ASU professor wins prestigious award from American Geophysical Union

July 30, 2018

Every year the American Geophysical Union confers its Fred Whipple Award on a geoscientist who has made outstanding contributions to planetary science.

The awardee for 2018 is Philip Christensen, Regents' Professor of Geosciences in Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration. A career of investigating Mars and the solar system with infrared radiation has earned Philip Christensen of ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration the prestigious Fred Whipple Award from the American Geophysical Union. In the background is a photo-mosaic of Gusev Crater on Mars. Photo by Tom Story/ASU Download Full Image

"I'm very pleased and flattered, and also surprised by the award," Christensen said. "I've worked with a lot of talented planetary scientists over my career and never expected to receive an award like this."

Christensen, who has been at ASU since 1981, has long focused his research on Mars, where his work has explored the nature and conditions of the rocks and sediments on its surface, as well as the dynamics of its atmosphere, which is currently experiencing a global dust storm.

But his work also reaches beyond Mars to include building instruments for missions that are heading for the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, Jupiter's moon Europa, and the Trojan asteroids associated with Jupiter.

The common thread running through these explorations is infrared, or heat, radiation. But long ago, this focus nearly caused him to fail his PhD exam.

"I was all about temperature," he explained. "Then I realized that if you have a surface that combines fine-grain sand and sediments with rocks, it no longer behaves in a simple way."

During his exam, one of his questioners was a scientist who dealt with stars, which are self-luminous objects. 

"This astronomer grilled me for 20 minutes on the physics," Christensen said. "Finally, we both realized the confusion — with stars, we observe radiation from a hot dense gas. But with planetary surfaces, the radiation is coming from rocks and other materials on the ground that emit and reflect radiation very differently."

This meant that infrared radiation from a planet's surface follows different physical laws than is true for stars.

"It led me to realize that my original interest in using infrared for temperature measurements could also be used to get composition information," he said. "And the two approaches rolled together gave a much better picture of the Martian surface than either approach did by itself."

The insight is not original with Christensen. But he has used the principles to determine the nature and properties of surface materials all over Mars and is now taking the techniques out into the solar system. 

Any advice for up-and-coming students?

"I teach both undergraduates and grad students, and I often hear them say that they feel they've missed a golden era of planetary exploration," Christensen said. "I say that there are many, many discoveries yet to be made, even at Mars where what we've been doing so far is mainly clearing ground for what's to come.

"I always tell them the next 30 years will contain as many wonderful discoveries as the last 30 years."

Office of Naval Research awards ASU $1.6 million to study Russian propaganda

July 30, 2018

Arizona State University has been awarded a $1.6 million grant from the Office of Naval Research, a division of the United States Department of the Navy. The project will examine thousands of mass media and social media postings in the Baltic States — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — to help detect if Russia is planning a military invasion there.  

Directing the research for the grant is Professor Steve Corman, director of the Center for Strategic Communication at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. ASU collaborators on the project include the School of Computing, Informatics & Decision Systems Engineering, and the Global Security Initiative. Part of the work will be subcontracted to the aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin. Funding will span a three-year period. steve corman Professor Steve Corman Download Full Image

“Dr. Corman has a long history of funded research dedicated to the application of theories of persuasive communication, to identify the ways in which strategic communication attempts to influence public opinion,” said Linda Lederman, professor and director of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication.

Corman and his team won the grant in part due to a pilot project funded by Lockheed Martin examining Russian and pro-Russian press reports prior to the takeover of Crimea by pro-Russian separatists and Russian Armed Forces.    

“About four months before the invasion of Ukraine, we saw huge changes in Russian anti-Ukrainian propaganda,” Corman said. “The Russians were clearly trying to rile up the Russian-speaking minorities to sow support for their cause. Obviously, there hasn’t been an invasion in the Baltics yet, but we will be trying to figure out if there are correlations between propaganda framing and conflict events in the Baltics.” 

Russian strategic communication techniques were so successful that in 2014, a referendum, deemed unconstitutional by the Ukrainian Constitutional Court, was held on whether Crimea should leave Ukraine and join Russia. The official result was that a large majority of Crimeans wished to join with Russia. 

“The Russians are known for using skewed facts, half-truths, rumors, and misinformation to work in their favor,” Corman said. “They were able to soften up the Russian-speaking minorities by planting stories and telling them that the Ukrainian government is corrupt, they are violating their human rights, and that the government is backed by Nazis. These narratives and other tactics were obviously quite useful to them.”

Corman added, “The Russians do this in their own backyard, and they’ve done it in Europe. They’re also doing it here in the United States, where they are trying to stir the pot by amplifying both sides of hot-button issues. It’s really important to keep our eye on them.”

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