Of Bombs, Plants, and Primordial Light: M4S in Washington, D.C. and Around New York This Summer

Math4Science went on the road this summer, meeting with Kavita Mehra, Chief Transformation Officer for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Newark, New Jersey (BGCN), and traveling further from Brooklyn to tour NASA Goddard with Spacecraft Systems Engineer Paul Mirel. Seeing the beautiful gyms, pool, and new STEM classroom at BGCN’s clubhouse was rivalled only by the mind-blowing (and potentially eardrum-blowing!) size of the speaker technicians at NASA use to make sure machinery they send into outer space can withstand very loud noises (such as those made by the launch of a rocket).

While in the D.C. area, we headed over to the building which houses the offices of Bread for the World, where Amelia Kegan hosted a party for M4S. In a beautiful rooftop space, we met teachers from D.C.-area public and charter schools and other people interested in our work. Everyone was treated to talks by M4S STEM professionals.

Physicist-turned-Diplomat Nicholas Carrera spoke about how he went from hitting halide crystals with gamma rays … to investigating cloud formation and snow crystals in a small plane near St. Louis … to participating in a delegation monitoring progress towards an international Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to limit the testing of nuclear weapons. What did Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein contribute to our understanding of physics? What was it like to fly into developing thunderstorms and measure the growth of clouds? How did different U.S. presidents prevent countries (including our own) from exploding nuclear weapons they were developing during the Cold War? Carrera’s career gave us a broad appreciation for physics and also the importance of diplomacy.

Physiological Ecologist Manuel Lerdau also spoke about the intersection of government and science. Most U.S. spending on science, he said, goes towards defense and biomedical research. Work like his, which focuses on “the science of growing food,” is better supported in China, where 20th-century famines made the importance of improving and protecting our food supply very clear. International collaboration supports Lerdau’s research into plant genetics.

“Plants have only one way to grow,” Lerdau explains: “they open their pores and let carbon dioxide come in and convert that to sugar” (i.e. they do photosynthesis). But when they open those pores (stomata, in the leaves), they lose many molecules of water for every molecule of carbon dioxide they absorb. This makes photosynthesis very “expensive.” (Lerdau contrasts this with the way that humans and other animals collect energy: “We can eat without simultaneously losing water.”) In places with limited water supplies, it would be advantageous to grow plants that lose less water while converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into food energy. Lerdau and his colleagues have found that regulating the genes of certain plants helps them improve their use of copper, a relatively abundant mineral. His “copper mutants” grow large and use water efficiently.

“Acronyms are key to getting funding” said Spacecraft Systems Engineer Paul Mirel, who had pointed out a sign for NASA’s ISS CREAM project (the International Space Station’s Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass investigation) at NASA Goddard earlier that day. Mirel is Chief Engineer on the PIPER (Primordial Inflation Polarization ExploreR) mission.

The math he does includes geometry. “Does this shape have the right symmetry?” is one of the questions he finds himself asking as he works on machinery that will help NASA scientists learn about the Big Bang. Edwin Hubble used the spectra of light to look at different galaxies. Galaxies far, far away seemed to be moving even further away. This helped scientists determine that approximately 13.81 billion years ago, the universe came into existence. It grew from the size of an atom to the enormous size it is today, encompassing galaxies including our own Milky Way.

If you go way back in time, explained Mirel, “every location in the universe was the center of the universe.” The Big Bang released primordial radiation, light that the instruments Mirel builds will help NASA’s PIPER mission detect.

Math4Science did not master time travel this summer, but we did meet a number of important people right here in New York City, including Alison Overseth, Executive Director of PASE, the Partnership for After School Education, and Judith Zangwill, Executive Director of Sunnyside Community Services (in Queens). And we continued to raise money, which will help us build our Explore Math, Explore Science, and M4S at School programs (please contribute to help us help students learn more math and introduce them to the work of STEM professionals like Carrera, Lerdau, and Mirel). Many thanks to Polly Washburn, Jennifer Freeman, Jack Stevenson, Sheryl Cardozo, Gail Brousal, and John Sardo, who have all joined the M4S team.

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