BAN #203: Quarantine tips, Martian organic molecules

09 March 2020   Issue #203

[Spiral Galaxy M81 image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona]

Subscribers may be isolated at home, but they still mean the Universe to me.

I recommend

Something I think you’ll like

I know a lot of folks are isolating at home right now, and that can be hard. If you have kids it can be exponentially harder. The good news is there are a TON of resources for parents who are looking for activities online to do with their children.

One of the best compilations I’ve seen is by actress Kristen Bell:

That’s the first tweet of a long series of them with wonderful suggestions. Check them out!

Also, my friend Dianna Cowern, aka The Physics Girl, makes great videos going over topics in physics, and made this really fun video where she tries to do 20 quick science demos in 5 minutes:

Some of those require a lot of parental supervision, so be aware of that.

Also, another friend, Emily Calendrelli, aka The Space Gal, is also doing some fun science demos you can try with your family. Hers are on Instagram; she makes a non-Newtonian fluid, rainbow bubbles, and more.

If you poke around Twitter you’ll find lots of other great ideas both for online and in your house. Literally as I was writing this article a new one popped up in my Twitter feed, about magma and viscosity!

Hopefully these will help you keep your kids’ brains STEAMing ahead with science and fun!

Life Hacks

Not what you might expect from an astronomer, but in my defense I am alive

One thing we’re doing around here as part of the whole pandemic quarantine is every couple of days (especially after we go out shopping) we clean the place up, including sterilizing doorknobs and light switches, things we touch with our hands and fingers.

We do this using an alcohol/water mix, which I described waaaaaaay back in BA Newsletter Issue #8:

We used Windex and other ammonia-based spray cleaners for a long time, but then my wife found a neat little trick. Mix distilled water 50/50 with isopropyl alcohol (we keep both around the house; the first for various appliances like steam cleaners, and the second for first aid), loaded it into a spray bottle, and boom. Glass cleaner.

Now, to kill cornonavirus I’ve read it needs to be at least 60% alcohol, so if you do make this keep that in mind when you make the mix, so add more alcohol. Also, this spray can damage wood, paint, and so on, so be careful using it. We have metal knobs and plastic light switches, but I spray it into the paper towel first and then wipe, so I don’t get it on the doors or walls.

As I also mention in Issue #77, a mist of this mix will stun houseflies, making them easy to swat. Just so’s you know.

But we use this mixture to clean windows, glass tops, and even monitors and devices (though use a soft clean towel for that to avoid scratches).

Do you have a quarantine lifehack? Leave a note in the comments below!

Astro Tidbit

A brief synopsis of some interesting astronomy/science news that may be too short for the blog, too long for Twitter, but just right (and cool enough to talk about) for here.

While finding extant and obvious life on Mars is obviously very difficult, it’s far easier to look for conditions that are now or may once have been conducive to life. Much of the time that falls upon chemistry, looking for molecular evidence of what conditions are like.

A pair of planetary scientists have been looking at Curiosity rover data, which recently found that a kind of molecule called thiophene exists on the red planet. These are relatively simple, consisting of a cyclical chain of carbon and sulfur atoms with a couple of hydrogen atoms hanging off the vertices of the pentagon. On Earth these are found in coal, fossil fuel, stromatolites and other biological sources. On Mars it’s not so clear, but they looked at ways it could form there, including both biological and non-biological (geological) pathways.

[A ball-and-stick thiophene model, where dark gray is carbon, yellow is sulfur, and light gray is hydrogen. Credit: UCLA Chemistry]

They found that biology provides an easier way to create these molecules than many non-life-form ways. That’s intriguing! But also preliminary: The way Curiosity examines the molecular constituents breaks them apart, making it harder to figure out how they came to be in the first place. The researchers hope that ESA’s upcoming rover mission, Rosalind Franklin, will give them better clues. That is set to launch in 2022.

This may come in the form of isotopes. For example, a carbon atom has six protons in its nucleus, but it might have six, seven, or even eight neutrons. It’s still carbon, but each atom has different masses. Organisms tend to use the lighter ones, so if the rover (which can test for the different isotopes) finds thiophenes with lighter ones, that’s more evidence of potential ancient life on Mars. Sill, it’s not proof. I’m not sure when we’ll get that, if ever. But all of these steps are in the right direction at least to get closer to finding out, and while that’s a little frustrating, it’s the right thing to do. Patience. If life existed on Mars a few billion years ago, the evidence will hopefully still be there when we have the capacity to recognize it.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[A simulation of what the black hole in the center of the galaxy M87 would look like as it bends light around it. From Friday’s post. Credit: Adapted from Johnson et al. ]

Monday 02 March, 2020:

Is Earth being bombarded by teeny ultra-high-velocity meteors moving at near lightspeed?

Tuesday 03 March, 2020:

Neptune's back yard just got 316 new residents

Wednesday 04 March, 2020:

An Earth-sized exoplanet found with a star that zooms *way* up and down in the Milky Way

Thursday 05 March, 2020:

Today is the vernal equinox… the earliest one in 124 years!

Friday 06 March, 2020:

What’s the last thing you’d see as you fell into a black hole?

Et alia

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