that on August 6, 2012, Curiosity will land safely and begin teaching us more about our neighboring planet.

If you have difficulty with the embedded video, here’s a link to the video on the NASA website.