Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Science of Volunteering

Many of us volunteer, and we do it for many different reasons. Lots of us got started because we say a need, perhaps for our own children or family members, and decided to fill that need – and it grew from there. Nearly all of us would be resistant to admit that we also gain something from this seemingly selfless donation of our time and efforts. However, we most certainly do gain.

It is the very volunteering of the act that makes it so rewarding - by volunteering we learn how to help others, and in doing so help ourselves as well. Volunteering may also allow you to explore (new) career and personal interests, enrich your education, build your resume, gain marketable skills, and earn valuable recommendations. You will develop leadership skills and gain leadership opportunities. You will almost surely make a difference for an individual or in your larger community, which in an incredible ‘feel good’ opportunity. You just might even have fun and make new friends!

But, believe it or not, the act of giving your time or effort to others is actually shown, scientifically, to improve your overall health. Volunteering is often recommended by mental health professionals as an activity to increase your own personal self-esteem and to overcome shyness or loneliness. A recent report compiled by the Corporation for National and Community Service (sponsors of the AmeriCorps program) and the USA Freedom Corps shows that there are solid studies by social and medical scientists to support this, and more, claims ( The 30 scientifically-controlled studies included in the report collectively found that volunteering leads to improved mental and physical health. The volunteers that were tracked in these studies experienced higher functional ability, greater longevity, and lower rates of depression.

Volunteering is also thought to increase people’s perceptions of their quality of life, increase people’s satisfaction with their own life, increase people’s activity levels and physical and mental fitness, and helps people to feel that they ‘belong’. According to PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), that’s the secret of volunteering. People who become volunteers usually lead richer, happier, and more satisfying lives than those who don’t volunteer.

PBS has a wonderful website aimed at kids, called It’s My Life ( We could learn a lot from those kids. My favorite quote is this one:

Michele, 12, says: “It teaches humbleness, something I could use. Also, it teaches you how many people need help around the world. You want to help more and more people. It gets kind of addicting.”

Smart kid! These children are tomorrow’s leaders, and we can help them out today with our skills, talent, and time. Every act, no matter how small, can help. So, help yourself, and help your community at the same time. Go Volunteer!

The life and death of a planet

Scientists have discovered a new planet, and it is spiraling to its doom, or so the predictions go. WASP-18b, so named because it was discovered by the United Kingdom’s ‘Wide Angle Search for Planets’ program, is destined to crash into its parent star, aptly named WASP-18. Fortunately for us, this planet is not in our solar system and its parent star is not our sun. But still…wow.

WASP-18b, described in the August 27 issue of the international journal Nature, is not an insignificant planet. It is ten times the mass of our Jupiter.

The trouble for poor WASP-18b is that it orbits way too close to WASP-18, a mere 1.4 million miles away. Ok, 1.4 million miles seems pretty far. But, WASP-18b is so close to WASP-18 that it can complete its orbit in just over 22 hours. It takes the Earth 8760 hours, or 365 of our so-called days (a.k.a. 1 year), to orbit our sun. The concept of a ‘day’ depends on how fast we are spinning on our Earth axis; our day is 24 hours. It takes 24 hours for us to see the sun, spin all the way around, and see the sun in the same position again. A day on WASP-18b is going to be remarkably different, because it spins on its axis slower than it traverses its orbit. So, a ‘day’ lasts longer than a ‘year’. Too bad, since ‘daytime’ temperatures on WASP-18b reach a broiling 3,800°F.

WASP-18b will be pulled to its doom, and relatively soon by planetary terms, by the gravitational forces that exist between the two bodies. These are the same sorts of gravitational forces that exist between the Earth and our Moon, and subsequently cause the tides. However, our moon orbits the Earth much more slowly than the Earth itself is rotating, thusly our moon is actually moving ever so slowly away from us. At the blinding speed of 0.2 seconds a century (so don’t lose sleep over this).

However, WASP-18b is spiraling inward, and its spin is speeding up. Because of the distance between WASP-18b and WASP-18, WASP-18b experiences gravitational forces so strong that there is huge a bulge at its equator literally dragging behind the planet. Thus, the real mystery is why it has not been sucked into the center of WASP-18 already.

Scientists admit that there is another alternative for the outcome of WASP-18b – it could be shredded to bits by gravitational pull, creating rings of gas and debris not unlike the rings of Saturn.

The really cool thing about the discovery of WASP-18b is that scientists will know if their predictions will be borne out in the next 5 to 10 years. No, the crash is not that eminent. But, the change in trajectory of WASP-18b will be.

So, how often are new planets discovered? Well, 30 more were discovered just in 2009. WASP-18b is number 374 on the list maintained by the Paris Observatory. WASP-17b was discovered on August 11 of this year. It is twice the size of Jupiter, but has only half the mass, earning it the truly adorable designation of ‘puffy planet’.