UW-River Falls Lands Grant To Study ‘Detergent For The Atmosphere’

The increasing level of awareness about enacting proper policies to combat global warming, and educating the citizenry about environmental concerns is producing some good results. We can agree policy moves are not taking place fast enough to meet the changes that are being noted globally, but with more efforts made at informing younger generations, who will be leaders someday, it is hoped that more robust changes can occur.

I was delighted to learn, therefore, that three University of Wisconsin-River Falls students are using their summer months as part of a National Science Foundation grant to study the effect of pinenes, molecules released by conifer trees, and other vegetation into the atmosphere. Why this matters, (and like you, I am learning as I blog), is that pinenes are oxidized by other molecules in the atmosphere and during the process produce an important molecule that acts as a detergent for the atmosphere. 

University of Wisconsin River Falls Chemistry and biotechnology Professor Stacey Stoffregen, left, with research students Lilianna Rolands, Makayla Mobeck, and Trinity Olguin.

There are many reasons to smile about this project and applaud the effort.

First, science matters greatly, and grant writing and securing funding is tough work. So to land the $459,686 three-year grant for the project is truly noteworthy.

Getting fresh young minds involved with research not only looks good for their future resumes, but also matters to the climate change dilemma, that now impacts the entire globe. Who knows what findings or new questions these students might land upon which move and shape another researcher perhaps in some other nation that will then spur on a finding that has far-reaching implications.

That is the beauty of research! That is what excites me about this news.

And of course, the research branches out at UW-River Falls beyond these women as additional students will continue the research project for the next two summers.  Their contributions will supplement the growing understanding of atmospheric processes.

There are many news headlines that make up each of our days, and sadly, too many of them are the kind that can only be labeled as just awful. So it pleases me that there is a truly uplifting and hopeful story, coming from Wisconsin about young people and scientific research.

Volcanic Comet 29P vs. ‘Do Vaccines Work’?

This weekend another odd and most tantalizing event occurred on a comet near Jupiter that has excited astronomers and made folks like me ponder things that seem more like Hollywood than the solar system.

For several weeks I have been following, through Spaceweather, the happenings on Comet 29P. During this time the comet has erupted through volcanic action which at times, as it has been reported, became 250 times brighter than usual, like a lit match becoming a bonfire. These explosions are so large that they can be viewed with a solid telescope from your home.

I write about this matter as space and the mysteries of the universe have always intrigued me. But I also post about this matter from the perspective of 2021 in America where too many of our fellow citizens are waxing about the usefulness of vaccines!

Our nation, along with the world, should be spellbound and inquisitive about this comet. But too many are stuck at a stunted level with science so not to even be aware of how to effectively curb a pandemic.

Comet 29P photographed less than 12 hours after the Oct. 23rd eruption. Credit: Jean-Francois Soulier of France.

Comet 29P is one of the strangest objects in the solar system. In fact, it strains the definition of “comet.” 29P is a ball of ice 60 km wide (much larger than a typical comet) trapped in a planet-like orbit between Jupiter and Saturn. It appears to be festooned with ice volcanoes which erupt ~20 times a year.

A rapidfire “super-eruption” of 4 volcanoes in late September created an expanding shell of vaporized cryomagma, which astronomers have been monitoring. Yesterday’s eruption propelled a new compact shell into the old larger one.

29P rotates once every ~58 days. As sunlight sweeps across its frozen surface, cryovolcanoes erupt under the high sun. “The latest eruption has taken place some 59 days after a similar event on August 25th, and may be an example of an outburst from the same cryovolcano erupting a second time on the next rotation of the nucleus.

It is dismaying that we must continually deal with the most elementary level of science among a wide swath of our adult population. Recent events with the pandemic have underscored how underprepared people are at basic reasoning after completing, upon graduation, their public education.

As a result, for example, the slow pace of vaccinations in many parts of the nation has sucked up all the bandwidth so there is no time to dive into a volcanic comet on most news broadcasts. Given the lack of science standards in too many public schools, curiosity over such matters was never developed among much of the populace.

This below then, is what could be the topic with others around ‘the national backyard fence’. We should not only ask ourselves about the comet, but we also must address what has happened to our education system in the nation.

And so it goes.

Space Travel Takes A Most Important Step, Thank You Jeff Bezos

What a grand day in our nation. Jeff Bezos did what he said he would do. He went into space in a short journey of 65 miles in a spacecraft that was built by his company.

For history buffs and lovers of space this was a mighty fine date to have this happen.

On July 20, 1969, two American astronauts landed on the moon and became the first humans to walk on the lunar surface.

This morning a rocket, while not really resembling the ones which launched my childhood heroes into space, still produced that deep sense of awe within me. Today’s rocket and capsule were called New Shepard after Alan Shepard, the first American in space. The connection of the dreamers of today with those who helped pave our original thrust into space is a sign of respect. But also a grounded determination to make great strides likes those brave men who climbed on top of rockets of flame in the 1960s.

We have all heard the constant carping and backbiting about Bezos and his company, Blue Origin. We have heard the litany of reasons that we should scorn the man for being rich, or using his money to exert ourselves into space with a commercial edge. While I have read and listened to such commentary for a long time, I simply disagree. After all, I was reading as a teenager the reasons why space program dollars should have been used for a list of other purposes. Such arguments were wrong then, as they are today.

Human nature is to explore, to learn, to know.

I applaud the decades-long effort of Bezos to reach upward and out and into space. I am confident his work will be a real stepping-stone to advancing our further exploration of space. As a boy who lived the pretend life of an astronaut in 1969, and watching over the decades since as satellites and rovers expand our reach I can say with enthusiasm how thrilled I am today.

I am filled with pride in our nation for producing a private citizen like Bezos, who was schooled to know that unlimited dreams can come true. I also feel deep optimism this is but another step in our desire to be space-bound. What happened today will engage others and drive our curious nature further to better know and understand the heavens.

The same lift of spirit and imagination over the space program that impacted me as a boy (thanks to Walter Cronkite’s narration) surely has struck many a kid today who watched in homes around the country as New Shepard made a dandy performance. That infusion of hope and wonder is priceless for the country.

We are all winners today. Even if some can not acknowledge it.

And so it goes.

Sunrise In America With Solar Eclipse

Sunrise has never been so beautiful–or weird. Today dawn broke over the northeastern USA and Canada with a solar eclipse in progress. Here is what it looked like from Long Beach, New Jersey. And New York City.

Helicopter Flies On Mars, Walter Cronkite Is Smiling

Truly a remarkable day for NASA. And all of us who champion space exploration and the advancement of science.

The Ingenuity helicopter has successfully completed its historic flight on Mars and safely landed back on the surface, according to NASA.

The helicopter’s navigation camera captured a view of the Ingenuity’s shadow on the Martian surface during its first flight.

As I cheer this news and marvel at the pictures being returned to earth I also am thinking about Walter Cronkite.

I fondly recall him asking about the Lunar Rover vehicle on the moon and how it operated. He was, after all, the reporter who made the space program and the glorious moon landing understandable and the type of news coverage that those of us who witnessed it still recall with smiles galore. I recall vividly Cronkite reporting that story and making it so real that even a boy could understand. In time Cronkite would be as memorable a figure to me from that time as Neil Armstrong. As a young boy, it was Cronkite who made the biggest and best adventure possible. He also needs to be thanked for bringing science into our homes.

Today I just know ‘Uncle’ Walter is smiling over this news.

Challenger Astronaut Ronald E. McNair Denied Library Books As A Black Kid

On January 28, 1986, NASA Challenger mission ended in tragedy when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff.  That day was one we all recall where we were, and what we did.  At the radio station where I was working,  WDOR, it was a non-stop day of news and information that included what I think was the best speech ever given by President Ronald Reagan.  There was not a dry eye at the station that evening as he delivered his text.

Onboard the shuttle was physicist Ronald E. McNair, who was the second African American to enter space. But first, he was a kid with big dreams in Lake City, South Carolina.   I want my readers to watch this and take it to heart.  I also want to thank Solly for alerting me to this video.

A Political First After 175 Years

More and more people, institutions, organizations, and ordinary Americans are grasping the enormity of the moment this nation is confronting. The upcoming presidential election is not just another balloting-box experience that history will write about for generations to come. This is the election that will not only determine what type of a people we are, what character the citizenry is made of, but frankly, this election will determine if there will be a republic for those future readers to still live in.

That gravitas to this election is why so many otherwise non-political people are speaking up, and doing so clearly and factually.

Scientific American on Tuesday endorsed Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in the magazine’s 175-year history.

Its editors said they felt “compelled” to do so because President Trump’s well-documented rejection of science, from climate change to the coronavirus, has cost tens of thousands of American lives.

“The pandemic would strain any nation and system,” the editors wrote, “but Trump’s rejection of evidence and public health measures have been catastrophic in the U.S. He was warned many times in January and February about the onrushing disease, yet he did not develop a national strategy to provide protective equipment, coronavirus testing or clear health guidelines.

“Trump claimed, falsely, that ‘anybody that wants a test can get a test,’” they continued. “That was untrue in March and remained untrue through the summer. Trump opposed $25 billion for increased testing and tracing that was in a pandemic relief bill as late as July. These lapses accelerated the spread of disease through the country — particularly in highly vulnerable communities that include people of color, where deaths climbed disproportionately to those in the rest of the population.”

The monthly magazine, with a circulation of 3.5 million, is owned by Springer Nature, an international academic and scientific publishing company.

Man Landing On Moon At Grandparent’s Home


July 20th, 1969 remains a most wonderful memory, not only for our nation, but also for what unfolded that day in my grandparent’s living room.  Today the world is one in memory regarding what is, without doubt, the most amazing feat ever accomplished by mankind.  The landing of humans on the moon.

My family gathered in my grandparent’s Hancock, Wisconsin living room that evening where the large black and white console TV allowed us to watch history unfold on the moon.  I was the youngest in that room, but at the age of seven, I can still recall my heart was on the moon that night. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon it was something akin to a miracle.  So far away, and yet man was there!

Later that evening as we walked back across the road to our home my brother, Gary Humphrey,  joked that the dark shadows on the moon were the dust being kicked up by Armstrong.  I was still young enough to think perhaps he might be correct.  It was a wonderful time to be a kid.

I recall vividly Walter Cronkite reporting that story of what was about to happen, making it so real that even a  boy could understand, and be awe-struck.  In time Cronkite would be as memorable a figure to me from that time as Armstrong.

As a young boy, it was the biggest and best adventure possible, to be recreated many times afterward in the backyard with the picnic table made with my father’s hands serving as the space ship.  There I was, positioned underneath with my legs up in the wooden frame much as the astronauts were on their backs for traveling through space.  It is amazing that the wooden table never burned up on re-entry into the atmosphere.  White pine is durable!!  (NASA should look into that!)  Walter’s voice of the events would be unfolding and echoing in my head as I moved slowly to impersonate the gravity-free conditions that the famed astronauts encountered.

The Apollo program and those brave men who journeyed to space on rockets of flame were my childhood heroes.  But so was Cronkite, with his authoritative voice which allowed us all to be so informed.  One of the things I still recall about Cronkite was that he seemed as excited as I was over the events.  Later in life I would come to understand that he was!

My grandparent’s home produced many memories for me in my childhood.  They lived across the road from my family out in the country, and since we did not have TV while I was a young boy, it was a pleasure to head over the road to watch the big events, such as the moon landing.  The astronauts would change, as would the number of the Apollo mission, but the anchor of the CBS News broadcasts stayed ever-present and informative. Cronkite was as much a fan of the unfolding drama as we were in that living room.  I recall a Saturday morning as if it were yesterday that Walter Cronkite explained with a plastic model of the moon buggy about how it would operate, and what precautions needed to be taken to ensure its successful movements on the lunar surface.

I sat there in rapt attention, and Grandma true to form for these big occasions, would have chips or cookies to nibble on.  She sat in a larger chair off to the side and behind me, while I sat on the sofa and we would watch Walter.

There is less mystery and excitement–or so it seems to me–for kids today when it comes to the space program.  Not that there are no missions to follow, or untold questions to be answered. But with so much technology in our homes and video games to dazzle, I suspect there are no kids these days pretending to be scientists aboard the space station.  I strongly suspect no picnic tables are also serving as space capsules.

Times have changed, but the real heroes of the space era must still be honored.  With deep respect, I offer thanks to Neil Armstrong for all that he gave to mankind.  And to Uncle Walter for bringing science and space into our homes with as much enthusiasm as we were feeling.