Monday, June 30, 2008

It's the little things ...

Yesterday, I was helping my boys clean up their playroom and I came across a "toy" (I use the term loosely) that would look more at home in the trash. It is a lumpy-looking oblong piece of heavy paper, colored brown, with a small hole punched in one end where a piece of ribbon is tied to it. And yet, we overlooked this funky-looking item and threw out (or donated) several other toys that seemed more worthy of salvage.

Why are we keeping this thing that looks like a turd on a string? Because it is "The Flying Potato." My older son made it as a gift for my younger son. For reasons that I can't fathom, they both like to run around the house with this paper potato flying after them. My oldest is proud that his little brother likes the toy; my younger son is happy that his older brother took the time to create something especially for him.

It is easy for me to forget that life is made up of a series of little interactions like this one. At times, I want so much to teach my boys about science and life that I forget to take it one step at a time. Looking at a leaf together is enough; I don't always need to drag out an identification guide or scour the internet to determine the plant's life history. There's a time and a place for research, but there also should be time to just sit and experience life together -- one potato at a time.

Enjoy your potatoes today!

Photo credit: Leon Brooks,

Friday, June 27, 2008

Website of the Week: PBS Kids

It’s summer vacation, the weather is too wretchedly hot for you to leave the house, and the kids are going stir-crazy. You’ve watched one too many videos and you wish the kids were doing something constructive. What’s a caregiver to do?

Photo credit: C.E. Price,

Point the little ones toward PBS Kids, the website of children’s programming through the Public Broadcasting Service. (My three-year-old has learned to navigate this user-friendly children's website by himself!) You can design an online treehouse or look for shapes in the clouds at It’s a Big Big World or learn about engineering with Curious George at Pogo-A-Gogo.

There’s a special page for older kids at PBS Kids Go!, and there’s a good selection of science and math activities here. You can design a WHOAHlercoaster (mine kept crashing!) or build a Geyser Surpriser at Fetch! or Crack Digit’s Code and play Pattern Quest (I love this game -- remember playing the game Mastermind?) at Cyberchase.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Nature in your neighborhood

Eastern Cottontail
Photo credit: William R. James, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Today, when I was walking the dog, I realized something: Nature is all around us.

Now, I know this isn't an overly profound thought, but I tend to overlook nature in my own backyard. I don't usually think of my home turf as an oasis or refuge. My neighborhood is noisy and crowded, a typical example of man-made American suburbia. But if you look closely, you can see nature creeping back in around the edges.

Notice that rabbit, hiding still in the grass as we pass by, with only a slight twitch of the nose to register our presence. See the tiny chipmunk, boldly sitting on top of the tree stump? I wonder if it sees us, if it cares that we are near. And do you hear the birdsong? I can distinguish at least three different refrains if I listen closely.

Life is richer when we stop to pay attention. Look for nature in your neighborhood today and let me know what you find!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Length, Area, and Volume

Hello, I'm Mama Joules' husband. Julie has asked me to write a blog post for her. I have loved science since I was a little kid, and still find all kinds of questions fascinating. I work as a researcher in cryptography, and I usually try to understand things in terms of math, even stuff like biology.

Have you ever wondered why ants can't be ten feet tall? The answer has to do with scaling. If you made an ant ten feet tall, all kinds of things inside the ant would stop working, because they wouldn't scale up well. The same thing applies in a lot of other places. Even if you made a perfect scale model of an airplane or a bridge or a building, some things about how it worked would change, as it got bigger or smaller.

Making things bigger or smaller changes the length of each part of those things, but also their area and volume. In this post, I want to get you thinking about these different ideas, because they help explain why ants aren't ten feet tall, why elephants and mice move so differently, and all kinds of other things.

The area of something tells you how much paint you would need to cover it. If you have a square piece of paper, you need a certain amount of paint to cover it. But if you get a square piece of paper that's twice as big on each side, you will need four times as much paint! You can see why it works this way in the picture below.

You can experiment with this. Cut out two squares, so that one is twice as big as the other on each side. Then, see how many pennies it takes to cover the smaller square, and how many to cover the larger square. Doubling the length of the square quadrupled the area.

Think about a very small house, maybe a doghouse. Maybe you only need one can of paint to paint this house. Imagine stretching that house, till it's twice as big on each side--you would need four cans of paint! If you stretched it until it was three times as big on each side, you'd need nine cans of paint. (Those numbers, 1,4,9,..., are called squares. Look at that picture again, and see if you can guess why.) That's a scaling effect. If you double the size of your house, you quadruple the number of cans of paint you need for it. If you triple the size of your house, you need nine times as many cans of paint!

The volume of something tells you how much paint it would take to completely fill it up. Since paint is kind of messy, you might prefer to think about it in terms of the number of marbles it would take to fill it up.

Let's think about that house, again. How much stuff could we put in the house? Let's suppose we have a house that's 10 feet on a side, and we fill the house up with marbles. Now, suppose we could somehow stretch the house to be 20 feet on a side. We'd need eight times as many marbles to fill it up! And if we stretched the house to be 30 feet on a side, we'd need twenty-seven times as many marbles! Look at the pictures to see why. (You can also probably guess that these numbers, 1,8,27,64,125..., are called cubes.)

You can do an experiment with this, too. You'll need to either find or make two boxes, so that the bigger box is twice as big as the smaller one on every side. Then, find something to fill the boxes with--packing peanuts will work, or ping pong balls. Count the number of items that fit in the smaller box. Then count the number in the larger box.

As anything gets bigger, its volume increases faster than its area, and its area increases faster than its height, width, or depth. Can you think of other ways things work differently, as they get bigger or smaller?

Ant Nebula
Photo credit: NASA/Space Telescope Science Institute
Note from Mama Joules to Itinerant Cryptopher: This was the biggest ant I could find! :)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Website of the Week: ESA Kids

ESA/NASA Spacelab emblem, 1976
Photo credit: NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC)

This week's website is ESA Kids, the children's portion of the European Space Agency website. The ESA has played an important role in the mission of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander by tracking the robot using their Mars Express orbiter (satellite). You can even Listen to Phoenix descend, as recorded by Mars Express.

Then head on over to ESA's Lab to build a Hipparcos star globe or create a model spacecraft, like the SOHO. Want to learn what Life in Space is like? Maybe you're more interested in life on Earth. And if you're wondering how outer space exploration applies to your life, stop by Useful Space!

--If you like this blog post, you might also like these:
*Night Sky,
*USGS Astro Kids, and
*Astronomy Picture of the Day.

[Updated 3/5/09, checked links & added suggested links]

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Another way to think

Photo credit: Leon Brooks,

My favorite school test question came from my high school history teacher (waves at PVO) who asked us to describe how the colonization of America would have changed if the Pilgrims had landed in California instead. I loved this question. It really made me think about the things we had learned about the early settlers -- their need for fresh water, the Indian tribes they encountered, the climate and physical conditions they endured. Among other things, I remember writing that the Rocky Mountains would have posed a formidable challenge for those early explorers.

This is a fun exercise. Take any widely held assumption and ask yourself, what if it weren't true? Keeping this in the realm of science:

What if people walked on their heads instead of their feet? How would the design of cars be different? How would the circulatory system have adapted?

What if the sky were green instead of blue? Would the rest of the world look different? How? Would chlorophyll still be useful?

What if the earth was colder at the equator and hotter at the poles? What would have to change for this to occur? Is it physically possible?

One thing I like about this exercise is that everyone gets a chance to answer. Since it's all theoretical, we're just making some best guesses here. And that gives everyone a chance to play.

Which makes me wonder ... What questions are you thinking up right now?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Prepare for disaster

Photo credit: NOAA Photo Library

As my son is running around the house, taping “no” signs on all of our water faucets due to a water line break and subsequent mandatory boil order, I thought today might be a good day to talk about disaster preparedness.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has put together some pages to help you enjoy yourself as you Create an Emergency Supply Kit. After you make a Just-in-Case Family Plan and Know the Facts about disaster preparedness, then you can take a quiz to earn your "Readiness U Graduation Certificate".

If you’ve gone through a disaster and need to talk about what happened, one place to share your story is the Disaster Connection pages of FEMA for Kids. You can also read about Herman P.I.C. And The Hunt For A Disaster-Proof Shell. Poor Herman! The hermit crab survives a hurricane, a flood, an earthquake, and a fire before he finally finds the right (and safe) shell.

I wonder if Herman knows how to boil water ...

Friday, June 13, 2008

Website of the Week: EEK!

Photo credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

This week's website is EEK! (Environmental Education for Kids!), an electronic magazine for children by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Are you a kid? Do you like to write about nature or draw pictures of animals? Visit Wanted: Kid Artists and Writers to learn where to send your drawings and observations about nature or outdoor recreation, along with where to share your Big Fish Stories. (I especially like Ronnie's story of The Pole That Got Away.)

Learn how to make a recycled bead bracelet, an ice luminary, a gourd birdhouse, and more at EEK's Rainy Day Activity Page. My favorite activity, owing to my previous career as a hazardous waste investigator, is the Edible Aquifer. (It looks tasty, too!) The EEK! Teacher Pages include Teaching Activities in language arts, math, social studies, and, of course, science.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Thoughts on Blog Carnivals

I've recently learned about blog carnivals, these online magazine-like publications organized and hosted by different blogs. Each blog carnival features posts from various blogs on a specific topic with new issues posted on a regular basis. The range of blog carnival topics is wide, with Blog Carnival listing over 4,000 different ones, on themes ranging from kidney stones to signing babies and everything in between.

I've been having fun submitting Mama Joules' posts to different blog carnivals. I haven't quite found our exact niche -- I'm still looking for a "family science blog carnival" -- but I've enjoyed being a part of these issues:

Tangled Bank #107. Science. Love this issue's "choose your own" theme.

June 2008 issue of Learning in the Great Outdoors. Environmental education. Good stuff!

Carnival of Mathematics #34. All things math.

Berry Go Round #5. A celebration of plants.

Monday, June 9, 2008

This end up

Frog Egg Mass
Photo credit: Pete Pattavina, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

My new friend Steven, over at Tropical Biodiversity, recently blogged about his rare pajurá de Óbidos (Pouteria speciosa) seed. He was concerned when the seed didn’t germinate – until he found out that he’d planted it upside down! Happily, when he turned the seed over, nature took its course and the seed is now a seedling.

Seeds aren’t the only “babies” with a top and a bottom. Recently, I watched a Discovery Channel show with a similar theme. A mama crocodile had laid her eggs too close to humans. Someone wanted both the crocodile and the eggs moved because every time anyone came near the nest, the mother croc would hiss at them. But moving crocodile eggs is a delicate business. If you turn the eggs the wrong way after a certain point of development, the little incubating baby crocodiles will drown. Australia’s Billabong Sanctuary discusses this on their Conservation & Breeding Projects page. Happily, most of the eggs in the story I was watching survived to hatch safely inside an animal sanctuary.

Frog eggs are a little more resilient. Soon after they are fertilized, frog eggs are known to align with the gravity vector (in other words, they have an up and a down). It was once believed that this rotation was crucial to their development, but recent studies of frog egg development in outer space have shown that this may not the case.

[Sidenote: If you’d like to learn more about animal studies in space, be sure to drop by NASA’s Astrobiology page. You can always Ask an Astrobiologist your questions! Also, Space Today Online has an interesting timeline of animals that have gone into outer space – an impressive list that includes not only frogs, but dogs, monkeys, rats, mice, and worms (among other critters).]

Friday, June 6, 2008

Website of the Week: National Zoo

Giant Panda
Photo credit: Jonathon Coombes,

This week’s website of the week is the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Visit Just For Kids and solve one of more than twenty online jigsaw puzzles, send an E-card, read fact sheets about animals and habitats (complete with photographs), enjoy a crossword puzzle, or print out animal coloring pages (including a Giant Panda Activity Book). Join the Conservation Kids’ Club and make a mask or listen to the call of a Golden Lion Tamarin. Explore the Kids’ Farm, one of the zoo’s newer exhibits, to learn about farm animals and discover where your pizza really comes from! Then Take a World Tour to learn about animals across the globe. Be sure to follow up by checking out one of the National Zoo’s more than twenty Animal Web Cams -- including two pandacams and three cheetahcams -- to meet your favorite animals up close.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

How big are raindrops?

Photo credit: Leon Brooks,

While I was taking out the trash the other night, I commented to my young son that it was misting outside.

He gave me a funny look and said, “It’s raining.”

I said, “No, it’s misting. It’s not coming down hard enough to be rain.” I started to tell him about the different ways that people might describe rain, like drizzle or light showers, but I stopped short.

How do we define rain? What are the actual meteorological classifications of liquid precipitation? I thought that this would be a simple question, but there's been some debate on the subject.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, drizzle consists of fine water droplets with diameters of less than 0.5 mm; rain is usually larger than 0.5 mm. Fog droplets are similar to drizzle, but they don’t hit the ground.

I found an older set of definitions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though the U.S. Geological Survey at The Water Cycle: Precipitation. The 1959 USDA table referenced on this site has definitions for precipitation that include fog, mist, drizzle, light rain, moderate rain, heavy rain, and cloudburst. Part of this table included the median diameters of different precipitation droplets, including 0.96 mm for drizzle and 1.24 mm on up for rain (note that these don't exactly match the NOAA definitions).

I couldn’t wrap my mind around the numbers, so I took the data about droplet sizes and made my own graph. I discovered a couple of interesting things when I sat down with the numbers.

Data taken from a USGS adaptation (The Water Cycle: Precipitation) of Lull, H.W., 1959, Soil Compaction on Forest and Range Lands, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forestry Service, Misc. Publication No.768

First, none of the droplets are very big. Even the largest water droplet -- occurring during a cloudburst -- is extremely small, typically measuring less than 2/10 of an inch in diameter. (Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had raindrops fall in my eye and it’s hard for me to believe that they are usually so tiny.)

Second, comparing droplet sizes reveals enormous differences between the categories. Cloudburst droplets (at 2.85 mm in diameter) are over 200 times larger than fog droplets (0.01 mm in diameter).

How do scientists know these things? Here’s one way: In 1971, researcher Motoi Kumai went out into the fog armed with gelatin-coated glass slides and studied the results under an optical microscope. He measured the radii of about 20,000 fog droplets for his paper, published in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences in 1973. (You can read Arctic Fog Droplet Size Distribution and Its Effect on Light Attenuation in the online journals at the American Meteorological Society. Interesting side note: Kumai found that long-lasting fogs have larger water droplets than short duration fogs.

So, how big are raindrops, anyway? See for yourself! The next time you see a storm brewing, take a piece of colored construction paper outside and lay it securely on the ground. Let the first few raindrops fall and then grab your paper and quickly run inside before you both get drenched. The water droplets should have made marks on your paper; you can take your own measurements. Do you think that your results will be the same or different than those found by the meteorologists? Why?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

I can't control the weather ...

even though I really want to! I was in the middle of my planned Wednesday post about the size of raindrops (irony of ironies!) when we were hit with thunderstorms. I've lost power twice, my cable is out, and my neighbor has a big gap in their formerly pristine siding. So ... I'm going to properly shut down my computer for the night and I'll finish my post tomorrow.

(That said ... my son just told me that lightning occurs in different colors based upon how hot it is. I've never heard that, so I'm going to add it to my list of things to research!)

Stay dry, stay warm! I hope to see you tomorrow. :-)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Mama Joules' Young Birder

Kerm Takes Aim

Photo credit: Mama Joules

Way to go, Kerm! Mama Joules’ sometimes guest blogger and favorite resident six-year-old has won a copy of The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by Bill Thompson, III from our friends at 10,000 Birds. You can read Kerm’s winning essay along with some wonderful tips for engaging young birders at How to Get Kids Excited About Birds.

But if you want to encourage a child’s interest in nature and seem to have hit a brick wall, I have an interesting story for you. This is what actually happened when Kerm and I sat down to write his birding essay:

“Why do you like birding?” I asked, expecting a quick answer.

He looked at me blankly and started to fidget. “I don’t know.”

“Well,” I said, gently. “Why did you start birding?”

“You made me.”

Ouch! Is that true? I felt my stomach lurch. Did I really *make him* go birding? I thought back to when I had purchased his first bird identification guide. He was so small that he could barely write his name inside the cover. Does he even like birding? Maybe he’s been faking it all this time.

I took a deep breath and tried a different tactic. “What’s fun about birding?”

This time his face lit up and a torrent of words rushed out. “I like the sounds that birds make and I like their colorful feathers …” He then proceeded to tell me all about bird calls and different types of plumage.

As I sat back and listened, I was struck by the awesome power of the words that we speak to our children. For me, there was no difference between these two questions about birding. But for Kerm, one sentence led to a brick wall. The other opened the door of communication.