Thursday, January 6, 2011

Kids Doing Real Science

How cool is this? A ten-year-old New Brunswick girl has discovered a supernova (240 million miles from Earth). (Link thanks to the Geek Feminism Blog) The Globe and Mail reports:
Kathryn [Gray] is the youngest person ever to have discovered a stellar explosion, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada says. Her find was confirmed by Arizona-based Canadian amateur astronomer Jack Newton, who holds the record for the discovery of the most supernovas by an amateur in 2010, and Illinois-based amateur astronomer Brian Tieman.

Kathryn was rather blasé on Monday about her discovery. She was not quite sure what to think about it, her mother Susan said in an interview: “She did not understand why everyone thought it was such an amazing thing. For her, it was just something she works on with her dad.”


Amateur astronomer Dave Lane, who provided the images of the stars for Kathryn, said finding a supernova is not an earth-shattering event.

“But every supernova discovery goes into the body of knowledge that helps astronomers understand the universe,” he said from Halifax. Distances in space can be determined by measuring the energy and brightness of supernovas. “It will not change the price of bread, but it will help us understand the age of the universe and where the universe began, it is part of that puzzle,” he said. In recent years, around 300 supernovas have been discovered annually.
Another case of kids doing real science (link also provided by the Geek Feminism Blog), a group of British eight year-olds have published a research paper on bees-- in Biology Letters, a peer-reviewed science journal. Here's Wired Science:
“We discovered that bumblebees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from,” the students wrote in the paper’s abstract. “We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.”

The paper itself is well worth reading. It’s written entirely in the kids’ voices, complete with sound effects (part of the Methods section is subtitled, “‘the puzzle’…duh duh duuuhhh”) and figures drawn by hand in colored pencil.

The project, which began three years ago, grew out of a lecture neuroscientist Beau Lotto of University College London gave at the school, where his son Misha was a student. Lotto spoke about his research on human perception, bumblebees and robots, and then shared his ideas on how science is done: “Science is nothing more than a game.”

“Nature’s way for us to discover patterns and relationships is to play. That’s the same aim that science has,” Lotto said. “I think everyone does science every day. The scientific process is part of life.”
Read the rest of the article here, describing, for instance, how the student "designed a series of puzzles for the bees [they were studying] to solve." The article's a great antidote to stories about US schools' defunding their long-running Science Fairs.

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