Category Archives: Science & Environment

Starlink upends Earth-based Astronomic Observations

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor


One of Elon Musk’s newest endeavors involves beaming high-speed internet to the entire world. The project, known as Starlink, requires SpaceX (Musk’s flagship company) to launch over 10,000 small satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The official Starlink website states that the project should “rapidly expand to near global coverage of the populated world by 2021.” While this is certainly not the most technically challenging project SpaceX has embarked on, it is one of the most financially risky and disruptive.

A CNBC: Markets article cited SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell in saying that the mega-constellation (as it has come to be known) will cost upwards of $10 billion. Financial analysts believe that, if Starlink is successful, “SpaceX’s valuation could reach as high as $175 billion.” The motivation behind Starlink is not necessarily to make the internet more equitable and accessible. On the contrary, Elon Musk has stated publicly that the global internet project will fund his quest to colonize Mars. Since 2018, when the first batch of 60 Starlinks were launched, astronomy and astrophysics have been totally disrupted. Astronomical observations made by ground-based telescopes have been capturing these ugly, bright streaks slashing across the sky. The small satellites reflect a lot of light – enough to be seen clearly with the naked eye; not to mention a powerful telescope in the Atacama Desert.

Initially, SpaceX responded well to the legitimate complaints from academics and the everyday stargazer, according to an article published in Scientific American by Emily Zhang — an astrophysics major at Columbia University. They prototyped and launched a satellite with an anti-reflective coating in early 2020. The satellite, dubbed “DarkSat,” reflected about half of all incident sunlight. Astronomers recognized the DarkSat as a step in the right direction, but the chains of DarkSats remain highly visible in exposures taken by Earth-based telescopes. Monthly launches have continued to send dozens of the Starlink satellites into LEO.

On the other hand, some scientists continue to politely nudge SpaceX in hopes that they will engineer a solution. This August, an assembly of scientists and satellite experts alike gathered at the virtual Satellite Constellation 1 (SATCON 1) workshop “to provide recommendations for both astronomers and satellite constellation operators (SpaceX) in order to minimize further disruptions.” SATCON 1 resulted in an official report detailing what many believed to be a growing corporate-academic divide. The report stated that the effect of Starlink on “the human experience of the night sky range from ‘negligible to extreme.’” While the typical stargazer might land on the “negligible” side of the spectrum, the scientific endeavors of astronomers and academics all across the globe will become very hard if SpaceX goes through with the launch of an additional 11,000 small satellites.

The future seems bleak for Earth-based observations even after the DarkSats were launched. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University, believes that the DarkSat is the end of the road; that SpaceX’s ingenuity has been maximized and nothing further can be done. While he was impressed by the DarkSat, McDowell stated that if the mega-constellation did go operational with all 12,000 Starlink satellites, the impact on astronomical research would be irreversible, he communicated to Scientific American. These fears seem to be well-founded as Sir Richard Branson recently decided to join in the billionaire sat-bash, backing OneWeb to compete with Starlink. However, OneWeb bankrupted. It was then acquired by the British government who saw the merits in the program. The battle for LEO is three-dimensional: scientific, corporate and governmental.

Over the COVID-19 shutdown, SpaceX decided to go at the brightness issue one more time. They engineered a satellite that uses a black sunshade to mitigate reflection — essentially a satellite with SPF 10,000 sunscreen. They dubbed these satellites VisorSat and launched a batch early this summer to be tested by astronomers once observatories reopen. Additionally, some experts have suggested putting the satellites into lower orbits. This would decrease the angle between satellites and the Earth, reducing the time they spend in sunlight. However, this would also cause satellite orbits to decay faster, along with corporate patience. In the meantime, scientists are happy to see SpaceX making an effort to resolve the dilemma.

Wooster physics students find opportunities amidst uncertain summer

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor


The value of an internship is hard to overstate. For many undergraduate students, an internship represents the potential to spring into a good post-graduation job. Equally hard to overstate is the value of research here at The College of Wooster, where the students’ efforts culminate in the year-long Independent Study thesis. Thus, summer research positions, just like internships, have always been a premium — especially to students seeking admittance to graduate schools. Unfortunately, many internships and research opportunities were cancelled this past summer due to the novel Coronavirus. Yello, a talent-acquisition company, conducted a survey of almost 1,000 undergraduates. 35 percent of the respondents claimed that their internships or research programs had been cancelled because of COVID-19. However, students here at the College’s Physics Department persevered, finding opportunities in internships as far away as Germany or research positions as close to home as campus itself.

Close to home, Melita Wiles ’22, a physics major, worked with Professor of Physics Susan Lehman here on campus through the Sophomore Research Program. She studied the movement of bead piles as they collapse into an “avalanche.” Bead piles can be thought of as a system of granular materials interacting until one bead breaks the pile’s back and an avalanche, big or small, occurs. Wiles used software called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIVLab) to “measure the velocity over a given pile.” Using a graphical user interface (GUI) process, she was able to “analyze multiple avalanches at a time,” in addition to creating a mathematical process to resolve the distortion of the bead pile input images.


Throughout the summer, Wiles had to learn software applications such as MATLAB “on the fly.” She found this to be one of the most rewarding parts of the research experience as “[her] ability to learn new programs and troubleshoot on [her] own are very valuable and attractive to real-world prospects.”

Matt Klonowski ’21, a physics and chemistry double major, interned at General Atomics through the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships Program. Klonowski worked on the cutting edge of fusion energy research by analyzing turbulent behavior in plasmas using Python — a popular programming language. Plasma can be thought of as a soup of ions and electrons allowing electrical currents to flow (lightning is an example of plasma). Images of plasma taken at a Japanese laboratory were fed as input to Klonowski’s Python program. The results of his analysis then informed the overall fusion energy research processes at General Atomics.

Among the highlights of his experience was a series of talks hosted by Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). These talks introduced Klonowski to the expansive field of plasma physics and fusion energy. Additionally, he attended a seminar at which “Sir Steven Cowley, a plasma physicist that was appointed a Knight Bachelor for his contribution towards the development of nuclear fusion” was a speaker. Klonowski stated that his “Wooster physics and chemistry education prepared [him] well for this internship because the labs emphasize an independent approach to answering questions.” On the flipside, the internship “helped solidify [his] critical thinking and independent approach to research” here at Wooster.

Dani Halbing ’22, a physics and philosophy double major, interned across the pond at Shaeffler Group. Shaeffler is an automotive and engineering company headquartered in Germany with branches all around the world — including one here in Wooster. Halbing did research on hydrogen fuel cells — the hopeful future of sustainable, clean energy in the automotive world. There are many complications with introducing these to the global market. One of the primary challenges to be overcome is in the bipolar plates that house the actual fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel cells “create a very corrosive environment,” Halbing said. His research focused on developing a surface coating for the bipolar plates that would “resist corrosion, but also maintain a high electrical conductivity.”

The coolest part of the research, Halbing said, was conducting the “compression electrical resistance test.” A constant current was run through the bipolar plates while a force was applied to the plates in steps of 100 Newtons up to 1000 Newtons. He found it “incredibly interesting to see the vast differences in electrical conductivity for coatings that varied in formulation by just a few micrometers.”

In these uncertain times it can be hard to come by opportunities such as internships and research positions. Yet, the opportunities are there. Wiles encourages students to “talk to professors! They love to share their research with students!” Wooster professors represent the leading edge of research in their respective fields. Klonowski advises his fellow students to “start looking early and apply to as many opportunities that interest [them].”  He also shares that “internships are a great way to better understand where your professional interests are, without actually committing to a real job.” Halbing advises undergraduate students to expand their horizons and try new things that they may not have much knowledge in. He says “surface coatings are almost entirely based in materials science, and while [his] educational background is in physics, a lot of materials science is based in chemistry.” So, armed with your Wooster education, go forth, explore and effect change.

Beirut confronts environmental crisis post-explosion

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor


Thomas Friedman, the famous New York Times Middle East correspondent, described Beirut as “the city of versions” in his 1989 book From Beirut to Jerusalem. After being ravaged by civil war, invaded by Israel and serving as Yasser Arafat’s PLO headquarters in the 1970s and 1980s, one might think this resilient capital city of Lebanon had seen every version of a crisis.

On Aug. 4, 2019, 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate – a  chemical used primarily in agricultural fertilizers – exploded into a red-hued mushroom cloud. A Russian-owned, Mozambique-bound vessel brought the ammonium nitrate to the port city in 2013. Logistics forced the ship, MV Rhosus, to remain in Beirut – along with its volatile cargo. The shockwave created by the explosion  killed 190 Beirutis and injured an additional 6,000 according
to a Wall Street Journal article. Words fail to capture the mag-
nitude of human loss at the hands of bureaucratic mismanagement. Any person who has seen the countless pieces of raw footage out of Beirut will attest to as much. Yet, the battle for recovery has just begun. Now the city faces an environmental crisis in the aftermath  of the explosion.

Immediately following the events of Aug. 4, The World Bank issued a Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment (RDNA) for Beirut. Methodology employed by The World Bank in drafting the Beirut RDNA included analyzing ground data gathered in the field and geospatial satellite imagery. Among the findings are the following stark figures: infrastructure damages ranging from $3.8- 4.6 billion,
housing losses totaling $2.9- 3.5 billion, and transportation sectors will need upwards of $2 billion to recover. The report identified Environment and Social Sustainability as two “cross-cutting” sectors most impacted by the explosion. The RDNA, in addition to specifically naming the environmental sector as heavily hit, reinforced this message by highlighting major losses in the energy sector along with water supply and water sanitation shortfalls.

On Tuesday Sept. 1, 2020, Jihan Seoud, Manager of the Energy and Environment Program at the UN Development Program’s (UNDP) Lebanon office expressed deep concern over the explosion, saying Beirut’s environment “was already in a ‘dismal state’ before the disaster.” Seoud’s remarks were summarized in a UN News article published the same day. The epicenter of the explosion – the
Port of Beirut – was the site of storage facilities where hazardous chemicals used in pesticides, pharmaceuticals and heavy metals were held. In addition to these hazardous chemicals, Beirut is facing the daunting task of cleaning up 800,000 tons of construction and demolition waste.

To offer some perspective, the Ohio Environmental Protection  Agency reported that the Buckeye State produced 2.1 million tons of construction and demolition waste in 2018. The Beirut blast produced nearly half of the state of Ohio’s yearly demolition
waste in a single instant.

While the explosion did not impact air quality in the capital, the potential for hazardous particulate matter to become airborne during cleanup remains. Airborne pollutants and COVID-19 would pose a dual threat to healthy and immunocompromised Beirutis alike. Seoud, in the Tuesday press conference, reported that Beirut may also be facing a solid waste crisis; one of the city’s two solid waste plants remains badly damaged. Due to the inoperability of this plant, more waste is being transported directly to landfills, one of which now approaches capacity.

Prior to the events of Aug. 4, Lebanon faced a bill of $2.35 billion in environmental cleanup efforts across the country. The UNDP  estimates a further $100 million will be necessary to counter the “environmental degradation” directly caused by the blast. To get a sense of where these enormous figures come from, one need look no further than satellite imagery. Where the warehouse that stored the ammonium nitrate once stood, there is now a 141- foot deep crater filled with seawater.

Despite these gloomy statistics and a Hezbollah-influenced  government, Seoud is hopeful that Beirut and Lebanon will begin to transition toward renewable energy in the reconstruction process. The rest of the world has much to learn in the way of resiliency from Beirutis. The city, in spite of its troubled past, stands on the precipice of reform, sustainable development and environmental progress now that it has captured the world’s sympathies.

Laplace validated: atmospheric waves revealed

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor


Pierre-Simon Laplace, the French scholar and mathematician, engaged in a thought experiment nearly 220 years ago. In this  particular thought experiment, Laplace imagined the Earth’s atmosphere as a film of fluid enveloping the planet. You might picture this idea with a phenomenon from a well-known video game: Super Mario Galaxy. In this Nintendo classic, Mario is blown up to ridiculously large sizes with respect to the planets he is exploring. Some of these planets have oceans on them. When Mario steps
in one, the water is displaced and splashes upward before falling
back to the surface. It all seems otherworldly as you peer around
the curvature of the planet and see ripples disappear over the horizon.

Laplace’s Mario was the Moon. He postulated that our Moon would  create a gravitational pull on the atmosphere in the same way it pulls on the oceans and creates atmospheric tides of high and low  pressure. Think of Mario stepping down on the atmosphere and  squishing it into regions of high pressure on his side with the opposite side of the planet bulging outward to compensate, creating
a region of high pressure. Now imagine Mario walking around
on the atmosphere parallel to the equator, creating a never-ending
wave of high and low pressure. Physicists refer to this wave-like behavior as being “sinusoidal.” Laplace envisioned this 220 years
ago; now his thought experiment has been validated. The sole mechanism that drives these pressure waves did not turn out to be the Moon, but a grand combination of solar heating, turbulence, chaos in the form of hurricanes and a little bit of assistance from the
push and pull of the Moon… or a stomping Mario?

In 2016, the European Center for Medium-Range Forecasts released a data set dubbed ERA5. The data set brought together weather data from ground stations, satellites and weather balloons. In its final form, the data set reconstructed what a planet-wide weather system would have recorded between 1979 and 2016. ERA5, in the hands of the University of Tokyo’s Takatoshi Sakazaki, proved to be the tool that would tease Laplace’s waves into existence. What made this data set unique was that it took pressure and temperature measurements about every ten kilometers. Prior work attempting to discover the atmospheric waves had been limited to a single weather station or a global patchwork of stations separated by great distances.

There is an important fact about waves that must be understood in this context. Atmospheric waves are primarily classified by their spatial and temporal frequency—that is, the distance and time between successive peaks on a wave. Imagine two atmospheric waves oscillating at an identical frequency and riding around the
earth side-by-side, shadowing the other’s movements. If these waves decided to overlap, they would be able to look back around the planet and see that they match each other perfectly. This phenomenon creates what are known as “normal modes” of a wave.

Some normal modes of a wave are less energetic than others, so they “peak” at greater distances. Thus, prior to the ERA5 data set, Hamilton and Rolando Garcia were able to discover the lowest-energy normal mode of atmospheric waves since they only looked at data from a single station — separated by half the circumference of Earth. In other words, they could only detect atmospheric waves whose peaks were spaced by distances near half of the Earth’s circumference. Sakazaki and his post-doctoral research adviser, Kevin Hamilton, realized that they could piece together higher- energy, higher-frequency normal modes of these waves with ERA5 data that looked at smaller distances (ten kilometers) and timescales. They managed to tease out the other modes of atmospheric waves and prove that Laplace had stumbled upon a global orchestra of gaseous oscillations with his thought experiment.

But what does Mario have to say? Imagine that Mario is moping around the Earth creating his low-frequency, low-energy atmospheric wave. Meanwhile, the Sun is heating up different parts of the Earth in its own wavelike fashion as it creates day and night. Suddenly there are two atmospheric waves. Now the wind decides to blow at certain speeds all around the globe. A third wave! Hurricanes spawn in the Atlantic while typhoons spin up in the Pacific, adding their own chaotic waves to the global system. At different distances and times all of these waves synchronize to the other’s motion and frequency, thus creating the first mode and traceable atmospheric wave.

Mario gets all worked up when he sees a goomba in his mind’s eye. He starts power walking and stomping like mad on imaginary goombas in his fury. The first wave he created with his mope disappears as the new pressure waves race around the planet. Typhoons and hurricanes get stomped out in favor of Amazonian rains and strong winds whip around Patagonia in the Southern Ocean. The whole system is in turmoil! Yet, the individual pressure, temperature and weather waves synchronize again, forming the second mode and a new class of atmospheric waves. These higher-energy, higher-frequency waves race around the globe faster. They may even hang out over the northern hemisphere more than they do over the southern.

Perhaps Mario needs extra umph in smashing a goomba. Thus, he would be able to plant both feet on the southern and northern atmosphere and take great bounds around the earth. The atmospheric pressure waves would sync up in the northern and southern hemispheres respectively, creating a high-pressure re-
gion over the equator. Now there are northern and southern wave modes racing one another around
the globe.

Of course, Mario cannot run and jump infinitely fast and create an infinite number of modes. This would break some of the basic tenets of physics – namely, degrees of freedom. His speed limit is something like “Princess Peach is in danger” revolutions per day. The atmosphere cannot just bend into any shape it wants, just as Mario cannot run faster than Princess Peach speed. In other words, the freedom of movement it experiences is limited to three-dimensional space and its constituent molecules.

This is precisely why the discovery of Laplace’s waves is so revolutionary. Sakazaki and Hamilton’s work gives us an additional degree of freedom in predicting weather and Mario’s motivations. They have completed a theory developed 220 years ago; their work was published in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences and adapted by Charlie Wood of Quanta Magazine in his article, “Global Wave Discovery Ends 220-Year Search.”