BRITTANY STEFF | Science Writer

New twists on tornadoes: Earth scientist studies why U.S. has so many tornadoes

Across the Midwest during the warmer months, studying the sky for signs of storms and tornadoes becomes one of the most popular pastimes. Weather expert Dan Chavas takes it further: All day every day, he studies what makes tornadoes tick. Working at the intersection of climate science and meteorology, he looks at the big picture of what causes severe storms and tornadoes — and what dictates where they occur.

More than machines: Computer scientist prepares robots to improve human lives

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — There is no avoiding robots. With increasing autonomy, satellites span the skies, vacuums vroom underfoot and bots conduct surgery, deliver packages and explore the solar system. Robot expert Sooyeon Jeong works in artificial intelligence to ensure that those robots are more friendly helpers to humans and less inscrutable interlopers, more R2-D2 than HAL, more Baymax than Terminator. “My goal, and the goal of my research group, is to design robots and AI that can have socially and emotionally natural interactions with people,” Jeong said. “I want anything I make or design to have a measurable positive impact on people’s lives.”

Cloudy science, clear insights: Atmospheric scientist studies clouds’ causes and effects

Every cloud is lined, not with silver, but with science — at least from cloud expert Alexandria Johnson’s point of view. Clouds are ubiquitous. They are one of the most notable characteristics of planet Earth. Studying them is akin to studying the blood and arteries of the planet itself. Johnson, an atmospheric scientist and assistant professor in Purdue University’s College of Science, studies clouds wherever they are: in her lab, on Earth, throughout the solar system and into the galaxy.

Icy impacts: Planetary scientists use physics and images of impact craters to gauge the thickness of ice on Europa

Sometimes planetary physics is like being in a snowball fight. Most people, if handed an already-formed snowball, can use their experience and the feel of the ball to guess what kind of snow it is comprised of: packable and fluffy, or wet and icy. Using nearly the same principles, planetary scientists have been able to study the structure of Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon.

A walk in the woods is a boost for the brain

Modern urban life has its advantages and opportunities (e.g., access to education, jobs, health care, transportation, etc.). But with more than half the world’s population now living in urban centers, and with that number expected to rise to 70 percent by 2050, urban living exacts a price—negative health and cognition effects due to “pollution, artificial light, stress, and overstimulation,” according to a team of scientists, who set out to quantify these effects. What they found confirms an age-old intuitive assumption: that a walk in nature is a good way to clear one’s head.

Stellar forensics: Clearest ever look at Cassiopeia A sheds light into the heart of an exploding star

Images of stars released to the public, like the new image of Cassiopeia A revealed last month, fire the public’s imagination and kindle wonder in the breadth and beauty of the universe. But those images are more than just awe-inspiring art — they are treasure troves of priceless scientific information. By taking photos of the stellar remnant using a range of tools and filters on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), astronomers are getting their clearest look ever at Cassiopeia A. Astronomer and star expert Danny Milisavljevic (pronounced mili-sahv-la-vich), an associate professor of physics and astronomy in Purdue University’s College of Science, led an enormous international team of researchers on a JWST Year 1 project to study the supernova remnant.

Exposure to cigarette smoke increases cancer risk in dogs

Dogs are humans’ best friends. Need to quickly locate a bomb? There’s a dog for that. Can’t see very well? There’s a dog for that. Searching for a lost hiker in the mountains or survivors in an earthquake, diagnosing illness, comforting the bereft — there are dogs for every need. They are even helping humans track down the causes of cancer. A new study links cigarette smoke exposure to an exponentially higher rate of bladder cancer in Scottish terriers. By assessing individual dogs and studying their medical history, scientists are beginning to untangle the question of who gets cancer and why, and how best to detect, treat and prevent cancer.

Star of wonder: Dazzling new image of supernova Cassiopeia A released by First Lady Jill Biden and Purdue astronomer

Ten thousand years ago, a star exploded. Now scientists are getting their best look ever at the details of that explosion, Cassiopeia A. Space-age tools and methods are allowing them to glimpse never-seen-before details that may change forever the way scientists think about star death, star formation and the distribution of matter in the galaxy. And now, a new image of that dead star has a starring role in First Lady Jill Biden’s digital Advent calendar this year.

Signatures of the Space Age: Spacecraft metals left in the wake of humanity’s path to the stars

The Space Age is leaving fingerprints on one of the most remote parts of the planet — the stratosphere — which has potential implications for climate, the ozone layer and the continued habitability of Earth. Using tools hitched to the nose cone of their research planes and sampling more than 11 miles above the planet’s surface, researchers have discovered significant amounts of metals in aerosols in the atmosphere, likely from increasingly frequent launches and returns of spacecraft and satellites. That mass of metal is changing atmospheric chemistry in ways that may impact Earth’s atmosphere and ozone layer. Airplane

Bringing home asteroids: Purdue scientist will be among the first to examine asteroid pieces from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission

To study the planets, someone has to go there: Either a human or a bot launches into space to physically explore other worlds. Scientists who study extraterrestrial materials can’t usually bring their work home. That’s exactly what’s happening this month, though, as NASA’s OSIRIS-REx project brings home pieces of the asteroid Bennu.

Buzzing down the primrose path: Specialist bee species prefer abundant host plants

How do bees choose which flowers to visit? Some bees will visit almost any bloom, while others are more discerning. How, and whether, bees choose to specialize in one kind of flower or pollen is a question entomologists and ecologists have puzzled over for years. Now, a team of scientists is deciphering why some species of bees specialize in visiting one type of plant over others. They concluded that bees who specialize tend to focus on the most abundant species in an ecosystem – at least in the eastern United States.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire – and normal numbers of national park visitors

More Americans than ever are heeding the call of the outdoors – spending time recreating outside and enjoying national parks. Simultaneously, smoky skies are worsening as the size and severity of wildfires increase and adversely affect air quality across the country. Wildfire smoke threatens human health and welfare, especially if humans are exposed to smoke for long periods or while exercising – such as during a hiking trip to one of America’s beloved national parks.

Sociogenomics: The intricate science of how genetics influences sociology

Humans contain multitudes. Each person on the planet contains enough DNA to stretch to Pluto – several times. Studying how all this genetic material works, and especially how genes influence human behavior, is an enormously complicated undertaking – one that’s being made easier by the emergence of massive banks of genetic data and complex data science analysis techniques to parse that data.

Uncovering a star’s demise: Supermassive black hole tears apart a giant star in a display brighter, more energetic and longer lasting than any observed before

A distant star, dying a fiery and dramatic death, torn apart by a supermassive black hole in a forgotten corner of the sky. One of the most luminous, energetic, long-lasting transient objects didn’t blaze through the night sky inspiring legends and launching civilizations. Instead, astronomers, acting as celestial supersleuths, uncovered evidence of the star’s death throes where it had hidden undetected for years in a mass of computer-gathered telescope data.
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Spe·cies rich·ness  (noun)

  1. A technical term from the field of ecology. The number of different species present in an ecological community, landscape, or region.
  2. More philosophically, a lovely and poetic phrase that conveys the value and wonder inherent in the range of species on the planet and in all the amazing detail of the living world.
  3. A freelance science writer's call sign (see above).

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