Questions & Answers: General Science

The following are questions asked of ACMP scientists and the answers they provided. Click on the question at the top to jump to the answer below.

How do scientists in the circumpolar region share their data and work together?

The answer has changed in the last 20 years. Now, we share a lot over the Internet. Scientists sometimes get together for meetings or share research on a research cruise, but they mostly share data through the Internet. - John Walsh

How many satellites are there in the world?

Right now, there are several hundred satellites. Some of them are up there for science purposes. A lot are used for communications. - John Walsh

You can see the effect of a lightning strike here in Fairbanks or in the lower 48. What is the effect of a lightning strike farther north where there are no trees?

A lightning strike is a dangerous discharge and while they often strike trees, they can also go straight into the ground. However, lightning strikes do not necessarily need trees to start a fire; lightning strikes have caused fires in the tundra as well. Most of the time, however, lightning strikes do not have any consequences. - John Walsh

As a science writer, how much research do you have to do before you go on a trip?

I interview a lot of them before I travel with them. I will also read their research to get up to speed. - Ned Rozell

Are there programs in other places where students are collecting data to share with scientists?

I don't know of any other programs were students are taking measurements and observations of snow and lake ice. However, they are many other programs where students make observations and measurements that they contribute to the scientific community. One example is a program called GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment). Students and teachers make many different types of observations and measurements to contribute to the program, including water chemistry and vegetation observations. - Martin Jeffries

What causes seasons?

Seasons are a product of how close the Earth is to the sun at a particular time. The distance of the Earth to the sun is influenced by Earth's rotation and tilt. When a particular area of Earth is titled away from the sun it is cooler, when it is tilted toward the sun it is warmer. - Cathy Cahill

What is chemistry?

Chemistry is the study of interactions and changes. For example, if you have gelatin and you want to make jell-o, you pour the hot water into the jell-o and it dissolves - that's a reaction. Then, you let it cool, it sets up, and it goes from being a liquid to something that's solid - that's another reaction, a change or transformation. In chemistry, you're looking at those reactions at the fundamental level to see what made them happen. - Cathy Cahill

How does it feel to be a scientist?

It's fun, a lot of fun. I get paid to play. I come in to work in the morning and I have a bunch of questions I'd like to ask. I get to figure out how I'm going to ask them, how I'm going to test them, and what am I trying to get out of them. I'm constantly asking questions. That's what I'm paid to do.

I spend a lot of my time in the laboratory, where I develop instruments to help me test the ideas I come up with. For example, if I wanted to know that that dust was in Gobi, I would get a sample of dust from the Gobi desert, and a sample of our air, and I would find some way of looking at it from it fundamental level and say is this the same.

First, I make a hypothesis, which is my best guess. Then, I test it. In the case of the dust from Alaska and the dust from the Gobi Desert, either they are the same, in which case my hypothesis is correct, or they are different and I need to figure out why and modify my hypothesis. People give me money to do this. When they give me money, they ask me to answer a particular question. I make the instruments and test it and collect data. And when I'm done, I need to write a paper on the subject so I can tell people what I did and why it's important. - Cathy Cahill

How cold is it in space?

Really, really, really cold. We refer to something we call absolute zero, which is -273 C. You wouldn't survive in space without really good space suits. - Cathy Cahill

Why are the Northern lights out when it's cold out?

The Northern lights are actually out all the time. However, when it's light out or there are clouds in the way we can't see them. So, the reason you can see them really clearly when its very cold is that there are no clouds in the way. When it's really cold, all that water that's in the atmosphere has fallen out as precipitation, so you end up with a very clear sky. The best Northern lights viewing, especially here in Fairbanks, is in January, when it's very cold and the sun is not out.- Cathy Cahill

What inspired you to study the air?

My dad also does air pollution work. He was one of those great scientists who you could always ask questions of. I'd ask questions and then work with him to find the answer. He was really excited about what he did. When we went on family vacations, we'd put out air samplers. I learned from him how to pick a site and what is in the air. He was very enthusiastic, so I got excited. One of my first memories of working with my dad was when Mt. St. Helens began to erupt. It would send out little puffs of ash. So, my dad packed up the family and we drove to Mt. St. Helen's and installed four air samplers around the mountain. We'd be there, and suddenly the whole place would shake; it was really exciting. When the mountain finally erupted, two of his air samplers were lost, but one of them had such a nice sample that he was published in a notable journal. That's what got me into science.- Cathy Cahill

Why did you chose to study snow and ice?

I grew up in Manchester, England. When I was about 13, my geography teacher was very good. He would show slides of places he had gone. It was very exciting. When it was time to go to University, I decided to major in geography. In the second year of my three-year program, I took a course in glaciology by the head of the department. The instructor made it so interesting that I decided to go to graduate school to study snow. During my Masters, I got to do field work in Norway. It was so fascinating that I decided I wanted to get a PhD, but also that I wanted to travel and study abroad. So, I went to school in Canada. After I completed my PhD, I went to Fairbanks and have been working here since 1985. - Martin Jeffries

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