Saturday, February 27, 2010

The language of dolphins

If you search for "dolphin speech" online, you can pull up some interesting articles, like this one from the blog dichotomistic, about humans teaching dolphins a human-devised system of squeaks and whistles. It makes me wonder why we have just assumed that dolphins should learn to speak with us, rather than humans trying to learn the language of dolphins.

Apparently, I'm not the only one pondering this question. I read an interesting article (this is a .pdf file) in a recent issue of University of Chicago's Medicine on the Midway, describing the work of two student researchers who were studying dolphin speech. According to the article, each dolphin has its own unique, identifying whistle. Other whistles are shared between the dolphins and are used repeatedly in the same situations, a finding echoed in another, similar study in Australia.

So, what does this mean? We know that dolphins use echolocation. Do dolphins also have a full-fledged, evolved language? It appears that they might. Given that our current understanding of dolphin speech is more limited than an infant trying to learn to talk, I think we should give dolphins the benefit of the doubt. Are there dialects in dolphin language, as suggested by a comment to this article? Can we ever hope to understand dolphin speech? If we can't, how does that reflect on humans and our so-called superior intelligence?

Scientists are still in disagreement about exactly how intelligent dolphins are and whether findings like these should affect our treatment of them. Many feel that dolphins are the world's second-smartest mammal, but there are dissenters who argue that dolphins are relative dim-wits. Animal-rights groups and some scientists ponder whether dolphins be treated as "non-human persons", as proposed by this article from the Times Online. What do you think?

Photo credit: justthatgoodguyjim via flickr // CC BY 2.0

Monday, February 22, 2010

Kids' Science Challenge

Ashwin Vasavada, planetary scientist at JPL, throws a Frisbee in the Mars yard (Photo credit: Kids' Science Challenge)

Would you like to see a scientist work to solve a problem or experiment that you designed? If you live in the U.S. and are in grades 3-6, you've got six days left to enter the three science contests presented by Kids' Science Challenge.

Let's say that you like astronomy. You can enter the Sports of Mars contest. In the future, astronaut explorers might colonize Mars. What kind of games could people play there? How would the Martian climate (dusty, with less atmosphere than Earth) affect the ways sports and games are played?

If Mars isn't your thing, check out the Detective Science Challenge ("Can you think of an everyday mystery that you can solve with the scientific tools of detection?") or the Bio-Inspired Designs Challenge ("Birds inspired airplanes. Seed burrs inspired Velcro. What part of nature will inspire your new invention?")

Visit the media arcade for inspiration. You can enter one idea for each contest! If you have a winning submission, you will get to work with a scientist to put your idea in action. And, your entry could win one of these awesome prizes, including a week at Space Camp, a bionic eye, or night vision goggles.

The entry deadline for all three contests in the Kids' Science Challenge is February 28, 2010. You can enter individually or as a team. You will have to describe your idea and tell how you came up with it; a sketch of your concept is optional. Complete rules are listed here; you'll need to register first. The official entry form (this is a .pdf file) can be mailed, faxed, or submitted online.

Good luck!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Happy National Engineers Week!

Have you hugged an engineer lately? This is National Engineers Week! If you're an engineer, here are 50 ways to get involved, suggested by the National Engineers Week Foundation. Some of these ideas are great for families, too!

Across the country, special events have been planned for tomorrow, February 18th, also known as Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. If you're in the greater Washington, DC area, head to the National Building Museum this Saturday, February 20th, and Discover Engineering Family Day. You can try over 25 hands-on science activity stations. If you don't live in nearby, drop by the Discover Engineering Family Day website anyway and check out their list of family-friendly engineering projects to try at home.

And, if you are age 13 through grade 12, consider entering the 2010 West Point Bridge Design Contest. Follow the rules closely as you design your virtual bridge -- you could win a $5000 scholarship or a laptop computer! Not the right age? You can join the challenge anyway, you just aren't eligible to win prizes. The final day for the first round of design submissions is March 5, 2010.

Happy Engineers Week, everyone!

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, & Evolution

I received a happy email today from Chris Lynch, the editor at Tangled Bank Press, which largely said this:

The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, & Evolution has launched!

The anthology, which marks the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, features over 100,000 words of speculative fiction, poetry, artwork, and essays about evolution. An international line-up of nearly 50 contributors includes Sean Williams, Brian Stableford, Patricia Russo, and Carlos Hernandez. (And me!)

The Tangled Bank is now available for download as a PDF (cost is US$4.99). Check out "Darwin's Daughter" by Christopher Green, a free short story from the anthology.

For more information, please visit the Tangled Bank Press, drop by Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Happy Darwin Day, everyone!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Website of the Week: Science of the Olympic Winter Games

The Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics is this Friday, so it's a great time to review the Science of the Olympic Winter Games. NBC paired up with the National Science Foundation to create sixteen short videos on the science behind everything from curling to hockey. (Note: I had difficulty accessing these videos from the official NBC Olympics website. You can also view them at NBC Learn.)

Want to learn about Newton's Three Laws of Motion? Check out speed skating. Forms of energy? Try hockey. Angular momentum? View aerial skiing and figure skating. How is math used at the Games? Watch Mathletes.

I found these videos to be entertaining, educational, and a nice introduction to individual members of the U.S. Olympic Team. (For those outside of the U.S., humor us when viewing the patriotic parts!) Mathletes and Short Track Speed Skating were particularly well done.

I can't wait for the Games! How about you?

[Update: Right after I posted this, I headed to Twitter and found out that there are also lesson plans for grades 6-9 to go with this series on Lessonopoly. How awesome is that?]

Photo credit: Justin D. Henry, via flickr // CC BY 2.0


If you liked this post, you might also like:

Website of the Week: 2008 Olympic Games

Monday, February 8, 2010

Win $500 for your green idea!

Got a green idea? Are you over 18 and living in the US or Canada (excluding Quebec)? Can you put your environmental solution into three words in a snappy video running under 30 seconds? If you can sell your green idea like a television ad, you could win $500!

The Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University is running the Green in 3 video contest (detailed contest rules can be found here). There are three contest windows; five winners will be chosen from each period. The first contest ends Friday, so get those entries in! You can view submissions from other entrants at the Green in 3 YouTube page.

Good luck!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Mama Joules' Online Resume

Are you looking for a writer?

I am a freelance writer with a background in the environmental sciences. My non-fiction articles have appeared in a number of publications, including Albemarle Family, FundsforWriters, Southern Families, Washington Parent, and I also write poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction.

Here are links to some of my published pieces. If you'd like to reprint one of these articles, or if you'd like learn more about me or see a formal resume, please drop me a line at jublke [at] gmail [dot] com.



Family-Friendly Science

Fair-Weather Friends: Making Science Come Alive

Nuturing the Budding Gardener

10 Tips for Celebrating Snow Days

Family Health

Blood-Level Basics: What You Really Need to Know

Playing It Safe At the Beach

Have a Healthy and Happy Halloween

Ten Tips for Healthy Holiday Eating

Wee Care for Tots' Teeth

What is a Green School?

Home & Family Life

Dining Without Whining: Taking Little Kids to Dinner

Heading Home for the Holidays: Sanity Saving Strategies

Let 'em Eat Cake: Paring Down the Pint-Sized Party

Nuturing the Inner Artist

Super Special Summer Birthday Parties


Internet Want Ads: Finding Writing Jobs Online

[Updated 9/8/14 to remove dead links, update links.]

The Blizzard of 2010

This is what I woke up to this morning.

Believe it or not, there are cars under there!

I have to admit, when the weathercasters referred to our December 2009 snowfall as a blizzard, I was skeptical. But this snowstorm clearly meets the definition. Intense snowfall, heavy wind, broken tree branches, and, of course, lots and lots of snow. And, 24 hours later, it's still snowing!

Look at the amount of snow on that mailbox!
Note the broken tree branch in the background.

The Science of Snow

Two years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Joseph M. Moran, of the American Meteorological Society, for an article about snow that appeared in Washington Parent magazine. Given that snowy weather has taken over much of the United States, I thought you might enjoy this reprint of our conversation.


The Science of Snow: Ask the Expert!

Dr. Joseph M. Moran, of the American Meteorological Society, answers your questions about snow:

1. Is it true that no two snowflakes are alike?

Dr. Moran says, "‘No two snowflakes are alike' is a widely held assumption. Although all snowflakes are composed of ice crystals having six-sided ... symmetry, they may occur in billions of different forms." Even so, a researcher discovered two identical snowflakes while sampling clouds over Wisconsin in 1988.

2. Are there different kinds of snow?

"Yes," says Dr. Moran. He explains, "Snow is an agglomeration of ice crystals in the form of flakes that develop in clouds and fall to the Earth's surface. Snowflakes vary in shape and size depending on air temperature and humidity. With decreasing cloud temperature, snowflake crystals occur as needles, dendrites, plates, and columns."

A dendrite snowflake below; a plate snowflake on the right. Both of these images were taken by Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley. For more information, has nice descriptions of different types of snowflakes.

"Snowflake size depends in part on how humid (moist) the air is. At very low temperatures, the humidity is relatively low, and snowflakes tend to be small. Snowflake size also depends on the efficiency with which they collide with one another as they fall through the atmosphere to the ground. At air temperatures near freezing, snowflakes more readily stick together after colliding, and their diameters sometimes reach 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters). Snow pellets and snow grains are similar to snowflakes but much smaller. Snow pellets are soft conical or spherical white particles of ice with diameters of 2 to 5 millimeters. Snow grains are flat or elongated opaque white particles of ice, usually less than 1 millimeter in diameter."

3. How do meteorologists measure snow? My measurements at home never seem to match what the weathercaster says.

Meteorologists measure three things, says Dr. Moran: "The depth of snow that falls between successive observations, the meltwater equivalent of that snowfall, and the depth of snow on the ground at observation time."

Dr. Moran tells us how to measure a storm's snowfall like the experts. "Prior to an anticipated snowfall, place a simple wooden board on the ground ... New snowfall accumulates on the board, and at observation time a ruler is used to measure the snow depth to the board. Record the snowfall ... and sweep the snowboard clean so that it is ready to receive new snowfall. Repeat this process throughout the snow event, and then compare your total snowfall with that reported by the local television or broadcast meteorologist. Note that snowfall is notoriously variable from one place to another ..." depending upon things like temperature, the distance you are from the ocean, and the track of the storm.

Photo credits: Wilson Bentley, from NOAA's National Weather Service Collection.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ten Tips for Celebrating Snow Days

With the forecast for much of the United States calling for snow sometime in the next week, I thought I'd re-post these ten tips for making the most of snow days. (This post is excerpted from my original article, which was published in Washington Parent magazine in January 2007.)

The forecast is grim: snow, snow, and more snow. What are you going to do all day? Before you go stir-crazy, try these ten tips for turning a snow day into together time:

1. Have an all-white day. Encourage everyone in the house to wear white. Prepare your family all-white meals like oatmeal with milk for breakfast and chicken breast, mashed potatoes and cauliflower for dinner.

2. Make snow-themed treats together. Bake your favorite cookies and add a dusting of powdered sugar "snow" on top. Make marshmallow snowmen using candies for eyes, raisins for buttons and pretzel sticks for arms.

3. Read about Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley. Virginia mom Karen Cole, founder of Big Learning, suggests the book Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and the Snowflake Bentley website. In 1885, Bentley became the first person to photograph individual snowflakes; in his lifetime, he took pictures of more than 5,000 different snowflakes (including the picture at the top of this post!).

4. Have a snow-inspired movie marathon. Bring out snowy family favorites like Ice Age and March of the Penguins. To increase the educational value, break out the encyclopedias or hop on the Internet to learn about glaciation or the continent of Antarctica. Be glad that you don't live at Vostok Station in Antarctica, where the coldest recorded temperature on Earth was observed on July 21, 1983 (-128.6°F / -89.2°C).

5. Conduct scientific experiments with snow.

"Even though freshly fallen snow appears bright white and clean, it is not," says Dr. Joseph M. Moran of the American Meteorological Society. Dr. Moran is the author of a brand new textbook, Climate Studies: Introduction to Climate Science.

"One of my favorite activities goes a long way to convincing children not to eat snow. You will need a 1- or 2-gallon pail, large paper coffee filter, paper towels, and a magnifying glass … Scoop up a large pail of freshly fallen snow and bring it indoors to a warm room. Set the pail down undisturbed until all the snow melts. Then, over a sink, slowly and carefully pour the meltwater through a paper coffee filter. Set the coffee filter aside on some paper towels until it dries. Next, examine the surface of the dry coffee filter … What do you see? Where did that material come from?"

He adds, "As snowflakes fall through the atmosphere, they intercept and capture a variety of tiny particles that are suspended in the atmosphere and carried by the wind. Most of these particles originated at the Earth's surface. [You can] speculate on what these particles might be."

6. Have your kids play "cool" word games. For example, ask them the following questions: How many words can you think of that start with the word "snow"? (snowflake, snowplow, snowstorm, snowmobile …). How many words can you make from the letters in the word "snowflake"? (sow, now, lake, wake …). For a harder challenge, try making words from the letters in the word "avalanche" (ache, vale, lava, leach, lane …).

7. Try recipes made with snow. (Although, after reading Dr. Moran's comments, you might wish to make your own "snow" by mixing ice from the freezer in your blender!). Scoop up some fresh snow, and mix it with fruit juice to make a snow cone. Or make Snow Cream: Scoop snow into a large bowl, and blend in 1 cup milk or cream, 1/2 cup sugar and a few drops of vanilla. Enjoy!

8. Compete in your version of the Winter Olympic Games. See who can throw a snowball the farthest or sled down a hill the fastest. Stuck indoors? Glide over the kitchen tiles in your socks and have an ice-skating competition.

9. Go outside and examine individual snowflakes.

Dr. Moran says, "This activity requires a sheet of black construction paper or a dark cloth, a magnifying glass, a journal and a pencil. During a snowfall, go outdoors and hold the construction paper or cloth horizontally to catch some snowflakes. Take care that the heat from your breath or fingers does not melt the snowflakes. Using the magnifying glass, examine the individual snowflakes. Describe what [shapes] you see, and draw some of them in your journal. Are any of the snowflakes identical in appearance?"

He notes, "Recording data in a journal is a good introduction to scientific observation and the scientific method."

10. Share your family's favorite snowy memories. Do you remember when you saw snow for the first time? Ever caught a snowflake on your tongue? What was the deepest snowfall that you can remember? You might be surprised at what your family members share with you. Sometimes, a day spent together "doing nothing" turns into a cherished memory.

Photo credit: Wilson Bentley. This picture is part of NOAA's National Weather Service Collection and was taken in 1902.