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A Musician on Mars

December 11, 2013 — 1 Comment

mars_analog

Welcome to Mars. As one of the first colonists on the fourth planet from the Sun, you endeavor to make it your new home. On Earth, you filled your time in numerous ways, but your real passion was music. Luckily, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) allowed you to bring your prized possession: a Steinway grand piano. Excited to play for the first time in months, you squeeze into your ISRO-issued space suit and wheel the piano onto the Martian surface. It’s noon near the equator. The temperature is around 25ºC (77ºF). You stretch out your arms, relax, and strike your first key. The sound is… quiet and out of tune. Assuming the piano needs to be retuned, you wheel it back into your pressurized vessel, take off your suit, and tune it yourself. Satisfied, you wheel the piano onto the surface again. The Martian surface is quiet, and you notice the colors of the sky are a lot redder than you had seen in NASA photographs. Again, you begin to play. It again sounds too quiet.

What is happening here? Why might a piano sound different when played on the Martian surface? This is a fairly involved question. Luckily, we are considering an instrument with taut strings rather than something that depends more upon atmospheric conditions than, say, a trombone or pipe organ. Furthermore, the equatorial temperature is Earth-like. Why, then, might a piano sound different on Mars?

When tuning and subsequently playing a piano, the frequency you perceive (or pitch) depends upon the tension, length, and mass of the strings within the piano. Since the temperature is about the same as before, and since you did not physically exchange the strings, these properties remain fairly constant. However, the fluid on the strings does play a role. Like any oscillator, the fluid in which it is immersed provides a load which will subsequently alter the frequency at which the oscillator resonates and by how much. On Mars, the atmosphere is more rarified, with a mean pressure of 600 Pa at the surface. Compare this with a pressure of over 100,000 Pa at sea level on Earth. This reduced loading by air results in a bias to slightly higher frequencies (or a higher pitch). If you retuned the piano in a pressurized cabin and then played the newly tuned piano on the Martian surface once again, it would still sound out of tune. A simple solution is to retune the piano while on the surface.

However, this is not the only problem with playing music on the Martian surface. Remember that Mars has a lower-pressure atmosphere. Sound, as you may recall, propagates as an oscillation of pressure in some medium (like air). If the mean pressure is lower, this presumably changes the ability of sound to propagate over longer distances. Without going into too many details here, what happens is that sound will not propagate very far on Mars, and there is an effect such that high frequencies are heavily attenuated. Before, the pitch was shifted slightly higher. Here, on the other hand, higher frequencies will sound softer than lower frequencies, and all frequencies will sound quieter. This means that not only does the piano sound out of tune, but it also sounds muted. The question of sound propagation is so interesting that an acoustics researcher simulated sound on Earth, Mars, and Titan. She found that a scream which may travel over one kilometer on Earth would only carry 14 meters on Mars!

Your out-of-tune, muted piano, probably wouldn’t be audible to a nearby audience on the Martian surface.

A Troubling Divorce

March 23, 2013 — Leave a comment

The unhappy marriage between the United States government and science (research, education, outreach) ended this month. We’ve known for years now that the relationship was doomed to fail, with shouting matches in Washington and fingers pointed in all directions. I would more likely describe an end to the relationship between elected officials and human reason, but that would be harsh, and I still have hope for that one. Sadly, this generation of congresspeople signed the paperwork for a divorce with science.

America’s love affair with science dates back to its origins. Later, Samuel Slater’s factory system fueled the Industrial Revolution. Thomas Edison combatted with Nikola Tesla in the War of the Currents. It was a happy marriage, yielding many offspring. The Hygienic Laboratory of 1887 grew into the National Institutes of Health approximately 50 years later. We, the people, invented, explored, and looked to the stars. Combined with a heavy dose of Sputnik-envy, Eisenhower formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in July 1958. We, the people, then used our inventions to explore the stars.

Since then, generations of both adults and children have benefited from the biomedical studies at the NIH, the basic science and education at the NSF, and the inspiration and outreach from NASA. Since Goddard’s first flight through Curiosity’s landing on Mars, citizens of the United States have not only directly benefited from spin-offsbut also through NASA’s dedication to increasing STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field participation. Informed readers will know that although the STEM crisis may be exaggerated, these fields create jobs, assuming benefits from manufacturing and related careers. Such job multipliers should be seen as beacons of hope in troubling times.

Focusing on the NIH, it should be obvious to readers that biomedical science begets health benefits. From Crawford Long’s (unpublished and thus uncredited) first use of ether in the 18th century through great projects like the Human Genome Project, Americans have succeeded in this realm. However, as many know, holding a career in academia is challenging. Two issues compound the problem. First, principal investigators must “publish or perish.” Similar to a consulting firm where you must be promoted or be fired (“up or out”), researchers must continue to publish their results on a regular basis, preferably in high-impact journals, or risk lack of tenure. The second problem lies in funding. Scientists must apply for grants and, in the case of biomedical researchers, these typically come from the NIH. With funding cuts occurring throughout the previous years, research grants (R01) have been reduced both in compensation per award and number awarded. Additionally, training grants (F’s) and early career awards (K’s) have been reduced. Money begets money, and reduction in these training and early career grants make it even more difficult to compete with veterans when applying for research grants. Thus, entry into the career pathway becomes ever the more difficult, approaching an era where academia may be an “alternative career” for PhD graduates.

The United States loved science. The government bragged about it. We shared our results with the world. Earthriseone of my favorite images from NASA, showed a world without borders. The astronauts of Apollo 8 returned to a new world after their mission in 1968. This image, the one of the Earth without borders, influenced how we think about this planet. The environmental movement began. As Robert Poole put it, “it is possible to see that Earthrise marked the tipping point, the moment when the sense of the space age flipped from what it meant for space to what it means for Earth.” It is no coincidence that the Environmental Protection Agency was established two years later. A movement that began with human curiosity raged onward.

Recently, however, the marriage between our government and its science and education programs began to sour. Funding was cut across the board through multiple bills. Under our current administration, NASA’s budget was reduced to less than 0.5% of the federal budget, before the cuts I am about to describe. The NIH has been challenged too, providing fewer and fewer grants to researchers, forcing many away from the bench and into new careers. Funding for science education and outreach subsequently fell, too. Luckily, other foundations, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, picked up part of the bill.

I ran into this problem when applying for a grant through the National Institutes of Health and discussing the process with my colleagues. I should note as a disclaimer that I was lucky enough to have received an award, but that luck is independent of the reality we as scientists must face. The process is simple. Each NIH grant application is scored, and a committee determines which grants are funded based upon that score and funds available. With less money coming in, fewer grants are awarded. Thus, with cuts over the past decade, grant success rates plummeted from ~30% to 18% in 2011. When Congress decided to cut its ties with reality in March and allow for the sequester, it was estimated that this number will drop even further. (It should be noted that a drop in success rate could also be due to an increase in the number of applications, and a large part of that decrease in success rate over 10 years was due to the 8% rise in applications received.) This lack of funding creates barriers. Our government preaches that STEM fields are the future of this country, yet everything they have done in recent history has countered this notion. As an applicant for a training grant, I found myself in a position where very few grants may be awarded, and some colleagues went unfunded due to recent funding cuts. This was troubling for all of us, and I am appalled at the contradiction between rhetoric in Washington and their annual budget.

Back to NASA. As we know, President Obama was never a fan of the organization when writing his budget, yet he spoke highly of the agency when NASA succeeded. Cuts proposed by both the White House and Congress to NASA in 2011 for a reduction of $1.2 trillion over 10 years have already been in place. This was enough to shut down many programs, reduced the number employed, and led to the ruin of many of its buildings. However, the sequester, an across-the-board cut, also hit NASA very hard. As of yesterday, all science education and outreach programs were suspended. This was the moment that Congress divorced Science.

All agencies are hit hard by these issues, and it isn’t just fields in science, education, and outreach. Yet, speaking firsthand, I can say that these cuts are directly affecting those of us on the front line, trying to enter the field and attempting to pursue STEM-related careers. Barriers are rising as the result of a dilapidated system. Having had numerous encounters with failed F, K, and R awards amongst friends and colleagues simply due to budget constraints (meaning that their score would have been awarded in a previous year, but the payline was lowered to fund fewer applications) and seeing children around New York who are captivated by science education but are within a system without the funds to fuel them, I can comfortably claim that we are all the forgotten children of a failed marriage.

Whether it be due to issues raised in this post or your own related to the sequester, remember that this is a bipartisan issue. There are no winners in this game, except for those congresspeople whose paychecks went unaffected after the sequester. I urge you to contact your elected official. Perhaps, we can rekindle this relationship.