A Very Merry Science Friday + AGU Highlights

Last week was the annual American Geophysical Union Fall Conference in San Francisco, California: A place where new geoscience research is presented en masse to over 15,000 geoscientists. TrekMovie was there to catch all the action. So, this week we bring you an AGU edition of Science Friday with highlights from the conference. Of course, today is also Christmas, so Science Friday will also bring you a bit of sciency xmas cheer.


What is “AGU”?
AGU, or the American Geophysical Union, is a group of Earth scientists, people who explore the surface, interior, oceans, atmosphere, and outer space environment of Earth. They climb dangerous volcanoes and study their explosive nature, measure the violent shaking of deadly earthquakes, investigate how Earth’s tectonic plates collide to form tremendous mountain ranges and deep valleys, and send sound waves through the crust to explore for oil, natural gas, and minerals. They dive to the bottom of the ocean, fly through hurricanes and chase tornados, forecast tomorrow’s weather, rocket into outer space, and even walk on the Moon! Over 15,000 Earth scientists attended the 2009 Fall AGU Conference this year, where they shared their research with other scientists.

Video of Deep Sea Volcano
One of the most popular stories to come out of AGU this year was a video captured of an erupting volcano on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The footage is believed to be of the deepest volcanic eruption ever caught on film. An expedition team, which included researchers from the University of Washington and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was conducting observations in an area of the Pacific bounded by the island nations of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. A team microbiologists found a diverse set of microbial life living in the extreme pressures and temperatures found on the volcanic vent. The small species of shrimp are called "extremophiles" because of their ability to survive in such extreme conditions and are believed to be the same shrimp species found at eruptive sites more than 3,000 miles away. Mission scientists believe 80 percent of eruptive activity on Earth occurs in the ocean, and most volcanoes are in the deep sea. But until this discovery, NOAA and the National Science Foundation had sponsored submarine volcano research for 25 years, without observing a deep-ocean eruption like this one.

Christmas Helps Science on Ice Sheet Mission
Details of a new mission were revealed at the AGU conference last week in which tiny orange balls made from Christmas tree baubles could help scientists to shed new light on the changing Greenland Ice Sheet. The 4cm spheres will be placed in holes atop the glacier, flow through water channels that run under glaciers, and be recovered after words. Sensors attached to the balls will be able to gather data on pressure, water and ice flow, and how meltwater lubricates the underside of the glacier. The method has been tested by scientists at Bristol University, and they hope to expand the study in the future.

Scientists listening (main) for sounds from the baubles (inset)

Flash of Light from Titan Confirms Liquid Lakes
A flash of sunlight from the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, which was captured by Cassini, confirms the presence of liquid lakes on the surface. The image (below) was released at the AGU conference and was taken on July 8th by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer. Titan has a dense nitrogenous atmosphere and is the only place in the solar system other than Earth that is home to pools of liquid on the surface. Of course, the pools on Titan are different from ours in that they are composed of liquid methane. Cassini has been looking for this glint of light since it arrived in 2004, but it wasn’t until now that we got to see it.

A flash of light from Titan’s methane lakes

Video of the Week: Why Do Geologists Love Beer?

It’s true. It’s known in the scientific community that where there is a geologist, there is also a beer. Some have posited that geologists are in fact the first known alcohol-based life form, or that it keeps us from going crazy on week-long camping trips in the middle of nowhere for the sake of “science”. I’m not sure why we love beer so much, but we do. Check out this video from WIRED where they ask geologists why geoscience and beer seems to go hand-in-hand, even at professional meetings!

A Science Christmas Gift: From Cassini To You
NASA and JPL put together this stunning display of never before seen movies made from images captured by Cassini. The end of 2009 marks the close of Cassini’s sixth year at the ringed gas giant, and this video (set to the Nutcracker Suite in the spirit of the holiday) is just another reminder of the vivid imagery to come from the mission. Many thanks to Carolyn Porco and her imaging team. TrekMovie wishes you all the best in the years to come!

The Physics of Santa Claus
Right now Santa Claus is whizzing around the world to bring toys to all the good girls and boys. This is a monumental task and so the Starts With A Bang Blog has decided to analyze the physics involved. In part, they conclude:

Santa has to travel ten million kilometers in 36 hours. If all he does is travel from house-to-house in this time, he needs to move at an average speed of 77 kilometers per second (48 miles per second). Put another way, he gets about 130 microseconds to travel to, deliver presents to, and leave each household.

More at scienceblogs.com/startswithabang

Santa is going to need something faster than a F-16

Track Santa
As they do every year, NORAD (with the help of Google Earth) tracks Santa’s Progress across the Earth using their advanced detection satellites and radar. Earlier this morning Santa took his time out to travel to the International Space Station. Here is the video:

Go to noradsanta.org to keep track of Santa Claus.


If you are on Twitter, you know there are plenty of amazing people out there tweeting away. And, many of them are scientists! Every Friday I’ll be bringing you a new list of great scientists and techies to follow on Twitter. This week…

  • @theAGU: The conference may be over for 2009, but theAGU is still bringing great breaking science news to the twitterverse
  • @carolynporco: Carolyn Porco, lead scientist on Cassini’s imaging team and science consultant for Abrams’ Star Trek
  • @EarthPic: Earth Science Picture of the day features over 3000 images that highlight the processes and phenomena that shape our planet. New image everyday!

See You Next Year!

Happy holidays from TrekMovie and Science Friday! We’ll see you in 2010!


TrekMovie’s Science Friday is an homage the the great NPR radio show Science Friday. Science Friday® is a registered service mark of ScienceFriday Inc.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Merry xmas all. First?

Merry Christmas to you all.

Merry Christmas all,
and especially to Treknews for all the updates.
cheers all.

Merry Christmas to everyone!

Happy X-mas, Peace on Earth, Good-will to all humans and non-humans

Was that a lens flare I saw as Santa approached ISS? ;-)

Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year to all!

Thanks, Kayla! I’ve always had an interest in Earth and planetary science, and I think that the connection between it and science fiction has helped make it such a source of fascination for me.

One of the commanders of the International Space Station recently recorded greetings, accessible in the Blu-ray edition of Star Trek: First Contact, explicitly making the connection between our present and the fictional future we see in Trek. He said that one of his fondest wishes was to look down from heaven and to see his descendants exploring the world in a starship much like the Enterprise.

When I think of Trek, I think of our precious planet, and I think of all the work that has gone into understanding our world and our place in it.

The universe beckons, and it is my hope that more of us will heed its call.

The best of the season to all!

Beer Trek. I think engineering on the E must be entirely staffed by geologists.

Thanks, Kayla! And… MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Santa should stop using the deers and start using star trek transporter technology.

So could those emails in that climate-gate thing be attributed to the climatologists texting while under the influence?

Or better yet, climatologists think the world’s getting warmer because they, in fact feel warmer because they have been drinking too much? If they sober up there won’t be a problem anymore? :-)

Then we’ll just have a global hangover problem…

Clmateologist is not the same as a Geologist. Seeing this, I think maybe I should have become a Geologist!