Get Started in Citizen Science with the Great Backyard Bird Count of 2018

If you have been considering getting involved in Citizen Science and just haven’t found the time or the right project, then let this annual opportunity pique your interest! The Great Backyard Bird Count is hosted every February by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, and it takes as little as 15 minutes. It’s also fun, free, and perfect for the entire family to do together. 

During the four-day event (Friday, February 16 through Monday, February 19, 2018), head out into your backyard and count the birds you observe. Next, simply submit your checklist of observations online or through a mobile app, and your data will be used by researchers for the rest of the year to study how birds are getting along in our environment. This is the 21st year for the GBBC and last year more than 210,000 participants provided bird observations of nearly 6,000 species!

Bird populations shift throughout the United States, and observations of these behaviors are a vital window into environmental trends. For more details, check out the 2017 results and the many great photos sent in along with the observations.

Sign up today to get prepared for your backyard observations and download the free mobile eBird app (iOS | Android) for all of your bird observations. 

Let us know if you participate this year and anything interesting you observe, and share your bird photos on our Facebook page!

STEM in Scouting

There is an ongoing push to bring Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math into the hearts and minds of our youngest generation. As technology engulfs our daily existence, it is critical we have available an influx of viable women and men who will guide developments in STEM-related fields. The drive of this effort is to ensure talented and wise professionals will usher our culture  into the next generations.  

A growing number of STEM learning opportunities are available to our youth, such as Girls Who CodeHackerspaces, and the many featured programs from the Department of Education, just to list a few. Many of these experiences are focused on girls to reduce the gender gap in related professions as well as other underrepresented populations in these fields. Other offerings encourage an expanded educational scope to include Art and Design (STEAM) as so many artistic expressions today are enabled through scientific and technological ideas. Scouting with the BSA is also tossing in a concerted effort to emphasize the value of an appreciation for STEM. It is working to foster an even broader skill set for youth who already are developing strong character, leadership, and positive values through the Scouting adventure.

The first BSA Handbook, 1910.
How to use a watch as a compass, from the first BSA Handbook, 1910.

An interesting historical feature of Scouting, compared to the myriad of programs available, is that STEM concepts and activities have always been an integral component of the Scouting experience. Published in 1910, the first Boy Scout Handbook included activities on how to use a watch as a compass, how to measure distances, and many other adventures involving learning about and appreciating nature, the stars, and wildlife. Today, each rank from the Kindergarten-aged Lions to the elder Eagle Scout includes specific advancement requirements featuring STEM-related components, such as exploring geology, decoding mathematical ciphers, designing and building model vehicles from scratch, and understanding alternative sources of energy. 

To further drive the focus on STEM, the BSA expanded on its long-established offerings to include additional awards and organizational opportunities to explore science through Scouting. The Nova Award program was developed in 2012 for Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Venturing to clearly incorporate STEM-related learning with fun activities and adventures. Interestingly, the Nova Awards did not have to be built from the ground up: they simply expand on the current requirements already established in the Scouting handbooks. For Scouts who really want to dive deeper, an advanced award, called the Supernova, requires more extensive STEM experiences guided by an approved mentor who is a STEM professional. 

Under the organizational umbrella of the BSA, a separate co-ed program piloted in 2014, called STEM Scouts, fully focuses on STEM. The program uses experiential activities and interaction with STEM professionals for elementary, middle school, and high school-aged youth. The goal is to help young people explore their curiosity about STEM fields while growing in character and skill. STEM Scouts focuses on future careers in STEM designed around a challenging, thought-provoking, and fun program. 

With such a solid base in STEM topics, opportunities through Scouting could become even more interesting and broadly reaching as the BSA is just beginning its expansion to “family scouting” as a fully co-ed organization. With gender restrictions removed from all of its many programs, Scouting is positioned to evolve into one of the top-tier STEM informal educational offerings for youth in the United States. This possibility is intriguing because STEM education through Scouting could soon be identified as the most valuable approach since the Scouting experience is so holistic: there is adventure and experience to be had in nature and the lab, while simultaneously developing character, leadership, and positive cultural values. This complete approach will position youth for successful careers in any professional field to guide the country toward being the leader of a brighter technological future.  

The State of Neurotechnology in 2018

It has been awhile since we last posted about neurotechnology. So, where do things stand today? Where are the cyborgs already? Where is our unlimited memory capacity? Interesting developments bring the brain and technology are trotting along, and there is still a long, and exciting path up ahead. Two recent articles from The Guardian and The Economist highlight some aspects of the current state of neurotechnologies, so these seem like a great place to get back up to speed. 

Just as many of the world’s most insanely rich people are deeply dabbling in out-of-this-planet endeavors, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, others are dropping big dollars a bit more inwardly – into our brain. Paul Allen (of Microsoft founding fame) funded the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and Elon Musk (wait, where have we heard that name before?) started Neuralink as major initiatives to jump-start our brains into a future where we are directly connected to our technological creations. Just as in the latest round in the space race, with all of these privately funded ventures, things will get real interesting, real fast.

 “Neurotechnology, Elon Musk and the goal of human enhancement,” The Guardian, January 1, 2018

So, how are we going to arrive at our point in human evolution where are brains are interfaced with non-biological computational power? What might keep us from reaching this state, and even if when so, how might it change our definition of being human?  

Three scientists from the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the University of Washington take on these questions and more in their report for The Economist at … 

 “Grey matter, red tape: In search of serendipity,” The Economist, originally appearing the print edition of the Technology Quarterly, January 6, 2018.

There are many wild, ominous, and crazy-cool efforts in progress many of which are already appearing in our hospital recovery rooms. It will only be a matter of time before more tangible advancements in neurotechnology will show up in our neighborhoods. 

What do you think? Will you be ready to jack your brain into the machine? 


Fundamental Physics Measurements with LEGO®

National prototype kilogram K20 replica
National prototype kilogram K20, one of two prototypes stored at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which serve as primary standards for defining all units of mass and weight in the United States. This is a replica for public display, shown as it is normally stored, under two bell jars.

In the late 1800’s, a small, well-formed cylinder composed of platinum and a little iridium (the same alloy used in fine platinum jewelry today) was defined by the international scientific community to have a mass of exactly one kilogram. This was not a special rock dug up from the Earth, nor a once-in-a-lifetime meteorite fallen from the heavens, but a man-made object that was bestowed this great and important property to be used by generations of scientists and non-scientists. (Happy 125th Birthday, Kilogram.)

For myself as a student of physics, and likely with many professional scientists in the 20th Century, there was a lingering empty feeling from this type of “pull-it-out-of-the-air” proclamation for something fundamental to so many calculations and theories describing how Nature works. The speed of light, c, is a fundamental number that is directly measurable (try it yourself with chocolate), the definition of a unit of time in seconds, s, is directly measured from a naturally occurring phenomenon with unprecedented regularity (originally based on the rotation of the Earth, with all of its wobbles; now on the energy level transition in an atom near absolute zero temperature), and the meter is marked off (since 1983) by a measurable distance traveled by light in a fraction of a second. So, most other important units are built up from more fundamental definitions. Yet, the kilogram, with its smooth lump of metal, is still thrown into this fundamental mix.

For example, the Newton, N, is a unit of force measured from the well-loved equation F = ma, and carries the units of kilogram · meters per unit second. If the value of one kilogram was set only as the collective whim of humanity well over one hundred years ago, then what does that say about every calculation of force since that time? Well, probably not much, since we’ve been working just fine with it ever since. If the fundamental value changes, it just scales all other values with it. However, it might just be nice, or more reasonable, or more scientific to have the value of the kilogram defined from other measurable fundamental values so it may never be questioned or changed (or stolen for a private collection, or fall through a crevice in the Earth after a quake never to be found again).

The mission of cleaning up the fundamental definition of the kilogram has been underway for many years with an international resolution declared in 1999, at the turn of the century. Now, this latest collective whim of scientists is to derive the value of the kilogram from a very fundamental number found in the realm of quantum mechanics, called Planck’s constant, h.

First described during the turn of the previous century, in 1900, by Max Planck, this constant represents the ratio of the energy (E) of an atomically-small oscillating object to its frequency (f) of vibration. The relationship, called the Planck-Einstein relation, E = hf, became a basic underpin to the development of quantum mechanics. The proportionality constant h made an appearance in a plethora of key equations that came to describe the Universe at its tiniest scales, including the counter-intuitive notion that very small things can behave like a wiggling wave and a bouncing particle simultaneously.

The actual value of the Planck constant is likewise incredibly tiny, measuring in at only 6.626 x 10-34 Joules · seconds. So, to define something else directly from a measurement of this value, insane accuracy is required. This is where the expertise of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) became a valuable player in establishing the new life of the kilogram.

Bronze weighing dishes from the island of Thera, Santorini, Greece, Minoan civilization, 2000–1500 BC By Norbert Nagel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Bronze weighing dishes from the island of Thera, Santorini, Greece, Minoan civilization, 2000–1500 BC By Norbert Nagel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Weighing in with h

The advanced measurement technology at NIST to be used for the kilogram is called a watt balance and is a modern-day extension of the classic equal arm balance dating back to at least the second century BC. Since it was originally conceived, an unknown mass is visually balanced by placing a collection of known masses on the opposite side of the device. When the two sides are resting at an equal height — i.e., the same force due to gravity, F = mg, is acting on each tray — then it can be assumed that the unknown mass equals the known mass. This millennial-old approach may have even coaxed the human drive to base any definition of mass from a known sample leading to the double-bell jar and platinum cylinder we find locked away today in a suburb of Paris.  

The watt balance sets up a similar arrangement using a comparison of forces. This time, instead of watching gravity do its thing, the device measures electrical and mechanical power, hence the name “watt balance” where watt is the unit of measurement for power (as in 1.21 gigawatts… Great Scott!). Here, a highly controllable measurement of a force resulting from electromagnetism balances the gravitational force on the unknown mass. Flowing a current of electrons through a coil of wire inside a magnetic field on one side of the watt balance will create a force, and if aligned appropriately, this force will shift the two sides into balance for a particular current providing this electrical power.

This initial measurement provides a value of the unknown object’s mass in terms of a current, the magnetic field and the physical dimension of the coil.

Physicist Richard Steiner adjusts the electronic kilogram, an experimental apparatus for defining mass in terms of the basic properties of nature. (NIST)
Physicist Richard Steiner adjusts the electronic kilogram, an experimental apparatus for defining mass in terms of the basic properties of nature. (NIST)

However, we are looking for more: a direct relationship with the tiny and fundamental value of Planck’s constant. So, a second measurement is taken on the exact same setup of coil, alignment, and magnetic field to determine the voltage generated in the circuit when the coil moves through the magnetic field. This is the mechanical power generated during the balancing experiment.

Finally, the math representing these two measurements are merged together giving a relationship between the mass of the unknown object and the current and voltage. Replacing the current and voltage with their “quantum” mathematical versions (via the Josephon effect and the quantum Hall effect), which both contain the fundamental Planck constant, the mass can be directly expressed in terms of h. (If you are interested, check out an overview of the math.)

Historically, this mathematics and experiment on the watt balance has been used with a known mass to accurately calculate the value of h. Flipping the same equation on its head, if a “known” value of h is instead plugged in, then a value for the “unknown” mass, m, may be calculated.

And just with that one mathematical flip, we now have a fundamental definition of the kilogram based on Nature with quantum mechanics being used to describe a macroscopic quantity.

Extreme Accuracy Makes a New Standard

NIST has been building and operating watt balances since the early 1980s in order to nail down our “known” value of h. The latest generation, dubbed NIST-4, began operation in 2015 with specialty modifications to become an international standard for measuring mass. To be a standard, ultimate precision is the goal and NIST-4 is working to master its measurements with an uncertainty to 0.00000003.

The international scientific community is serious about this new definition and there is a deadline to complete all of this work. In late 2014, the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM) established a roadmap of effort toward officially agreeing on the new definition of mass. This plan includes consistent measurements of the Planck constant to within 0.00000005 — placing NIST’s goal into comfortable territory. The end of the road will occur at the 26th Meeting of the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) in 2018 during which the new unit of mass is expected to be adopted.

Good Accuracy Makes for Extreme Science at Home

This level of extreme accuracy should certainly be left to the extreme scientific national labs such as NIST. However, the foundational idea behind the balance is still one that has been around for centuries. It is with the advancement of our appreciation of the quantum world that we now have mathematics that can relate this type of measurement with one of the most fundamental values representing our Universe, Planck’s constant, h.

So, what if we could now measure — with reasonably good accuracy — h at home? You can … just try building it with LEGO®.

The same team working on the NIST-4 developed a recipe for designing and building an at-home version of the watt balance. For around $400 and with 0.01 (1%) accuracy, masses may be measured at home by using the same technical concept NIST will use in 2018 to provide internationally accepted scientific measurements of the kilogram. The shopping list includes LEGO® (of course), copper wire, off-the-self laser pointers, free data acquisition software, a data acquisition interface (this is the major expense–but you will open up to an enormous new world of experimental opportunities at home!), several permanent magnets, and lots of building and testing fun with the family. 

While this might seem a bit over-the-top for an at-home utility, the same device can also take a known value of a mass and measure the fundamental value of Planck’s constant. Tiny physics with big ideas right in your own basement or garage.

An introduction to the LEGO® watt balance

Watch Video

Table Top Lego Watt Balance from NIST

Now that the idea of building with LEGO® while doing some excellent experimental physics has you ready to jump right in to start ordering parts, you might first get way more in-depth with the NIST efforts to develop the new standard for the kilogram (download article*). Then, go ahead and dive into the instructions for building it all at home, which is included below for your immediate reference.

Chao, L. S., et al. “A LEGO Watt Balance: An apparatus to determine the mass based on the new SI” 
[ download ]


* R. Steiner, E.R. Williams, D.B. Newell and R. Liu. “Towards an electronic kilogram: an improved measurement of the Planck constant and electron mass.” Metrologia. 42 (2005) 431-441. [ download ]

Plutopalooza from DPR ~ Live Blog

Plutopalooza from Dynamic Patterns ResearchJoin us on Tuesday evening to watch together as the NASA’s New Horizons makes its historic close approach past Pluto. We’ll feature live updates, guides to watching with NASA, and we’ll learn more about what we know and don’t know about our planetary neighbor 3 billion miles away.

↬ The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and NASA

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Update 8:15:19 PM 07/15/2015:

For our wrap-up of Plutopalooza from DPR — although New Horizons will be bringing much more for many months! — we’ll share this inspiring sequence of images of Pluto from its discovery by humans on February 18, 1930 through our flyby from 7,750 miles away at 31,000 miles per hour on July 14, 2015. ᔥ NASA

Pluto observations through the years

Update 7:59:55 PM 07/14/2015:

New Horizons is locked and data is flowing. “Just like we planned it.” — ‘mom’ from Mission Operations.


New Horizons Locked! 

Update  7:37:52 PM 07/14/2015:

Earlier today, NASA released this false color image of Pluto and Charon — separation not to scale — taken by one of the instruments on board New Horizons. The coloring helps exaggerate the different features on the surface of the planet and its moon to help more clearly identify the various structures. Read more from NASA… 

Pluto and Charon False Color



Update 6:53:01 PM 07/14/2015:

The “phone home” signal from New Horizons is traveling at the speed of light right now… and is over half-home to Earth. We’ll begin streaming the live feed from NASA around 7:15 pm CST right here.

New Horizons phone home half-way home


Update 7:21:23 AM07/14/2015:

NASA released a “sneak peak” image this morning of the latest image taken by New Horizons before it entered into its closest approach routine. Resolution at 4 km per pixel.

Pluto July 14, 2015


Update  06:50:51 07/14/2015:

Good luck New Horizons during closest approach!

New Horizon at Closest Approach


Update 8:16:25 PM 07/13/2015:

In a little over ten hours from now, New Horizons will make its closest approach through the Pluto system. The many scientific instruments on board will begin a carefully orchestrated “dance” that has been pre-programmed and automated to focus on Pluto and Charon. They will cycle through routines to gather as much scientific evidence before the spacecraft zips by. Watch this simulation from NASA stepping through the data collection and then plan to return right here Tuesday evening at 7:15 pm CST to join us as we listen with NASA as they receive the first batch of data from New Horizons.


Update: 3:33:05 PM 07/11/2015
Welcome to Plutopalooza from DPR! We’ll be posting more details and educational information right here and on our Facebook site before the event begins.



Demonstrating the Coriolis effect with physics at home across the globe

A note to the reader: This article requires following special instructions to watch the videos below. It’s also recommended you be on a desktop computer, but if you are on a mobile device (which won’t let you play two videos simultaneously), simply partner with a friend to play the second video.

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There is a long-standing urban legend claiming toilets situated in the Northern Hemisphere flush the draining water with a counter-clockwise rotation, while in the Southern Hemisphere it all spins down clockwise. The Coriolis effect — a real observable effect described by physics — is said to be the culprit. However, if you have experimented with this observation in the past (yes, take a moment to go and check your toilet bowl now), you may have been disappointed to discover just the opposite. You might have tried a different drain and seen even a different rotation in the same house.

Illustration for the Coriolis effect article. A hypothetical situation. The circles are inertia circles. Air mass that is in motion would, if no other forces are present, turn full circle. Credit: Anders Persson
Illustration for the Coriolis effect article. A hypothetical situation. The circles are inertia circles. Air mass that is in motion would, if no other forces are present, turn full circle. Credit: Anders Persson

Unfortunately, toilet bowls, sink drains and household bathtubs are too small in scale to allow the effects of the rotation of the Earth to be visible for everyday observation. In fact, if you were standing at the equator, you’d be moving over 1,000 miles per hour, and this rotation speed gets slower as you get closer to each of Earth’s poles. It is this constant rotation, which you don’t even notice, that provides a rotating reference frame for any object moving about the surface of the Earth. Since one full rotation takes 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.0916 seconds (called a sideral day, per the full rotation of a single spot at the Earth’s surface, whereas the full 24 hour definition is based on the observation of the Sun returning to approximately the same location in the sky), the effect of this rotating frame of reference is quite small on most objects we might observe in our daily lives, like our flushing toilets. On the other hand, physical events on the scale of cyclones clearly demonstrate the clockwise vs counter-clockwise rotations depending on the hemisphere of the storm.

Hurricanes might be incredible to watch on the news, but they are too frightening to experience directly. So, an at home physics experiment was conducted on each half of the world by Destin Sandlin from Smarter Every Day and Dr. Derek Muller from Veritasium, which were cleverly recorded for simultaneous viewing of the results.

Now, here is where the important instructions come in: If you are on a desktop computer, click play on the upper video (occurring in the Northern Hemisphere) and watch for the count down. At just the right moment, click play in the lower video (occurring in the Southern Hemisphere) and watch both videos simultaneously. If you are on a mobile device, have a friend click play on the second video at the end of the countdown. You might also try expanding your desktop web browser to full screen mode (try hitting the key F11) to make sure you can see both clearly. The videos and music are synchronized, so if you don’t think you have them rolling at the same time, reload this page and try again. It will be worth it.

Discover the truth about toilets and see first hand what it really is like to live in a rotating frame of reference (since you probably didn’t realize it before).

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↬ WATCH: The truth about toilet swirls from Science Alert.

Last updated October 26, 2021