Thar she blows

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 5.42.17 PMIf you’ve been to Yellowstone National Park, you’ve surely seen one of the world’s most famous geysers. About every hour to an hour and a half, Old Faithful shoots a towering plume of hot water and steam into the air. Crowds of camera-laden tourists swarm at a safe distance — as do scientists.

Old Faithful’s reliable blasts provide a natural laboratory for studying how boiling water jets out of the ground and into the air. In an overview for the new Knowable magazine, I explore the geophysics behind geysers. Check it out to learn how the combination of geothermal heat, underground plumbing, and water results in these fantastic, steam-powered eruptions. There’s a neat accompanying video by Lindzi Wessel as well.

(Image: New Zealand’s Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)


Jupiter revealed

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This is Jupiter like you’ve never seen it. Storms the size of Earth dancing around its poles. Enormous churning winds reaching thousands of kilometers into its interior. I report from a planetary-science conference in Utah on the latest findings from NASA’s Juno spacecraft. “Giant planets have a lot of secrets,” a researcher told the conference.

(Image: Mini-cyclones around Jupiter’s south pole, as seen by the Juno spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles.)

Eavesdropping on nuclear blasts

nuclear seismologySometimes a short conference session can trigger an in-depth obsession. In April I went to a couple of talks at the Seismological Society of America’s meeting in Denver, on seismologists who monitor clandestine nuclear tests. That spawned an entire Science News feature on the topic. Check it out to learn how researchers analyze seismic waves to determine if they came from a natural earthquake or an artificial explosion — and, if the latter, how to tease out whether the blast was nuclear and how big it was.

It is, of course, all about monitoring the progress of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

(Image: An artist’s vision of an underground nuclear test at Mount Mantap, North Korea. Copyright Nicole Rager Fuller)

Science in the age of Trump

4217661984_fec1fcdf69_bAre you wondering how science will fare in the Trump administration? We reporters at Nature have got your backs — at least as far as covering the changes that are sure to come. My colleagues Sara Reardon (in DC) and Jeff Tollefson (in New York) are leading the Trump coverage, but I’ve thrown in an assist for a couple of stories. Jeff and I reported this month from the American Geophysical Union meeting, the world’s biggest gathering of earth scientists. Many are deeply concerned about the climate-change deniers Trump has nominated to key positions to oversee environmental policy. “It feels like a war on science, and on climate science in particular,” Alan Robock of Rutgers University told me. But who might President Trump eventually listen to for science advice? In this piece I dive into the history of the presidential science adviser — and find that the role has meant many different things to many different leaders over the years.

(Photo: flickr/Tom Lohdan.)

Looking for a good science book?

In addition to my usual work of reporting and writing magazine pieces, I also review science books for outlets such as the Dallas Morning News and Nature. This is a great gig because I get to read pre-publication copies of some of the smartest books out there.

Recently, a discussion group that I’m part of brought up Boyce Rensberger’s classic list of books every science writer should read. As Boyce notes, the list is far from comprehensive — and it started me thinking about some of the more intriguing modern science books I’ve come across recently. So, if you’re looking for a classic yet fresh science read (and you’ve already exhausted my own book, co-authored with my husband Jeff Kanipe), try one or more of these:

(Photo: flickr/alex pinball)


Planet Nine from outer space

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Hypothetical orbit (orange) of a hypothetical Planet Nine. Credit: Caltech & R. Hurt (IPAC).

By now you’ve probably heard of Planet Nine, the hypothesized super-Earth lurking in our solar system well past Pluto. But what you may not have heard is where the idea came from in the first place, and which teams are out there actively searching for such a world. For my latest Nature feature I tagged along on an observing run in Hawaii with Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo, who use some of the world’s largest telescopes to hunt for distant solar system objects. It was their 2012 discovery of a faraway world in the Kuiper belt — the part of the solar system that includes Pluto — that set off the current race for Planet Nine. Sheppard and Trujillo’s work shows that some Kuiper belt objects travel in extreme orbits that might — just might — have been shaped by the gravitational influence of an unseen super-Earth. Will we ever see a Planet Nine? Odds are against it. But we are sure to uncover weird and wonderful smaller worlds out there.

On the discovery of gravitational waves

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Black holes merging. Credit: Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes.

Sometimes, when you wait long enough, a story that you never thought would happen actually does materialize. I’ve written before about the decades-long search to find gravitational waves. So I was thrilled a few weeks ago to be able to cover the story of the first direct detection of these ripples in spacetime. Ahead of time we’d gotten notice of a big media announcement from the LIGO team, to be held at the National Press Club in Washington DC. I flew in from Colorado, my colleague Davide Castelvecchi flew in from London, and together we wrote a package of stories explaining what was discovered, how it was discovered, why it’s important, and how the next generation of astrophysicists will take things from here.