Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Add a little science to your new year!

Happy (almost) New Year's, everyone! While you're making your New Year's resolutions, why not plan to add a little science to your life in 2009? You could enroll in that geology class you've always wanted to take (oh, wait, that's one of *my* goals), read a science journal, or keep up with a nature program on television. Or, you could try one of these ideas we talked about in 2008:

**Collect and examine seashells

**Watch some movies with science themes

**Study the stars

**Collect science stamps

**Write science poetry

**Visit a science-based website

**Get creative by making 2-D and 3-D snowflakes online or learn about the scientific benefits of origami

**Keep a science journal

**Take a hike

**Clean your mental closet

**Take a field trip through the produce section of your local farmer's market or grocery store

**Write some science fiction

**Enjoy some roadside geology or

**Study the clouds

And don't forget, small additions to your life can have a profound impact, like my boys and their flying potato!

Celebrate safely tonight! See you in 2009!


Monday, December 29, 2008

Collecting science stamps

If you come to our house and take a look at the walls, you'll notice something interesting. I collect and frame stamps. Not just any stamps, of course. I'm drawn to U.S. science stamps. My biggest collection is space-themed. I have these 2000 Hubble telescope images accompanied by a poster, this awesome 1997 Mars Pathfinder stamp, and this 1994 Moon Landing 25th Anniversary Sheet, among others.

I'm also fond of a current annual stamp series known as Nature of America, which profiles different U.S. ecosystems. The USPS has issued ten in this series so far, including stamps depicting the Sonoran Desert, the Great Plains Prairie, and the Pacific Coral Reef.

Why collect science stamps? It's a fun and inexpensive hobby that's easy to share with children. Almost any topic or interest can be found on a stamp. For example ...

Like cats? Check out Rhea's Topical Cats Collection.

Dinosaurs? Start with these 1989 dinosaur stamps.

Minerals? Philatelic Mineralogy has images of "Gem, Rock, and Mineral Postage Stamps From Around the World," including pages dedicated to opals, diamonds, and agate (and so much more!).

If you're new to collecting stamps, visit the American Philatelic Society to Learn About Stamps and pick up some Fun Facts.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Website of the Week: TryScience

A tip of the hat goes to my friend Cricket B for pointing me toward this week's website, TryScience. This site primarily acts as a "gateway to experience the excitement of contemporary science and technology [by interacting with over 400] science and technology centers worldwide." You can view a number of Live Cams!, including the seascape cam at the Carnegie Science Center and the butterfly cam at the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science. There's information to help you plan your next Field Trip to a science center along with Experiements for you to try at home.

Unfortunately, some of the links are outdated and the site is rather graphic-intense, requiring plug-ins for several activities. Nonetheless, TryScience is a great starting point if you want to locate and get a feel for the science centers near you. There's also an option on the website to view it in different languages, including French, Chinese, and Portuguese.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday greetings to the Earth and beyond!

We're getting ready for Christmas here at Mama Joules and some of our close friends are celebrating Hanukkah. At our house, it's a wonderful time of preparation and joy. So, imagine if you were stuck 220 miles above the Earth at the International Space Station. That's the situation of Expedition 18 Commander Mike Fincke and Flight Engineers Sandra Magnus and Yury Lonchakov. So, NASA has created a special webpage so that we can send holiday greetings to the crew. Visit NASA Postcards to the International Space Station, pick from one of four designs, and send your message into space! (To learn more about the space station, check out What is the International Space Station?).

The International Space Station, taken from the Space Shuttle Discovery on Oct. 25, 2007
Photo credit: NASA


Happy Holidays to all!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The joy of paper snowflakes

My boys and I are wishing it would snow in our little corner of the world, but no such luck. While the rest of the U.S. has been blanketed in white, we are soggy instead of icy. So, we decided to make some paper snowflakes this week-end.

It's been a long time since I've made a paper snowflake. My first attempts were round instead of six-sided. But I soon got the hang of it, thanks in part to Make-a-Flake. Make-a-Flake shows you how to fold your paper into the right shape to make a six-sided snowflake, and then allows you to make practice cuts online. You can undo and redo your cuts until you get the shape you like, and you can post your finished flake in the online gallery. My younger son and I worked together to make the one shown above.

Zefrank.com has a different take on creating online snowflakes. When you visit Zefrank's Create Your Own Snowflakes, you can layer simple shapes and rotate them in 2 or 3 dimensions to create a snowflake effect.

We've come a long way since scissors and paper, but there's still nothing like cutting out your own paper snowflakes and hanging them in the window. If you're looking for inspiration, check out the wonderful collection of Wilson Bentley's snowflake photography in NOAA's Photo Library (search for "snowflake"). These photographs were taken by Wilson in 1902 in Jericho, Vermont.







Photo credit: National Weather Service


P.S. [UPDATE:1/9/09] Thanks to a tip from Andy's Parties, I found another on-line snowflake making site,
Rooney Design's Snowflake Factory
. Very fun!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Website of the Week: GeekDad.com

This week's website is for the parents. Check out GeekDad.com, the parenting blog at Wired. These blog entries are written by various geek-dads and moms -- fellow science-loving parents who enjoy their Roombas (those cool little robot vacuum cleaners), Christmas-themed LEGO®s, bizarre science news (students launching teddy bears into space!), and wonder how many helium balloons it would take to carry away a child (Answer: We can all breathe easier -- according to this post it would take over 1,000 filled balloons to lift the average two-year-old).

If you're still pondering your holiday shopping list, check out GeekDad's Holiday Gift Guides, including recommendations for Toys for Dads & Kids to Share, Kids' Books & Activities, and even gifts for GeekMoms!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Creative use of errors

Today, I was browsing the web and came upon this entry in The Responsible Marketing Blog about 404 "page not found" errors. 404 error pages pop up when you are trying to find a webpage and it's been moved or maybe you typed in the address wrong and the page can't be found on the server. I'll admit, I've never given these error messages any thought. Until now.

Did you know that you can customize the error pages that people find on your website? Last year, Smashing Magazine ran a contest to find the most creative 404 error pages out there. People came up with all sorts of responses and Smashing Magazine displayed some of them in their Design Showcase called 404 Error Pages: Reloaded. Some of the pages are funny, some use poetry to let you know that you are lost, and still others sympathize with your plight.

What I like best about creative 404 error pages is that they allow the computer-savvy to reach out to the computer-phobic and help them feel more comfortable with web surfing. This is great because scientific discovery -- really, any time we try something new -- is all about trial and error. We're all going to make errors. But if the "teachers" use a little creativity and kindness, the "students" will learn that making mistakes can be a fun and useful learning experience.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Engineer Your Life™: a website for female high school students

A tip of the hat to Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog for pointing me toward Engineer Your Life™, "a guide to engineering for high school girls." As you might remember from some of my earlier posts -- like this one on women and engineering -- I think it's so important for girls to have female mentors and role models in the sciences, particularly in male-dominated fields like engineering.

At Engineer Your Life™, you can Meet Inspiring Women who are making a difference in the field of engineering, read in-depth profiles of various engineering disciplines (including the types of projects you might work on and your likely salary range) in fields like aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, and (my personal favorite!) environmental engineering. You can even download a list of recommended high school coursework and tips for researching engineering schools. Enjoy!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Website of the Week: Dive and Discover™

Do you ever wonder what lives on the ocean floor? In many ways, this "world" is as uncharted and mysterious as outer space, with its deep inky blackness, severe cold, and intense atmospheric pressure. This week's website, Dive and Discover™: Expeditions to the Seafloor, maintained by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, gives you a sneak peek into this weird world.

You can read about 12 different expeditions to the ocean floor (including the Indian Ocean, Galápagos Islands, and Antarctica), learn the difference between the Arctic and the Antartic at Comparing the Poles, discover The Curious Names of Deep-Sea Features (like Salty Dawg, Godzilla, and Road Runner, among others!), and look at photographs of unusual creatures like the common but relatively unknown salps, with their crystal-clear bodies. There's also a section with related classroom activities for teens in grades 8-12.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Name NASA's next Mars Rover!

My friend CricketB shared this great news with me that she found online:

Disney/Pixar is currently running a contest for children in grades K-12 in the U.S. (ages 5 -18) to Name NASA's Next Mars Rover! This new rover is scheduled to launch in 2011 and (hopefully!) will land the following year. You can visit NASA to Learn About the Rover, including its robotic arm, legs, laser, and wheels. Be sure to read the Quick Facts (this is a .pdf file) to discover tidbits like these:

* The rover's laser can turn rocks into a cloud of vapor.
* The rover may be the size of a small SUV, but it weighs nearly 2000 pounds!
* The rover looks just a little bit like WALL-E.

Image credit: NASA

If you win the grand prize, you not only win a trip to both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory AND Disneyland, you also get a bunch of WALL-E stuff including a robot! Nine finalists and thirty semi-finalists will also win some cool WALL-E gear, so if you are a fan of the movie, you should definitely enter. (My older son was excited that we found Disney/Pixar's WALL-E online games).

The contest has three grade level categories (K-3, 4-7, 8-12) and you have to write a short essay along with your suggested name. There are certain restrictions on the names you can suggest (no copyrighted names, no names of anyone living, no names used on other space missions), so read the rules carefully. You also have to get your parent or guardian's permission to enter. The contest deadline is January 25, 2009, so start writing! (Gee, I wish I could enter!!)

Monday, December 8, 2008

The scientific benefits of origami

I picked up this interesting tidbit today from ScienceDaily: Studying origami, the ancient Japanese art of folding paper into shapes like birds and bugs, can improve your understanding of math. In ScienceDaily's The Science of Origami, Dr. Robert Lang is quoted as saying that the process used to create these intricate folded designs has made its way into scientific disciplines like medicine, aerospace design, and automotive engineering.

Dr. Lang has his own website with pages devoted to his art and the intersection of origami and math. His gallery of origami creations contains many fascinating specimens, including a 54 uniform-edge polypolyhedron. But to me, the most interesting are those folded from a single sheet of paper. Lang's page of crease patterns shows the detailed and complex folds necessary to create shapes like hermit crabs and garden spiders alongside the finished product.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Website of the Week: Astronomy Picture of the Day

Itinerant Cryptographer here, filling in for a tired Mama Joules. Monday, the sky had a real treat for anyone who looked up at it--the crescent moon, Jupiter, and Venus were all close together in the sky. In some places, the moon passed in front of Venus, blocking it from view for awhile.

Did you miss seeing this? Well, this week's website of the week has a lovely photo of that, as well as many other things you wish you'd seen in the night sky. Check out NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day, a source of some amazing, beautiful, and interesting pictures, each with commentary by an astronomer. Don't miss the video footage of the fireball in the sky from Canada!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Silly quiz: Do you think like a scientist?

So, maybe you’re reading this blog and you’re wondering, do I think like a scientist? Do I parent like a scientist? Here’s one (highly informal and irreverent) survey to help you decide:

1. When a bug lands in your soda, do you:

  1. Throw the can away.
  2. Think to yourself, “Wow, I need to look that up in my insect identification book!”

2. Your daughter comes into the house covered in dirt. Do you:

  1. Order her to take off her shoes and head to the nearest bathtub.
  2. Have her collect a sample of soil from the floor and rub it between her fingers to check the texture.

3. The news channel warns of an impending tornado. Do you:

  1. Go to the basement or an interior room.
  2. Grab your camera and head outside.

4. You turn your back for five minutes and your 3-year-old son has mixed flour, cinnamon, Kool-Aid, and something else into an unidentifiable goo. He is now holding the bowl in one hand and smearing this mixture on the walls with the other. Do you:

  1. Immediately throw the bowl in the trash.
  2. Let him test his hypothesis that the goo will stick to the walls before you take his bowl away.

5. You are reading this survey and imagining these scenarios actually taking place. Do you:

  1. Feel an immense sense of relief that this isn’t happening at your house.
  2. Wish the survey was longer so you’d have more ideas to try. ;-)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Poo poo paper

Looking for a creative, eco-friendly gift for the holidays? Head on over to The Great Elephant Poo Poo Paper Company Limited™ and check out their online (oh, I can hardly type this!) Poo-tique™. They carry a range of items -- from journals to stationery -- made from this uniquely recycled product.

How is poo poo paper made? According to the company, elephant dung is collected from conservation parks and washed to remove the excrement. The remaining fibers (things like left-over grasses and bamboo) are boiled to sanitize them. This material is then mixed with other fibrous materials; the resulting mixture is placed onto trays and dries into paper. You can read the full story at Turning Poo to Paper, along with Elephant Facts and a Brief Elephant History.

The company claims that the product has no smell, which is the first thing my family wanted to verify as soon as I opened my package of paper. Interestingly enough, poo poo paper really doesn't smell. However, since the paper is quite lumpy and fibrous, the knowledge of where it comes from does creep into your mind as you look at it. I found myself examining some of the more unique fibers -- could that be a worm? a bug? So poo poo paper may not be for everyone. In fact, Itinerant cryptographer wouldn't come near it!

(Many thanks to LD for such a unique birthday present!)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Mama Joules and Itinerant Cryptographer want to wish you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving! We're spending the rest of the week with family, so we'll catch up with you again next week. :-)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thinking of those in need ...

In honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., I thought I'd post a couple of links to benefit those less fortunate (snopes.com says both are legit!):

The Hunger Site gives free food daily if you click a button on their website. Mercy Corps and Feeding America distribute the food to those in need.

Free Rice gives 20 grains of rice through the UN World Food Program for every question that you answer correctly on topics ranging from vocabulary to math, geography, and chemistry. (I liked playing the games on this site; I donated 1,460 grains of rice!)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Edward Burtynsky and Urban Landscapes

I stumbled upon an interesting blog post the other day at The Vigorous North about Edward Burtynsky and his photography of urban landscapes. Burtynsky describes the focus of his work as "nature transformed through industry." Christian McNeil, of the Vigorous North, further lauds him as "an Ansel Adams for 21st-century environmentalism," in part because of his "stunning, large-format photographs that are beautiful and can induce a sense of vertigo from their epic scale."

And exactly what is Burtynsky photographing in such breathtaking detail? Slices of the very scenes that make environmentalists wince: quarries, factories, mines, dumps, and urban sprawl. Burtynsky's work is so compelling -- often entwining scenes so beautiful and so tragic -- that it was made into a documentary entitled Manufactured Landscapes by Jennifer Baichwal.



Years ago, as part of my job investigating potential hazardous waste sites, I surveyed and photographed abandoned urban industrial areas. My natural default is to think of these places as hopelessly damaged or degraded from their once pristine state. Burtynsky's work and McNeil's comments showed me another way to view this part of life. Burtynsky's photography is vibrant and exciting. I find his pictures fascinating because what he sees through his photographer's lens is so different than what I saw through mine.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Website of the Week: Geography Action! 2008

In honor of Geography Awareness Week, this week's website is Geography Action! 2008 from National Geographic. Geography Action! promotes geographic literacy for children in U.S. and Canadian schools. Lesson plans are presented for grades K - 12 on topics like Oceans, Cultures, Habitats, and places like Africa and Asia.

These lesson plans are detailed and cross-link to other websites and activities, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time to explore! And before you log off, stop by the National Geographic MapMachine Student Edition to print a free map to remember your "journey."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

It's GIS Day!


Today is the 10th anniversary of GIS Day, celebrating how geographic information systems are making a difference in our world. This global event is celebrated in more than 80 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Denmark, and Switzerland. (I had no idea!)

I tend to think of GIS as a digital mapping tool, but ESRI.com's Guide to Geographic Information Systems goes into much greater depth about this powerful information system and its applications. The GIS Day website has links to lessons and activities for children from kindergarten on up through high school (and beyond), as well as GIS materials and other information.

GIS Day is just one part of Geography Awareness Week, celebrated in the U.S. during the third week of November.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fake snot & real mucus

Well, it's cold and flu season again where I live. I can't quite shake this congestion in my sinuses, which has got me thinking about mucus. When referring to the secretions of the nose, mucus is just a fancy word for snot.

According to the article What's a Booger? at KidsHealth, "your nose and sinuses make about a quart of snot every day." This viscous (slippery) fluid coats the inside of your nose and helps to trap dirt and other foreign items -- like pollen, cat fur, and dust -- before they can reach and irritate your lungs.

Snot is a morbidly fascinating topic. Just thinking about it makes me squirm in my chair. And then I found this page from Glencoe that describes how some bacteria like to eat our snot. Eew. I never thought of a bacterial infection in that way before.

And if your own snot just isn't enough, ThinkQuest has a recipe for making fake snot. You can even add your own dirt to create dried up "boogers". Dr. Anne Marie Helmenstine, of About.com's Chemistry section, also has a recipe on How To Make Fake Snot. She writes that this green goo is "...great for Halloween and other occasions requiring snot."

Believe it or not, scientists also make fake snot! A research team from University of Warwick and Leicester University found that adding artificial snot to electronic noses helped the devices to detect more odors. Electronic noses can be used for things like quality control in a food processing plant. After adding the fake snot, the artificial nose in this study could detect the difference between the smell of milk and the odor of banana, something it couldn't do before. You can read about it in Warwick's article, Artificial Snot Enhances Electronic Nose.

Other scientists prefer real, old-fashioned snot. Check out this recent article, entitled Thar she blows: Snot offers clues to whale health from Catherine Brahic of New Scientist. Apparently, it's hard to get a blood sample from whales, so researchers have settled for the next-best thing: flying toy helicopters through exhaled "whale snot" to collect samples when these large animals surface and blow. Studying the "whale snot" gives researchers clues as to the overall health of the animals.

Yuck. I think I'm going to go and wash my hands now!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Tomorrow is America Recycles Day!

America Recycles Day

The National Recycling Coalition hosts America Recycles Day, which is held each year on November 15th. You can learn about the basics in Recycling 101, read about the DOs and DON'Ts of Recycling, take the Recycling Pledge and find Events Near You.

For example, you can attend the Recycle and Shred-A-Thon and meet Can Guy if you live in Raleigh, NC. Are you closer to Waukesha, WI? Attend the Family Open House at the Materials Recycling Facility. The Colorado Association for Recycling is even selling a 2009 America Recycles Day Calendar.

Want to learn how recycling makes a difference? Try out NRC's interactive Conversionator and learn interesting tidbits about recycling like this one: "The average person has the opportunity to recycle more than 25,000 cans in a lifetime." (I wonder if that's an average person in the U.S., or an average person across the globe? I suspect this refers to those of us in can-happy America.)

However you choose to honor the day, take heart. If you recycle, you're not alone. According to the NRC, "the U.S. recycles 33% of its waste, a rate that has almost doubled during the past 15 years."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Thoughts on Synesthesia

The other night, my 3-year-old crawled into bed with me after a fit of tears. Looking at the interesting reflection of the lamp on the ceiling, he said, "Look at the shape my crying made." His comment made me think of a fascinating book that I read once called The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard E. Cytowic.

This book describes synesthesia, a condition in which certain sensory perceptions are combined. People who are affected with this involuntary condition perceive sensory input a little differently than most. You might see jagged red lines when you hear a siren. You might taste shapes in certain foods. Or maybe colors have a smell. Any combination of senses is possible, but the most common variant is to perceive letters, words, or numbers as having color. These associations are consistent for the individual -- if the word shoes is associated with the color green, it always appears green.

In his book, Cytowic describes attending a dinner party where the host complained that he had ruined the chicken -- it wasn't pointy enough. Cytowic thought it interesting that this man's house lacked walls; the rooms were open and flowed into each other. He pointed out that you can think of synesthesia in the same way. The usual walls between sensory input -- sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch -- are blurred or absent.

I think synesthesia is a fascinating condition. After I read the book, I kept wondering if I had ever experienced it. The closest I've come is when I'm almost asleep. Sometimes I see jagged black lines when I hear a sudden loud noise. But that's it. How about you?

CNN's Ann Kellan writes that if you are curious about this condition, synesthetes suggest that you rent "Walt Disney's 'Fantasia', an animated film that attempts to visualize music."

Friday, November 7, 2008

Website of the Week: CryptoKids™

Do you like codes and ciphers? Do you write your friends notes in "invisible" ink? Do you ever wonder whether the E-mail you send to your friends is really safe from prying eyes? Today's website, CryptoKids™ from the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, is for you.

Join Crypto Cat™, Decipher Dog™, and all of their friends to learn about cryptology, the science of making and breaking codes. (Itinerant Cryptographer is especially good at a subset of cryptology known as cryptanalysis, which is trying to break into codes without knowing the special "key" behind how they were made.)

Learn to create codes, make ciphers, and solve some brainteasers, cryptograms, and something I'd never heard of before called a Yardleygram.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

greenfestival™

Global Exchange and Green America partnered to create greenfestival™, the "world's largest sustainable living event." Upcoming Green Fests include the DC and San Francisco events listed below, along with 2009 festivals in Seattle (March 28-29), Denver (May 2-3), and Chicago (May 16-17). Attend one of these events to meet over 300 eco-friendly businesses, listen to environmental speakers, hear great music, watch green films, and enjoy kids' activities (like making a Green Kids Earth Badge or a sock puppet).

greenfestival™ is committed to having a small environmental footprint. They claim to recover 97% of all show waste, using techniques such as providing biodegradable plates & utensils, composting food waste, providing recycling containers, off-setting electricity emissions, and banning plastic water bottles in favor of jugs of water.

Want to volunteer? Work at least 4.5 hours and you'll receive free admission each day, a free T-shirt ("limited edition, organic and sweatshop-free"), and more!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

OT: Celebrate Election Day!

If you're in the United States and you're a registered voter, get out there and make sure your voice is heard! And take advantage of these great offers:

* Ben & Jerry's is offering free scoops of ice cream at participating stores from 5 pm until 8 pm.

* Krispy Kreme is offering free star-shaped doughnuts today at select stores if you have an "I voted" sticker.

* Starbucks Coffee is reportedly giving away free 12-ounce cups of coffee to voters today (but I couldn't find confirmation of this on the Starbucks' website; apparently rewarding voters and not everyone may violate federal election laws).

Monday, November 3, 2008

Come visit the Nicholas School!

The Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University (my alma mater!) invites you to attend an Open House in Washington, DC on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008 from 6 – 9 p.m. This event -- perfect for anyone considering an advanced degree in environmental studies -- will be held in the Resources for the Future Conference Center at 1616 P St. NW (about four blocks from the Dupont Circle Metro stop on the red line).

The Nicholas School, located in Durham, North Carolina, has a number of degree tracks including those for undergraduates, graduate students, professional graduate students, and distance learners. Environmental topics covered are as varied and diverse as the students who study them with offerings covering environmental education, marine biology, forestry, environmental policy, toxicology, and more.

From Joe Scarfo, Associate Director for Enrollment Services: "[Prospective students] will be able to meet the Nicholas School Dean, faculty, career services representatives, enrollment services staff, current students and Nicholas School alums. This will be their opportunity to get all of their questions answered and to learn why the Nicholas School is considered one of the best Environmental programs in the nation."

-- Mama Joules, MEM '03, Water & Air Resources

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Beautiful Science

If you live in or near San Marino, California, stop by the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens to see their new permanent exhibit -- opening today! -- entitled "Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World". This exhibit examines how scientific knowledge has advanced over time -- sometimes with great leaps of insight -- by focusing on four areas of scientific study: astronomy, natural history, medicine, and light. Look for manuscripts, letters, and books highlighting great achievements by Ptolemy, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. There is also a companion educational program available for middle and high school students. Key features of this exhibit are neatly described in Dibner Highlights (this is a .pdf file).

For more information about the Huntington, you can visit Admission, Hours, and General Information or contact: publicinformation [at] huntington [dot] org.

Happy Birthday, Mama Joules!

Exactly one year and 164 posts ago, I started this blog with the hope that I could teach people not to be scared of science, maybe even to enjoy themselves and have a little fun while learning. It's been one wild and crazy ride since then. I've accumulated some unusual knowledge along the way. For example, I now know that there are 2,000 species of edible bugs in the world, that there is a museum dedicated to carrots, and that a vug isn't just a figment of Dr. Suess' imagination.

Thanks to you, my readers, for making this trip worthwhile. I'm enjoying learning new things and I hope that you're having fun along the way, too. :)

Friday, October 31, 2008

Website of the Week: Science News for Kids

Do you want to keep up with the latest science news but you aren't sure where to start? Try Science News for Kids, a website dedicated to providing science news for children and teens ages 9-14. You can search the article archive by topics such as animals (learn about a newly discovered blind ant), chemistry and materials (discover how bacteria can "eat" plastic) or technology and engineering (read Hubble trouble doubled to find out what's been plaguing the Hubble telescope lately). You have the option of rating the articles and you can also search to find those articles that are most popular.

Science News for Kids
is also broken into zones of interest, including a Puzzle Zone with a weekly brainteaser, a SciFi Zone for you science fiction writers, and a SciFair Zone for anyone needing tips or ideas for science fair projects (FYI: This section links up with Science Buddies, another great site if you need help with your science fair project). Teaching materials, like question sheets to accompany the articles, can be found in the Teacher Zone.

P.S. Happy Halloween, everyone! :D

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Home remedies

In the early 90's, a friend of mine went to South America to perform community service. As part of her stay, she lived with a host family. One day, I received a letter from her in which she told me that she had been ill. I don't remember what was wrong with her (she recovered, thankfully), but I do remember the prescribed cure: she was supposed to drink her own urine.

Which brings to mind an important tip: try home remedies at your own risk!

How popular are home remedies? If you conduct an internet search on the topic, you can unearth over one million pages devoted to these "sure-fire" cures. Barefoot Lass has compiled a list of unusual (although slightly more palatable than my example above!) home remedies, including wet tobacco compresses for bee stings, banana peels for bruises, and rubbing 1/2 of a lime on your head to cure a headache.

Do these cures work? I'm not sure. Overall, I suspect that a small number of home remedies are truly effective, a large percentage do nothing, and a few are downright dangerous.

But some home remedies have actually undergone scientific testing to gauge their effectiveness. For example, Dr. Stephen Rennard of the University of Nebraska Medical Center conducted a 1993 study that showed that chicken soup has anti-inflammatory properties that help you recover from a cold.

More specifically, chicken soup with vegetables was shown to inhibit the activity of neutrophils (white blood cells that fight infection), which in turn was thought to retard the spread of the cold through the upper respiratory tract. Interestingly, the broth alone did not have this property, and the researchers couldn't isolate exactly which ingredient or combination of ingredients in the soup caused this effect. (Dr. Rennard also shares his wife's chicken soup recipe, but notes that other chicken soups have similar properties, although they do vary in their effectiveness.)

So, should you try a home remedy the next time you are sick? Always remember to use common sense and be careful out there!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Walking House

What if the next time you needed to move, you simply picked up your house and took it with you? Unlike a traditional mobile home, however, the Copenhagen-based collective N55's Walking House (built in conjunction with MIT) doesn't need a road. This "modular dwelling system," commissioned by the Wysing Arts Centre, is said to be a re-design -- and unique interpretation -- of an 18th century horse-drawn carriage.

To me, Walking House resembles a giant ant, with its six autonomous legs and hexagonal, tubular body. The unit is equipped with a "composting toilet system", solar cells, and small windmills. Its inventors say that this design "enables persons to live a peaceful nomadic life, moving slowly through the landscape or cityscape with minimal impact on the environment."

You can watch the YouTube video (below) of Walking House, but the speed is so slow that the clip is almost unwatchable. The house moves at a snail's pace of 60 meters per hour (0.037 miles per hour or about 4/100 of a mile per hour), which seems to fall short of the designer's intent to have the house "move at a slow pace similar to the walking speed of the human body."

Nonetheless, there's a lot to love about this little ant-like house. treehugger has been following this project from its inception, and it's fun to see how the project has evolved from prototype until now.

As a temporary dwelling, Walking House truly takes the fun of a treehouse to another level. But I can't imagine living full-time in such a structure. What do you think? Could you live in Walking House? If you were going to design a walking house, what would it look like?

Friday, October 24, 2008

OT: Hugs to the lonely

Like many bloggers, I use a statistics tracker on this website to get a better idea of who my visitors are and what they are searching for. Most of the time, this information is mildly interesting, letting me know, for example, that "weird animal names" is a popular search string. Sometimes, people are searching for things that make me wonder too, like "How many ping-pong balls would it take to fill the Grand Canyon?" Only rarely do I see a search term that makes me sad.

A couple of times now, I've read "my child/son/daughter never gets invited to birthday parties" as a search string. And I've felt terrible. Do you know where they've landed? On one of my pages about ants. How useless is that? So, I want to write a post for my friends who are feeling sad because they are missing out on parties.

First of all, as a mother, I can relate. There's nothing worse than watching your child in pain. And I can relate to being a lonely child. When I was nine, we moved to a new state and I started a new school. It was a terrible, horrible experience for me. I spent the next four years -- 5th through 8th grade -- as the scapegoat of the class scapegoat. So, while the rest of the class was teasing her, she was teasing me. Sixth grade was brutal and ranks right up there as one of the worst, if not the worst, years of my life.

For my young friends who are struggling in school, please keep this in mind: this is a temporary situation. I wish I had realized that. I went on to make new friends in high school, successfully move to an out-of-state college, graduate, get a job, get married, go back to school, have babies ... you get the picture. This time of your life feels like hell on earth and like there are no options and you are just stuck. But everything has a season and if you give up now, you aren't going to make it to the good stuff. So hang in there.

One of the things that got me through that awful time was that I had a separate circle of friends outside of school. So, my advice would be to try out a number of activities where you can make new friends: boy/girl scouts, church groups, karate classes. Don't berate yourself if these social activities don't work out either, but do keep looking until you find a place where you fit in. Find yourself a haven from your troubles and remember that you are a good and valuable person, no matter what anyone else says.

For those giving care to someone in this situation, have a talk with the school. My older son's kindergarten and grade school both instituted rules that if you don't invite the whole class to the party, you can't use school time to distribute the invitations. I like this rule because it takes some of the sting out of not being invited.

Reassure your child that they are not to blame and project the confidence that they don't feel -- remind them that they will get through this and show that you believe it and believe in them. And, if you are so inclined, pray for them to make new friends. I've heard wonderful stories about the power of prayer in these kinds of situations.

And remember that Mama Joules is thinking of you. :)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Using bad science for the greater good

These days, you can't open a newspaper or magazine without bumping into bad science: poorly explained topics, unsubstantiated claims, theories touted as facts. And the web isn't helping any -- anyone can put up a website and claim whatever they choose. So, how do we separate bad science from good?

Ben Goldacre is a British doctor who writes a weekly column in the Guardian devoted to the topic of Bad Science. He also teamed up with Planet Science to develop a series of experiments to test some of the crazier claims.

I like the idea of taking bad science and using it for good. Testing crazy or unproven claims (as long as they aren't dangerous) can be fun. It's also a good opportunity to practice setting up an experiment.

For example, instead of rolling your eyes at the next television commercial -- the one that promises that this new and improved breakfast cereal is tastier than the leading brand -- why not put the claim to the test? Set up your own scientific trial at breakfast. Blindfold your family, put two bowls of cereal (one bowl of the old brand, one of the new) in front of each person, and record their responses. Do they like the new cereal? Could they taste a difference?

Or, if a new dishwashing detergent claims to make your dishes less spotty, do your mom a favor and run a load of dishes. Compare the newly washed glasses to the previously washed ones. How do they compare? Do you get a different answer if you count the spots in a new way? Do you get a different answer depending upon how many dishes you examine?

Questioning the world around you is the hallmark of a good scientist. And that applies to everything you read -- including this post!

(My thanks to CricketB for pointing out the benefits of Bad Science!)

Monday, October 20, 2008

OT: Blogging Scholarship

Well, this is somewhat off-topic, but I hope that someone can take advantage of this opportunity. I found out about this scholarship from one of my mailing lists (thanks, Kai!). College Scholarships.org is offering a $10,000 scholarship to a full-time student (U.S. citizen or permanent resident only) who writes a blog. According to their website: "Your blog must contain unique and interesting information about you and/or things you are passionate about." If this sounds like you, check out The Blogging Scholarship ASAP because the submission deadline is October 30, 2008.

Good luck!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Website of the Week: ZooBorns

Newborn Black Bear Cubs
Photo credit: Mark Betram, Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge

Are you looking for adorable pictures of newborn wildlife? Drop by ZooBorns, a brand-new website from the minds behind Zooillogix. According to their website, "ZooBorns brings you the newest and cutest exotic animal babies from zoos and aquariums around the world." What a great idea!

ZooBorns already has pictures up of nineteen kinds of animal babies, with plenty more to come. The Red Panda Cubs might be cute, but my favorite is the tiny pink Six-Banded Armadillo (I wonder if that picture shows baby Beauregard or Ed?) .

Got a photo or video of baby wildlife to share? Be sure to check out ZooBorns' Submission Policy.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

October is Fire Safety Month

In many communities across the United States, October is fire safety month. The official National Fire Prevention Week ran last week, from October 5-11, 2008. If your kids (or you) are in school, they probably brought home some great tips that they learned about preventing fires. If not, check out Sparky the Fire Dog's® fire-safety Scholastic website. You can Hunt for Home Hazards, create a home fire escape plan, or print out lesson plans to use with children in grades K-5. Teachers can submit student art or speeches to be presented on Scholastic's fire safety webpage. But you've got to hurry -- entries must be postmarked by October 20, 2008!

Sparky the Fire Dog® also has his own website through the National Fire Protection Association. You can learn all about fire trucks, dalmatians, or check out coloring pages, fire safety tips, and more. Sparky® even has his own arcade!


[Updated 10/10/10: Added a current link for National Fire Prevention Week.]

Monday, October 13, 2008

Caterpillars change colors ... who knew?

Two instars of the Common Mormon caterpillar
(This photograph,taken by Sindhu Ramchandran, is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license).

Recently, my 3-year-old was delighted to find a fuzzy black caterpillar crawling across the sidewalk in our front yard. We took it inside and put it into his brother's bug house, which resembles a tiny pop-up hamper with a zippered lid. Both boys took to feeding it leaves and soon we had an interesting puzzle -- our caterpillar is now turning orange.

I never knew that caterpillars could change colors. Poking around on the Internet, I learned that some caterpillars change color in response to temperature (like the Tomato hornworm)(1). Others are affected by diet and crowding. Some species, like the caterpillars of the American Peppered Moth, can even change color to match their host tree twigs. This ability to hide, known as crypsis, allows them to avoid being eaten by birds (2).

Caterpillars can also change colors when they shed their skin. Christmas Notebook has an amazing set of pictures of caterpillars molting (and then eating their own skin!) in butterfly babies.

Each stage between skin-shedding is known as an instar. Monarch Butterfly and Milkweed Mania has a great set of pictures showing the size and color differences of caterpillars at various instars in Life Stages: (determining instars).

Along the way to learning about caterpillar colors, I found this great page from the Royal Alberta Museum on how to keep butterfly and moth pupae over the winter, advice that just might come in handy!

References

(1)Abstract of "Hidden Genetic Variation Yields Caterpillar of a Different Color" by Elizabeth Pennisi as presented in the February 3, 2006 issue of Science.

(2)"A Reversible Color Polyphenism in American Peppered Moth (Biston betularia cognataria) Caterpillars" by Mohamed A. F. Noor, Robin S. Parnell, and Bruce S. Grant, published online September 4, 2008 at PLoS ONE

Friday, October 10, 2008

Website of the Week: Growing With Science

I found this family-friendly science blog through Nature Blog Network and I was immediately drawn to its slogan -- Putting the fun back into scientific exploration. I also like its easy-to-use (not to mention bug-friendly and color-coordinated!) layout. Unlike my science Website of the Week, Roberta of Growing With Science presents a Bug of the Week. (Her October 1st entry was the Smoke Tree Sharpshooter, what an awesome name!) She also has a tag for Fun Science Activity that includes tips for activities like building a birdhouse, exploring fall color, and learning about guinea pigs. Check it out!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Waste Reduction Week: October 19-25, 2008

I was tickled to learn that Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street has been tapped as the official "spokesperson" for Canada's 2008 Waste Reduction Week. According to their website, Waste Reduction Week focuses on "education, engagement and empowerment" by pointing out the "environmental and social ramifications of wasteful practices." (Or, in other words, think before you pollute.) My favorite was their Activities page, which gives directions for building a composter, making recycled paper, and helping you conduct a home energy audit.

Not in Canada? Check out Oscar's public service announcements on the September 18, 2008 entry of The Muppet Newsflash.

---

[Updated 10/16/09: Fixed two broken links.]

Monday, October 6, 2008

Keep a science journal

Last night, my 7-year-old son came to me and began to describe his idea for a new robot.

"It would pick up toys and put them away," he told me, and he proceeded to describe the mechanics of robot in great detail. (Let me tell you, I *want* one of these robots!)

I suggested that we buy a journal. "Let's get one with WALL-E on the cover," I said. "And then you can write down all of your ideas for new robots. Later on, when you're older and enter a science fair, you can read about your plans and pick one to work on."

A science journal doesn't have to be about robots, though. Pick any topic that you like. Give yourself the freedom to explore your interests.

Do you watch clouds? Write down the shapes that you see, draw them in your journal, and look them up in a cloud identification book later. Would you rather study bugs? Draw the insects in your journal and describe their behavior. Have a great idea for an experiment? Plan it out on paper before you put it into practice.

Remember, this is your journal. You can be as detailed or as simple as you want. Similar to a diary, you don't have to share your ideas about science with everyone. Let yourself dream ... and don't forget to give yourself the permission to dream big.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Website of the Week: Dig It! The Secrets of Soil

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is currently featuring a new exhibit called Dig It! The Secrets of Soil.

What is Soil? Here's a handy definition I learned in graduate school -- Dirt is dead. Soil is alive. Soils are dynamic ecosystems filled with living things like insects, worms, bacteria, and fungi.

How do soils form? Check out this handy chart to learn more about the five soil formation factors: Climate (Is the surrounding area rainy or dry? Salty or devoid of minerals?) , Biota (Which plants and animals live and use the soil?), Slope (Did the soil form on a mountainside or in a valley?), Bedrock (What kind of rock has contributed to the soil?) and Time.

How many different types of soil are there? "Scientists recognize about 70,000 soil types in the United States alone ..." according to Paul Reich of the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the USDA, as quoted in this exhibit. His Global Soil Regions Map is shown on the NRCS Soils Website.

Check out the Educators Activity Page for fun ways to learn about soils both at the museum and at home. Learn More about soils by visiting these websites recommended in the exhibit.

(My thanks to Soils Professor Dan Richter for letting me know about this exhibit!)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Cyberchase: Spheres of Fears

I received this information today from Donna Williams, Senior Publicist for Thirteen/WNET (thanks, Donna!):

"On CYBERCHASE this Halloween, join Digit and the CyberSquad on [Monday] October 27 as they try to evade the eerie creatures called the Creepers. Yikes! ..." (This new episode, Spheres of Fears, will be repeated on PBS on Halloween day!)


"Want to host a CYBERCHASE-themed Halloween party?" asks Ms. Williams. If you'd like .pdf copies of a coloring page and invitations, drop her a line at williamsd [at] thirteen.org or let me know and I'll forward the copies I received to you. You can also download CYBERCHASE face masks (But where's the mask of Slider? He's my favorite!).

CYBERCHASE also has tips for parents to sneak a little math into Halloween -- things like having the kids decide how much candy your family should buy using an estimate of the likely number of trick-or-treaters to visit your home multiplied by the number of pieces of candy you plan to hand out (Good idea!). To check out more tips, download the .pdf file here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Food Detectives

As a fan of the Food Network, I'll watch most any show they broadcast at least once. But Food Detectives, hosted by Ted Allen, caught my eye and is worth a second look. Ever want to test those food myths you've heard about? Is the last drop of soda in the bottle really all backwash? (No, only about 2%, according to their tests). Can you really fry an egg on your car engine? (Yes, but it looks so horrid afterward that you might not want to eat it). You can upload your most pressing food questions to Ted Allen via video clip or drop him an E-mail here. Food Detectives reminds me of Mythbusters lite, but it's a charming show that's worth a view.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The science behind identifying postal crimes

Recently, my family and I visited the National Postal Museum on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. One exhibit, Postal Inspectors: The Silent Service caught my attention from a science perspective. This federal law enforcement agency monitors the U.S. mail for postal crimes: mail fraud, sending toxins by post, identity theft, mail bombs.

Members of the United States Postal Inspection Service have solved cases by analyzing handwriting, studying fingerprints, conducting chemical analyses, and using good old fashioned detective work. The Forensic Laboratory Services of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service include a Questioned Documents Unit, Fingerprint Unit, Physical Sciences Unit, and Digital Evidence Unit.

Would you like to be a Postal Inspector? Can You Solve the Case?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Website of the Week: Science Buddies

It's that time of the year again ... time to knuckle down and select a topic for your science fair project. Or maybe you already have an idea but you just need some help to put it into practice. Whatever your status, Science Buddies is for you. With over 700 science fair project ideas -- broken down into categories like Chemistry, Microbiology, and Sociology -- you're sure to find a topic to interest you. Following the advice of the Science Fair Project Guide will keep your experiment on track. The Ask An Expert "online bulletin board [is] staffed by volunteer scientists and top high school students" who are ready and willing to help you should you get stuck. And before you cart your project off to the competition, be sure to read Amber Hess' Science Fair Tips for Success on the Science Competitions page.

Good luck, everyone! :)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Can you still see me?

Well, I admit it. I've been playing around with the colors on this blog and I have no idea what I'm doing. If the new colors are driving you crazy, drop me a line to let me know and I'll see what I can do. Thanks!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Where is Mama Joules?

Mama Joules wants to let everyone know she's a bit under the weather right now, so it may be a couple more days till she posts something. (If I get inspired, maybe I'll write a post, but I'm not as good at coming up with things to write about as she is!)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Website of the Week: Down to Earth

Today, when I logged into my E-mail, a news article caught my eye. In case you haven't seen the topic, here's the summary: Contaminated milk, including infant formula, has been found in China. According to CNN, "A third baby has died and at least 6,200 children have fallen ill after drinking formula tainted with the same chemical involved in a massive pet food recall last year, Chinese officials said Wednesday." As best I can tell, the toxic ingredient, melamine, was added intentionally so that, in laboratory tests, the infant formula would appear to be more protein-rich.

I know that I am sometimes naive, but the idea that someone -- anyone! -- would intentionally poison children to boost their company's profit margin astounds and horrifies me. To whom could I vent my frustration?

I dropped a line to Down to Earth, a blog devoted to demystifying the issues surrounding food production. Recent posts have covered controversial topics such as the corn industry's recent advertisements about high fructose corn syrup, the pros and cons of irradiation of food, and the use of synthetic growth hormones in cattle.

I may not agree with everything written at Down to Earth, but I think the authors of this blog really strive to present a balanced view of the issues. (And I had no idea there were so many hot button issues surrounding food production! Wow!) I particularly liked a recent post about the charity Send a Cow and the Weekly Earthlinks, a list of sometimes amusing, sometimes thought-provoking links to current food production topics (I also appreciated the nod to Mama Joules in the Sept. 13th post -- thanks!).

But back to my opening topic, my fervent prayer tonight is that all of the tainted milk is recalled soon and that the death toll stops rising.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mark your calendar for Make Tracks!™ 2008!

Make Tracks!™ Family Trail Weekend!

This year, the National Wildlife Federation is sponsoring the first annual Make Tracks!™ Family Trail Week-end over the Columbus Day holiday -- October 11-13, 2008. Get out of the house with your family, hit a trail, and enjoy nature! There's a link to NatureFind where you can enter your zip code (in the US) and find a trail near you. The NWF also has some nifty ideas for making your time out-of-doors more special.

(My thanks to my friend Kim for letting me know about this event!)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Simple applied science

In our house, we've been dealing with a lot of interesting applied science lately. The most persistent and annoying source of it is the huge population of ants who seem to find a way into something sweet in our cupboard or on our counter pretty much every day. If I understood how thousands of tiny ants with pinpoint-sized brains could work together to act like a thinking being, I'd write a post about it. But I really have no idea.

Instead, I'll tell the story of how we unstuck two drinking glasses. For some reason, we have several different sizes of drinking glasses in our house. The second biggest size glass can fit inside the biggest size glass. However, once together, they tend to get stuck.

Mama Joules was trying to get them apart using water and soap, without success. I got them apart very quickly, with a different trick. I put ice and water in the smaller, inside glass. Most things contract (get smaller) when you make them colder, apparently including glass--the smaller glass came free from the larger one within just a few seconds.

Variations on this trick are pretty common--my grandmother used to use it to open jar lids that were stuck, by getting the lid hot. It's a kind of fun example of science that gets applied in the kitchen all the time.

Awhile back, I left some full soda cans on the porch, in the sun. When I came outside the next day, a couple of them had burst open. What do you think happened?

One interesting note: water expands when it gets hot, and also when it gets cold, but only so far. As the temperature drops, just before it freezes, water begins to expand again, and ice takes up more volume than the same amount of liquid water. Soda cans left out in the freezing cold can also burst!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Website of the Week: EPA Global Warming Kids' Page

Head on over to the EPA Climate Change Kids Site to read about climate change, view Climate Animations, and play a few games (I tried playing Checkers with Ozone the dog and learned that my game is a little rusty! I did better when I tried Hangman and took the climate change quiz).

P.S. Sorry this post is so short -- it's been a long week. Have a great week-end! :)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

It's almost time to have a Green Halloween®!

Corey Colwell-Lipson, founder of Green Halloween®, has started a new blog to help keep us motivated to celebrate our holidays in an eco-friendly way!

Green Halloween® began as a regional movement last year in Seattle and is rapidly spreading across the U.S. As Colwell-Lipson has said, her goal is to get people to "think outside the candy box." The Green Halloween® website provides some great ideas for adding some green to your holiday, such as handing out trinkets like stickers and collectible cards instead of candy. And before you buy that Halloween costume, Green Halloween® suggests that you ask yourself some hard questions: Can this item be used after Halloween? Can it be recycled? Does it contain earth-friendly materials or is it made of synthetics wrapped in yards of plastic?

Colwell-Lipson recently announced the launch of Celebrate Green!, a new book co-written with her mother, designed help us celebrate green year-round. Be sure to stop by the Celebrate Green! blog for even more ideas!

What does "celebrating green" mean to you? The easiest holiday for me to envision "green" is Christmas. I love to find our Christmas boxes and I get so excited as I carefully unwrap the nativity scene from my childhood, complete with the tiny wooden manger and the shepherd with his real metal crook. I even like the plastic reindeer (certainly not originally part of the nativity scene!) that come to inspect the manger. Isn't that what treasured holiday rituals really are -- reuse at its best?

[UPDATE (10/8/08) -- Check out Escape to Books' October 7, 2008 interview with Corey Colwell-Lipson and Lynn Colwell here!]

Monday, September 8, 2008

International photography contest through National Geographic Kids

National Geographic Kids is currently running an international photography contest for kids!

Kids ages 6-14 living in the United States (excluding Puerto Rico) and Canada (excluding Quebec) can enter in three different categories: Animals, Scenery, and People. You could win a camera and an autographed copy of Annie Griffiths Belt's book, A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel: My Journey in Photographs. The contest runs through November 3, 2008. Check out this link for an entry form, contest rules, and other information.

If you live outside of the U.S. and Canada, check out The Worldwide National Geographic Society International Photography Contest for Kids for a listing of regional contests around the globe. (I wish I could enter in the UK -- you could win a safari to Kenya!)

Regional winners are entered into the international contest and "one Grand Prize winner will win a five-day, four-night trip to Washington, D.C., including a special tour of National Geographic headquarters ..." (I still want to go on safari!)

Good luck!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Website of the Week: NOAA's Ocean Service Education

Photo credit: Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps (ret.), NOAA's National Weather Service Collection

The National Ocean Service Education website, designed for students in grades 3-12, contains games, tutorials, activity books, puzzles, and more.

Younger kids will enjoy the mystery games -- like Nautical Charts and Seafloor Mapping, along with fun activities like regional ocean activity books and instructions (in .pdf) for making things like a compass, an origami Earth, and a mobile of ocean animals.

Teens can study tutorials on subjects like corals and tides, try the interactive Ocean Challenge Puzzle, or (these are .pdf files) Build an Underwater Robot and learn how to Follow That Hurricane.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

They're B-A-A-C-K!

Photo credit: Luke, BurningWell.org
(Thanks Luke, for reminding me that I'm not alone in my on-going ant battle!)

Well, so much for moving. I had naively hoped that when we moved to our new townhouse, we'd be free of ants. No such luck. I've heard from friends that, in this area of the U.S., ants are very persistent.

But ... I discovered something interesting about the ants at our new home. They seem to be smarter than the ants at our old place. How can I tell? Two things:

At our old house, you could observe a line of ants without disturbing them. They didn't get upset and scurry until I began to vacuum or started using my mint oil spray. Here, the minute I walk in the room, they run for cover (making it very hard to tell how they are getting into the house!)

And here, the ants are sneaky. I found them coming into my kitchen through a power outlet (!) and then they were crawling along a black electrical wire (blending in) to enter house (and the fruit bowl - ick). Here, ants tend to follow hidden paths -- underneath the sink or along the underside of the countertops and dishwasher -- making it hard to track them. At our old place, the ants not only entered the house in the open, if I fought back with spray, they'd re-enter days later at the same place.

So ... are my new ants smarter? I've never thought about ants having varying levels of intelligence before. I doubt that individual ants would show much difference in intelligence (I wonder how you could test that?). But this new colony definitely seems to have evolved a more sophisticated style of suburban survival. Very interesting ...

Monday, September 1, 2008

Happy Labor Day!

To all of you who have outside jobs, work at home, are looking for work, or finally have retired, I salute you! Have a happy Labor Day!

P.S. I'm off to the furniture store to spend. I wonder if that's the right way to celebrate Labor Day?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Website of the Week: Project Vote Smart

First, let me offer a quick apology to my friends outside of the U.S., since today's post doesn't apply directly to you. But for those of you voting in America's 2008 elections, please check out Project Vote Smart. This non-partisan organization has been around for over eight years, providing U.S. voters with information about their elected officials, including things like biographical data, voting records, endorsements, and interest group ratings. It's a great site to help you narrow down your choices, particularly if you have a specific issue that tends to drive your vote. I, for one, am partial to reviewing a candidate's positions on the environment.

One item I found interesting ... historically, John McCain was a big supporter of Project Vote Smart. I was disappointed to find that he hasn't filled out this election's Political Courage Test ... but, then, Barack Obama hasn't filled it out yet either.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Why ants never get invited to birthday parties ...

Looking at this rather disgusting photograph reminds me of the time we found an ant trail running from my son's window, across the wall, and under his bed. The trail ended at a Tootsie Pop. I carried the offending item to the sink and gently opened the label. I was startled but morbidly fascinated as ants came pouring out. And the Tootsie Pop was half-eaten! I guess everybody likes Tootsie Pops ...

UPDATE (10/24/08): If you are not an ant but you still aren't getting invited to birthday parties, I added a new post just for you: Hugs to the Lonely. :)

Monday, August 25, 2008

BattleBots

BattleBots fans, rejoice! The dueling robot competition show, which last aired on American television in 2002, is due for a comeback. According to this article in Popular Mechanics, this new version of robot wars will focus strictly on the competition between the machines, targeting college students as designers. The televised event will likely air on an ESPN channel in November 2008.

With robot names like Diesector and Nightmare, watching the original BattleBots competitions on the Comedy Central TV series was a hoot. You can check out snips of previous BattleBot competitions on YouTube, like Best of Battlebots or Top 10 Battlebot Moments (the sound quality is poor on this one, but the clips are great -- note the sign-waving fans in the first one!)

Want to build your own competition-ready robot? There are a number of challenges out there just waiting for interested children and young adults! Check out the National Robotics Challenge or the Edventures Robotic Challenge: Grades 3-12 or drop by BEST and Botball® for middle & high school students.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Website of the Week: Knowitall.org

Visit ETV's "educational web portal" at Knowitall.org. You can try out simulations and interactive learning lessons on a number of topics, including science. Check out the Science Activities & Simulations at NASA Online and explore topics like Lightning & Static (my favorite), Lift, and How Sound Travels. Or visit Kids Work! and test drive your new job at the virtual hospital -- a medical lab technician, pharmacist, or a public relations specialist -- as part of Job Play. If that doesn't grab you, drop by The Hobby Shop, where you can look at items like fruit flies under a virtual microscope, run a virtual chemistry experiment, or "throw" water balloons with the catapult (it took me three tries to hit the target!).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mama Joules' (totally biased) Top Five Science Movie List

I promised you a while back that I would come up with a list of my favorite science movies. Let me tell you, it was harder than I expected! There are lots of science *fiction* movies out there – some with very little science – but not too many that are just science based. I tried to make sure that I didn’t just include science fiction on my list. (That said, a few of the movies that I picked are pretty light on science ... but I have my reasons!). See what you think:

1. Star Wars. I was eight years old when the original Star Wars movie came out and it tops my list for two reasons. First, it is one of my favorite movies of all time, regardless of genre. Second, it changed the way I saw the world and my place within it. My favorite scene is where Luke Skywalker is standing on the rocks near his home, watching the two setting suns. As a child, when I saw that scene I literally got chills. It was the first time that a movie transported me out of my universe and into a totally alternate one. Star Wars made me believe that we might not be alone out there. For that, it gets my number one ranking.

2. Apollo 13. Hands down, I think this portrayal of the ill-fated Apollo 13 lunar mission is the best science-based movie out there. The entire movie depicts scientists working together to solve an impossible problem. I love the sense of camaraderie and intense focus as the ground-based crew tries to beat improbable odds to bring the team home. My only nitpick is that the female actors weren’t as strong as their male counterparts. Kudos to Ed Harris for his outstanding portrayal of Gene Kranz.

3. Jurassic Park. Now, I’ve had enough discussions with friends to know that Michael Crichton’s presentation of mathematical concepts doesn’t hold up quite as well as his take on biology. But regardless of the probability of this ever happening, I love the idea of dinosaurs roaming the earth and mingling with people. The whole concept of cloning these extinct monsters and bringing them back to life is just so darn clever … and, as one might imagine, so terribly ill-fated.

4. Back to the Future. Christopher Lloyd's fantastic performance as Doc Brown, the seemingly crazed but truly charming scientist, cements this movie in my top five. I love the scene where he builds a small-scale model of the town and demonstrates to Marty how they can return him home -- only to have the wind-up car simulating the time machine run off the table and set things on fire. Although there is very little actual science presented in this movie, the concept of time travel is a fun one and the special effects and attention to detail make this movie a charmer.

5. Twister. This isn't one of my favorite movies -- I found it a bit too overdrawn and melodramatic -- but it makes my top five science list. As an amateur weather-watcher, I enjoyed watching this movie about tornadoes and the scientists who study them. The portrayal of dedication to one's research -- to the point of breaking up your relationships -- struck a chord with me. And there's always that fun scene with the flying cow!

So ... there's my top five. Which movies did I miss? (Be sure to comment and let me know!)


Note: I haven't seen too many movies in the last ten years (graduate school, kids), so I'm sure I missed a few. I didn't want to include anything I hadn't seen, which is why I didn't include March of the Penguins. And I really wanted to include Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I just couldn't justify the science angle!