Holograms, helicopters and clouds

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For an individual visiting an alien planet to be able to build an accurate estimate of an unknown planet’s climate, the explorer must take into account the presence of clouds, according to a professor and guest speaker from Michigan Technological University, and researchers from that university are developing a formula that one day may help that future explorer forecast the weather on a planet he has never seen.

Raymond Shaw, who delivered a lecture to students from the Physics and Astronomy Department on Wednesday afternoon, is one of the researchers currently building a gas kinetic theory that would allow scientists to model how clouds change over time. The basic formula, he said, is relatively simple, but in the process of developing the model his team has discovered several complicating factors.

[media-credit name=”Luke Hansen” align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]

Raymond Shaw, a professor at Michigan Technological University, speaks in the Eyring Science Center on Wednesday.

“In your weather forecasts, this is state of the art,” Shaw said.

Shaw explained several experiments the team has used to build holographic models of particle movement within clouds. Firstly, his team used instruments attached to a helicopter to collect samples to give the researchers insight into the structure and composition of particles within clouds. Once the parameters for the desired atmospheric conditions were set, the team was able to recreate those conditions in a lab and record the results.

Shaw also used speakers to create vortexes similar to those that drive the formation of clouds and recorded the movement of particles using lasers. He then used computers to make a three-dimensional model of how a few hundred particles interacted with one another, and thus how particles in the atmosphere interact to create clouds and rain. As he did so, he made an unexpected discovery — the particles in his simulation occasionally came out with a slight electromagnetic charge. At first, Shaw wanted only to remove the charge and continue with his experiment, but then he asked himself where the charge would come from in a natural environment.

In the atmosphere, Shaw said, clouds would receive such a charge from cosmic radiation, and so he speculated that weather phenomena may well be correlated with sun spot numbers.

“Or course, sun spot numbers are correlated with everything,” Shaw said.

Clouds reflect light from the sun back into space, Shaw said, and so have a dramatic impact on the global environment. He also presented a demonstration during the lecture that showed how simply adding smoke from a match altered a cloud’s composition and made a brighter cloud that would reflect more light.

“Yes, humans pollute, but we’re well-rounded polluters,” Shaw said. “We put out pollutants that warm the Earth, and we put out pollutants that cool the Earth.”

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