Monday, March 31, 2008

MythBusters Marathon

Yesterday, I kicked back and watched a MythBusters marathon on the Discovery Channel. If you like to watch people shoot things and/or blow them up for fun -- all the while explaining the science behind what they are doing -- this show is for you. (All I could think of when I watched this show was -- I want this job!!) I learned that salsa can corrode metal bars, pants saturated with certain pesticides can ignite and practically explode, you really can shoot a hole in a coin using today's high powered guns and mixed alloy coins (but not using the guns of the old west and traditional silver dollars), and that you shouldn't heat jawbreaker-style gumballs in the microwave (they can explode when you bite them and cause burns). If you're wondering whether a myth you've heard is true, you can submit your idea to the show. You can also discuss episodes and debate whether the tests were run correctly. Head on over to the MythBusters Talk About It page to learn more about their forums.

[Note to my younger readers: This show is rated PG. My six-year-old thought it was too scary to watch.]

Friday, March 28, 2008

Website of the Week: Earth Hour

Looking for something different to do this week-end? Turn off your lights this Saturday, March 29, 2008 at 8 pm, and take part in Earth Hour.

Earth Hour began in Sydney, Australia on March 31, 2007 when over two million people turned off their electricity for one hour. This event was initiated by World Wildlife Fund as a way to make an inspirational statement about climate change. In one year, it has grown into a global movement. This special hour highlights the fact that we are all interconnected on this planet and that our global efforts to combat climate change – when taken together – could have a real and measurable impact.

Not sure what to do with your hour? Check out Ten Things to Do in the Dark, which includes suggestions such as replacing your traditional light bulbs with energy efficient ones, reading together, or taking the time to discuss environmental topics as a family.


[Update: 3/27/10 - changed number of 2007 participants from two thousand to two million, as per the Earth Hour website]

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Field Guide to Produce

Charentais melons
Photo credit: Neal Ziring

Do you ever wish that you had the time to take a field trip with your family? Never fear! Now, with Aliza Green's Field Guide to Produce, you can have fun scouring the local farmer's market or green grocer for your next meal. Learn to identify exotic fruits and vegetables -- such as quince, kumquats, amaranth greens, and yuzus -- with handy tips for how to prepare and eat them, too.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Give yourself a chance to fail

Yesterday was a bad day for me and science. First of all, I forgot to write my Monday post -- oops! Sorry about that.

Then, there was the science experiment.

My son got a kit for Christmas for growing sugar crystals. Part of this kit consists of little, sugar-seeded sticks. You suspend them in a sugar solution and then supposedly, over time, the sugar crystals "grow" on the sticks.

Well, we never got that far. The kit came with one (count it, one) package of super-special sugar that was supposed to grow super-special big crystals. It claimed to be pure sucrose, although the box itself admitted to sugar and egg in the ingredient mix.

To make a long story short, I burned the solution. Everything was going swimmingly, the sugar was dissolving in the water I was heating -- turning the solution from murky to clear -- when things began to boil and the solution went all frothy and bubbly. The bag clearly stated that if you overheated things, no crystals would grow.

Why? My husband, the kindly Itinerant Cryptographer, figures that I denatured the protein from the egg. I'm wondering if I somehow managed to bind the egg protein to the sugar. Otherwise, what difference would it make?

But the frustrating part of the experiment was that there was no going back. I was given exactly one bag of special sugar -- one chance to get it right.

I think too much of science education is presented this way. We believe that if we fail one test or struggle with one subject, we are bad at science. And science is all about embracing failure.

Think of Thomas Edison, the American inventor who held over 1,000 patents for things like the light bulb and the phonograph. Edison was not afraid of failure, and, by all accounts, didn't see it as something negative. Exactly how many times did Edison fail? The numbers may vary, but you can bet it was a lot.

"Invention is ninety-nine percent perspiration, and one percent inspiration," Edison is quoted as saying. His quirky enthusiasm and willingness to try anything is captured in this fascinating article, The Undiscovered World of Thomas Edison by Kathleen McAuliffe in Atlantic Monthly. She writes of one incident in his lab:

" ... Edison and his colleagues behaved with the goofy abandon of high school kids set loose in chemistry class. Searching for a liquid with specific properties for an electrochemical device, they tried caraway oil, clove oil, oregano oil, nitrogen chromate, and peppermint oil. But as night stretched on into the wee hours of the morning, they adopted a more freewheeling approach. The next notebook entry records that they tested coffee, eggs, sugar, and milk ..."

So, maybe I should try that sugar experiment again. This time, I'll make my own sugar mix, using light brown sugar, dark brown sugar, table sugar, Easter candy ...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Website(s) of the Week: Bubbles!

In honor of National Bubble Week, March 20 – 26th, here are two Websites of the Week devoted to bubbles:

First, visit the Bubble Blower Museum to learn more about all things bubble. Head to their page of Homemade Bubble Solutions or check out these World Bubble Records. [Note: The site was last updated in 2006, so some of these records may have since been broken.]

Next, be sure to drop by Bubble Town and check out their Bubble Engineering page to learn more about the science behind bubbles.

And finally, don't forget to go outside, blow your own bubbles, and enjoy spring!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Keep good records, even when bad things happen

I've just spent the day wading through piles of paperwork, trying to compile our tax records, and I was struck by the disorganization of my filing system. It occurred to me that accurate records are important when conducting experiments, too, even when things don't go the way that you originally planned. One of my favorite scientific papers that I read during my graduate school days recounted a sampling effort on an ice floe that was aborted when the equipment was lost at sea. I liked it because the authors were just so honest. I pictured them standing there on a sheet of ice not knowing what to do next, bewildered and amused.

Remember that everybody make mistakes and scientists are no exception. Want proof? Pick up I've Been Gone Far Too Long: Field Study Fiascoes and Expedition Disasters, edited by Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and Wendy Logsdon, to remind yourself that even on your worst days, someone else has been there too.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Splendid? Maybe not

Last fall, I was making cookies for a visiting diabetic family member and decided to try substituting Splenda® (sucralose) in place of sugar in the recipe. Now, I’ll admit right here, I did not use SPLENDA® Sugar Blend for Baking, which contains real sugar. I used 100% sucralose and the results were so bad that I can see why baking Splenda® was invented.

My initial concern was that the resulting dough would be too moist, since I knew that a smaller volume of sucralose would be required to replace the sugar. However, I soon realized that I had the opposite problem. These were some of the driest cookies that I had ever baked. What went wrong?

When you think about it, cooking is just one big chemistry experiment. And since sucralose has a different molecular structure than sugar, it makes sense that it would react differently than sugar. My first working theory was that, in this recipe, water must be liberated from the sugar during the baking of the cookies. What else could explain the extreme loss of moisture?

Thanks to The Culture of Chemistry, I learned that “sucralose [Splenda] is made by chlorinating sugar, that is replacing 3 of the 8 hydroxyl (OH) groups with chlorine atoms.” Aha! Remember that the molecular structure of water is H2O? You can also think of water as a bunch of H+ ions bonded to OH- ions. Or, to put it another way, based upon molecular structure alone, sucralose should be 3/8 less likely than sugar to contribute to the formation of water (or moisture) in my cookie dough.

But does the chemistry really work out that way? I’m not sure. How much does baking really alter the composition of sugar? And my problems seemed to begin prior to baking.

So maybe there’s a simpler explanation. I found several online cooking forums that discussed the importance of sugar for moisture retention in baking. This led me to my second working theory: maybe sucralose does a poorer job of holding onto the moisture from the eggs and shortening.

In the article "C" is for Cookie, Brian Strouts, head of experimental baking at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, KS, is quoted as saying, "During the initial creaming mixing stage, sucrose [sugar] particles are coated with a layer of fat … When the cookie dough piece warms in the oven, the fat layer melts away allowing the water to migrate to the sugar and go into solution. As the sugar changes from solid to liquid, it causes the cookie to flow or spread."

Aha! So maybe that was my problem. Since the sucralose and shortening didn’t blend well to begin with, this process was altered. The sucralose didn’t go into solution with the water when the cookies were baking so the moisture was lost.

But are either of my two theories right? It's been six months now and I still don’t know.

And that’s what is nice about science. You can always develop a working theory (or two) and replace it with a better theory when you learn more or obtain new information. So, if you know what happened to my cookies, drop me a line and let me know!

Whatever the reason, I’m certain the chemistry of Splenda® is to blame. It couldn’t possibly be my baking, now could it?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Website of the Week: The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum

If you are planning a trip to southwest Florida, be sure to stop by The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. They have a lovely and extensive online photographic selection of Southwest Florida Shells. Or, if you'd rather print your own poster of 65 species of Southwest Florida shells, check out this pdf file of Seashells of Sanibel and Captiva Islands. You can also print a dot-to-dot coloring page and a word search from their page of Kids' Stuff or purchase a School Shell Collection Kit. And if you are going to be in the Lee County, Florida area, be sure to print out a FREE Child Admission Coupon for kids ages 10 and under.

(My thanks to Mom for sharing her find with us! Love you, Mom.)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Massachusetts Science Poetry Contest

I’m happy to follow up on a previous post,Try your hand at science poetry, and report that the Massachusetts Science Poetry Contest is alive and well and celebrating its 20th year! I recently received an E-mail from Ashley Berrios, who is coordinating the contest this year. She told me that the deadline for contest entries is tomorrow! So, for all of you who are competing, good luck with your entries.

If you are unfamiliar with the Massachusetts Science Poetry Contest, here are some facts that I learned from Ms. Berrios:

• Although most entrants are from the state of Massachusetts, this contest is open to all students in grades K-8 - including those in special education classes - but the poems must be written in class. Teachers choose the best poems from their classes and submit them to the contest, with parental permission.

• The purpose of this contest is to integrate writing and art with science. All poems must reflect current scientific knowledge. Students can write about any scientific topic except science fiction.

• Up to grade 5, the entries must be illustrated. For grades 6-8, the author may choose whether or not to illustrate the poem (or, for these grades, they may also choose to include a photograph).

• Poems must compete in one of eight categories, including Most Original Poem, Most Humorous Poem and Most Expressive Poem.

It may be too late to enter this year’s contest, but it’s not too late to start planning for next year! Since the website is not currently up-to-date, to learn more about the contest please contact Ashley Berrios at berriosa [at] bc [dot] edu or write to:

Dr. George Ladd
Professor Emeritus
Science Poetry Contest
Lynch School of Education
Boston College – Campion Hall
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467

[Update: 3/9/09 -- The Massachusetts Science Poetry Contest has a new website! The deadline for the 2009 contest is April 3, 2009. Check the website for details!]

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Send in the clouds

I have always been fascinated by clouds. One of the earliest science projects I completed for school was a diagram of the major cloud types consisting of an array of cotton balls on a blue construction paper background.

According to my handy Understanding Weather and Climate textbook from Aguado and Burt, our earliest cloud classification system had four types: cirrus (those thin wispy clouds that look like threads of cotton candy), stratus (flat, layered clouds that remind me of pancakes), cumulus (puffy clouds that look like balls of cotton) and nimbus (rain-producing clouds). Today, we group clouds according to both height and form, allowing for more detailed classification.

I took this photograph of the sky over the North Carolina coast near Beaufort in the early fall of 2007. I can tell these are cumulus clouds by their puffy shape. According to my textbook, I suspect they can be further classified as cumulus humilis, or fair weather cumulus.

Photographing clouds is a fun way to appreciate their beauty. Be sure to check out my favorite book on the subject, John A. Day's gorgeous table-top tome, The Book of Clouds. You can also visit Day's website, CloudmanTM.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Write some science fiction

Recently, I joined a fan-fiction challenge on another forum and had to write up a story based upon another fan's request. Now, I've written some fan-fiction in this sci-fi universe before, but I'll be honest. I've never written any actual *science fiction* there. I tend to write angst-ridden, dramatic pieces. This was a new one for me, but I rose to the challenge. I invented a universe complete with alien beings. And before I knew it, I was searching the Internet to learn about theta waves in the brain, consulting other people about diseases, and researching light waves.

Writing science fiction can expand your view of science in ways you wouldn't expect. If you're not a big science fiction fan, start with a familiar universe that's friendly to fan-fiction and write a small scene. There are a number of forums out there, dedicated to different sci-fi fandoms, where you can post your work. (My piece, Journey to the Theta Region, is posted at Gatchaman Fanfic Archive.)

The best part? When you explore your new world, you just might learn a thing or two about ours.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Website of the Week: American Chemical Society

This week’s Website of the Week is the American Chemical Society. Visit ACS’s Activities for Children to learn how to make salt dough or play games like Avogadro’s Element Hunt and Plant It for the Planet. Want to learn about National Historic Chemical Landmarks? Would you like to purchase some science activity books for children? ACS has a large online public outreach section. This organization is home to Project SEED, a program that allows economically disadvantaged students to work alongside a chemist and earn some money during the summer before their junior or senior year of high school. ACS is also sponsoring an Illustrated Haiku Contest for children from kindergarten through 12th grade as part of Chemists Celebrate Earth Day 2008. (If you are in the U.S., please call the American Chemical Society Office of Community Activities at 800-227-5558, x4458 or earthday [at] acs [dot] org to learn more about the writing contests offered in your area. Entries must be received by April 11, 2008.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Green Parent

Jenn, over at The Green Parent, just announced that her new book, The Green Parent: A Kid-Friendly Guide to Earth-Friendly Living, will be released on April 1, 2008! The goal of this guidebook is "to help parents find easy ways to go green while raising a family." The book is printed on 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper and the publisher, Kedzie Press, will plant one tree for every book sold. Way to go, Jenn!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Math at the Polls

I learned something new yesterday. I was mad that I am running this poll on my website -- promoting science! -- and my poll looks mathematically wrong. My categories add up to anywhere from 275 to 300%, depending upon when I view the poll.

So, I was sitting there stewing about this and mentioned to my husband (Itinerant Cryptographer) that you should never trust a poll where the percentages add up to something other than 100%.

He said, "Can you vote for more than one category?"

And I said, "Yeah."

And he said, "Think about it. If the average person votes for two categories, the poll would add up to 200%."

Gee, I never thought about it that way. Polling results only add up to 100% when you can vote for just one of the available options. If you can vote for more than one thing ... you get a bizarre-looking poll like mine!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Photo: Find the Bird!

Can you spot the bird in this photograph? I think it is a Red- crested Cardinal. I took this photo in Kauai in July 2006. I love how the bird blends in with its surroundings, with the notable exception of its firey red head.