Science & Technology

Passion for music thrives thanks to eSight glasses

Justin Crilly uses the eSight electronic glasses to perform simple tasks like using a computer. Photo by Rachel Siford

By Rachel Siford

Justin Crilly of Smithtown has had an eye-opening experience.

Legally blind 16-year-old Crilly had started using eSights on his eyes and is now able to pursue his passion for music. eSights are electronic glasses that utilize a high-definition camera in the headset to capture a real-time video feed. The headset connects to the processing unit that adjusts every pixel to allow Crilly to see and also houses the battery.

The tech company is fairly new since it launched in 2013.

“When I was first considered legally blind at 3 months old, the doctors said I would never see again,” he said.

Crilly’s mother, Stacy, said she saw an ad for eSight on Facebook and was intrigued. They went to a demo in the city and tried a pair out, and immediately fell in love with them.

“I don’t have to squint walking down the hallway anymore,” he said. “Now I can see when I go to a concert or a movie.”

Justin Crilly sports the eSight glasses, which help him overcome blindness. Photo by Rachel Siford
Justin Crilly sports the eSight glasses, which help him overcome blindness. Photo by Rachel Siford

Crilly’s mother has noticed considerable differences in her son’s behavior since he started wearing the glasses this past March.

“The eSights have increased his independence tremendously,” his mother said. “It makes me less afraid for him to go out into the world.”

She went on to say that it gives him the freedom to do anything he wants, like go away to college when he graduates if he so chooses.

“There was always this worry about how far was he going to make it independently, but now I am elated to know that he can be as independent as anybody else,” Stacy Crilly said. “In a way these glasses freed him from his disability.”

According to his mother, since Justin Crilly was a baby, he always gravitated toward music. He has been looking into music schools for the past several years, excited about where to go to college to pursue a career in music production.

He has been taking music theory and recording at Hauppauge High School for the past year. He is able to plug his eSights directly into the computer, making using the software to make music, at home and at school, much easier. Justin Crilly has taken voice, piano and drum lessons throughout his life and has recently started learning how to DJ at Spin DJ Academy in Hauppauge.

Before he started using eSights, it took Justin Crilly about three hours or more to do homework every night, but now he can knock it out in an hour.

He said he wants to show people that anyone with disabilities can do anything they want.

“I want people to hear my music and think ‘despite that he has a disability, he still made music sound that good,’” Justin Crilly said. “No matter if you have a disability or not, you can do anything with your life.”

By Elof Carlson

William Bateson (1861-1926) grew up in an academic home and attended Cambridge University where he took an interest in embryology. He went to Johns Hopkins University to learn the new experimental approaches and insights into the cellular events leading to embryo formation. While there, he was inspired by William Keith Brooks who urged him to study heredity if he wanted to contribute to a field in need of scientific rigor.

When he returned to England, Bateson studied variations and identified two types that were unusual. He called one group homeotic changes because they put organs in the wrong place, such as a fly’s leg emerging from an eye. The other group he called meristic variations, which duplicated parts, like a child born with six fingers on each hand and foot. Both meristic and homeotic mutations were considered pathological by most breeders and physicians, but Bateson believed they could be the raw material for new organ systems or more dramatic origins of new species. He published the results of this work in 1894, and it made him regarded as an enemy by British Darwinists who favored all mutational change as gradual and never sudden.

In 1900 Bateson read Mendel’s papers and was immediately won over to his approach. He began studying mutations in plants and animals. He also gave a name (in 1906) to this new field and called it genetics. Bateson used the symbols P1, F1 and F2 for the generations of a cross. He used the terms homozygous and heterozygous for the genotype of the individuals in a cross. He described the mutant and normal states of hereditary units as alleles.

Bateson discovered blending types of inheritance and genetic interaction in which two or more nonallelic genes could jointly affect a trait. He even found (but did not correctly interpret) non-Mendelian recombination of genes. In this he was scooped by Thomas Hunt Morgan and his students. Morgan was also a student of Brooks at Johns Hopkins and, like Bateson, originally skeptical of Darwinian subtle variations as the basis for all of evolution. But Morgan added cytology to his studies and related the hereditary units (called genes after 1909) to the chromosomes on which they resided.

Bateson felt chromosomes had little to do with genetic phenomena. He was wrong and it was not until the 1920s that he grudgingly admitted Morgan’s fly lab had advanced the field of genetics he named.

Bateson’s work led to an explosion of interest in the field of genetics, and, while he was trapped by his views of the time, younger scientists had no difficulty adding genes to chromosomes, mapping them and accounting for the transmission of traits through their behavior during cell division and germ cell production.

In 1910 Bateson was probably the most famous geneticist in the world. By 1920 he was fading, and after his death in 1926, he was largely forgotten to all but historians of science.

That is not uncommon in the history of science. Science changes faster than any individual scientist can change views in a lifetime. Despite the loss of prestige, it is fitting to honor the memory of the person who named the field of genetics and whose battles to make Mendelism its core succeeded over the prevailing views of heredity at the end of the nineteenth century.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

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Teq CEO Damian Scarfo, and President Chris Hickey. Photo from Lisa Hendrickson

There’s been a lot of hubbub about the 21st century classroom, where interactive whiteboards replace chalk, and pencils and pens are subbed out for iPads and Chromebooks. Even our own governor has incentivized such reforms at our schools.

But let’s push pause and ask: Is all this technology helping or hurting? And what benefits are we missing out on in the real world beyond the bright screens?

This week, a Huntington Station company, Teq, announced it had partnered with Canadian company SMART Technologies — yes, the creators of the famous SMART Board that is a staple of today’s classrooms — to be the sole distributor of Smart products for grades K to 12 in New York. That’s a big deal and we applaud Teq’s success. The educational tech company, already projecting sales of $50 million this year, anticipates the partnership will boost its revenues 20 percent.

That’s not just chump change, and it’s a good deal for Long Island’s economy.

Yet how much of our new technologies are really needed for learning and how much are we just advancing for the sake of advancing? It feels like a lot of the new software and hardware is needed only to keep today’s student boredom at bay, as many kids are so used to having tech products in the home that they will not concentrate on paper.

A culture of distraction is one of the greatest setbacks of today’s overly technological society. We understand that it benefits our students to be familiar with today’s gadgets, so they will be prepared for tomorrow’s success. But it also benefits children to know what it feels like to hold a real book in their hands, to solve a difficult math problem using a pencil and loose-leaf notebook, to be able to tell time without a digital display, to play outside instead of staring at their phones.

Today’s kids are being handed iPads not long after retiring baby bottles.

Steve Jobs once told a New York Times reporter that he limited his own children’s tech time at home. Instead of rushing to live in a completely digital world, our educators, parents and political leaders should place importance on carving out some time for a little reality — some quiet time and disconnect to facilitate thinking and creativity.

Teq CEO Damian Scarfo, and President Chris Hickey. Photo from Lisa Hendrickson

Teq, a Huntington Station-based educational technology and professional development firm, has been named the official provider of SMART Technologies products for all K-12 districts in New York.

The company will also offer professional development for SMART products and technical support from SMART certified professionals. The official partnership will begin on Oct. 1.

SMART Technologies, a Canadian company, is best known for inventing the first interactive whiteboard in 1991. The company now offers interactive tables and pen displays, conferencing software, interactive learning software and more.    

“We are thrilled to be selected as SMART’s sole vendor for K-12 in New York,” Damian Scarfo, CEO of Teq said in a statement. “SMART offers the best interactive displays available, and we couldn’t be happier to align ourselves with the innovation SMART is bringing to classrooms around the world.”

The partnership is projected to increase Teq’s revenues by nearly 20 percent, and the company is projecting $50 million in sales for the year, according to Chris Hickey, president of Teq. The company used to be one of six companies reselling SMART products in the state.

SMART’s president touted the partnership and the Huntington Station company’s solid reputation for professional development.

“We are delighted to name Teq as our sole education partner in New York,” Greg Estell, president of SMART Education Solutions said in a statement. “Teq has an incredible reputation for professional development, enabling educators to deliver best-in-class learning. This, coupled with SMART’s world-leading education technology, makes for a powerful combination.”

As part of a strategy to get more SMART products into state schools, the company has submitted a bid to the New York State Office of General Services to try to negotiate a contract to be a listed vendor of classroom technology to New York. SMART is looking to set a maximum price point at which products can be sold to municipalities through this contract.

Like SMART, Teq will also be looking to further its relationship with schools, hoping to partner with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services to get more technology into the districts. The company is hoping to benefit from $2 billion in funding offered to school districts through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) SMART Schools Bond Act by offering districts that seek funding delayed payment options.

The act is intended to bring about 21st century upgrades to educational technology and infrastructure in schools to ensure that students graduate with the skills they need to thrive in today’s economy. Voters approved the act in a November 2014 referendum.

Teq will be offering a complete range of SMART products and software, including SMART kapp iQ and Teq Unlimited.

SMART kapp iQ is an ultra HD interactive display that can multi-link student devices so that all participants can collaborate, contribute and see what is being written in real time. Teq Unlimited is a software package that teaches how to successfully integrate new technology into the classroom.

“Kapp iQ is not only specifically designed for the needs of teachers and students … it’s designed for how kids learn — using devices and naturally interacting with technology,” Hickey said.

Teq is offering a free trial period for districts in New York. The trial, which lasts 30 days, includes delivery, setup and two hours of professional development of whichever products the districts chose to try, according to a Teq statement.

Teq has been in the business since 1972, and was originally located in Oyster Bay out of a barn. According to the company, its mission is to support the continued evolution of the modern classroom by offering world-renowned professional development and providing service and equipment that enables student achievement.

Tommy the chimp looks through his cage upstate. Photo from Nonhuman Rights Project

The two chimpanzees housed at Stony Brook University will not be granted the personhood necessary to allow them to challenge their captivity, a state Supreme Court judge ruled in an animal rights advocacy group’s lawsuit against the school.

Justice Barbara Jaffe ruled in her July 30 decision that Hercules and Leo, the two male chimps used for research at Stony Brook University’s Department of Anatomical Sciences, would not be granted a “writ of habeas corpus,” as petitioned for in the Nonhuman Rights Project’s suit against the university. The animal rights group had petitioned the judge with hopes of forcing the university to move the chimps to the Florida-based Save the Chimps animal sanctuary.

“The similarities between chimpanzees and humans inspire the empathy felt for a beloved pet,” Jaffe said in her decision. “Efforts to extend legal rights to chimpanzees are thus understandable; someday they may even succeed. For now, however, given the precedent to which I am bound it is hereby ordered that the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is denied.”

Jaffe cited previous suits the Nonhuman Rights Project had headed up, including one referencing a chimpanzee named Tommy who was being held through Circle L Trailers in Gloversville, NY. In that case, the Fulton County Supreme Court dismissed the Nonhuman Rights Project’s appeal to have the chimp released.

Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, said his group was still looking forward to appealing Jaffe’s decision to the state Supreme Court’s Appellate Division’s first judicial department.

“Unlike Justice Jaffe, [the first judicial department] is not bound by the decision of the Third Department in Tommy’s case,” Wise said in a statement.

Despite the judge’s ruling, Susan Larson, an anatomical sciences professor at SBU, previously said both Hercules and Leo will retire from the facility’s research center and be gone by September. Larson did not return requests for comment.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, however, said it would work to ensure the chimps are released to a sanctuary nevertheless.

“We applaud Stony Brook for finally doing the right thing,” Lauren Choplin of the Nonhuman Rights Project wrote on the group’s website. “We have made it clear that we remain willing to assist Stony Brook in sending Hercules and Leo to Save the Chimps in Ft. Pierce, Florida, where we have arranged for them to be transferred, or to have an appropriate member sanctuary of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, as we did in Tommy’s case. We have made it equally clear that, if Stony Brook attempts to move Hercules and Leo to any other place, we will immediately seek a preliminary injunction to prevent this move pending the outcome of all appeals, as we succeeded in doing in Tommy’s case last year.”

New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana owns the chimps, and their next destination was not clear.

The court first ordered the school to show cause and writ of habeas corpus — a command to produce the captive person and justify their detention — but struck out the latter on April 21, one day after releasing the initial order, making it a more administrative move simply prompting the university to defend why it detains the animals.

In an earlier press release from 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project said the chimpanzee plaintiffs are “self-aware” and “autonomous” and therefore should have the same rights as humans. Hercules and Leo are currently being used in a locomotion research experiment in SBU’s Department of Anatomical Sciences.

Town board, hospital ink helipad agreement

The SkyHealth team. Photo from Huntington Hospital

Huntington Hospital is flying high.

The town board on Tuesday approved a license agreement with the hospital to use a portion of the town’s parking facility adjoining Mill Dam Park as a helipad. The agreement spans from August to July 31, 2017.

With the helipad, the hospital will be air-transporting, via helicopter, patients in need of urgent or emergent care to the most appropriate health care facility to address their needs. The hospital will also transport “harvested organs to and from the Huntington Hospital,” according to the town board resolution.

“North Shore – LIJ Health System has developed a new air medical service program called SkyHealth, which is staffed by highly skilled medical professionals,” Randolph Howard, vice president of operations at Huntington Hospital said in a statement through a hospital spokeswoman. “Developing a heliport in Huntington provides a key location from which SkyHealth can transport critically ill patients who require immediate medical transportation. Through this heliport, SkyHealth will provide a vital service to the residents of the greater Huntington area.”

James Margolin, an attorney with the firm Margolin & Margolin, said the helipad already exists, but it is in need of an upgrade — one that the hospital will undertake.

“We thank the town board for its continuing commitment to getting the lifesaving community service into effect,” he said.

SkyHealth is a partnership with Yale New Haven Health in Connecticut and the North Shore- LIJ Health System. Patients of both health systems in need of lifesaving care for major traumas, heart attack, stroke and other life-threatening brain injuries will receive emergency medical care by helicopter and be quickly flown to the most appropriate hospital, according to the North Shore-LIJ Health System’s website.

The helicopter would be staffed with a nurse, a critical care paramedic, all certified in New York and Connecticut, and a pilot. That would be the “standard crew,” according to Gene Tangney, senior vice president and chief administrative officer of North Shore-LIJ in a SkyHealth promotional video.

Huntington Hospital will pay the town $14,062 upon the execution of the license agreement, and another $14,062 at the end of the agreement, according to the resolution.

Councilwoman Tracey Edwards (D) requested quarterly reports from the hospital to ensure the volume is “consistent with what we agreed upon.” Margolin agreed to the request.

Cliff Swezey joins Huntington school district, along with others

Huntington High School. File photo

Huntington schools will see plenty of new faces this September, and not all of them will belong to students.

The school board approved a number of teaching appointments on Monday as well as the hiring of Cliff Swezey, the district’s new chairman of mathematics and sciences for grades 7 through 12. Swezey is the latest addition to fleet of new administrators at the district, particularly the high school level — joining Huntington High School Principal Brenden Cusack and two new assistant principals Joseph DeTroia and Gamal Smith.

School district officials reviewed 66 applications, pre-screened 20 candidates and conducted 12 personal and extensive interviews prior to recommending Swezey, according to a statement from the school.

Cliff Swezey was appointed as the new math and sciences chairman of grades 7 through 12 at a school board meeting on Monday. Photo by Jim Hoops
Cliff Swezey was appointed as the new math and sciences chairman of grades 7 through 12 at a school board meeting on Monday. Photo by Jim Hoops

Swezey, who hails from the Uniondale school district and served there as director of math and computer science for grades K to 12 for the last two years, said he’s excited to join Huntington. He said he developed a four-year computer science sequence for high school students in Uniondale, and would be excited to tackle a similar initiative in Huntington – something school board member Bill Dwyer has said he’d like done at the district.

Swezey replaces the district’s former chairman Blaine Weisman. He said he is an advocate of Singapore math learning techniques — the country boasts high math success rates — and the new chairman said the Common Core Learning Standards math curriculum utilizes those learning techniques. He also said one of his responsibilities at Huntington would be to help parents understand Common Core math.

“The Common Core is really an adaptation, an adoption, of Singapore mathematics,” he said. “So I’m passionate about that because it’s about thinking. It’s not about rote memorization. It’s not about learning procedures and rules in math, which turns kids off. It’s about critical thinking. It’s about problem solving. It’s about alternative strategies and getting kids to build numeracy.”

Swezey earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at SUNY New Paltz in 1984 and a master’s degree in education in mathematics at St. John’s University in 1995. He earned a doctor of education in educational leadership at St. John’s in 2004.

Superintendent Jim Polansky said the district’s still looking to fill a handful of positions. Many of the new hires follow retirements from earlier this year. Polansky said he’s excited about the new team at the high school.

“I have a principal in place that has vision that connects with students like no other and I think we have a team of individuals that are ready to build on momentum that is building at the high school in a positive way for a long time.”

Daniel Madigan with a yellowfin tuna. Photo by Maile Madigan

When Daniel Madigan is out working, he sometimes has no access to a computer, an iPhone or email and that’s just fine by him. Instead of searching for parking spaces, waiting for traffic lights and standing in line at a grocery store, he rocks back and forth on the ocean, seeking answers to questions deep below the surface.

An NSF postdoctoral fellow at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, Madigan said the typical month he has spent over the last four years on the Pacific Ocean has given him a “sense that this is where I want to be. You see something you’ve never seen before, every time.”

He’s watched a killer whale feeding on tuna and has witnessed a school of yellowtail jack beating with their tails on a blue shark. Fin whales, killer whales and blue whales have dotted the landscape on his research trips.

Recently, Madigan completed work on a study of tuna. Knowing that the bluefin tuna has a metabolism that enables it to remain warmer in colder waters than the albacore and yellowfin tuna, Madigan explored whether the bluefin’s greater range gave it a more varied diet.

It turns out that the bluefin is more selective than its more temperature-limited tuna cousins. “We expected a broader habitat use would lead to more access to more food,” Madigan said. “That would be a straightforward benefit to the expansion they get” from being warm-bodied.

In a way, this finding also “makes sense,” he said, because fish that can “access more space can also pick the best thing to specialize in.” The bluefin can not only dive deeper but it can also travel further north to colder waters.

Bluefin tuna face considerable competition for sardines, a primary food source. Humans also consume this fish, and it is a staple of aquaculture-raised fish. Competition for sardines leads to questions about ecosystem-based management.

“When people form policies, they want to know things like, ‘If we limit the sardines in the ocean, how many metric tons of bluefin tuna will that save us?” Madigan asked. “If you can’t give those answers, it becomes more difficult to make concrete estimates.”

At this point, Madigan and other scientists are still in the recognition rather than the implementation stage, which means researchers are developing a greater awareness of the dynamic between the preferred foods for bluefin and measures such as the fish’s fertility and growth rates.

To be sure, Madigan said the population of these warmer-bodied tuna were unlikely to go into deep decline amid a drop in the number of sardines because the bluefin can feed on whatever is abundant to survive.

Still, understanding the life history of these fish with different habitat ranges can enable scientists and policy makers to recognize the complexity of interactions in the marine ecosystem, as well as any possible effect of fisheries policies.

Sardines, anchovy and herring are considered forage fish, which are used in aquaculture and are also popular with sharks, seabirds and marine mammals.

To track the fish in the study, Madigan and his colleagues collected all three types of tuna, put tags on them, sent them back in the ocean and retrieved and downloaded the information from the tags.

Heidi Dewar, a fisheries research biologist at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in California who has worked with Madigan for six years, described her colleague as an “innovator.” She praised Madigan’s work with chemical tracers to understand large-scale migrations. Madigan has used the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, to quantify the migration of bluefin tuna from west to east. His work can have a “long-term application,” she added.

Dewar agreed that working on and in the ocean provides opportunities to make new discoveries. “There is nothing like getting up close and personal with sharks, giant bluefin tuna, manta rays or opah,” Dewar described. “Unlocking the mysteries of their various adaptations either using electronic tags or by examining their physiology and morphology makes me feel like an early explorer mapping new territory.”

Madigan, who grew up in Garden City, lives in Port Jefferson with his wife Maile, who is a school administrator for a charter school in Riverhead.

Madigan said the broader goal for his research is that “these animals will still be here in 100, 200 years” and will be in “even greater numbers and surviving to even greater sizes.”

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By Elof Carlson

Fossils are relatively rare because most of the animals and plants that have died in nature have been eaten or decomposed. Fossils are often found in sedimentary rocks, and those dead organisms were buried after drowning, caught by volcanic ash, buried in a mudslide or sucked down by quicksand or some other event less likely than falling on a field or in the underbrush of a forest, or left as scattered bones by hungry predators. Only in the past few ten thousand years have humans buried their dead, improving the chances that their remains will someday be unearthed and studied by paleontologists.

DNAUntil the last half of the twentieth century, the only way to use human fossils to work out a historical association was through comparative anatomy and a variety of chemical and physical tools to determine the age of the sediments in which they were unearthed. The idea of a paleogenetics arose in 1963, with the use of that term by Linus Pauling and his colleagues, who studied the amino acid sequences in hemoglobin molecules of numerous organisms, from sipunculoid worms to humans, that use hemoglobin to carry oxygen to body tissues.

In 1964, the first sequence of fragments of the DNA of an extinct quagga were worked out using the skin of an extinct specimen in a museum. The quagga was an animal that looked like a chimera of giraffe and a zebra.

Once DNA sequencing was worked out, especially by Fred Sanger and his colleagues, viruses, bacteria, single-celled organisms, and then more complex worms and flies were sequenced. By 2000, the human genome was being worked out. Svante Pääbo and his colleagues are leaders in the working out of fossil human DNA.

This is what has been found so far. Four contenders for species status lived about 40,000 years ago. Three populations of humans arose after an initial origin in Africa. Of these three, the Neandertals (Homo neanderthalis) left Africa earlier than our own Homo sapiens. The Neandertals were named for the Neander river valley where they found in Germany. We were named by Linnaeus as Man (Homo) the Thinker (sapiens).

Two additional populations were found, one in western Siberia and the other in Indonesia. The Siberian humans are called Denisovans (Homo denisova). They were named for the Denis cave in which they were found and they also had an exit from Africa. The Indonesian humans are called Homo floresiensis and are named for the island Flores in Indonesia where they were found. Where they came from is not yet known. They are unusual for their small size, a Hobbit-like three- and-a-half feet tall.

The DNAs of three forms of humanity have been sequenced. The complete sequence of DNA of an organism’s cell is called a genome. The Indonesian form went extinct about 12,000 years ago, but no DNA has been extracted from their remains. Neandertals and Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago.

Analysis of the three available genomes shows that most Europeans have about 4 percent Neandertal DNA. Living people in Melanesia and Australian aborigines have about 4 percent H. denisova DNA. About 17 percent of Denisovan DNA is from Neandertals. The human branch Homo bifurcated and one branch split into H. neanderthalis and H. denisova. The other branch from Homo produced us, H. sapiens. We are 99.7 percent alike for H. sapiens and H. neanderthalis.

Since we have 3 billion nucleotides to our genome, there remain 9 million mutations between us, most of it in our junk DNA. There are, nevertheless, hundreds of gene differences between our two species. It also means that where these populations came into contact, fertile matings occurred, and remain in our DNA from our ancestral “kissing cousins.”

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

This view, from 478,000 miles, shows that Pluto is home to huge, 11,000-foot tall mountains, most likely composed of ice and frozen methane and nitrogen. The lack of impact craters suggests that Pluto’s surface is young, probably less than 100 million years old. Courtesy of NASA/APL/SwRI

When Alan Calder was young, his father used to share the world of the planets and stars with him through telescopes in their backyard. Peter Tarr, meanwhile, drew pictures in his teenage notebooks of Saturn and Jupiter and saved enough money to travel to Africa aboard a ship with Neil Armstrong to view a solar eclipse.

This past week, Calder, Tarr, and many others who have craned their necks skyward received the first set of clear images from Pluto, a dwarf planet located more than three billion miles from Earth.

The New Horizons space probe, which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration blasted off from Earth in 2006, beamed back the first pictures of a dwarf planet that had, up until recently, been considered something of a gray, icy blob.

Traveling at the speed of light, the images took four and a half hours to reach the eager eyes of astronomers and scientists around the world. Long Islanders shared the excitement surrounding these first close-up views of a planet named, by then 11-year old Venetia Burney, more than eight decades ago.

“Our imaginations tend to fail us” when anticipating what’s around the corner or, more precisely, billions of miles away, said Frederick Walter, a professor of astronomy who specializes in stars and teaches a solar system course at Stony Brook. Pluto “doesn’t look like any of the worlds we know.”

Astronomers have zeroed in on the 11,000 foot high ice mountains, which, NASA scientists said, are likely made of a combination of ice and frozen methane and nitrogen.

The show stopper in these early images, however, was the lack of something many of them were sure would be there: impact craters. These craters are like the ones that riddle the surface of Earth’s moon and that have also affected the geology of our planet.

New Horizons captured this stunning image, on July 13, of one of Pluto’s most dominant features, the “heart.” It’s estimated to be 1,000 miles across at its widest point and rests just above the equator. The heart’s diameter is about the same distance as from Denver to Chicago. Courtesy of NASA/APL/SwRI
New Horizons captured this stunning image, on July 13, of one of Pluto’s most dominant features, the “heart.” It’s estimated to be 1,000 miles across at its widest point and rests just above the equator. The heart’s diameter is about the same distance as from Denver to Chicago. Courtesy of NASA/APL/SwRI

“Some process has been resurfacing this planet, to smooth it out and get rid of whatever craters it should have,” said Deanne Rogers, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook. “That was a real surprise for me.”

At this point, any explanation of the process that might melt and smooth out the surface of a planet that takes 248 years to orbit the sun is speculation, Rogers added.

One such possibility is the presence of radioactive elements, researchers said.

Calder, who is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Stony Brook, said he, too, is “intrigued by what seems to be the smooth surface of the planet. That implies an active geology.”

Calder’s research is in the field of star explosions. He said the images and information from Pluto wouldn’t impact his work too directly, unless scientists were able to show an interesting ratio of unexpected isotopes.

Calder said he’s looking forward to watching the textbooks change and seeing an alteration in the curriculum of classes on the solar system in light of the new images from the New Horizons satellite that are returning at such a slow pace that it will take 16 months for NASA to collect them all.

The active geology of this distant dwarf planet suggests that “even a small cold body that far out has activity on it,” Calder said.

For Tarr, a senior science writer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, his interest in the planets date back to his teens. Traveling aboard a boat toward Africa to observe a solar eclipse, Tarr rubbed elbows with author Isaac Asimov, astronaut Armstrong, thousands of others interested in astronomy and fellow teenager Neil deGrasse Tyson, who would become an astrophysicist, author and director of the Hayden Planetarium.

For Tarr, some of the heroes of the Pluto images are the scientists who figured out, more than a decade ago, how to plot a course from Earth that would take the New Horizons spacecraft within 7,800 miles of Pluto.

“The calculation that goes into the launch is an incredible achievement,” Tarr said.

For Walter, part of the excitement of seeing these images comes from interpreting and understanding the unexpected parts of the picture.

“If you anticipated everything, you’d be doing the wrong thing,” Walter said. “Now that they’ve got these images” some of the old ideas will get “tossed out, and they’ll bring in something new” to explain the lack of craters, he added.

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