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Digital agriculture program creates new careers for physics grads

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If you picture a career in agriculture, physics probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But as computers and technology rapidly change how we farm, a research team at The University of Winnipeg has found an unexpected niche in the growing industry of digital agriculture.

“It’s just so non-obvious to people that a physicist would have any business working in this field,” said UWinnipeg Physics Professor, Dr. Christopher Bidinosti, “but they are, and they’re doing really well.”

Studying physics at UWinnipeg and working at TerraByte taught me to solve real-world problems with technology.

Junyao Pu

Digital agriculture – using computers, technology, and algorithms in the ag industry – is common. Farmers already use tools like GPS and smart technology to enhance their operations. But using drones to spray fields, satellites to identify weeds, and even using AI or machine learning could soon be a regular part of a farmer’s day.

Although many big companies are working in this evolving industry, Dr. Bidinosti said UWinnipeg’s TerraByte project is unique because it’s research supporting research.

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TerraByte, led by Dr. Bidinosti and Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Computer Science, Dr. Michael Beck, combines physics research and computer science research to provide innovative solutions for plant scientists and plant breeders, who Dr. Bidinosti said are “desperate for new techniques.”

Many of the scientists TerraByte works with are looking for ways to automate data collection and increase the accuracy of their results. They typically collect data by making visual assessments of each plant.

“They don’t want to be doing it by eye anymore and estimating,” Dr. Bidinosti said.

With the help of TerraByte, plant scientists will regularly use robotic systems to collect data and machine learning to analyze what they find.

In the long run, this means farmers could more accurately manage pests and disease on their fields, and scientists could breed more resilient plants more quickly. It also means a new career path in digital agriculture is emerging.

“Every one of these things has a computational part to it that never existed before,” said Dr. Bidinosti. “That’s because of shrinking sensors, better sensors, better computing, and machine learning.”

This is where physics and computer science are key.

Real-world applications

When Alex Krosney (BSc[Hons] 2021) started studying physics at UWinnipeg, he never thought he would end up working in agriculture. Working on TerraByte changed that.

“Initially I planned to continue onto higher degrees in physics, and thought I would likely end up teaching or doing research,” Krosney said.

Now Krosney is working at JCA Technologies, an agriculture tech company, helping develop and implement algorithms for obstacle detection.

Alex Krosney (left) and Junyao Pu (right) are UWinnipeg physics grads now working in digital agriculture. Photos: supplied

“The greatest benefit to my career that a physics degree has provided me is the ability to understand complex math, but also to see math as a tool that I can use to solve real problems,” said Krosney.

Krosney isn’t the only UWinnipeg alumnus and former TerraByte researcher to be hired by JCA Technologies. Junyao Pu (BSc[HONS] 2019) currently analyzes farm data and creates artificial intelligence models for off-road vehicles at the ag tech company.

“Studying physics at UWinnipeg and working at TerraByte taught me to solve real-world problems with technology,” Pu said. “My physics background helped me think analytically, and now I use those skills in my career, using machine learning to find solutions to practical challenges.”

Pu says the research happening through TerraByte could help “revolutionize farming.”

“We might see smarter farms using technology to grow more food efficiently, adapt to environmental changes, and ensure a stable food supply for everyone,” he said.

With a changing climate and more aggressive invasive species, Dr. Bidinosti said improving plant research is integral to the future of agriculture. For TerraByte, that can’t happen without physics students.

“This coming digital ag space, and agriculture in general, is going to need a lot of people,” said Dr. Bidinosti. “What we need most are students with comfort in math, comfort in programming, and solid problem-solving skills, and those just naturally come out of the physics department.”

“If you’re thinking about a physics degree, go for it,” Pu said. “It’s a journey into understanding how things work. You’ll develop great problem-solving skills and open doors to cool jobs. Stay curious and enjoy the ride!”

 

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McMaster and Hamilton-area libraries distributing glasses ahead of April 8 total eclipse – CBC.ca

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McMaster University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy is partnering with libraries in Hamilton and surrounding areas to provide free glasses so that people can safely view the solar eclipse on April 8.

As of Thursday, people could pick up one pair per person at a Hamilton public library as long as they have a library card. 

Glasses will also be available after the following dates:

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  • Haldimand public libraries: Feb. 22.
  • McMaster University libraries: Feb. 26.
  • Burlington public libraries: March 4
  • Six Nations Public Library: March 4.
  • Brantford public libraries: March 4.
  • Norfolk public libraries: TBD.

Hamilton Public Library (HPL) is reminding residents that while the eclipse is fascinating, it is important to guard against damage to your eyes. 

“You should never look at the sun without proper protection. During most of the total solar eclipse, you should only look directly at the sun if you are using protective eyewear,” HPL said on its website.

Eclipse glasses are specially designed to block 99.9 per cent of sunlight, making them ideal for viewing the eclipse.

The moon passes in front of the sun for a total solar eclipse visible from Farmington, Mo., Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. Experts are reminding eclipse viewers to ensure they have the proper eye protection for watching the event on April 8. (Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via The Associated Press)

As the date of the eclipse approaches, there appears to be a huge demand for eclipse glasses. In a notice on its website, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada said it’s completely sold out of the glasses.

Meanwhile, in Hamilton on the day of the eclipse, the sun will be completely hidden for about two minutes starting at 3:18 p.m., according to the Canadian Space Agency. However, it will be at least partially covered from about 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

1st total eclipse in Hamilton since 1925

The Hamilton and Niagara areas will offer some of the best spots to view the rare total eclipse. 

Some school boards in cities along the path of the total eclipse have cancelled school that day so children aren’t leaving class around the time of the eclipse, due to safety concerns. 

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) trustees approved rescheduling a professional activity (PA) day — originally scheduled for March 1 — for April 8 in order to keep children at home. 

The board’s approved change means that on April 8, public school staff in Hamilton will be working, but there will be no school for elementary or high school students. 

The April 8 eclipse will be Hamilton’s first total solar eclipse since 1925. The next will occur in 2144.

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The sun just launched three huge solar flares in 24 hours. What it means. – The Washington Post

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Three top-tier X-class solar flares launched off the sun between Wednesday and Thursday. The first two occurred seven hours apart, coming in at X1.9 and X1.6 magnitude respectively. The third, the most powerful of the current 11-year “solar cycle,” ranked an impressive X6.3.

Solar flares, or bursts of radiation, are ranked on a scale that goes from A, B and C to M and X, in increasing order of intensity. They usually originate from sunspots, or bruiselike discolorations on the surface of the sun.

Sunspots are most common near the height of the 11-year solar cycle. The current cycle, number 25, is expected to reach its peak this year. The more sunspots, the more opportunities for solar flares.

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Solar flares and accompanying coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, can influence “space weather” across the solar system, and even here on Earth. CMEs are slower shock waves of magnetic energy from the sun. Flares can reach Earth in minutes, but CMEs usually take at least a day.

All three of the X-class solar flares disrupted shortwave radio communications on Earth. But the first two flares did not release a CME; the verdict is still out regarding whether the third flare did.

Three flares, three radio blackouts

High-frequency radio waves propagate by bouncing off electrons in Earth’s ionosphere. That’s a layer of Earth’s atmosphere between 50 and 600 miles above the ground

When a solar flare occurs, that radiation travels toward Earth at the speed of light. It can ionize additional particles in the lower ionosphere. Radio waves sent from devices below it then impact that extra-ionized layer and lose energy, and aren’t able to be bent by ions at the top of the ionosphere. That means signals can’t travel very far, and radio blackouts are possible.

Three back-to-back radio blackouts occurred in response to the trio of flares, but primarily over the Pacific and Indian oceans. They were rated “R3” or greater on a 1 through 5 scale.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center, that results in a “wide area blackout of [high frequency] radio communication, [and] loss of radio contact for about an hour on sunlit side of Earth.” Low-frequency navigation signals, like those used on aircraft traveling overseas, can be degraded too.

Disruptions to AT&T cell service?

There was rampant speculation that Thursday morning’s pervasive AT&T blackout was tied to Wednesday’s solar flares. The Space Weather Prediction Center, however, released a statement noting that “it is unlikely that these flares contributed to the widely reported cellular network outage.”

Joe Kunches, former chief of operations at the center, told The Washington Post that “there is no chance” of any connection.

“First it occurred in the night hours for North America, so any possible impact would have not occurred here. Flares and their associated radio bursts only impact dayside systems if at all,” Kunches said in an email. “And, even if this was to occur during your daylight hours, chances are near nil that cell service would be affected.”

Solar flares don’t usually affect cellphone frequencies. Radio blackouts associated with solar flares affect transmissions in the high-frequency 3 to 30 megahertz band. Most cellphone carriers operate between 698 and 806 megahertz.

Finally, Wednesday’s flares didn’t unleash CMEs. Such blasts can induce electric currents that can overwhelm circuitry in satellites and even knock them offline or destroy them. In February of 2022, 40 SpaceX satellites were knocked out by a CME. Even had there been a CME, it probably would have taken more than a day to reach Earth.

Potential Earth effects

Because the first two flares on Wednesday didn’t release CMEs, it means skywatchers won’t be treated to displays of the northern lights, as is often the case when such geomagnetic storms reach Earth.

The third solar flare, which was the biggest and occurred Thursday evening Eastern time, may have launched a CME, but forecasters don’t know yet. They’re awaiting coronagraph data. Since CMEs are slower-moving than solar flares it generally takes several hours for them to fully radiate away from the solar disk and become visible on sensors.

Still, there are more opportunities for X-class flares and CMEs in the days ahead. The parent sunspot cluster that launched all three, dubbed “Active Region 3590,” is still crackling.

The sunspot is so big that you can view it with your own eyes — but you’ll need eclipse glasses to do so safely.

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'A wonderful spectacle': Photographer snaps rare solar eruption as 'magnetic noose' strangles the sun's south pole – Livescience.com

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A gigantic plume of plasma recently exploded from the sun’s south pole, where solar eruptions almost never occur. The explosion, which a photographer captured in stunning detail, is another telltale sign that the sun is about to enter its most active phase — the solar maximum

The rare phenomenon occurred on Feb. 17, when a solar flare exploded from a sunspot near the sun’s south pole, releasing a gigantic column of ionized gas, or plasma, that towered around 124,300 miles (200,000 kilometers) above the solar surface — around 15 times taller than Earth, Spaceweather.com reported. The plasma eventually snapped away from the sun and hurtled into space as a gigantic cloud, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME).  

Astrophotographer Eduardo Schaberger Poupeau captured a highly detailed composite image of the plume before it broke away from the solar surface. “The plasma column was so large, I had to rotate the camera to fit it into the frame,” Poupeau told Spaceweather.com. “It was truly a wonderful spectacle.” 

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This stellar blast was extremely unusual because it erupted from the sun’s south pole: Most solar flares erupt from sunspots on or around the sun’s equator and almost never from near the magnetic poles, because the poles are where the sun’s magnetic field is strongest, which normally suppresses sunspot formation

Due to the orientation of the flare, the CME was directed away from Earth and the rest of the planets, which all orbit the sun on the same plane.

Related: 15 signs the sun is gearing up for its explosive peak — the solar maximum

Solar flares rarely occur this close to the sun’s magnetic poles. (Image credit: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory)

The unusual eruption was likely triggered by what scientists call a polar crown filament (PCF) — a loop of magnetism that circles the sun’s magnetic poles, according to Spaceweather.com. The plasma plume that was spat out by the flare is known as a polar crown prominence (PCP).

PCPs become more common during the solar maximum — the most active phase of the sun’s roughly 11-year solar cycle. During this phase, PCFs shrink in size, “like a tightening noose around their respective poles,” Spaceweather.com reported. As these magnetic crowns constrict, they “strangle” the nearby magnetic fields, making them more likely to explode.

Experts believe the solar maximum will arrive at some point in the next few months — earlier than originally predicted. 

As we approach solar maximum, more and more weird phenomena are occurring at the sun’s poles: In February 2023, a PCP broke off from the sun and got caught in a PCF, creating a swirling plasma vortex that raged around the sun’s north pole for eight hours. And in March last year, a PCP collapsed in on itself, creating a gigantic plasma waterfall near the sun’s south pole, which was shortly followed by an enormous plume of rotating plasma, known as a “solar tornado,” near the solar north pole that lasted for three days.

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