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The Super Bowl of Science

Are you a high school senior with an interest in math or science? Then you owe it to yourself to check out the Intel Science Talent Search, an annual competition for young scientists. Older readers like myself may know the program better by its former name, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search -- the competition has been running annually for 68 years, though Intel has sponsored it since 1999. In his 1991 speech to STS finalists, President George H.W. Bush famously called the competition the "Super Bowl of science."

STS winners get scholarships, a trip to Washington to network with other finalists (including a meet-and-greet that generally features the President, Vice President, and/or First Lady), laptops, and a chance to work directly with scientist mentors on their projects. This year's top winner (who received a $100,000 scholarship) was Erika DeBenedictis of New Mexico, whose project was described thusly:

Working at home and building on existing research, Erika developed an original optimizing search algorithm that discovers energy minimizing routes in specified regions of space and would allow a spacecraft to adjust its flight path en route. She believes her novel single-step method of repeated orbit refinement could work with essentially autonomous spacecraft, and may be a practical step forward in space exploration.

Not bad for a high school student, right? DeBenedictis's home page reads like a CV already.

Here's the "highlight reel" from this year's awards ceremony:

After the jump: updates on past winners, and a bit more about the history of the competition.

What Past Winners Have Done

Many STS winners have gone on to illustrious careers in science. 1950 finalist Sheldon Glashow, best known for predicting the charm quark and creating the first grand unified theory, went on to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. You can see him in this adorable slideshow of the STS through the years. According to Intel, "Seven have gone on to win the Nobel Prize; others have been awarded the Fields Medal, the National Medal of Science, and the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship." The STS has also been called the "Baby Nobels," and for good reason -- it's an incubator for young scientists, and has awarded nearly $4 million in scholarships over its roughly seven-decade history.

Intel has also published a nice by the numbers comparison, which includes these fun stats:

2 - Number of 2009 Intel STS finalists who are varsity athletes

6 - Number of 2009 Intel STS finalists with perfect SAT scores

10 - Number of MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grants awarded to Science Talent Search finalists

70 - Percentage of Science Talent Search finalists who go on to complete an M.D. or Ph.D.

History of the STS

Founded in 1942 in partnership with Westinghouse, the STS is the most prestigious science competition for high schoolers in the US. The Society for Science & the Public gives us some perspective on the scope of this competition:

Over six decades, more than 130,000 students from U.S. high schools in all 50 states and territories have completed independent science research projects and submitted entries. Each completed entry consists of a written description of the student's independent research, plus an entry form that elicits evidence of the student's excellence and accomplishments. Over 2,600 Finalists have received more than $3.8 million in awards to support their college educations, and 18,000 Semifinalists have received millions more.

Here's a video slideshow about the STS, going back to 1942. Lots of US Presidents show up here, including Eisenhower, Nixon (when he was a congressman), Obama, and more. Bonus points for the shot near the end showing STS finalists at the Albert Einstein Memorial at the National Academy of Sciences (sadly, Einstein's statue is not sticking its tongue out).

How to Enter

Check out the Compete in the Intel Science Talent Search page for more info, or try the STS homepage for more, including sample submission forms for 2010. While 2010's competition is closed, 2011 is wide open....

If you're not in high school, check out this competition for middle schoolers. It appears to be on hold at the moment, seeking a sponsor, but the site suggests a possible restart in 2011.

For much more: check out the Society for Science & the Public's YouTube channel.

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Weather Watch
Will the Solar Eclipse Have an Impact on the Weather?

The United States will have a front-row seat to one of the most spectacular solar eclipses to sweep across the country in our lifetimes. Millions of lucky observers from coast to coast will have the chance to watch the Moon scoot in front of the Sun on the afternoon of August 21, 2017, briefly plunging cities like Salem, Oregon, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and Columbia, South Carolina, into night-like darkness during the day. Read our field guide to the solar eclipse for tips on how to make the most of this spectacular event.

While a solar eclipse can be amazing to behold, the phenomenon has little impact on Earth. It may, however, have a small but noticeable effect on weather in the areas that experience a total eclipse.

The entire country will be able to see the Moon cover the Sun in some form, but the best viewing areas will be along a northwest-to-southeast path across the middle of the country. According to NASA, a location needs at least 90 percent coverage to notice any darkening at all, and even 99 percent coverage of the Sun only provides the same level of darkness you'd see at twilight. Areas totally covered by the Moon's relatively narrow shadow will experience conditions akin to dusk, prompting street lights to turn on and even tricking birds and bugs into thinking that the day is drawing to an end. Studies have shown that the total eclipse could also have an effect on temperatures and even winds.

Researchers who studied an eclipse across Europe in 1999 found that the event lowered air temperatures by as much as 5°F across the path of totality. This brief dip in air temperatures also affected local wind speed and direction—not by much, but it was enough for both people and instruments to take notice of the so-called "eclipse wind." The effect on the atmosphere in Europe wasn't a fluke. A weather station in Zambia recorded a temperature drop of nearly 15°F during a solar eclipse in June 2001, and there are reports through history of observers noticing a distinct cooling effect in the midst of a lunar shadow.

The duration of the eclipse and the amount of moisture in the air will determine how much the Moon's shadow will lower temperatures. Moist air has a higher heat capacity than drier air, so when it's muggy outside it takes longer for the air to warm up and cool down. This is why daily temperatures fluctuate less in Miami, Florida, than they do in Phoenix, Arizona. Communities that lie among the drier, cooler Rocky Mountains are more likely to witness a noteworthy dip in temperatures compared to states like Tennessee or South Carolina, which are typically locked in the humid doldrums of summer at the end of August.

If you're lucky enough to witness this spectacular astronomical phenomenon, make sure you bring your eclipse glasses—and a thermometer.

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Space
7 Eye-Opening Facts About Venus

For all the efforts to find another inhabitable planet orbiting a distant star, it might surprise you to learn that a very real Earth 2.0 exists in this solar system—just one planet over. Not Mars (which actually isn't much like Earth at all), but rather, our other neighbor: Venus. Mental Floss spoke to geophysicist Bob Grimm, a program director at the Southwest Research Institute and chair of NASA's Venus Exploration Analysis Group. Here are a few things we learned about Earth's twin sister.

1. BY THE NUMBERS, VENUS LOOKS A LOT LIKE EARTH.

Venus has a radius of 3760 miles. Earth's is 3963. Its mass and gravity are 82 percent and 91 percent of Earth's, respectively—pretty similar as planets go. Venus is composed of a mostly basalt crust, silicate mantle, and iron core. Earth is the same. The two planets likely share common origins somewhere around 4.5 billion years ago.

In fact, by all accounts, we should be able to land our flying saucers on Venus, saddle up a dinosaur, and start building tract housing. It's perfect for colonization, but for a few minor differences. Its year is shorter, at 224.7 days. (And its days are much longer, at 243 Earth days per Venus day.) The Sun would rise in the west and set in the east because of the planet's retrograde orbit (which, by the way, is the most circular of any planet in the solar system). And then there's another small problem …

2. IT'S HOT. VERY, VERY HOT.

Venus is hotter than Mercury, despite being 30 million miles farther from the Sun. How hot? Hot enough, on average, to melt a block of lead the way a block of ice would melt on Earth. Venus suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect. Sunlight penetrates the dense clouds surrounding Venus, heating the landscape. The ground in turn blasts out heat, which rises and tries to escape the atmosphere. But carbon dioxide, which makes up 96 percent of its atmosphere, traps the heat, keeping things nice and toasty, around 900°F. And those clouds aren't the white, fluffy variety. They're made of droplets of sulfuric acid, which makes its lightning storms especially harrowing.

3. VENUS HOLDS THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING EXOPLANETS.

"'Does Earth-size mean Earth-like?' is a basic problem of planetology," says Grimm. "Understanding how Earth and Venus diverged is essential to understanding comparative planetology, and potentially exoplanets—these worlds orbiting distant stars that are being discovered telescopically."

Knowing more about Venus would help scientists better distinguish potentially habitable worlds out there, and better understand how a good world can go bad, from a sustaining-life perspective. "Geology and meteorology are intimately related to the evolution of the Earth and the evolution of life on Earth," Grimm notes. "Even though we may not be looking for life on Venus, it's important to understanding Earth's place in the solar system and in the universe."

4. IT DIDN'T HAVE DINOSAURS. (PROBABLY.)

You might have run across old illustrations of Venus with conditions similar to the Carboniferous Period on Earth. Astronomers have known for just under a hundred years that Venus's atmosphere is devoid of oxygen, without which you can't have water. But even a modest backyard telescope can see the clouds enveloping our neighbor, and as Carl Sagan explained, from there you're only a couple of erroneous jumps from assuming a brontosaurus. (Thick clouds mean more water than land. More water than land means swamps. Dinosaurs lived in swamps. Dinosaurs live on Venus. QED.) Said Sagan: "Observation: There was absolutely nothing to see on Venus. Conclusion: It must be covered with life."

But seeing is believing, and the Mariner and Venera series of probes disabused us of the romantic notion of a swampy neighbor to the left. Still, we should probably send robots there to check. Just to be sure.

5. WE HAVEN'T BEEN TO ITS SURFACE SINCE THE 1980S.

Venus was the first planet we visited, with Mariner 2 achieving the first successful planetary encounter in 1962. Four years later, Venera 3 on Venus became the first spacecraft to touch the surface of another planet. (Communications were lost long before impact, but unless a dinosaur ate it, the spacecraft probably touched the ground.) Our first graceful landing on another planet? Venera 7 on Venus. Our efforts to reach its surface go back much further than that, though. The transit of Venus in 1761 practically invented the notion of an international science community. But we abandoned the surface of Venus in 1984, and NASA hasn't launched an orbiter to Venus since Magellan in 1989. 

Since then, the Venus-science community has been trying to get another mission to the launch pad. Presently, U.S. planetary scientists have submitted proposals to NASA for a sub-$1 billion New Frontiers–class mission. They are also working with their colleagues in Russia to launch a joint mission called Venera-D. "We need better radar views of the surface," says Grimm, "and that has to happen at some point to understand the geology. We need deep probes into the atmosphere to understand it better, and we need a new generation of landers."

6. A NEW MISSION COULD HELP SOLVE OUR BIGGEST QUESTIONS.

"There is evidence in the deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio that Venus once had water, maybe hundreds of meters deep, more like a global sea than an ocean," says Grimm. A theoretical paper published last year posed a climate model for Venus suggesting that water could have existed on its surface as recently as 1 billion years ago. Clouds could form in a certain way, shielding the surface from the Sun and allowing stable water at the surface. Furthermore, near-infrared observations support the argument for a watery Venusian past. ESA's Venus Express orbiter in 2012 found evidence of granite-like rocks on some parts of the planet. Granite requires a multiple melting process in the presence of water. A mission to Venus could confirm this.

Meanwhile, one of the most significant revelations from Magellan is that there are only around 1000 craters on the surface with no differences in density, and it is hard to find craters that are obviously in a state of being wiped out by lava, or being faulted. Venus does not have plate tectonics, one of the central mechanisms that organizes all geology on the Earth. So what happened to the surface of Venus? Where is the evidence of the Late Heavy Bombardment seen on other terrestrial planets and moons? One hypothesis is that all of Venus was resurfaced at once. There may have been a global catastrophe on Venus, perhaps as recently 750 million years ago, that quickly "reset" its surface. Other models suggest a subtler resurfacing at work in which craters might be erased over billions of years.

"So this whole idea of the surface age of Venus is a pivotal question for how planets evolve geologically," says Grimm. "But what was Venus like before that? Was there a single catastrophe, or have there been many? Was there just one catastrophe and Venus was watery before that, or has Venus operated in a steady state going back to the first billion years? There is more consensus that in the first several hundred million years to billion years, there could have been water." Further landings on Venus could help us solve the mystery of when Venus's surface was formed, if there was ever water there, and why, if it existed, it went away.

7. VENUS IS KIND OF A YELLOW, EXTREME VERSION OF HAWAII.

If Matt Damon were to get stranded on Venus in a sequel to The Martian, he would need to be resourceful indeed to survive the heat and the corrosive air. But what he would find wouldn't be wholly alien. The winds at the surface of Venus are very gentle, around a meter or so per second. The vistas would consist of hills and ridges, with dark lava rocks of various types, mostly basalt. The atmospheric pressure is 90 times greater than Earth at sea level, so walking there would feel a lot like swimming here.

"I don't think [Venus] would look wavy and hot-hazy, because the atmosphere is pretty stable and uniform right at the surface," says Grimm. "It would be harder to walk through the dense atmosphere, but not as hard as walking through water. We know from landings that it's kind of yellow because of the sulfur in the atmosphere. So with the abundance of lavas in many places on Venus, it sort of looks like a yellowish Hawaii."

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