Explaining Your Thesis Topic the Hard Way

You’ll probably never have occasion to explain how tornadoes might disrupt the biological relationships between tree seedlings and soil organisms. But if you do, you almost certainly won’t do it by swinging from a trapeze as friends and acquaintances writhe around on the floor below.

But then, you’re not Uma Nagendra, a doctoral candidate in plant biology at the University of Georgia. By choreographing and performing a piece called “Plant-soil feedbacks after severe tornado damage,” Nagendra has just snagged first place in the seventh annual international Dance your Ph.D. contest, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science magazine and HighWire Press.

The curmudgeons among us might be tempted to smirk—especially when they find out one of the runners-up was honored for his interpretive dance titled “Reduced-fat mayonnaise: Can’t maintain its stability.”

A conversation with Nagendra, however, will nip that impulse in the bud. “Lots of people are looking for ways to communicate science better, since we haven’t done so well in the past,” she says. “For me, the value of incorporating dance into science communication is that it can help illustrate complex ideas.” For anyone who relies on photos, graphics or illustrations to help us understand scientific concepts—which is to say, just about everyone—this should make all sorts of sense.

Nagendra, first heard about the contest a few years ago. She has no formal training in dance (“I dabble in different social dance forms,” she says, which means she likes go dancing for fun) but she knew immediately that she wanted to enter someday. She had some friends who were exploring trapeze as a kind dance medium—think Cirque du Soleil—and when she began taking trapeze classes herself, she was hooked. “The choreography took a while,” Nagendra says. “I had to do it in bits and pieces, since I couldn’t exactly practice in my living room.”

The other trapeze performers who appear in the piece are from the class, but most of the people playing soil pathogens on the ground are “grad students or friends of friends who thought it would be fun to roll around on the floor and pretend to be a fungus.” (She recruited some of them on Facebook, with a post that urged interested parties to, “unleash your inner nematode.”)

For winning the contest, Nagendra will get a $1000 prize and an all-expenses-paid trip to Stanford University next may for a screening of all the winning entries (you can read about all 12 finalists here, and read the official announcement at the Science website).

TIME space

SpaceShipTwo Rocket Plane Debris Spread Over 35 Miles, Says NTSB

SpaceShipTwo NTSB
NTSB Acting NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart uses a model to demonstrate how the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane was supposed to "feather" its wings during an interview with the a video crew, Nov. 3, 2014.

Lightweight debris from last week’s in-flight breakup of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane has been found as far away as 30 to 35 miles from the main crash site, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday night.

The dispersal of debris testifies to the thoroughness of the plane’s disintegration, after an anomaly that occurred on Friday during a flight test high above California’s Mojave Desert. SpaceShipTwo’s wing-feathering system — a mechanism that’s designed to slow the craft down during its descent — has emerged as a focus of the NTSB’s investigation.

Experts on human performance have been added to…

Read more from our partners at NBC News

TIME space travel

Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson Says the Risk of Space Tourism ‘Is Worth It’

And he's confirmed that he will be the first passenger on Virgin Galactic’s maiden flight

Despite the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo during a test flight Friday, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury, the company’s founder Richard Branson says, “the risk is worth it.”

“Mike would have been the first to say that,” Branson told CNN Monday. “Test pilots would say that because they know the risk they’re taking, they know the importance of what they’re doing, we know the importance of what we’re doing.”

And the British entrepreneur confirmed that he would still be the first passenger on Virgin Galactic’s maiden space tourism flight.

“There is no way I would ask others to go on a Virgin Galactic flight if I didn’t feel it was safe enough for myself,” he said.

A spot on the flight will cost $250,000, and 800 passengers have already signed up to join Branson in becoming the world’s first space tourists. Branson said two more people signed up Friday to support the program after the fatal crash.


TIME Environment

Scientists Get a Little More Creative to Study Penguins Up-Close

Antarctica, Antarctic Peninsula, Paulet Island, Adelie
Wolfgang Kaehler—LightRocket/Getty Images Penguins jump into the water on Paulet Island in Antarctica.

They made four-wheel rovers look like baby emperor penguins

Scientists may have discovered a way to study animals without disturbing their natural behavior, according to a new study, and it involves dressing up.

Observing animals without disturbing their state of being has long been an issue, the researchers wrote in Nature Methods. So, in an effort to fix that, an international team of scientists made four-wheel rovers look like baby emperor penguins and drove them over to colonies of the animals to gauge their reactions and collect data.

The scientists implanted microchips in about 34 king penguins to monitor the animals’ heart rates when they were approached by the rovers, according to CNET. Turns out, they were slightly less stressed (and notably for shorter periods of time) when approached by the rovers than when near humans. The animals were so comfortable around the robotic penguin that adult ones sang to it and the babies huddled around it as if it were their own.

TIME space

Virgin Galactic Crash Investigation Could Take a Year

Law enforcement officers take a closer look at the wreckage near the site where a Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket, SpaceShipTwo, exploded and crashed in Mojave, Calif. on Nov 1, 2014.
Ringo H.W. Chiu—AP Law enforcement officers take a closer look at the wreckage near the site where a Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket, SpaceShipTwo, exploded and crashed in Mojave, Calif. on Nov 1, 2014.

But Virgin Galactic has another spacecraft 65% ready

The investigation into the Virgin Galactic spacecraft that crashed and killed one person during a test flight in California on Friday could take a year, a leading U.S. safety official said.

Christopher Hart, the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said late Saturday Virgin Galactic could still conduct test flights during the investigation of the SpaceShipTwo crash, which also injured one other person, the BBC reports.

A second spacecraft that has been under construction for the past three years is 65% complete, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told the Financial Times. The spacecraft could be ready for flight next year, after the company finds out how SpaceShipTwo’s crash came about.

Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson said that he is “determined to find out what went wrong” with the crash. Hart said the debris from the crash was spread over an area of file miles in the Mojave desert.

The surviving pilot, 43-year-old Peter Siebold, is “alert and talking with his family and doctors,” according to Scaled Composites, the aerospace company for which both pilots worked. Investigators will interview him about the crash when his doctors give the green light.


TIME Environment

U.N.: Phase Out Fossil Fuels By 2100 Or Face ‘Irreversible’ Climate Impact

Aerial view of a power station
Jason Hawkes—Getty Images

"Science has spoken," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said

Greenhouse gas emissions may have to cease by the end of the century to keep global temperatures from reaching levels many scientists consider dangerous, the United Nations’ latest climate assessment suggests.

“Science has spoken,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in Copenhagen at Sunday’s launch of the fourth and final report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), CBS News reports. “There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.”

The IPCC assessment, which incorporated the findings of three other reports over the past 13 months, reaffirms with 95% certainty that global climate change is both real and a mostly man-made problem — a conclusion it shared in an earlier report. The entire project, which reviewed approximately 30,000 studies about climate, also suggests that if greenhouse gas emissions continue without intervention, there could be “irreversible” impacts, such as rising sea levels, more frequent heat waves and even a change in the human population’s male-female ratio.

To halt climate change, countries around the world will have to wean themselves off fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gases when burned, in favor of more sustainable and environmentally friendly energy sources, the IPCC report concluded. Last month, leaders of 28 European nations agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to at least 40 percent of 1990 levels by the year 2030.

“We have the means to limit climate change,” said Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the IPCC. “All we need is the will to change, which we trust will be motivated by knowledge and an understanding of the science of climate change.”

Meteorologists already reported last month that 2014 could be the hottest year on record. If climate change continues, billions of dollars in seaside property could be destroyed, while some states could see crop yields drop by as much as 70%. Climate change could also likely cause a rise in various infectious diseases, world hunger, respiratory problems and heat-related illnesses, such as cardiac arrest and heat stroke.

The report’s findings contrast with the American public perception of climate change. Only 54 percent of people in the U.S. this summer reported that they believe current climate change is caused by human activity. In September, however, thousands of people took to the streets of New York City to put pressure on world leaders during the People’s Climate March, one of the largest environmental events ever.

In a statement about the latest report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Those who choose to ignore or dispute the science so clearly laid out in this report do so at a great risk for all of us and for our kids and grandkids.”


TIME space

Branson Promises Answers on Spaceship Crash That Killed 1

"We're not going to push on blindly"

Billionaire Richard Branson promised Saturday that he would find out what caused one of his Virgin Galactic commercial spaceships to crash Friday, in an accident that killed one pilot and seriously injured another.

“We are determined to find out what went wrong,” Branson said at the California facility where the spacecraft was developed.

MORE: Enough with amateur-hour space flight

Branson, the bombastic mogul who also owns airlines, a wireless brand and many other businesses, has long been at the forefront of efforts to charge wealthy tourists a hefty sum for even a brief moment to enjoy the weightlessness and view of Earth from space. But the commercial space industry is facing tough questions after two accidents in one week: the crash of Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo on Friday and the explosion of the unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket on Tuesday.

Branson didn’t provide any new details about the accident on Saturday. Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating. Branson said safety will always come first.

“We’re not going to push on blindly,” he said. “We’re going to learn from what went wrong.

“We’ve always known that commercial space travel is an incredibly hard project,” he added. “We’ve been undertaking a comprehensive testing program for many years, and safety has always been our No. 1 priority.”

TIME space

Private Space Industry Faces Questions After 2 Crashes

“Space is hard. And today was a tough day"

It’s been a rough week for the private space industry. On Friday, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two crashed during a flight test in the Mojave Desert, killing one and seriously injuring another. On Tuesday, an unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded six seconds after lift-off in Virginia.

The back-to-back accidents raise inevitable questions about the safety and reliability of the emerging private space industry. Will space tourists and companies that want to put cargo into orbit take the risk?

“Gut reaction, this is a major setback,” said James Pura, president of Space Frontier Foundation, a non-profit that advocates more space exploration. “A lot of our hopes and dreams in the private commercial space industry lie in the success of the leading companies, and Virgin Galactic is one of those.”

The private space industry is receiving a huge influx of investment and attention. Elon Musk’s Space X, for example, has a number of contracts to deliver satellites and cargo into space. Another company, Planetary Sciences, backed by billionaires like Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, plans to mine asteroids. Meanwhile, Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, got started in 2010 as a space tourism business, but has since detoured into making rocket engines.

Virgin Galactic, the space tourism start-up founded by Virgin mogul Richard Branson, had plans to take its first commercial trip 62 miles into the stratosphere by the end of the year. Over 700 customers have paid $250,000 to take a trip.

But it may be difficult to meet that goal after today’s accident, in which a test flight experienced what the company described as an “in-flight anomaly” that sent the craft hurtling to the ground. At least one of the test pilots escaped by parachute.

“Space is hard. And today was a tough day,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said.

Earlier in the week, Orbital Sciences, a company that carries customer payloads into space, suffered a huge setback when its launch went haywire. A rocket it launched in Virginia had to be destroyed just seconds after taking off.

Shares in Orbital Sciences ORB plummeted over 16% after the failure.

“It is far too early to know the details of what happened,” Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s executive vice president and general manager of its advanced programs group, said in a statement. “As we begin to gather information, our primary concern lies with the ongoing safety and security of those involved in our response and recovery operations.

“From a financial standpoint it will take some time to assess the precise impacts; however, I can tell you that Orbital’s view for 2014 remains unchanged,” Garrett Pierce, Orbital Sciences’ vice chairman and CFO, said on a conference call with analysts and investors.

Of course, private space companies aren’t the only to suffer setbacks. NASA has had its own high-profile mishaps over the years, including two Space Shuttle accidents. Whether governmental efforts are any more risky than private launches is unclear. But one thing is certain.

“Space flight is inherently risky and we as humans are curious about space and always will be,” Pura, the foundation president, said. “Those brave pioneers are turning science fiction into reality. Our heart goes out to those brave pioneers at this time.”

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME space

Enough With Amateur-Hour Space Flight

A fatal accident in the Mojave Desert is a lesson in the perils of space hubris

It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for the hard-working people of Virgin Galactic—Sir Richard Branson’s private space tourism company—after the loss of their SpaceShipTwo vehicle in a crash in the Mojave Desert at a little after 10 a.m. PDT Friday. And it’s completely impossible not to hurt for the families of the two pilots involved in the accident—one of whom was killed and the other of whom suffered serious injuries, according to local police.

But it’s hard too not to be angry, even disgusted, with Branson himself. He is, as today’s tragedy shows, a man driven by too much hubris, too much hucksterism and too little knowledge of the head-crackingly complex business of engineering. For the 21st century billionaire, space travel is what buying a professional sports team was for the rich boys of an earlier era: the biggest, coolest, most impressive toy imaginable. Amazon.com zillionaire Jeff Bezos has his own spacecraft company—because what can better qualify a man to build machines able to travel to space than selling books, TVs and lawn furniture online? Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has a space operation too because, well, spacecraft have computers and that’s sort of the same thing, right?

Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, is at least in the business of flying aircraft, but the key part of that compound word is air. Space, as Branson surely knows, has none of that—and that changes the physics considerably.

A Virgin crash always seemed troublingly likely. And since it is the company’s whole purpose to carry passengers, it seemed equally likely to hurt or kill a lot of people too. I visited Branson’s self-styled spaceport in the Mojave last year to watch a brief test flight of his spacecraft. The mission that day was intended more as an air show than anything else—part of a pep rally for the hundreds of Virgin customers who would be attending to hear about the company’s progress. All of them had reserved a seat and paid a deposit toward their $200,000 ticket for a trip that—if it ever happened—would last just 15 minutes and ascend to just 62 miles (100 kilometers), which technically counts as being in space, but only to the extent that riding a jet ski off the beach in Ft. Lauderdale counts as going to sea.

But never mind, because the crowd seemed happy to be there and to take Branson’s word that they really, truly would get their chance to be astronauts. For the record, the demonstration flight they had come to see never took off due to high desert winds.

The Virgin crash comes just three days after the Oct. 28 explosion of an Antares rocket taking off from Wallops Island, Va., on an unmanned resupply mission to the International Space Station. That first part of a very bad week for the space industry was especially cautionary, because Orbital Sciences, the Virginia-based manufacturer of the rocket, is by no means a newcomer. It’s been in the business for more than three decades and has a very good track record of getting payloads—not passengers—off the ground and into orbit. Yet even it cannot control all of the lethal variables—technical, meteorological, human—that make space travel such a dicey game.

The practice of non-professionals insinuating themselves into the space business is not new. We have a launch facility at Cape Canaveral yet built a Mission Control center halfway across the country in Houston—the least efficient, most senseless arrangement imaginable—because then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson was the White House point man for the space program and he wanted his home state of Texas to get a bite of the big moon pie. Ex-Sen. Jake Garn and current Sen. Bill Nelson both elbowed their way aboard space shuttle flights since, unlike all of the other American kids who want to play spaceman, they were powerful figures in Congress and could loosen or tighten NASA’s purse strings at will.

Once NASA announced that after the shuttle program ended in 2011 it would be outsourcing the low Earth orbit portion of its portfolio to the private sector, it was inevitable that there would be a scramble of companies vying for those contracts—and that’s by no means all bad. In some respects, space has always been privatized: North American Aviation, Grumman Aerospace, Boeing and others have all been major NASA contractors, and they are hardly government-owned operations.

All, however, are deeply experienced in the business of aeronautical and astronautical design, too. Elon Musk, founder of the upstart SpaceX is, so far, defying doubters, with a string of both commercial launches and resupply missions to the ISS and no major disasters. But SpaceX is a rare bird—and still a young one—and it has a while to go before it establishes its true space cred.

It’s Branson, however, who has always been the most troubling of the cosmic cowboys—selling not just himself on his fever dreams but his trusting customers. One of those would-be astronauts I met in the Mojave that day was a teenage girl, whose parents had put aside enough money to buy her the singular experience of a trip to space. They beamed at her courage as we spoke, and seemed thrilled about the ride she was soon to take. Those plans, presumably, are being rethought now.

TIME space travel

Virgin Galactic Spaceship ‘SpaceShipTwo’ Crashes During Flight Test

One pilot was killed and another seriously injured

A Virgin Galactic spacecraft crashed in the California desert during a test flight Friday, the company said. The crash killed one test pilot and left another seriously injured.

Visibly shaken officials at a Friday press conference said that the surviving pilot is being treated at Antelope Valley Hospital and that little is known at this time about what caused the crash.

A witness told the Associated Press that SpaceShipTwo, which is carried aloft by a separate aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo, exploded shortly after detaching from its carrier craft and igniting its rockets. Virgin Galactic has been testing the aircraft, known as SpaceShipTwo, in the Southern California desert in hopes that it could one day be used to shuttle tourists to space.

Virgin Galactic recently changed SpaceShipTwo’s fuel mixture from a rubber-based solution to a plastic mix, but it’s unclear if that switch had anything to do with Friday’s explosion.

“We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates ASAP,” the company said in a tweet.

Officials from the Kern County Fire Department and the California Highway Patrol both responded to the incident, while local news helicopter footage of the scene showed debris clearly from SpaceShipTwo littering the test area. The National Transportation Safety Board said Friday it’s sending a “go-team” to investigate the incident.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson tweeted Friday afternoon that he’s flying to the scene of the crash immediately:

The SpaceShipTwo incident follows Tuesday’s loss of an unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket shortly after liftoff from Virginia’s Wallops Flight Facility.

“It hasn’t been an easy week,” said Stuart Witt, CEO of the Mojave Air & Space Port, at a press conference Friday.It’s certainly been a challenge, but, where I’m from, this is where you find out your true character.”

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