Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Geology in your backseat

Are you planning a vacation somewhere in the United States? Before you leave on your next trip, be sure to take along some geology. Roadside Geology guides are available for a number of U.S. locations. Road cuts provide a wonderful opportunity to take a peek at what’s normally hidden deep beneath the earth’s surface.

Weeping rock of the Boone Formation
Photo credit: Roxnoil

Along the highways of Missouri, you often see weeping limestone faces -- like the one shown above -- due to the porous nature of this sedimentary rock. These seeps can be especially beautiful when they freeze in the wintertime, forming dripping white icicles instead of appearing as dark streaks.

Pinnacles National Monument, California

Photo credit: National Park Service
(Note: If you tip your head to the left, the parallel lines in the rock look horizontal. That gives you a sense of how much the rocks have been displaced (moved) over time.)

Driving through the canyons of Utah, rock layers sometimes appear vertical instead of horizontal due to uplift (see photo above for an example of this in California).

Lava flow near Kalapana, Hawaii (June 1990)

Photo credit: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Check out the USGS Lava covers Kalapana for more great images!

And if you are exploring the Big Island of Hawaii, some of your intended highways may have been covered by lava flow – a prime example of geology in action!

Learn more about U.S. geology by visiting the United States Geological Survey or drop by the Association of American State Geologists and click on the map to visit each state’s own Geological Survey.

Monday, January 28, 2008

What's in a bowling ball?

Photo credit: Leon Brooks

Last night, I saw this commercial where a guy crushes a bowling ball with his bare hands. It was a dramatic scene with the ball shattering into little pieces. The ball was obviously hollow. I thought to myself, "How silly is that? Of course bowling balls are solid."

Then I had another thought. "If bowling balls are solid – and roughly the same circumference – why do they weigh different amounts? Maybe they aren't solid after all."

It turns out that bowling balls have an outer shell and an inner core. There are four popular types of bowling ball shells in use today – plastic, urethane, resin, and particle (a mix of resin and ceramic or glass particles) – according to Bowlers Paradise.

I expected the inner cores to be simple, round, metal spheres, but as it turns out, that’s not the case. This diagram from the United States Bowling Congress shows how cores come in all different shapes and sizes, which affect the ball’s spin and how it hooks as it rolls down the lane. Lighter balls have a core made of foam; heavier balls use polymers and resins (A tip of the hat to Victoria Junior College in Singapore for that information).

If you are interested in the physics behind bowling ball mechanics (or you need an unusual topic for your next science report), be sure to check out "Harry" the robot, described by the USBC as "an approximately seven-foot tall robotic bowling ball thrower." USBC researchers use Harry "to help test balls, lanes, pins and oil patterns." (I had no idea!)

While looking for the answer to what lies inside a bowling ball, I discovered the next generation of bowling, courtesy of Brunswick. In Brunswick's Virtual Bowling, a player throws a small ball down a real lane, but there are no pins. Instead, you get to knock down virtual pins (like video ketchup bottles) on a video background (like a ketchup factory). If you can’t wait for virtual bowling to hit your nearest arcade, try out the USBC Games page!

If you liked this post, you might also like:

--Website of the Week: Victoria Junior College (more on balls & science)
--Simulations from Physics Education Technology (learn to shoot a bowling ball out of a canon online!)

[Update: 3/17/09 -- Checked links & added suggested posts]

Friday, January 25, 2008

Website of the Week: The Nature Conservancy

This week, I’ve been thinking about the plight of the polar bear and the on-going efforts of many conservationists to save the polar bear’s Arctic habitat. MSNBC recently posted this article, Polar bears, Alaska oil and D.C. debate, about the fight over oil exploration in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea – a situation that has prompted letter-writing campaigns by a number of environmental rights groups, including World Wildlife Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Defenders of Wildlife.

So, in honor of the polar bear, this week’s website is The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy’s mission, as I’ve come to understand it, is to preserve wildlife habitat in a sustainable way by educating people about conservation, purchasing prime tracts of wildlife habitat, and forming partnerships with local stakeholders to ensure preservation of these special lands. Want to find a preserve near you? Visit TNC’s Nature Preserve Map. Calculate your carbon footprint and learn some climate saving tips or check out TNC’s Fun Nature Stuff for slideshows of wildlife, E-cards, nature quizzes, and more!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The science behind the comics

One of the most enjoyable places to explore science is in the pages of comic books. Gary Larson, of The Far Side fame, is the master of the science humor genre (and a leader in irreverent and off-beat humor as well!). Every university science department that I’ve wandered through has had at least one of his cartoons up on the wall.

The creator of FoxTrot, Bill Amend, has a background in physics. Chemistry, math, physics, computer science, and an iguana are sprinkled liberally throughout his comic strip.

Unfortunately, neither of these artists are running their daily strips anymore. So, please keep your eyes open for science humor in the comics and let me know what you find. I need something new to read!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Happy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

Today is a good time to reflect upon the life of Dr. King and remember his goals of justice and equality for all...

You have a unique contribution to make to the scientific community. Scientists come in all races, all ages, and all nationalities. The stereotype of the wild-haired, fair-skinned, eccentric male professor is just that -- a stereotype.

Don't let someone else define you. I had the unfortunate experience of having a respected professor refuse to work with me during my time in graduate school because I professed a desire to start a family. My guess is that he believed -- wrongly -- that you can't be a mother and a student at the same time. I could have trusted in what he told me, but I chose not to. Instead, I found new professors to guide me through school (both are dedicated dads) and I carved my own path as a pregnant graduate student (I believe that was a first for my program).

Don't be afraid to turn some heads. That's where scientists go -- to the crux of the problem, the heat of battle. Roll up your sleeves and dive in. The world is waiting for you.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Website of the Week: World Wildlife Fund

Visit World Wildlife Fund to learn more about endangered species in your part of the world. Give your friends a small slice of nature with a free WWF E-card or pretend to catch smugglers of wildlife by playing Caught in the Act and other games. Be sure to stop by the Wildfinder to find out what wild species might live in your neighborhood.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Create crafts from old greeting cards

As you are cleaning up the last reminders of the holiday season, you might be wondering what to do with that huge stack of holiday cards. Before you throw them in the trash or stash them in a keepsake box, consider using them as craft supplies. Be sure to include those unused greeting cards that you received for free from a charity (the ones that you are never going to use but you can't quite bring yourself to throw out).

Cut out the designs on the cards and glue them onto a new piece of paper. Get creative and have fun! Layer the designs for a 3-D effect. Tear the designs into small pieces and use them to make a mosaic. Cut out several similar designs to make a theme-based collage. Design a new card and send it to someone special.

What does this have to do with science? Always remember to reduce, reuse, and recycle! You can’t completely eliminate your footprint on the Earth, but you can often minimize your impact.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Science can be silly

If you read my previous post, More About Mama Joules, you know that I haven't always liked science. But perhaps I should be more precise: I did like science, I just didn't realize it.

I dislike the way science was taught to me in school. Unfortunately, science is often presented as a subject that only smart people can understand. So, the first time that I didn't understand something, I thought I was stupid. No wonder I hated science!

In reality, science is for everyone. Once you start looking at things this way, you find science everywhere. Each time you cook, dig a stick in the dirt, or search your dog's back for fleas, you are exploring your world. And that's all that science really is.

When I was younger, I used to go hiking with my parents. One of my favorite memories is when my mom and I would look at rocks. But I wonder if I would have liked it so much if she had started lecturing me by saying, "Now, this is granite. Granite is an igneous rock ..."

Mom never said that. My mom would say things like, "Look at this cool rock! I think it's a fossilized dinosaur turd." You can imagine how many rocks I brought to my mom! I loved hearing her make up stories about my rocks. In doing so, many rocks found their way into our home, where my mom and I looked up their true identities in a book like Smithsonian Handbooks: Rocks & Minerals.

Unleash your creativity! Teaching and learning about science can be (and should be) fun.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Website of the Week: National Geographic

It's a new year. Maybe it's time to change your computer's wallpaper. Head on over to National Geographic's Photography for some breathtaking images of nature. I was drawn to photos of the Northern Lights, ice caves, and coral reefs. But there's plenty of landscapes, animals, weather-related shots, and images of outer space, too. There's even a Photo of the Day widget. And while you're at the National Geographic website, be sure to visit National Geographic's kids page.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

More about Mama Joules

So ... just who is this Mama Joules? What makes her qualified to write a blog about learning to like science anyway?

When I was a freshman in high school, my entrance scores qualified me to enroll in both Basic Biology and Earth Sciences, a course of study that my adviser chose for me. I thought that my adviser was insane. I had to take two science classes? At the same time? Quickly, I withdrew from my optional Earth Sciences class and settled in to hating Biology.

I disliked both years of high school Biology, with the notable exception of my bean plant experiment. I had to design and implement that study myself. I was crazy about the author Madeleine L'Engle and, in one of her books, she describes a study in which plants were shown to have feelings (To this day, I'm not sure whether she made that up or not; I should look into that someday). So, I decided that I would try her character Calvin's experiment and grow bean plants. I would ignore one set of bean plants, talk kindly to the second set, and scream at the third. My theory was that the plants I loved, the ones I talked nicely to, would outgrow the others. I thought that the ones I ignored would grow normally. And the ones that I yelled at would shrivel up and die, right? Wrong.

First of all, I should never have tried to germinate plants in the dead of winter. Many of my seedling containers grew not beans, but mold. My Biology teacher kindly loaned me a heat lamp and a few of my plants finally sprouted. Which ones grew best? The ones I yelled at. I had to scrap my first theory. Maybe all of that yelling helped my plants to grow by giving them more carbon dioxide.

But I still didn't like science. In my junior year of high school, I did well in Chemistry solely because of my teacher. Maybe he had a great teaching style, I don't really remember. I only remember his arms. That man had the highly chiseled forearms of a Greek god. Watching his arms naturally led to me to read what he wrote on the board, which must have translated into learning.

Unfortunately, Mr. Greek god-arms left after my Junior year. We had a brand-new science teacher for my Senior year, when I took Physics. (I still don't like Physics). I did terribly in this class, as did many of my classmates.

So, when it came to college, I ignored my father's advice to major in math or science and chose Journalism. Well, that lasted for three semesters. You know what? I got bored. I had no science in my life and I missed it. Imagine that!

Well, I can't say I that had no science in my life during that time. I did take one required science course -- I chose Environmental Sciences for Non-Science Majors. I aced that class. It reminded me of all of the things that I loved -- parks, green space, recycling, saving the planet. I was hooked.

I spent my fourth semester of college with one foot in Journalism and one in Biology. After that, I never looked back. I was so far behind in my required science coursework that I went from no science courses to having to pile them on. I really wanted to graduate on time. One semester, I had nothing but science classes! My grades dropped, but I was challenged. I hung in there and finally graduated -- a semester late -- with my Bachelor's degree in the Biological Sciences.

Since then, I've worked both testing animal blood and investigating hazardous waste sites. I've earned a Master's of Environmental Management degree, had three children, and started writing freelance articles (and a blog) about science. In a strange way, that takes me back full circle to when I was a Journalism major.

Except that now, I don't hate science.


[Updated 10/22/09 -- Changed "two children" to three. Sorry it took me so long, Baby Princess!]

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

In Sickness and In Health ...

Under the weather? Have a health-related question for homework? Want to see how the heart works? Check out Kids Heath for answers to these questions and more. There’s a special section just to explain Kids’ Health Problems, with answers to your questions about food allergies, asthma, eczema and a whole rash (sorry for the bad pun!) of other conditions.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Try your hand at science poetry

Are you looking for something different to do today? How about writing some science poetry? Here are some poetic forms with examples of science poetry written by children, taken from previous entries to the Massachusetts Science Poetry Contest . (Unfortunately, this contest appears to be closed, but I’m checking into it).

Here’s my childhood contribution to the oft-underappreciated science poem. I was nine years old when I wrote this ditty, which won an honorable mention in a poetry contest. You just never know where science poetry may lead!

Maybe in the Future

Maybe in the future,
We will find
A mysterious planet,
One of a kind.

All around this planet,
There is an eerie gloom.
And when you look up in the sky,
There is only half a moon.

The small eight-inch people,
Smiling as can be,
Have only one red hair, on their heads,
Small as the eye can see.

These are courageous people,
Fighting very hard.
And maybe in the future,
They’ll land in someone’s yard.

[UPDATE: The Massachusetts Science Poetry Contest is alive and well! Check here for more details!]

Friday, January 4, 2008

Website of the Week: USGS Astro Kids

Learn about Pluto’s downgraded status as a dwarf planet (it’s now considered to be the 10th planet from the sun)** and more at Astro Kids, the Astrogeology Research Program webpage of the United States Geological Survey. Create a model moon from a tennis ball, discover fun facts about the planets and print coloring pages of them, or make a magnet of the planet Mars.

What is "astrogeology"? This scientific study explores the geology of celestial bodies in our solar system other than Earth (like our moon, other planets and their moons, comets and asteroids). Astrogeologists map the surface features on these celestial bodies (like the mountains and valleys of Mars, for example) and try to figure out how they were formed (such as, does this planet have water or volcanoes?).

**But please remember to check the dates on any web pages about the planets, particularly Pluto. Anything created prior to Pluto’s reclassification by the International Astronomical Union on August 24, 2006 (like the Planetary Info Sheets on the Astro Kids website), still incorrectly show Pluto as the ninth planet. Keep in mind, though, the words of Jim Murphy, Head of New Mexico’s State University’s Department of Astronomy: "This reclassification of Pluto as a ‘dwarf planet’ does not in any way change the physical aspects of Pluto ..." (Read his complete statement about Pluto’s reclassification here.)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Saving the "White Elephants"

Did you have a good holiday? Did you receive some nice gifts? I’ll bet you got a few clunkers. Those are the gifts, like Great-Aunt Matilda’s polka-dotted knitted shawl, that you know you will never use. It’s hard just to say thank you for them!

Why not get your friends together for a "White Elephant" gift exchange? Have everyone bring their unwanted gifts and place them on a table. Put a small sheet of paper next to each one and let everyone bid on the items. The highest bid wins, with the proceeds going to a charity of your choice. Any remaining items can be taken to a second-hand store or a donation center like the Salvation Army or Goodwill.

Hopefully, you will walk away with a new gift that you really want, with the satisfaction of knowing that you saved an item from the trash. Remember, reusing things is always in style!