Category Archives: Jay Banner

Life on Europa: Interview series with Dr. Britney Schmidt

You won’t believe what I got to do the other day…I had breakfast at the Bouldin Creek Cafe with Dr. Britney Schmidt, research scientist at The University of Texas Institute for Geophysics!

And not only did I have breakfast with her, she was very gracious to allow me to interview her about her fascinating research on the possibility of life in our solar system and her upcoming talk, “Life on Europa? Exploring Jupiter’s Icy Moon, which is part of the awesome Hot Science – Cool Talks series, presented by the Environmental Science Institute. (Don’t miss her talk on Friday, April 13, 2012!)

I published her interview in seven parts with cool planetary graphics from NASA/JPL-Caltech. Click on the videos below to learn more about the possibility of life on Europa, planetary science, and the amazing trajectory Dr. Schmidt took to become a planetary scientist.


(1) Life on Europa: Exploring Jupiter’s Icy Moon – Hot Science – Cool Talks Preview

Dr. Schmidt describes her upcoming presentation, “Life on Europa? Exploring Jupiter’s Icy Moon”, and talks about astrobiology, the study of the rise of life in habitable planetary systems.


(2) Does Icy Europa Hide Life?

What can learning about ice on Earth tell us about possible single or multicellular life on Europa? Dr. Schmidt talks about the trapped lakes under the surface of one of Jupiter’s moons that might harbor life.


(3) Would Scientists Freak Out if They Found Life on Europa?

If we discovered life on Europa, would we start a robotic space race to get there? Would scientists dance in the streets or would such a discovery cause great scientific or social revolutions? Dr. Schmidt shares her thoughts about what might happen after such a fantastical discovery.


(4) Incredible Tidal Forces Power Europa

Dr. Schmidt talks about the incredible tidal forces exerted by Jupiter and its Galilean moons that bring chaos to Europa, but also give it the energy and heat that may make it possible for Europa to sustain life.


(5) Does Earth Ice Hold the Key to Alien Life?

If we can find microbes living between ice crystals on Earth, can we find life on icy Europa too? Dr. Britney Schmidt describes Earth’s environments and creatures, such as ice loving cryophiles, that can help us understand the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.


(6) Planetary Moon Smackdown: Triton versus Europa

Why does Dr. Schmidt find Triton so compelling? If you’re looking for a young surface, covered in methane, with a bizarre geology, look no further than Triton. Oh, and did we mention cryovolcanism too?


(7) From Heavy Metal Fan to Planetary Scientist (Geophysicist Dr. Britney Schmidt)

Dr. Schmidt looked to musicians as modern day poets and never pictured herself in a lab coat. Discover Dr. Schmidt’s remarkable journey after her class in planetary science, when she felt the gravitational pull to physics to pursue her passion for researching Europa.

Thanks, Dr. Schmidt; Dr. Jay Banner, Director of the Environmental Science Institute (ESI); and Mr. Geoff Hensgen, ESI Outreach Coordinator!

Commander Ben…signing off

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Filed under Astrobiology, Astronomy, Cryophiles, Cryovolcanism, Dr. Britney Schmidt, Environmental Science Institute, Europa, Extraterrestrial life, Galilean moons, Geoff Hensgen, Geophysicist, Jay Banner, Jupiter, Jupiter's Icy Moon, Neptune, Space race, Spacecraft, Triton, University of Texas, University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, UT Institute for Geophysics

Does UT Austin believe in Aliens? Life on Europa Hot Science

I loved seeing Dr. Jay Banner, director of the Environmental Science Institute, on the University of Texas at Austin campus (and I think he strayed onto “The Drag” too) interviewing all kinds of people, asking them if there’s life on other planets.

They had hugely varied responses from yes to no to ahhh…maybe.

This is a great video promoting the next Hot Science – Cool Talks about possible life on Europa, one of Jupiter’s icy moons. Dr. Britney Schmidt, research scientist with the UT Institute for Geophysics, will be presenting her latest research on Europa during the talk.

Watch the video to see what other questions Dr. Banner asked, and be sure to come to the next Hot Science – Cool Talk presentation on Friday, April 13, 2012, to learn more about Europa with Dr. Schmidt.

Commander Ben…signing off

P.S. You won’t believe what I did the other day! I had breakfast with Dr. Schmidt, and I had a great video interview with her about Europa, astrobiology, how she became a scientist, and more. I’m working on the videos for upload, and I look forward to sharing them with you soon. I learned so much from her, and I know that you will too!

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Filed under Astrobiology, Dr. Britney Schmidt, Environmental Science Institute, Europa, Jay Banner, Jupiter, University of Texas, UT Institute for Geophysics

Dr. Andrew Howell shines at Hot Science – Cool Talks

Last week, I had a great time at Dr. Andrew Howell’s Hot Science – Cool Talk, Dark Energy, Explosions, and Zombie Stars:  The Past and Future of Our Universe.

Here I am after all the fun activities before the talk:

Let me tell you about them.

Making a Moon Lander

For my first activity, I made a moon lander at one of the stations.  I started out with cardboard, cotton balls, paper, straws, and lots of tape.  I also had two big marshmallows, which represented my astronauts.

I had to build a moon lander that would safely transport my astronauts to the ground.  My lander could not tip over, and I could not cover the top part where my astronauts were cowering.

After I built the lander, I dropped it from shoulder height.  It landed straight up and no astronauts were tossed out to their doom, so that’s was good.

Then I went to test it halfway up the nearby stairs.  At that height, I was scared that it would fall to one side, but I was very pleased that it landed straight up.  My astronauts were safe!

It was not so with some of the other astronauts.  Some landers flipped over and astronauts flew out…to their doom.  Some astronauts made it to the ground, but then they were eaten!  I decided to let my astronauts live.

Other Fun Activities

Our other fun activities included making and flying paper airplanes and drawing constellations.  There was also a trivia table where we could get stars for answering questions like:

  • How many protons are in hydrogen?
  • What gas is the most abundant in our atmosphere?
  • What gas does our sun burn on?

I’m learning about chemistry in my science class this semester, so these questions were a lot of fun.

Austin Planetarium

There were a lot of groups helping out with fun activities before Dr. Howell’s talk, including the Austin Planetarium.  (They’re hoping to build one soon!)

Here I am near their solar system exhibit:

Student Activity Center Auditorium

Dr. Howell’s talk was held in a different location than the other Hot Science presentations.  This talk was in the Student Activity Center Auditorium.  It’s a more modern building with fancier equipment, which was neat, but I still like the Welch Hall Auditorium.  Welch has a huge periodic table of the elements on its walls!

Here’s a picture of the Student Activity Center Auditorium before Dr. Howell’s talk:

There was also a Central Texas Model United Nations 2012 assembly going on in the building with high schoolers from across the state.  I met some students who were representing China as their nation, and from the UN program guide, I saw that St. Michael’s Academy and Westwood High School from Austin were also participating.  Cool!

And Now on to Dark Energy and Beyond!

Dr. Howell’s talk was awesome, and it was standing room only!  He showed a lot of cool clips from his National Geographic Channel TV series, “Known Universe”, including simulated explosions of a supernova using a large, gas filled balloon in an open area.  Dr. Howell set it off nearby with a trigger, and he said that even he was startled by how powerful it was.

It was amazing to learn about how when there are two stars nearby and one of the stars collapses into a white dwarf, it can pull energy from its neighboring star.  The collapsed star gets so much energy that it can’t handle it, and it explodes.  Dr. Howell and his astronomy team saw such an explosion from his Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network.

Watch a video replay of Dr. Howell’s amazing talk

Dr. Howell had a really long week, working and presenting with the other scientists during the American Astronomical Society Meeting in Austin, but he was great staying long after his talk ended to answer questions from a long, long line of kids.

Thanks, Dr. Howell, Dr. Banner, and Dr. Tafuro!!!!

P.S. If you love learning about the universe, there’s another great Hot Science – Cool Talks presentation later this spring on Friday, April 13, 2012 asking if there’s “Life on Europa?”  I can’t wait to find out!

Learn more about past Hot Science – Cool Talks

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Filed under American Astronomical Society, Austin Astronomical Society, Central Texas Model United Nations, Dark Energy, Explosions, and Zombie Stars, Dr. Andrew Howell, Environmental Science Institute, Hot Science - Cool Talks, Jay Banner, Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, National Geographic Channel, University of Texas

Commander Ben featured on the UT Austin Environmental Science Institute website

Wow! What a wonderful surprise to be featured on the University of Texas at Austin Environmental Science Institute website and in their feature article.

Thank you so much for the honor.  I really love their Hot Science – Cool Talk lectures, and I’ve attended many since I was in first grade.  It’s a great way to learn, both with the fun activities before the talks and the fascinating talks themselves.  Dr. Jay Banner, director of the Environmental Science Institute, always makes everyone feel welcome.

I remember a great talk from fall 2010, “Autonomous Robots Playing Soccer and Traversing Intersections“.  The robots they used for their soccer matches were amazing.  They used little robots in the beginning that looked like dogs and moved up to ones that looked like people.  During one of the videos shown during the presentation, one of the people robots quickly figured out a way to block a shot by lying down in front of the goal.  That’s a move the other robots didn’t see coming!

The talks this fall have been outstanding, from learning about the hippocampus at the “Building Memories for Tomorrow” presentation to discovering how robots could explore new worlds at the “Astronauts, Robots and Rocks” talk.  At the last Hot Science – Cool Talks presentation in 2011, on Friday, December 2, “Your Eye, My Eye & the Eye of the Aye-Aye”, Dr. Chris Kirk will discuss how humans came to have the best eyesight out of any living mammal.  Sounds cool!  (Be sure to check back in the coming weeks to watch my video with Dr. Kirk.)

I hope to see you there!

Commander Ben

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Filed under Dr. Christopher Kirk, Environmental Science Institute, Hot Science - Cool Talks, Jay Banner, University of Texas

Commander Ben Lands at Hot Science – Cool Talks

If you’re student of any age, but especially if your a kid, the Environment Science Institute at the University of Texas at Austin has an awesome program called Hot science – Cool talks where you can go and listen to scientists talk about their research.  You’ll want to get there early since they have a lot of fun activities for kids before the presentation.

Past activities

At the September 2011 talk, Building Memories for Tomorrow: How Our Brains Predict Our Futures, Dr. Alison Preston, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Section of Neurobiology, talked about the importance of the hippocampus and how it plays a role in our short term memory.

One of the pre-lecture activities involved you putting on a blindfold and headphones with white noise.  Another student took you down a path and you had to walk your way back by yourself.  I took a diagonal route to where I started and had a lot of fun with the experience.

At a presentation a while back, one of the activity booths had students placing flowers, carrots, and other objects into liquid nitrogen.  When we pulled out the flower, it looked almost like the unfrozen flower, but when we crushed the top, the petals crumbled apart like red dust.  Very cool!

Is that you, Commander Ben?

At the October 2011 presentation, “Astronauts, Robots and Rocks: Preparing for Geological Planetary Exploration”;, by Dr. Mark Helper, a Distinguished Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geological Sciences, there were a lot of great activities before the talk.  (As usual!)

I had fun building my own rocket out of paper, tape, and cardboard.  They had a soda bottle attached to PVC pipe where the students attached your rocket.  I jumped on the bottle with all my might and my rocket hit the ceiling.  Everyone cheered!  Then someone called out, “Are you Commander Ben?”

What a fantastic surprise!  Dr. LeeAnn Kahlor, an associate professor with the department of advertising and public relations, recognized me from my invasive species videos.  She introduced me to a bunch of other nice professors.  That made my evening very special!  I was very happy.  Thanks Dr. Kahlor!

I met and talked with Dr. Jay Banner, Director of the Environmental Science Institute.  He’s also an amazing professor with the department of Geological Sciences.  Dr. Banner has a passion to get kids excited about science, and the Hot Science – Cool Talks lectures are a great way for kids to learn about science and have fun at the same time.

Invasive rocks

During the October 2011 presentation, Dr. Helper talked about using NASA robots and other vehicles in a large impact crater in Canada to help test techniques for future human planetary exploration.  Geologists are important to identifying the history of planets and where to explore.  For example, Harrison Schmitt was an astronaut who walked on the moon and helped identify and collect rocks for further study.

Meteorites are about as close as you can can get to an invasive species in geology.  They come from outer space and crash land on Earth.  I talked with Dr. Helper about meteorites.  He said that they can tell us a lot about the history of the solar system and of other planets.  A meteorite from Mars may have clues about the possibility of life on other planets.  Exciting stuff!

Don’t miss the last presentation in 2011

I’ve been going to Hot Science – Cool Talks presentations for many years.  I remember seeing the “The 2004 Mars Exploration Rover Mission: Evidence for Water and Prospects for Life” talk with Dr. John Grotzinger, a Professor with the California Institute of Technology.  Another great interplanetary geology presentation

The last talk in 2011 is on Friday, December 2nd, is entitled “Your Eye, My Eye, and the Eye of the Aye-Aye”, by Dr. Christopher Kirk, an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology.  (Ow, my eye! :-))

I hope to see you there!

Commander Ben – Signing off

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Filed under Dr. Alison Preston, Dr. Christopher Kirk, Dr. John Grotzinger, Dr. LeeAnn Kahlor, Dr. Mark Helper, Environmental Science Institute, Hot Science - Cool Talks, Jay Banner, University of Texas