A plaque left on the moon in 1971 stands beside the small aluminum sculpture “Fallen Astronaut.” (SPACE FRONTIERS/GETTY IMAGES)
Extreme-event survival challenge and NASA’s fine arts program
‘Science Social’ begins Oct. 9 at the Koshland Science Museum; ‘Sculpture on the Moon’ Oct. 10 at the Air and Space Museum

Huge amounts of time and money are spent on planning for natural and man-made disasters: how to prepare, how to respond, how to recover. But an aspect of disasters that gets little attention is the why — why some communities bounce back while others struggle.

The Koshland Science Museum, at 525 E St. NW, has a “Science Social” program examining this issue. It kicks off Oct. 9 with a discussion of “community resilience” led by disaster expert Gerald Galloway, followed Oct. 30 by an “Extreme Event Challenge” in which teams must prioritize and collaborate to survive a fictional disaster. As the museum, which is part of the National Academies of Science, notes on its Web site, “With fun group dynamics and a surprising twist, the game will raise real-world questions about what it takes to make our communities more resilient.”

On Nov. 16, disaster experts and emergency responders will be at the museum all day to talk about ways to build a more resilient community.

Meanwhile, for space and art buffs, the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum is hosting “Sculpture on the Moon” Oct. 10. Visitors will have the opportunity to meet Paul van Hoeydonck, the Belgian sculptor who created the only piece of fine art “on display” on the moon.

Van Hoeydonck’s “Fallen Astronaut,” a three-inch aluminum figure, was taken on the Apollo 15 mission in 1971 and left behind on the moon. A replica of the mini-sculpture was later donated by van Hoeydonck to the Smithsonian. The event will include a presentation on NASA’s art program, followed by a Q&A with the 88-year-old artist.

The life of a whale can be chronicled in its earwax, researchers explain
Science Friday

Just as rings in a tree’s trunk can tell the story of that tree’s life and the environmental conditions it faced, socan plugs of earwax chronicle the life of a whale.

In a recent Science Friday podcast, researchers Sascha Usenko and Stephen Trumble of Baylor University explained how the robust, waxy plugs can provide a record of a blue whale’s health and illuminate such factors as pesticide exposure, stress and hormone levels, and sexual maturity.

Whales’ blubber has been used to analyze pesticide exposure, but fat can indicate only whether the animal was exposed to certain contaminants. The earwax allows the researchers to find out when the exposure occurred.

“What we’re able to do is to essentially go back in time,” the researchers said. “When we actually cut the ear plug in half, we can actually see the light and dark lamina, or the layers in there. . . . The farther we go towards the center, the farther back in time we go.”

A major challenge has been acquiring the plugs, which is apparently more complicated than heading out to sea with a giant cotton swab. According to Usenko and Trumble, they get plugs only from dead whales, such as those that wash up on beaches.

Listen to the interview at www.sciencefriday.com.