YouTube Space Lab finalist turns to snowflakes for cosmic answers


The International Space Station can be seen at the center of the frame with the payload bay of the space shuttle Endeavour in the foreground as the two spacecraft prepare to dock in this photograph provided by NASA and taken May 18, 2011. (NASA/REUTERS)
January 24, 2012

This post has been updated to clarify the nature of Bresnahan’s experiment.

When most people think about the science of snowflakes, they tend to bring up that old standby that no two snowflakes are alike. But for Emerald Bresnahan, a 17-year-old from Plainville, Mass., snowflakes hold a much more interesting scientific concept — one that could provide clues to how galaxies are formed.

In an experiment proposal she submitted to YouTube as part of its Space Lab competition, Bresnahan said that galaxies form similarly to how snowflakes form from the inside out. She believes to have found possible evidence that the hexagonal formation of a snowflake relates to other aspects of the universe — a shape that’s also seen on the north pole of Saturn.

Last week, YouTube announced Bresnahan is one of 60 finalists in its Space Lab competition, a global contest for young scientists to have two submitted experiments performed on the International Space Station. From these 60 finalists, people can vote for six finalists — two each from the Americas, Europe and Pacific Asia — to be judged by a panel of space and science experts.

Bresnahan, a freshman at Wheaton College (she skipped the 10th grade) worked on her project alone for about a month after seeing an announcement about the contest on YouTube. After finishing some preliminary work, she consulted her astronomy professor on incorporating her research into a class project.

“He supported what I was going to do and wanted to see what would happen,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post.

She said that YouTube and other large forums like it can help inspire young people to get motivated about their own research and ask big questions. Because of that potential to share knowledge, she wasn’t shy about sharing her ideas on the site.

“I really believe in my research and I wanted to share it with people,” she said. “It’s always great to get younger people involved, especially in science. It’s an important topic that should be looked into by everybody, and sharing it could help find answers,” she said.

Many people would be shy about sharing their ideas in any public forum, let alone in a video submission posted to YouTube, but Bresnahan said she wasn’t worried about any reaction she might get.

“You learn through criticism,” she said of her experiment. “I would love to see it done [on the space station], but it was good just to put it out there and get other people thinking about it.” she said.

Patricia Bresnahan, Emerald’s mother, said that her daughter has always been interested in math and the sciences and that she’s always been supportive of Emerald’s experiments.

“It’s so vital that parents let kids get in the mud and explore, ask questions and answer them. It’s important to say to them, ‘Why don’t you try to find the answer?’ to their questions,” she said.

Both are thrilled that Emerald’s experiment has been picked as a finalist from the thousands of entries, which received over 40 million views, YouTube said in a release. The winners will see their experiments performed via YouTube livestream from the International Space Station, and get to choose either a stint at astronaut camp in Russia or the chance to see their experiment launch into space from Japan.

And what would Emerald choose if she wins?

“Both are excellent choices, but I would go to Japan to see the shuttle take off,” she said, because she’s always had an interest in Japan and has studied the language for the past two years.

The winners will be announced in March in Washington; anyone can vote for the finalists through YouTube’s SpaceLab channel.

Related stories:

YouTube Space Lab to put students’ work into orbit

YouTube: The future of entertainment is on the Web

YouTube’s year in review 2011

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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