#IStandWithAhmed

Yesterday, a 14-year-old boy named Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for building a clock and bringing it to school to show to a teacher.

14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was removed from class and arrested for building a clock: a

14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was removed from class and arrested for building a clock: a “hoax bomb”.

Ahmed, a high school student whose hobby is inventing and tinkering, made his small clock by wiring together a circuit board, power supply, and display, and placing the whole thing inside a pencil case. But when he showed his homemade clock to a teacher, their response was lukewarm and they advised him not to show anyone else.

After the clock beeped in the middle of an English class, Ahmed showed it to his English teacher, who said that the pencil-case-clock looked like a bomb and kept it. Later in the day, Ahmed was pulled out of class by the Irving, Texas school’s principal and a police officer and arrested. He was later released into his parents’ custody, but he was suspended from school for three days and may yet be charged with building a hoax bomb. The school later released the following statement:

The takeaway message from this letter, in the last large paragraph, requests that students not bring prohibited items to school and that they report suspicious items or behavior. However, it is unclear what exactly about Ahmed’s creation was prohibited or what about his behavior was suspicious: is an interest in engineering suspicious? Is a homemade clock prohibited? This case is strikingly similar to that of Kiera Wilmot, a young African-American student whose homemade rocket got her expelled and arrested. In both cases, a young person of color faced massive overreaction to small homegrown science projects: their interest in STEM brought them into racially-charged police situations.

More hearteningly, as in Kiera Wilmot’s case, scientists and others (and the President) are rallying around Ahmed’s cause and thinking actively about what they can do to create a more supportive environment for students from underrepresented minority groups. Much of this thought is happening on Twitter, and I’ve aggregated some of the tweets on Storify here.

Tinkering and building is a keystone of any young scientist’s education. The sort of ingenuity and determination displayed by Ahmed should be encouraged, not quashed by paranoia. I stand with Ahmed because I want the future of science to be filled with curious and dedicated minds like his.

UPDATE: No charges will be filed against Ahmed.

Pluto Update!

ALL PLUTO ALL THE TIME!

Since my last post we’ve had even more exciting news about Pluto! We already know that Pluto and its system are shockingly and beautifully diverse – our first close-up image of Pluto contained these gorgeous 11,000-foot-tall mountains of water ice:

We now have a brand-new close-up image of Pluto, fitting right next to that one!

This image shows ice plains on Pluto, and while it has many interesting features, perhaps the most fascinating one is that, once again, there are NO CRATERS in this image. As Jeff Moore, Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team leader at NASA Ames said in response to the earlier image, “This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system.” I’ve discussed the meaning of the surface’s youth in more detail earlier, so I’ll just say here that it means this area has been resurfaced within the last 100 million years (which is not long, on a planetary timescale). This means that Pluto is geologically active, which means we have to rethink the geological processes happening inside icy worlds without big planets to give them tidal activity. However, we knew that last week. There are new features too!

This image shows guesses from the New Horizons team at what some of those new features are, although it’s important to note that this pictures does have lots of compression artifacts which will be eliminated in later data. As Moore said in Friday’s press conference, this is “not-easy-to-explain terrain” and nobody’s anywhere near sure how any of its features got there. The hills, for example, could be pushing up through the apparent cracks in the surface, or they could be emerging as the areas around them erode. The big polygons could be caused by thermal convection from heating of substances under the surface or by thermal contraction from freezing of the area. Just like with the last image release, it’s hard to say anything with any confidence until we have the rest of the data.

One thing we have learned about with a little more certainty is Pluto’s atmosphere:

This plot shows the amount of sunlight the ALICE instrument on New Horizons received as Pluto passed between it and the sun. The below animation shows how this data was taken, with ALICE receiving less and less sunlight as the light has to pass through an increasingly dense atmosphere (and no sunlight as the light can’t pass through Pluto).

From this, we know that Pluto’s atmosphere extends about 1000 miles above the surface, and spectra indicate that the atmosphere is mostly nitrogen at its top, methane lower down, and contains heavier hydrocarbons closest to the surface. However, because Pluto is not as massive as, say, Earth, and thus has weaker gravity, it’s relatively easy for that nitrogen upper atmosphere to escape: Pluto loses about 500 tons per hour of nitrogen atmosphere. In comparison, Mars only loses 1 ton per hour of atmosphere. Pluto’s loss of nitrogen is significant. As the atmosphere escapes, it is ionized and blown away by the solar wind, leaving Pluto with a tail of ionized nitrogen.

Also, Pluto has a region (marked in the below image) in the middle of Tombaugh Regio which is full of carbon monoxide. Nobody’s really sure why. There’s only one region like this that we’ve seen.

Also, this morning we got new images of two of Pluto’s five known moons, Nix and Hydra, which were only points of light to us a week ago. They weren’t even smudges – just a few bright pixels – and now they’re starting to come into focus as whole worlds of their own!

SO MANY MYSTERIES. SO MANY NEW DISCOVERIES TO BE MADE!

Speaking of which, as I was writing this post, a new close-up Pluto image was released! It has mountain ranges! And the interaction between the bright and dark materials on Pluto’s surface!

And craters! Plenty of craters! Since this image was just released hours ago, I haven’t found any commentary yet on how that affects the ideas about Pluto’s young surface. Perhaps Pluto’s other craters are simply covered by ice and nitrogen snow? Perhaps this area is just less geologically active? So, maybe Pluto’s surface isn’t quite as young as we thought after all…

STAY TUUUUUNED

(I find the process of discovery and exploring a brand-new never-before-seen world fascinating and exhilarating. I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited about anything in my life, so I’ll probably continue to post about Pluto. Because SPAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE!)