Monday, December 27, 2010

Color Mixing and Color Wheels

I was working on a poem tonight and I wanted to know how an orange-hued sunset might affect something that was the color blue. I suspected that the resulting color would be some variation on brown, but I wanted to see it for myself. Since it was too late in the day for a nice sunset, I searched online for color wheels. They were so much fun to use, and I learned so much about color, that I thought I would share my findings with you.

Mixing Colors

This Online Color Mixing Palette for Painters from is easy to use. Just click the colors to add them to the mixing bowl and see what happens. If you want to examine, say, two parts blue to one part red, click on the blue square twice and the red square once. The counter keeps track of how many "parts" you've added of each primary color.

COLORCUBE's Color Paintbox is a bit trickier to use. What I liked about this simulation is that you are mixing colors other than the three primary colors of red, blue, and yellow. Instead, your tubes of online mixing paint are white, black, cyan, magenta, and yellow. With effort, you can mix the paint to create any shade along the COLORCUBE. It takes some practice to achieve the color you want!

Made From Dots, from the Teachers' Lab's The Science of Light pages, explores the same theme as COLORCUBE and explains the reasoning behind these choices for mixing colors:
"A magazine printing press usually can only print four colors: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. Our eyes and brain put colors together from the colored dots. Printers (and the computers they use to help them) print the dots in special grids that do not overlap."
Made From Dots shows you what different percentages of cyan, magenta, and yellow saturation look like when they overlap and how our brain perceives the resulting mixture of dots. I found it challenging at first to predict the resulting colors, but it became easier the longer I practiced.

However, keep in mind that mixing colors online is different than mixing them in real life. For example, if you mix every drop of paint in the rainbow of oils on your palette, you will create a blob of blackish paint for your canvas. This is known as the subtractive color method. You start with a white page and end up with a darker mixture of paint.

Online, however, you start with an essentially black screen. Colors are mixed on the computer using the additive color method and you wind up with a lighter image than what you began with. You can read more about additive and subtractive color methods at Janet Lynn Ford's Color Worqx pages.

Color Wheels

Color wheels can be fun to make. Little Brother made one in preschool using a sheet of heavy-duty construction paper, a straw, and a pin. His wasn't a full color wheel, but just two alternating colors of red and yellow. When you spun the wheel, the whole thing looked orange.

Here's a lovely COLORbasics segment from Lisa Viger on painting a color wheel:

According to numerous web sources, including Home Science Tools, if you punch a hole through the middle of a real color wheel and spin the thing fast enough, all of the colors seem to disappear and the wheel will look white. The logic behind this is that white light is a mixture of all of the colors of the spectrum. (But it is still hard to fathom!)

After poking around on YouTube for awhile, I've come to the conclusion that while this result is true in theory, it's difficult in real life to get your color wheel spinning fast enough for the effect to work. According to the Physics Archive at Argonne National Lab's NEWTON Ask a Scientist, Vince Calder wrote that "the color wheel must rotate quickly enough so that each color segment superimposes the other two in 1/25 of a second or less."

Do you have any fun experiences to share about color or color wheels? Let me know in the comments.

Enjoy a colorful day!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Informative Blogs for Animal Lovers

Want to learn more about different kinds of animals? These blogs are a great resource and include some of my favorite websites.
From common species like the American Robin to the lesser known Arapaima, Lauren shares the tidbits and insights that make each of these animals unique. Have an animal that you're curious about? You can chat with her on Twitter and suggest new animals for future blog posts.

A 110 pound Arapaima
Photo credit: Andrew Hosegood, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

I'm sorry to report that The Daily Mammal has not been updated in awhile. Nonetheless, check out the archives for Jennifer's gorgeous drawings of over 340 mammals. I hope she comes back soon and makes good on her "attempt to draw every one of the 5,000 (or so) mammal species known to science."
The Featured Creature came in 7th place in 2009's Best Animal Blogger category at the Blogger's Choice Awards and it's easy to see why. Photography is used to its full advantage here, with colorful images chosen to bring unusual animals like the banana slug up close and personal.
If you like ugly, you're in for a treat. The animals (and plants and fungi) of Ugly Overload are some of the most cringe-worthy that our planet has to offer. Check out the Reef Stonefish, with a face that's a dead ringer for Jabba the Hutt, or the red-eyed Fantastic Leaf-tailed Gecko. And I did not know that there are fish that can walk! Did you?
There's nothing cuter than baby animals and ZooBorns delivers the cuteness we crave. This blog is like an internet brag book of the world's newest babies born at zoos and aquariums worldwide. From cougar cubs to tiny Kihasa Spray Toad, you're sure to find your favorite animal babies here.

Baby Opossum
Photo credit: kthypryn, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Celebrate Computer Security Day

November 30 is Computer Security Day, so I sat down for a chat with Itinerant Cryptographer, my resident computer security expert.

Mama Joules: Welcome to Mama Joules, Itinerant Cryptographer. You certainly have an unusual name. What do you do for a living?

Itinerant Cryptographer: I do research in computer security and cryptography. Most of my work is in applied cryptography - cryptography applied to real-world problems such as electronic voting and encrypting files based on passwords.

MJ: That sounds interesting. What is cryptography?

IC: Cryptography is the mathematical end of computer security. It includes encryption, which is a way of scrambling up information so that no one can read it except the person with the key, and other related ideas like digital signatures and information hiding.

Some ways that people use cryptography:

-- You have a movie and you want to embed a copyright notice in [it].

-- [You are playing an] online multi-player game [and want] to make sure that somebody else can't steal your player or the items that your player owns.

-- [You want] to keep a log of events on a computer that can't be deleted or tampered with without detection.

A digital signature lets you send a message [so that] anybody who knows your public key can identify that the message comes from you and hasn't been changed. Microsoft, for example, uses digital signatures when they distribute updates or programs. That lets your computer verify that the program really came from Microsoft.

The most important place where most people use encryption every day is SSL (secure socket layer). When you order things online and use a credit card, that information goes through an encrypted connection.

MJ: What are the biggest threats facing computer security today?

IC: A big problem in computer security is that over the last ten years or so, attacks over computer systems have moved from being done by hobbyists for fun to attacks that are done by criminals for a profit. When they were done by amateurs, the attacks tended to be more like pranks. Now, the attacks tend to be a lot more serious, more professional. They are harder to defend against and there are a lot more of them.

MJ: What can we, as users, do to make our personal computers more secure?

IC: Unplug them? (laughs)

You need to have a personal firewall and a virus scanner. A personal firewall is a computer program that sits between the outside world and your computer and tries to prevent bad communications from coming in from the outside and taking over your computer. Computer attacks are all about communicating. They can cause the computer to crash or malfunction in a useful way.

Imagine your computer is a house. A house has not only doors, but windows and an attic, air ducts, and maybe a crawl space underneath. What a firewall is supposed to do is block off most of those access points [to your home] except for the doors. You still have to lock your doors - keep your web browser and software up to date and run your virus scanner - but the firewall makes it harder to get in.

You need to be careful about accepting things over the Internet. If you click on a link and it tells you to download some software to view a movie, it may be trying to carry out an attack or take over your computer.

An attacker only has to find one weak point, like an Achilles heel. That's why computer security is a really hard challenge. You never get to the end of it. You never know if you've got all the bugs or the weakness. We can look for bugs in software. Weaknesses only show up if there's an attacker to exploit them.

MJ: What resources would you suggest for someone who is interested in cryptography, but doesn't know where to start?

IC: That's a good question. You're going to need to study a lot of math. And you also want to become a good computer programmer.

There are a lot of paper and pen ciphers that are good starting points - for example, the Vigenere cipher, the Caesar cipher, and the Rail Fence cipher. In a cipher, each individual piece of a message gets scrambled up. For example, each letter might be changed into a different letter. A cipher usually involves some calculation.

In a code, whole words or ideas get encoded into different words or ideas. A code uses a table or code book to translate the information. Read about the Navajo Code Talkers. These American soldiers used a different language [than English] as their code during World War II.

MJ: How are you planning to celebrate Computer Security Day?

IC: I think I'll go to work. (smiles)

Photo credit: Gil Paradis, via

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Boy Finds Giant Maple Leaf, Stirs Controversy

The Weather Channel recently reported that a 9-year-old Canadian boy just became a Guinness World Record holder for finding the world's largest maple leaf. Just how large was this leaf? As big as a dinner plate - about a square foot in size.

But as Canada's CTV News reported:
All the attention has one possible downside. "People are jealous at school," [the boy] confided, and they're trying to find bigger leaves.
In fact, a ten-year-old Canadian girl is now challenging the record and two other families say their leaves are larger yet.

When will the controversy end? Maybe when *you* find the world's largest maple leaf!

Photo credit: Suvodeb Banerjee, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Black Friday or Buy Nothing Day?

Traditionally, here in the U.S., the day after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday, the official start of the winter holiday buying frenzy. But some people are bucking the trend on November 26 by celebrating Buy Nothing Day instead.

The first Buy Nothing Day was celebrated in Canada in 1992 to promote awareness of wasteful spending and overconsumption. Today, Buy Nothing Day is celebrated - on Nov. 26 in North America and Nov. 27 elsewhere - in over 65 countries around the world.

How does Buy Nothing Day stack up against Black Friday? Let's do a quick comparison:

Black Friday: whip out your credit card
Buy Nothing Day: cut up your credit card

Black Friday: wait in the streets
Buy Nothing Day: free street parties

Black Friday: Wal-Mart (fill your cart to the brim)
Buy Nothing Day: Whirl-Mart (twirl your cart around without purchasing anything)

Black Friday: shop until you walk like a zombie
Buy Nothing Day: Zombie walk to draw awareness to Buy Nothing Day

However you choose to celebrate on November 26, enjoy yourself. And have a wonderful Thanksgiving. :)

Photo credit: Brave New Films, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Monday, November 15, 2010

It's America Recycles Day!

November 15 is America Recycles Day. How are you planning to celebrate?

For certain locations in the United States, can help locate businesses near you that recycle everything from paper and glass to automotive wastes and hazardous materials. For example, Best Buy will recycle most electronic items at its US and Puerto Rico stores, "including TVs, DVD players, computer monitors, audio and video cables, cell phones, and more."

From now until December 13, Recycling Zychal is offering to "upcycle" your broken umbrella for free (you pay for shipping the umbrella to them). Send them your broken umbrella and they will make something nifty out of it. The Recycling Zychal Etsy shop sells items repurposed from the fabric portion of umbrellas, like rain hoods, pet toys, and dog raincoats, so I can't wait to see what they are planning! This video shows you how to strip your umbrella and ship the material cheaply to them:

Treehugger writer Lloyd Alter says we should take America Recycles Day a step further and strive for a Zero Waste Day instead. Today is good time to consider the environmental impact of what you purchase. Can you live without the latest electronic gadget? Find companies that use less packaging? Invent new ways to use old objects?

EPA has a great section on their website entitled Wastes: What You Can Do. It's broken down by location of waste generation and season, with tips to reduce your environmental impact. Check it out!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Fun at the USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo

On Saturday, October 23, 2010, Princess and I joined the crowd at the first USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo in Washington, DC. Roughly 850 organizations from all walks of science - education, industry, government - presented more than 1,500 interactive exhibits. The range of topics was staggering. But my favorite exhibits weren't just interactive, they were off the wall.

Maggot Monet, presented by Southeastern Louisiana University's College of Science and Technology, allowed visitors to paint with live maggots. Or rather, you dipped the maggots into paint and they did the painting for you by wiggling across the page. You got to take home their maggot masterpiece.

Candy Experiments™ was another hot exhibit. Visit their online experiments page to put your Halloween candy to the test. Did you know that you can create a density rainbow using Skittles? Float the letter "m" off of your M&Ms? Make Life Savers flash in the dark? Their booth was so popular that I couldn't even get the stroller near it.

All in all, the festival was a terrific success. Families crowded around displays of sea ice, robotic arms, nanotechnology, microbiology. The 8-to-12-year-old crowd, in particular, enjoyed the many options for fun: racing model cars, building molecular models, shooting foam rockets, meeting TV stars from CSI Miami.

But the festival didn't exactly cater to the youngest scientists. Access was difficult with a stroller. Princess did get to color a kidney for the American Society of Nephrology. We won a stuffed E. coli. And she had fun playing with ping-pong ball "moons".

I hope it becomes an annual event so that we can take her brothers with us next time. As it was, I lugged home a load of science swag for them. As soon as this picture was taken, they divvied up the goods and scurried off with their newfound treasures. Dad got to keep the science-themed T-shirt. Princess and I have our memories. Well, that and the stuffed E. coli.

Photo credits: Mama Joules

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Adventures in Local Eating: The Pumpkin Edition

When my friend Lazy Locavore first talked with me about her food choices, I thought that I had misheard her.

"You're a loco-vore?" I asked. "A crazy-eater?"

"No," she said with a laugh. "I'm a locavore. I eat locally-grown foods."

I didn't think much about this until she handed me a pound of locally-raised ground beef.

"Try this," she said.

I put the meat in my refrigerator. Again, I didn't think much about it until I took the meat out and actually looked at it. This was Meat with a capital M. It smelled fresh, it looked fresh, and it was very moist, almost bloody. I could practically visualize the cow, which initially set me back a bit. But my husband and I persisted and soon we had tasty hamburgers for dinner.

"Huh," I thought. "Maybe there is something to this locally-grown food stuff."

A couple of weeks later, I was standing in a farmer's market, looking for ripe apples. Taking a sniff of the rich and lovely scent of fresh produce, I realized something. I miss the smell of food. So many things you pick up in the grocery store these days are almost devoid of smell.

But what really got to me were pumpkins. This year, my boys went on several hay rides and soon we had a porch full of pumpkins. Lazy Locavore persuaded me to cook one.

"It's not hard," she insisted. "I can do it and I'm lazy about my food."

Several of our pumpkins were true carving pumpkins, hollow inside with a slightly off smell and few seeds. I was glad that Lazy Locavore had taught me to look for a small, solid pumpkin when baking. When I found one that literally bent the knife as I tried to cut into it, I knew I had a keeper. It looked something like this (sans the face):

Now, several days later, my pumpkin looks like this:

And here's what I learned: Pumpkins are food! I had been completely ignoring the fact that people actually eat them. I just saw them as ornamental.

The most important thing that the locavore movement has taught me so far: when we no longer relate to fresh foodstuffs as food, something needs to change.

Photo credits: Mama Joules

Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day 2010

Today is Blog Action Day 2010 and the topic at hand is water. When I think about the many issues surrounding water, it's hard for me to pick just one to write about.

In James McBride's memoir / family retrospective The Color of Water, the author asks his mother, "What color is God's spirit?" She replies, "It doesn't have a color ... God is the color of water."

I like that quote. It seems fitting, somehow, since "up to 60% of the human body is water" (source: USGS). We live on a planet where 71% of the Earth's surface is covered by water (source: NASA). Water is integral to our daily lives. Regardless of race, class, gender, income, or other dividing lines, every person on earth depends upon water. It is our lowest common denominator. We all need water to survive.

Yet, only 3% of the Earth's water is available as fresh water suitable for drinking (source: NASA). According to the UN, "[one] billion people lack access to [an] improved water supply." Worse, "2.6 billion people lack access to improved sanitation" and "[i]f the 1990-2002 trend continues, it is thought that some 2.4 billion people will be without improved sanitation in 2015 - almost as many as are without today" (source: UN).

What can be done? Blog Action Day is calling upon people to sign a petition supporting the UN's efforts to bring clean water and sanitation to the developing world. The hope is that Blog Action Day will bring attention to this growing, glaring problem and, hopefully, will spur positive change. The United States Fund for UNICEF is sponsoring this petition.

Petitions by|Start a Petition »

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Happy National Fossil Day!

October 13, 2010 has been designed as the very first National Fossil Day in the United States.

"National Fossil Day is a celebration organized by the National Park Service to promote public awareness and stewardship of fossils, as well as to foster a greater appreciation of their scientific and educational values." - National Park Service website

So, what is a fossil? "Fossils are the remains or traces of organisms that were once alive," as per the National Fossil Day FAQs page. A fossil could have occurred when a seashell left an impression in ancient mud, or you might find a fossil bone from a prehistoric animal. Fossils can be large or small. More than 230 National Park Service locations work on the preservation of fossils.

I like to collect fossils. I have some fossilized seashells that I found in California and Utah. Some are impressions, or trace fossils, and some are the actual shells, or body fossils. It's always fun to look at the rocks and imagine what prehistoric life must have been like. Remember that some locations - like national parks - prohibit the collection of fossils and other natural resources.

The NPS has a Junior Paleontologist Program for kids ages 5-12. Check out these educational opportunities. You can make your own fossils! National Fossil Day even has its own song. And if that's not enough fossil goodness, visit this list of additional resources about fossils and paleontology compiled by the NPS.


Photo credit: Kevin Walsh, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Earth Science Week 2010

In the United States, October 10 - 16, 2010 is Earth Science Week. This year's theme is "Exploring Energy."

An online toolkit, containing an Introduction to Earth Science is available in both English and Spanish from the American Geological Institute.

NASA has also set up a special page for Climate Change: Earth Science Week 2010, where you can test your "energy I.Q.", view Energy Essentials like the image below, and more.

Human use of artificial lights at night in the western hemisphere.

Data courtesy of Marc Imhoff (NASA/GSFC) and Christopher Elvidge (NOAA/NGDC).
Image by Craig Mayhew (NASA/GSFC) and Robert Simmon (NASA/GSFC).

If you live in the US, folks of any age can enter AGI's photography contest for Earth Science Week. The theme is "We Depend on Energy." Photographs may be submitted electronically.

For little US residents, AGI is also hosting a poster contest for kids in grades K-5 on the topic of "Energy on Earth." Entries must be mailed. Older kids can enter AGI's essay contest for US students in grades 6-9. The typed essay must contain no more than 300 words on the topic of "How Energy Powers the Planet."

The winner of each contest will receive $300 and a copy of AGI's Faces of Earth DVD. The deadline for all three contests is this Friday, October 15, 2010. Please visit AGI's contest page for more details.

Want to keep Earth Science Week going throughout the year? Check out AGI's Earth Science Activity Calendar for the 2010-2011 school year. Each month focuses on a different topic and includes some special dates in earth science. You can even sign up for a free monthly E-newsletter - Earth Science Week Update - from AGI.

Good luck with the contests and have fun celebrating!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A New Website for Rocket Lovers

During World Space Week, it seems only fitting to talk about NASA's newly launched Rocketry page. I received this blurb in an Email this week:

"NASA Education is launching a new website to get students and educators off the launch pad and on their way to becoming rocket scientists."

NASA - Rocketry has sets of articles designed for kids in grades K-4 and 5-8 on topics like What is a Rocket? (this is the K-4 version) and What is the Space Shuttle? (this is the 5-8 version). You can compare the designs of model rockets and their full-size counterparts. (I've got to admit, the interactive flash version of this article is more fun!) You can even build your own rocket, but, alas, it's only online. Through NASA Kids' Club, you can build an entire fleet of online rockets with Rocket Builder.

Thinking of a career in rocketry? Read the bios of these engineers and scientists. Learn about educational opportunities like Rocketry Workshops for grades K-12 and the Team America Rocketry Challenge.

The NASA-Rocketry website has also compiled a wonderful collection of podcasts, videos, images, and simulations at their Robotics-Multimedia page. That's where I found this:

Apollo 11 Launch from the Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969
Photo credit: NASA

Monday, October 4, 2010

It's World Space Week!

World Space Week is celebrated each year from October 4-10. According to NASA, World Space Week was designated by the United Nations in 1999. The week was chosen, in part, to commemorate the October 4, 1957 launch of Sputnik 1, the first human-made satellite to be launched into outer space.

Search for a special event near you on the World Space Week 2010 Calendar. This year, over 20 countries, from Afghanistan to the United States, are joining in.

Help the European Space Agency and play The Space Game to find a trajectory to Jupiter.

Or, if you are under the age of 15, create art about the moon and send a photo of your artwork to ESA's Space Gallery Competition by October 31, 2010. You could win prizes!

Take some time this week to browse the photos and video on Discovery Space. Visit the space site of the Science Channel to learn which planet matches your personality. (Oh dear. I'm Pluto, the tiny cold planet recently demoted to "dwarf planet.")

Photo credit: Anindo Ghosh, via flickr //CC BY 2.0

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Gardening with kids? Apply for a grant!

Fall is the right time to plan a community-based garden for the following spring. Why? With your plans in mind, you can apply for a gardening grant. There are many grants available for all types - and stages - of gardens, but these programs all have one thing in common: they want detailed information about you and your proposed garden. If you have your plans at hand, filling out grant applications like these will be a snap.

Some gardening grants accept applications on a rolling basis, but several recur yearly with a spring or fall deadline. Here are two with fall deadlines for my U.S.-based readers, presented by the National Gardening Association. Both require that your garden will be tended by 15 or more children between the ages of 3 and 18:

The 2010 Subaru Healthy Sprouts Award provides 30 schools and/or organizations with a $500 gift certificate for gardening supplies, along with additional gardening and nutritional information. If you are using your garden to teach "about our environment, nutrition and hunger issues in the United States," be sure to sign up! The application deadline is October 1, 2010.

One hundred Youth Garden Grants are available to gardening groups for 2011. Five recipients will win educational materials and $1000 in gift cards to purchase gardening supplies; ninety-five groups will receive half of this amount. For the best chance of success, your garden should tie in with education, environmental awareness, leadership, and community building. The application deadline is November 1, 2010 (postmark).

Good luck and happy gardening!

Photo credit: woodley wonderworks via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Celebrate World Car Free Day

Since 2000, World Car Free Day has been regularly celebrated each year on September 22. According to the World Carfree Network:
"World Carfree Day is an annual celebration of cities and public life, free from the noise, stress and pollution of cars."
I don't know about you, but where I live, life without a car isn't practical. That said, I think World Car Free Day is a wonderful opportunity to examine society's over-dependence upon the automobile. If you - like me - can't eliminate car usage entirely, try to reduce your dependence upon automobiles and learn to use them more efficiently. Some ideas to consider:

  • Sit down with your family and look at a map of your neighborhood. When running errands, is there some way to make one loop around town instead of zigzagging back and forth?
  • The next time you go shopping, is there a place to park your car that allows you to walk from store to store instead of parking - and driving - to each?
  • Have you looked into all types of public transit offered in your area? Would these travel options - buses, monorail, trains, etc. - work for anyone in the family?
  • Are you missing opportunities to get to know classmates or co-workers by carpooling?

Serious about going car free? Green LA Girl has ideas for renting out your car, supporting public transit, biking, and more. Check out Car Free Mondays, a series of interviews with women living (happily) sans automobile in Los Angeles.

Photo credit: Anuradha Sengupta, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sunday, September 19, 2010

OT: It's Talk Like A Pirate Day!

Yes, this is off-topic, but I wanted to share this with you. Do you have pirate-lovers at your house, too? Today, September 19th, is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Planning a pirate-themed party to celebrate? Add your event to the official map. Browse through the link list and you, too, could wind up with a cool pirate name like mine. :)

My pirate name is:

Bloody Jenny Rackham

Every pirate lives for something different. For some, it's the open sea. For others (the masochists), it's the food. For you, it's definitely the fighting. You have the good fortune of having a good name, since Rackham (pronounced RACKem, not rack-ham) is one of the coolest sounding surnames for a pirate. Arr!

Get your own pirate name from
part of the network

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Happy World Water Monitoring Day!

According to my handy-dandy, newly compiled Calendar of Science Holidays, today is World Water Monitoring Day. According to the World Water Monitoring Day website, the purpose of this day is to encourage people to identify their local water bodies (like rivers, lakes, streams, oceans) and take steps to protect them by conducting basic water monitoring.

The World Water Monitoring Day website tracks water quality monitoring data from around the world. Local groups upload their findings by geographic location. The basic water monitoring measures tracked for this website are pH, dissolved oxygen (DO), temperature, and turbidity. These measures are important for many reasons, but here's some information on how they affect aquatic life:

pH tells you if the water is acidic, basic (alkaline), or neutral. Water with high acidity or high alkalinity is not healthy for aquatic life. Natural waters should have a pH that is roughly neutral.

Dissolved oxygen tells you how much oxygen in the water is available to aquatic life. For example, if lake water has low dissolved oxygen, the fish won't be able to breathe. In general, water bodies that are in motion (streams, rivers) have higher dissolved oxygen than stagnant water bodies like lakes and ponds.

Temperature is a useful measure of a water body's resilience to atmospheric temperature changes. Let's say that one day, the temperature outside is 90 degrees F and the next day it drops down to 40 degrees (this can happen where I live!). If water temperature in lakes and streams followed those extremes, most - if not all - aquatic life would die. But water generally heats and cools more slowly than air, which allows lakes and streams to withstand daily atmospheric temperature fluctuations. When you monitor water temperature, you don't want to see rapid changes over short periods of time. If a polluter suddenly dumped a large volume of hot wastewater into a small stream, for example, you would see a big temperature difference from one day to the next and you might see lots of dead fish floating on top of the water.

Turbidity looks at the amount of suspended material in the water. Very turbid water can look green from high concentrations of algae or brown from suspended sediments. Often, pollution increases turbidity. Crystal clear water, however, doesn't guarantee that a water body is healthy. Sometimes, it means that the water is "dead" and that no aquatic life is living there. Fish need algae and other suspended materials for food.

A Secchi disk is used to measure the turbidity of your water. You basically drop it down into a water body until you can't see it any more and measure at what depth that occurs.
Photo credit: Secchi Dip-In | Biological Sciences Department Kent State University

To learn more about these four water quality measures, check out this page of World Water Monitoring Day handouts or visit EPA's Volunteer Monitoring Program. In the US, you can find local monitoring clubs at EPA's Surf Your Watershed. Check with environmental groups in your area to see if they offer water quality monitoring classes. Getting to know your watershed is a great way to get acquainted with your local environment.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Calendar of Science Holidays

Each year holds a wealth of weird, wacky, and interesting -- yet under-celebrated -- days for science, like World Weather Day and World Water Day. I decided to put together a calendar of annual science holidays and special events that celebrate science so that we could enjoy them together.

National events listed here refer to the United States, unless otherwise noted. Of course, if you live outside of the US, you are more than welcome to celebrate with us! (And I'll admit, some of these holidays are a little less "official" than others.) I expect to update this post in the future, so feel free to send me your special day and I'll add it to the list. Thanks!

* * * *

5 - National Bird Day
17 - Kid Inventors' Day
Last Saturday of the month - National Seed Swap Day

2 - World Wetlands Day
11 - National Inventors' Day
12 - Darwin Day
mid-month - Great Backyard Bird Count (four days)
third week - National Engineers Week (includes Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day)

12 - National Agriculture Day
12 - Plant a Flower Day
14 - Pi Day
22 - World Water Day
23 - World Weather Day
on or near Spring Equinox - Sun-Earth Day
National Wildlife Week

12 - Yuri's Night (The World Space Party)
13 - International Plant Appreciation Day
22 - Earth Day
the week before Earth Day - National Environmental Education Week
second full week - National Robotics Week
Earth Month

4 - Star Wars Day (May the 4th be with you!)

8 - National Rain Day (Australia)
12 - National Lab Day
22 - International Day of Biodiversity
23 - World Turtle Day
third Friday - Endangered Species Day
first full week - National Wildflower Week

5 - World Environment Day
6 - National Butterfly Awareness Day
8 - World Oceans Day
first Saturday - National Trails Day
National Pollinator Week

20 - Moon Day

fourth Sunday - World Kitchen Garden Day
National Water Quality Month

14 - Protect Your Groundwater Day
18 - International Observe the Moon Night
18 - World Water Monitoring Day
25 - Nature Rocks Day
26 - World Rivers Day (Canada)
third Saturday - World Tree Day
last Saturday of the month - National Public Lands Day
24-30 Take a Child Outside Week

10 - Powers of Ten Day

14 - No Child Left Inside Day (new!) (date varies, part of Earth Science Week)
15 - National Fossil Day (date varies, part of Earth Science Week)
17 - Geologic Map Day (date varies, part of Earth Science Week)
20 - World Statistics Day
23 - National Mole Day (celebrating Avogadro's number)
4 - 10 World Space Week
week containing the 10th day - National Metric Week
second full week - Earth Science Week
third full week - National Chemistry Week
Waste Reduction Week (Canada)

15 - America Recycles Day
30 - Computer Security Day


(No listings yet.)

[Last updated - 3/28/14: Added Star Wars Day and No Child Left Inside Day, corrected dates. 10/20/12 - Added Geologic Map Day.  1/29/11 - Added National Seed Swap Day; edited link for Sun-Earth Day. 10/4/10 - Added World Space Week. 9/17/10 - Added International Observe the Moon Night, National Metric Week. ]

Photo credit: SantaRosa OLD SKOOL via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


I received this Email yesterday from Kendra Redmond, Program Coordinator of the Society of Physics Students at the American Institute of Physics:

Registration is open for fall Adopt-a-Physicist!

Adopt-a-Physicist connects high school physics students to real physics graduates who are eager to share their stories. Working in areas ranging from particle physics research to freelance writing, the participating physicists embody a huge range of careers, backgrounds, interests, and educational levels. Adopt-a-Physicist connects classes with the physicists of their choice through online discussion forums that are active for a set three-week period. Each physicist can only be "adopted" by up to three classes, making lively, in-depth discussions possible. Learn more at Adopt-a-Physicist.

Fall 2010 Schedule
*Teacher Registration: Now - September 28 (or until full)
*Physicist Registration: September 29 - October 4 (or until full)
*Teachers adopt physicists: October 5 - October 15
*Discussion forums open: October 19 - November 9

Years ago, when I worked at a state environmental agency, I participated in a program with a similar idea: Science-by-Mail. At that time, I was "adopted" by several classrooms of gradeschoolers. The kids worked through a specific set of problems and sent me their findings. I wrote back and tried to be encouraging and helpful. One year, they worked on pinhole cameras, which I remember distinctly because I knew next to nothing about the subject and had to hit the reference books. Another time, we discussed the science behind making gingerbread houses. It was a fun and worthwhile project. I'm sure that Adopt-a-Physicist will be a rich and rewarding experience for physicists and students alike.

Who knows? You could connect with the next
Benjamin Franklin, Sir Isaac Newton, or Albert Einstein!

Photo credit: Jeremy Banks, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

National Costume Swap Day

Cute Kids in Children's Costumes

My friends over at Green Halloween®, together with KIWI magazine, have come up with a new idea for greening the holidays: National Costume Swap Day! On October 9, grab a group of friends and trade Halloween costumes. It's that simple. Don't have friends with kids your age? Can't find folks who want to swap? Head over to Green Halloween and search for a swap in your area. Or, if no swap is listed, you can start one! Just register your event as a public swap.

But maybe swapping isn't for you or you don't have a costume to share. Never fear! Astrid Van Den Broek of Green Living Online suggests visiting free online classified sites such as craigslist, eBay Classifieds, or The Freecycle Network to search for your next costume.

Reusing costumes can also be fun. One year, I combined a Captain America costume with a Superman costume for Kerm. We re-worked the cape and attached some sticky letters to the back that read: Super Big Brother! I also put "SBB" over his Superman belt buckle. The costume was a hit! Since Princess was born, Little Brother has also been known to borrow the Super Big Brother cape.

Enjoy a Green Halloween this year!

Photo credit: via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Saturday, September 11, 2010

World Water Monitoring Day - What's Your pH?

In honor of World Water Monitoring Day, which occurs on September 18, let's talk about pH:

A pH test lets you know if your water is acidic or basic. The scale runs from 0 (very acidic) to 14 (very basic). Natural waters, according to the EPA, usually have a pH between 6.5 and 8.5. On this scale, 7 is the midpoint and it is considered neutral (neither basic nor acidic). Values at either end of this scale (like battery acid, with a pH of less than one, or lye, with a pH of greater than 12) are very hazardous to people.

Image credit: Environment Canada
(who had nothing to do with this blog post but kindly made this nice chart available for reprint)

pH can be measured in different ways, but test strips are commonly used because they are inexpensive and easy to read. You just dip the strip into the water and the strip will change colors. Then you compare the new strip color to a chart of different shades. The color that matches best is a rough guess of your pH. You can pick up pH test strips at your local pet supply store in the aquarium department.

What do the results mean? Let's say that you measured the pH in a stream in your neighborhood and it was below 6. This acidic water might be causing stress to aquatic life like algae and fish. The acids in water might be reacting with metals (copper, lead) in the sediments, causing these substances to enter the water column. Since natural water wouldn't usually have a pH that low*, you'd have a pretty good idea that the water was polluted. Maybe a chemical plant upstream was dumping their effluent - treated wastewater - into the stream and causing these changes. Reporting your findings to a local environmental monitoring agency could lead to finding and stopping the source of the pollution.

Although pH test strips are usually used to check the water in streams, ponds, or your own drinking water supplies, you can test any fluid or even moist solids, like soil. One day, when I was working in a laboratory at college, I stuck one into a can of soda. I remember that my drink had a pH of 3 and I wondered if I should be sticking something so acidic into my body on a regular basis. For reference, the pH of lemon juice is around 2 or 3. Can you imagine drinking a can of lemon juice?

Now, to be fair, lemon juice and soda aren't as close as they seem on the pH scale. The pH scale is logarithmic. With 7 as neutral, that means that a fluid with a pH of 6 would be a 10 times stronger acid than neutral, one with a pH of 5 would be 100 times stronger than neutral, and so on. This image gives a nice sense of the logarithmic nature of the values.

Note to my friends in Texas or New Mexico: In honor of World Water Monitoring Day, Chazimal National Memorial is providing free water testing kits for classes in your area. Each kit has 50 pH and oxygen tests. From their newsletter: to receive your free test kit, contact Chamizal staff at 915-532-7273 ext 130 or email cham_education (at) nps (dot)gov.

* Keep in mind that some areas have acidic water due to naturally occurring conditions - maybe the bedrock or soils near the stream are naturally acidic. If you want to monitor surface water in your area, it's always good to check with your local water quality monitoring groups. They can tell you what values are considered normal for where you live. Check EPA's Volunteer Monitoring page to find a group in your area.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Win big at the fair!

During the last school year, Kerm had to build a colonial ship and create a three-dimensional butterfly sculpture. What can you do with school projects once they've been graded and returned home? This year, we're going to enter them as a "model boat" and "miscellaneous model" in our local community fair.

I've written about county fairs and how they can be fun places to learn about science. But if visions of ribbons motivate you, competing at a fair can also be a great way for you to learn something new and share your knowledge with others. With categories like home-grown fruits and vegetables for green thumbs, collections of shells or rocks for budding naturalists, and educational exhibits tailored to your favorite topic, everyone can find something to fit their interests. You might even win a ribbon!

Photo credit: Benny Mazur, via flickr //CC BY 2.0

Monday, August 23, 2010

Gender discrimination starts early

Last week, I took one of my sons to the doctor. Fortunately, this office has a lot of nice, fun things to play with while you are waiting. Princess ignored the doll house, the books, and the coloring books. When she spied the blocks, she picked up a couple of them and began to run around the room.

I was absently watching her play when a little boy came up to me. He was about four years old. Pointing at Princess, he said, "She needs to give me those."

I looked at my toddler daughter, happily running around with two blocks in one hand and one in the other. For once, she wasn't tearing off down the hall hoping that I would chase her. She wasn't taking toys away from this child or anyone else. She was behaving as well as should be expected for her age.

So I looked down at him with a slightly bemused expression and said, "No, she doesn't."

His mom piped up. "[Child], you need to share the toys with the little girl. Why don't you bring her something else to play with?"

I found my mouth saying, "Oh, yeah, that would be great," while my mind was thinking, "This isn't right."

The little boy ran over with a doll. A small plastic doll in a pink dress. He thrust it at Princess.

"Here!" he said.

She ignored him. Is it wrong to admit that I smiled inside when she ran the other way, banging the blocks together with a happy grin?

I found myself explaining Princess' behavior to the little boy, who seemed puzzled and angry. "She doesn't like dolls yet. She likes blocks and cars." I should have added, "just like you." Instead, I found myself saying, "She has brothers ..."

How sad is that? Why did I feel the need to explain away her behavior? She's a girl. She likes trucks and blocks. So what?

At the age of four, this little boy has already learned that it is okay to take blocks and cars -- what he sees as "boy toys" -- away from the girls. He has learned that girls play with dolls and, apparently, only dolls. And I, without stopping to think about it, contributed to his biases.

Fortunately, my daughter did not.

Photo credit: Holger Zscheyge, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Summer Smiles

beneath the gnarled oak
a boy is sprawled, exhausted
successful tree climb

Image credit: Little Brother (watercolor on looseleaf)
Poem: Mama Joules
Subject of poem: Kerm, who met his summer goal of climbing a tree!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Artful Animals

This summer, my family was lucky enough to visit the Artful Animals exhibit, an accessible and friendly display of animal-themed African art at the National Museum of African Art. The engaging nature of the exhibition made me feel like creating art of my own. (Disclaimer: I actually did sit down with the kids and decorate a woven basket coloring sheet.)

The exhibit has since closed to the public, but you can still visit the animals online. We enjoyed looking for the animals in 125 pieces of art, from pottery and instruments to clothing and furniture. I loved the hands-on nature of the pieces, which included masks like the one Kerm is trying on in the photograph above.

You can listen to podcasts about some of the artwork here. Download the visually stunning Artful Animals Activity Guide (this is a .pdf file), which asks:

"What can we learn about ourselves by looking at our relationship to animals?"

"What is our place in nature and the world?"
and perhaps most importantly,
What animal would you choose to represent you?
The Artful Animals exhibit, a collaborative venture between the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, the National Zoo, and the Natural Museum of Natural History, has now closed in Washington, D.C. But the exhibit may be coming to a museum near you! Artful Animals is listed on the Smithsonian Institution's Traveling Exhibition Service, and is due to hit the road in 2012. Don't miss it!

Photo credit: Mama Joules

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"No, you can't teethe on my computer!"

To my regular readers -

First of all, thank you for following my blog. I appreciate you dropping by, even if sometimes I forget to tell you.

I owe you an apology. When I started Mama Joules, my goal was to write three posts a week. Lately, it's been all I can do to post every two weeks. You might have been wondering where we are and how we are doing over here.

Excuse me just a minute ...

["Sweetheart, that helmet doesn't go on your face. It goes on your head."]

Well, things are fine, but very hectic. I had no idea that having three kids would keep me hopping quite this much. They are all home for the summer, and things are quite busy. Especially with the toddler ...

[ominous crinkling sounds as my purse is opened]

Just a minute, I'll be right back ...

["Yes, they are cool and they do look neat around your neck, but no, you can't wear my sunglasses."]

As I was saying, life with a toddler is hectic! I forgot just how crazy things can get. Simple things, like my canned goods, have started to go missing. The remote is no longer safe. Today, I even found my credit card in her chubby little hands. I'm lucky I found her before she discovered home shopping. The last time she found the phone, she dialed her grandmother.

So, this blog is effectively going on hiatus until fall. I may get time to write this summer, but I'm not counting on it. Once the boys are back in school, I am hoping to squeeze in some writing time when she naps. I might even take a class. But, for now I have to ...

["Wait! Don't eat that!"]

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Don't choose ignorance

A couple of nights ago, my husband, Itinerant Cryptographer, and I were debating the current state of American politics.

"I just wish there was an up-and-coming environmentally-aware presidential candidate," I lamented. "The last one we had was Al Gore, and I'm not sure he would have made a great president."

We proceeded to dissect several recent prominent political figures. With my green-leaning views and his Libertarian ones, we diverged on several points.

"I think he was stupid," I declared, describing a politician rather bluntly.

Itinerant Cryptographer disagreed. "He was ignorant on the issues," my husband said. "I think he could have understood them if his advisors had allowed it."

Ignorance. We imbue the word with disgust, but what does it really mean?

Merriam-Webster defines ignorance as "the state or fact of being ignorant: lack of knowledge, education, or awareness.

So let's face facts: there's no shame in being ignorant. No one can know everything. But when we refuse to examine new ideas or learn new things, we are choosing to remain ignorant. Ignoring the issues doesn't make them go away.

There are certain subjects - foreign policy, how a camera works, proper use of a compass, how to diagram a sentence* - that are going to send me straight to a text book or even a children's encyclopedia. It might feel embarrassing to me - how can I not know what fuels the trains that run behind my house? - but there is no shame to not knowing the answer. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Life is a learning lesson. I truly believe that our job is to learn, ponder, and use our newly-acquired knowledge to leave the world a better place than we found it.

Photo credit: Leon Brooks,

* My nine-year-old learned to diagram sentences in the third grade. Despite my two college degrees and scads of English classes, I never learned to do this. My husband had to help our son with his homework because it baffled me. But now that I've written this post (despite my firm desire to remain ignorant on this subject!), I am going to go to my son and have him teach me how to diagram sentences. I don't want to be a hypocrite!

What are you going to learn today?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

When you give a four-year-old a camera ...

Last Christmas, my then four-year-old received a Fisher-Price digital camera. It's been great fun for him because it's easy to use and nearly indestructible. Itinerant Cryptographer just downloaded the first few months of his photos and it's interesting to truly see the world through the eyes of a child. I know that I've posted about older brother Kerm's love of photography, but I hadn't realized that Little Brother would impress me at such a young age. Way to go, Little Brother!

Photo credits: Little Brother

Monday, May 31, 2010

Make a Butterfly Sculpture!

Today, Kerm and I worked on his extra credit project for school. He had to create a three dimensional butterfly and label the body parts.

The body of our butterfly is made out of three pieces of green foam core: one dome-shaped piece and two circular disks. The proboscis, legs, antennae, and structural supports are pipe cleaners. Kerm cut the wings from construction paper. Our favorite body part, the compound eyes, consist of beads. We anchored the butterfly on a green piece of heavy cardboard and stuck in a few artificial flowers for good measure.

What I liked about this project is that the body was relatively easy for an eight-year-old to assemble and label, once we had all of the pieces handy. But the wings were another story. They were hard to attach and we had to use extra pipe cleaners to support their weight. Kerm hid our ample glue splotches under the "thorax" label. If you try this at home, I would suggest using something lighter for the wings, like tissue paper.

Photo credit: Mama Joules

Friday, May 28, 2010

Invasive Species Art

When life gives you an abundance of invasive species, don't fret! Follow the lead of Seth Goldstein* and Paula Stone and make art!

Invasive species are non-native plants and animals -- often introduced by humans -- that outcompete their native counterparts and take over an ecosystem with disastrous effects. It's not hard to think of examples in the United States: kudzu in the South (in the photo above), zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, killer bees in Texas. You can learn more about invasive species at the National Invasive Species Information Center.

Organizations like The Nature Conservancy lead groups of volunteer "weed warriors" and animal spotters to locate and help remove invasive species. In a recent TNC publication, I read about Goldstein and Stone, a husband and wife weed warrior team, who bring their volunteer work home with them.

The artistic duo take looping vines of Oriental Bittersweet and turn it into art! I like Vinalope and Dude. You can see additional examples of their work at Gazette.Net and What a wonderful way to utilize this otherwise useless invasive species!

Photo credit of creeping kudzu: Kitten Wants, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

* Goldstein is also "the inventor of Why Knot, the machine that ties a tie in 562 steps", which is just bizarre enough that I felt compelled to include a link to it, even though it has nothing to do with endangered species:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Celebrate Endangered Species Day!

Royal Bengal Tiger

Thanks to the North Carolina Zoological Society, I learned that tomorrow is Endangered Species Day. What are endangered species? Simply put, they are plants and animals that are in danger of dying off forever. Endangered species might be at risk from climate change, illness, habitat destruction, or all three.

You can learn about endangered species at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Endangered Species Program or research endangered species (in the US) by habitat or name at the Endangered Species Coalition. The Educational Materials page from the Coalition's Endangered Species Day website has links to lesson plans and more. After you've read up, you can test your knowledge of endangered species with this FWS quiz.

Check out these fun ways to celebrate or plan to attend an upcoming endangered species event. Print out stickers and learn how to protect wildlife. If you're a Girl Scout, there's even a special badge commemorating Endangered Species Day 2010!

Photo credit: Siddhartha Lammata, via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Enter the Kids Count for Earthday Haiku Contest!

What does Earth Day mean to you? Can you write a poem about it? If so, you could win a prize and your writing might be published in Sketchbook, a Journal for Eastern and Western Short Forms.

The international Kids Count for Earthday Haiku Contest 2010 is looking for haiku poetry (17 syllables or less) written by children and young adults ages 7 - 20 years. Poems must be written by individuals; each person can only enter once. There is no fee to enter. The theme of this year's contest is "What Earth Day means to you".

According to the Kids Count for Earthday website,

"The contest is designed to combine the love of earth with the sheer simple fun of writing Japanese haiku in English!"

The deadline for this haiku contest is May 23rd (postmark of May 22nd). For more details about where to send your entry and what information to include, please visit Kids Count for Earthday 5-7-5 Haiku Contest 2010.

Good luck!

[Update 10/9/10: Read the winning entries here!]

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Family Fun at the Rock & Mineral Show

A couple of months ago, I took the boys (and Princess, but she was in the stroller and didn't see much) to their first rock and mineral show. Actually, it was my first, as well. I wasn't sure what to expect. Would it just be a big room with row after row of rock samples? To my family, as novices, would they all look the same? Would there be other folks in attendance like us, curious newbies, or would the room be filled with seasoned, dusty rockhounds?

I was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming the show was to children. My boys had a great time. Yes, there were collections of rocks and minerals on display. But there was a wonderful variety. Most displays contained just enough documentation to be informative without overwhelming the viewer. There was even a "please touch" table, which Kerm and Little Brother greatly enjoyed.

One exhibiter collected little bottles of sand. They were all different shades - pink, black, beige, tan - and they were labeled with locations from all over the world. Another person collected "dangerous" rocks, minerals containing substances like lead or arsenic that can be harmful to humans.

In the back, there was a makeshift room covered with tarps. The boys loved seeing the fluorescent rocks displayed there.

Fluorescent rocks appear to glow in the dark, but they actually glow under shortwave or long wave ultraviolet light. The Tozour Family's Fluorescent Rocks shows a similar display of fluorescent minerals, with photos of what the rocks look like under normal (white) light and what they look like under ultraviolet (black) light.

(I am tempted to buy a black light bulb to see if any of our rocks fluoresce under long wave UV. Fun side note: you can also see old dog or cat urine stains using black light.)

There was a special hands-on display where kids could "mine" for minerals. The boys were each given a card with small pictures of different minerals and they dug through the sand until each found a specimen. The boys then compared their samples to the pictures on the card and identified which minerals they had uncovered. I thought this was a clever way to introduce kids to rock collecting and the process of identifying minerals by using a key.

Kerm mines for minerals

Of course, we also went upstairs and visited the vendor room, where you could buy mineral samples on just about every budget. We picked out a few of the cheaper specimens for purchase, and I pointed out to Kerm and Little Brother that I frequently couldn't tell the $6 rocks from the $600 rocks, so they'd better stay close and not touch anything.

All in all, it was great visit, and a nice introduction to mineralogy, geology, and paleontology (did I mention the nice fellow giving away fossilized shark vertebrae?). The rock and mineral show cost less than $10 per person to attend. My greatest expense was running out to buy Kerm and Little Brother display cases to store their new found treasures.

Photo credits: Mama Joules