Inquiring Minds

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Hot and Bothered
Shoeless Joes

Space weathering may create life's building blocks

The launch of NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2009 was intended to help pave the way for humans to return to the moon, and keep them there safely for a good stretch of time. An extended stay, or the more ambitious notion of putting astronauts on Mars, requires understanding the hazards posed by galactic cosmic rays, solar energetic particles and other radiation that would bombard the spacecraft at nearly the speed of light. The danger to astronauts would be cellular damage and mutations.

Onboard the orbiter is a precision instrument intended to measure this radiation, the shoebox-sized Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation. But shortly after the telescope was in orbit around the moon, plans to return astronauts to the moon were shelved, at least for now, and with it the need to study radiation hazards.

Research, illusrations by Jud Guiteau

Fortunately, the telescope's unique design has allowed it to take on a new goal: to measure populations of energetic particles that had been undetectable before. The repurposing has opened up new windows on the effects of radiation on the moon and beyond.

"Our push to do the reconnaissance for manned exploration of the moon actually enabled a lot of science," says astrophysicist Harlan Spence, director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space, and the telescope's lead scientist.

Until now, says Spence, "people have not had the 'eyes' necessary to see this particular population of particles." With the telescope, "we just happen to have the right focus to make these discoveries."

Two key discoveries so far: a "backsplash" of high-energy protons that penetrate the lunar soil and then rebound to create a surprising one-two punch of deadly radiation. The rebound can be used to peer below the lunar surface like a geological probe. And surface "space weathering" from galactic cosmic rays has also been observed. As rays pummel the moon's soil, chemical changes in water-based ice lead to the creation of complex carbon chains thought to be prebiotic structures—the building blocks of life.

With the backsplash discovery, "we're breaking new ground, and we don't really know what to expect," says research scientist and team member Jody Wilson.

The space weathering is also improving mathematical models that can, among other things, accurately predict how bad the radiation environment could be for space exploration.

Associate professor of physics Nathan Schwadron has used data from the telescope to create the first online system for predicting and forecasting the radiation environment in near-Earth, lunar and Martian space environments.

"It will be critical to have a system like this in place as preparations are made for future manned missions," says Schwadron.

Recently, as the two-year mission wound down, NASA gave the orbiter the go-ahead to continue for an additional two years—in part because of the number of tantalizing discoveries made by the telescope.

—David Sims '81

Hot and Bothered
Warmer water affects the behavior of lobsters

There's one thing you can say for certain about the effect of warming ocean waters on lobsters: It's either bad for them, or it isn't. Not very satisfying, perhaps, but indicative of the uncertainties that surround this iconic New England crustacean. "I find it just amazing that some of the more basic questions in biology, like reproductive dynamics, or estimating total abundance of lobsters, are not really that well understood," says Jason Goldstein '12G, who has been studying lobsters for years, including research for his doctoral thesis in zoology.

Goldstein is particularly interested in the early life of lobsters, both our northern lobster and its clawless but better-distributed cousin, the spiny lobster. He studies egg production, hatching, embryo development and movement patterns to see how they are affected by genetics and environmental factors. Consider ocean temperature—as Goldstein has done in great detail.

Research, illusrations by Jud Guiteau

The Atlantic, for example, is getting warmer and seems likely to continue doing so. Warmer water increases metabolism for cold-blooded marine creatures, including speeding up egg development. That sounds good, and the current population boom among lobsters from Canada to Massachusetts—a trend that has driven down prices so far that it has caused financial problems for lobstermen—seems to suggest that it is indeed proving good for lobsters.

But take a look at Buzzard's Bay, south of Cape Cod. Because female lobsters prefer a certain temperature of water, they have been fleeing to deeper water, abandoning traditional spawning grounds. "Some of their larvae may never be recruited back into that bay," says Goldstein. "It suggests that if temperatures change, lobsters have the potential to move away."

But nobody can say for sure this would happen in the future; after all, there isn't even agreement about why things are happening in the present. "You could ask 100 different lobster biologists and you're going to get 100 different answers" about the current lobster population boom, Goldstein says. One thing does seem certain: Climate change, reflected in changing water temperatures, is likely to keep the situation unsettled, even for a species that people have been harvesting in a controlled way for centuries. "It's not just the absolute temperature that matters, it's how fast it's changing, and that rate of change has a big impact on the development of marine organisms," says Goldstein. "The old models no longer really work."

That leaves plenty of work for UNH's Coastal Marine Lab at Fort Constitution at the mouth of the Piscataqua River and the Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island. Considering the importance of lobsters in the New England coastal economy, more research seems called for. "Creating a better data set for some of these questions is only going to help the fishery," says Goldstein.

Which leads to the inevitable question for any lobster researcher: Do you eat them? Sure, says Goldstein, but he's not a fanatic. "On the other hand," he admits, "I have trouble turning down scallops."

Shoeless Joes
Do bare feet help runners be more efficient?

Barefoot running is trendy these days, and there's nothing researchers enjoy more than peering inside trends. Timothy Quinn, associate professor of kinesiology, is doing his peering via a treadmill. "I was the first guinea pig for the training program," says Quinn, 55, who has been a long-distance runner since 4th grade and has clocked many sub-3-hour marathons, including a personal best of 2:30 several years ago at the Chicago Marathon.

Until recently, Quinn has always worn running shoes. Barefoot, he says, "is a totally different way to run." Different, yes, but better? In particular, more efficient? That's what he wants to know. "My gut says that running barefoot is a method to improve running economy, but we'll see."

Kinesiology is the study of human movement, biomechanics and what might be considered whole-body chemistry. Quinn teaches electrocardiography, graded exercise testing, cardiopulmonary pathologies and exercise lab techniques. His research area is cardiovascular function and fitness, and a chunk of his work has involved running economy, measured mostly by how much oxygen people consume when running at a certain pace. The topic is vital for racers, he notes. All other things being equal, "it's the runner with the better running economy who will win the race, 9 times out of 10," he says.

Research, illusrations by Jud Guiteau

Among his surprising findings is that runners over age 60 are no less economical than those in their 20s. That finding, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, made it into The New York Times. Shoeless running drew his attention partly because of its current popularity, spurred by the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, which described the astonishing long-distance running abilities of the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico, who run barefoot or with light sandals. The book argued that today's athletic shoes get in the way of natural running styles and actually increase injuries. It has led to something of a barefoot-running boom, including, ironically enough, shoe designs that mimic being shoeless.

Quinn designed and set up a three-part research protocol. Two parts involve testing the running economy of barefoot runners and shoe-wearing runners; the third involves taking those shoe-wearing runners and teaching them to run barefoot over a period of 10 weeks. Quinn is aiming for 30 subjects, roughly split by gender and with a mix of ages; as of early August he had 16. "The training program progresses in a pretty gentle fashion—so we're not killing them," he says. "We work up to four days a week of barefoot running, 30 minutes each day. ... The hard part is getting the foot strengthened and toughened up a bit. It takes time." The tests, done on a flat treadmill as well as treadmills on an incline, also involve measuring step length, step rate, push-off and landing forces and other data. All participants will also run a 5K race, to measure performance.

Quinn expects to have all this data gathered this year and then will begin the process of analysis. The biggest surprise he has encountered so far has been in getting subjects. "We've had an easier time recruiting barefoot runners than shoe runners, which was a surprise to me. It seems like they are willing to try anything, do anything. I think they're a different animal."

—David Brooks

To volunteer, contact Tim Quinn at

See also UNH Today: More Speed or Just Sore Feet?

David Brooks writes about science and technology for The Telegraph of Nashua, writes the GraniteGeek blog (, and moderates the monthly Science Cafe New Hampshire in Concord (

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