Summer Science Fun: The Moon

Orange Moon Phases –

The moon, it is always there in the sky watching us. It’s no wonder that stories have been weaved through our history that tell of the mystical powers of the moon. One of the oldest depictions of the of the moon is located in Knowth County, Meath, Ireland. The central chamber of the burial mound located there holds a nearly 5,000-year-old map of the moon’s surface. The ancient maps pits and mountains represent the craters and mountains we can see on the moon with the naked eye. The rest of the burial mound is decorated with circular and spiral patterns, all believed to be various depictions of the moon.

The truth is, however, that the moon is no more mystical then any rock in the forest. The moon isn’t like all of the twinkling stars in the sky, it doesn’t shine bright, in fact it doesn’t shine at all. I’m not trying to say that the moon isn’t important to our everyday lives, it is responsible for the ocean tides, changing day lengths, and the magnificent eclipses that make us stop in our tracks.

You might wonder how the moon was created, of course no one knows for sure. There are theories that it was created at the same time as the Earth as just extra material that was spun out of Earth’s gravitational field. However, the most widely accepted theory is that there was a massive impact from an object the size of Mars while the Earth was still forming. This impact threw debris into space, and as the Earth reformed the remaining material collected into what we know as the moon.

Did you know that we always see the same side of the moon? The moon’s rotational period, or lunar day, is exactly the same as the lunar orbital period, or the time it takes to go around the Earth once. The Moon is in a geosynchronous orbit meaning it is locked in the same orientation with the Earth.

The moon is the brightest object in the sky, second only to the sun, however if it weren’t for the sun we wouldn’t be able to see it at all. The surface of the moon is actually very dark and it doesn’t produce any of its own light. The dust on the moon’s surface is very similar in color to coal. However, even this dark dust can reflect a small amount of light, the amount that is reflected back is called albedo. The moon reflects most of its light directly back towards the sun. This reflection towards the sun is what causes phases of the moon. As the moon orbits around the Earth, the angle of the sun to the moon to the Earth changes. In the diagram below you can see all the phases of the moon.

By Orion 8 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
There are two types of eclipses: solar and lunar. Lunar eclipses happen when the Earth’s shadow blocks the light from the sun during its full moon phase. Since the shadow of the Earth is larger than the viewing disk of the moon, the whole moon goes dark. A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes into the path of the suns light to the Earth during the new moon phase. The moon’s shadow is much smaller then light coming from the sun, so thats why a solar eclipse has a specific viewing area across the Earth’s surface.

The last lunar eclipse was on April 15, 2014 and the next is expected on October 8, 2014, so there is always time to plan a lunar eclipse viewing party.

Want to create your own eclipse?


tennis ball, ping pong ball, flashlight, and a table


  1. Place the tennis ball about two feet away from the flashlight, and the ping pong ball in-between at about the one-foot point. 
  2. Make the room dark.
  3. Turn the flashlight on  and make sure it’s pointed at the tennis ball.
  4. Move the ping pong ball around and observe where the shadow falls.
  5. The tennis ball represents Earth, the ping pong ball represents the moon, and the flashlight is the Sun.
  6. What happens when you place the moon on the other side of the Earth?
  7. If you would like to observe the phases of the moon for yourself, slowly move the ping pong ball in a circle around the tennis ball and observe how the light from the flashlight looks on it.
Tom Ruen, May 2004 from Wikimedia Commons


Post adapted from Lady Astrid’s Laboratory.

Star Wars Workbooks – “Much to learn you still have.”


It’s summer: a time when kids play, vacation, experience new things, visit friends and family, and tend to forget what they learned during school the year before. Some kids spend the summer reviewing their academic skills and preparing for their next grade level, while others spend more time learning through play and experience. Both forms of learning are equally important in creating a diverse student. The start of school is right around the corner for most kids, so now is the time to review a few academic skills and warm your child up for their upcoming school environment. The Star Wars Workbooks are the perfect geeky educational workbook solution to making academics fun enough to do during the summer!

Earlier this summer, I was searching for some workbooks for my to-be Kindergartner to do while we were on a family road trip. He loved school last year, so I wanted to make sure I encouraged him to practice his skills all summer long. Since my 5-year-old son is a massive Star Wars fan, we already had a collection of Star Wars educational books including: Star Wars: 1, 2, 3, Star Wars ABC, Star Wars: Colors and the entire Star Wars: Phonics Boxed Set.

In June, I discovered a set of newly released Star Wars Workbooks, by Workman Publishing, that aligned with the common core standards.  As a new-to-public-school parent and an educator, I was particularly interested in finding a workbook that aligned with the common core learning goals. I wanted to see if the Common Core Standards were as scary and difficult for students as they have been made out to be in the media. These workbooks didn’t use any odd methods of teaching, everything was presented in a way that my 5 year old was able to do a lot of the work on his own without help. Workman Publishing has created an entire site where parents and teachers can find the Common Core Standards mapped directly to activities in each workbook. If you are a homeschooling parent, or a teacher looking for additional engaging teaching materials, these are the perfect workbooks to consider. At less than $9 per workbook, these are affordable, too!

Twelve workbooks have been released from pre-school through second grade, three books per grade level, every page in every book is filled with adorable original Star Wars cartoons and characters. The phonics books incorporate everyday objects with recognizable Star Wars creatures. The math books contain color by numbers, mazes, and other fun activities, all surrounding the Star Wars movie characters. The writing workbooks encourage writing by teaching how to write favorite character names, such as Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader.

I’m incredibly impressed with how much my son loved these workbooks. He has voluntarily chosen to work on these almost daily, improving his academic skills without ever feeling like he was doing schoolwork. I plan to supplement his schoolwork with these workbooks throughout the entire school year, and cannot wait until he is ready for the next level. Workman Publishing has done an impressive job making a wonderfully Star Wars themed academic workbook.

Star Wars Workbooks: Kindergarten Math Skills Sample Activity from Workman Publishing
Star Wars Workbooks:Preschool ABC Fun – Sample Activity from Workman Publishing


I was not paid, nor was I provided review copies from Workman Publishing, in return for this review.

Explore Space With LittleBits

Image from

This week littleBits announced the results of their partnership with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center when they announced the latest in their line of product kits. The littleBits Space Kit for Earth and space science explorers contains powerful electronic modules, coupled with projects and activities designed by NASA scientists and engineers.

“With the days old discovery of earth-like planet Kepler-186f, SpaceX’s successful docking at the International Space Station, recent evidence of the Big Bang, and the introduction of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new Cosmos documentary, space is more than ever at the center of the cultural conversation,” said Ayah Bdeir, littleBits founder and CEO. “Yet our relationship to space remains distant. With the littleBits Space Kit, we aim to bring space closer to home by putting the building blocks to invent, learn and explore directly into the hands of educators, students, NASA enthusiasts and builders of all ages.”

Founded in 2011, Ayah Bdeir created littleBits with one sole mission, to turn everyone into an inventor by putting the power of electronics in the hands of everyone. LittleBits breaks down complicated electronics into powerful modules to make it easier to “play” with the electronic components without worrying about soldering or wiring. The Space Kit added an additional three modules to the littleBits product line, an IR LED, number counter, and a remote trigger.

I’ll admit when I opened the box I was surprised that these 12 tiny pieces could create the advertised rovers, satellites, and radar dishes that were described in the five lesson plans and ten hands on projects.  Boy, was I pleasantly surprised!

Having studied electronics in college, I am very familiar with the amount of work that goes into planning a circuit and time that it takes to create a working project.  However, within minutes of opening the box I was able to light LEDs, play MP3s, and play with waveforms.  The Space Kit lessons are specifically designed to teach scientific principles such as electromagnetic, kinetic, & potential energy. As a STEM educator, I thought the ease of use was unparalleled. Each module is completely contained and modules connect via metal magnets that act as connectors between circuits. I had a friend’s ten-year-old daughter come over and she was able to follow the carefully designed lesson plans and blissfully play with the set as you can see in the video below, playing with sound wave forms.  She loved it!

As impressed as I am with this kit, learning that it retails for $189 really surprised me. The only thing that stopped me from buying this, and every other littleBits kit, is that high price point. For less than the price of a single littleBits Space Kit you can buy a massive educational kit from a comparable modular circuits company with more than 80 pieces and close to 175 written lessons.

Image by Helene McLaughlin

For more information and to purchase the littleBits Space Kit visit:

GeekMom Holiday Traditions: Ornaments with Meaning

Image by Helene McLaughlin.

As a child, Christmas was my favorite holiday. It was always filled with family, friends, tinsel, gifts, and laughter. Traditions changed throughout the years, as all five of us kids grew up. However, my favorite tradition was always decorating the Christmas tree. Decorating the Christmas tree each year was a trip down memory lane; every ornament hung had a story attached to it.

The first Christmas after I was married, my husband and I discussed our favorite Christmas traditions in an effort to join our favorites into our new home. My husband was intent on celebrating from the day after Thanksgiving through Epiphany (in early January). I asked that we only decorate our tree with ornaments that meant something. I wanted every one of our ornaments to have a story that we could tell our kids as they grew up. Each year since then, we have added at least one ornament that represented the events of the year.

First Christmas Ornament by Baldwin. Image by Helene McLaughlin.

The first few years, our tree was filled with memories of vacations, new homes, and a few that had been passed on to us by our families. Once we had our boys, we added two “First Christmas” ornaments to the tree for each of them. We wanted to have an ornament that we would pass on to them when they had their own families. Recently, we’ve added mostly geeky ornaments, each with their own meaning and each representing the obsession of the year.

Image by Helene McLaughlin.

Being an avid Whovian, this year we eagerly anticipated the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. We also added the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Glass Ornament and will be adding another new home ornament to celebrate having moved again this year.

Image by Helene McLaughlin.

After attending a local sci-fi convention, we added a small Firefly Jayne’s hat ornament that we had found at Quirky Crochet.

Image by Helene McLaughlin.

My husband’s avid electronics hobby inspired our set of recycled circuit board ornaments.

Image by Helene McLaughlin.

The memory of my late grandfather and grandmother have always lived at the top of our tree: Armed Forces for him and Nutcrackers for her.

Image by Helene McLaughlin.

We have a tiny porcelain angel on our tree to remember the miscarriage that we had before either of our boys. We wanted to honor that memory with a happy tradition rather than with something that made us sad each time we saw it.

Image by Helene McLaughlin.

The year we introduced our favorite Christmas movies to our kids, we added a leg lamp ornament from A Christmas Story and an ornament featuring the Griswold family tree from Christmas Vacation. Also, we always place a bell somewhere in the tree for It’s a Wonderful Life.

Image by Helene McLaughlin.

When my boys fell in love with Lego bricks, we added a set of three Lego Christmas Santa ornaments to our collection. When they became obsessed with Disney’s Cars, Phineas and Ferb, and Harry Potter, we added a few iconic ornaments to the tree.

Image by Helene McLaughlin.

When I sit in my living room with a beautiful fire burning and our family stockings hung above the mantle with care, I look at my gorgeous tree and don’t just see pretty little baubles. I see a tree built of memories. Peace, joy, and happy holidays to all.

Merry Christmas 2013. Image by Helene McLaughlin.

Government Shutdown: Frozen Scientific Research

Near McMurdo Station Antarctica 2013 (Image: Brian McLaughlin)
Near McMurdo Station Antarctica 2013 (Image: Brian McLaughlin)

We here at GeekMom pride ourselves in staying politically neutral, however we also pride ourselves in the quality scientific education that we provide to our readers.

The United States government is on day 16 of the federal shutdown. While this means that 800,000 government workers have been sent home without pay, it has meant significantly more to research scientists that receive government funding. Careers’ worth of science are on the brink of complete collapse, simply because the U.S. government has shut its doors. [Editor’s note: As of last report, it appears Congress is finally ready to make a deal that will re-open the government. Assuming the vote progresses as expected, the scientific fallout from the shutdown will become more clear in the next few days/weeks.]

You might be surprised to learn about some of the government funded research programs that are in peril.

Antarctic Scientific Research

Antarctica, one of the most remote locations on the planet, will also be one of the most thoroughly effected by the United States government shutdown. You might not know that there is no indigenous people that live anywhere on the continent of Antarctica. Instead, the massive continent is populated by only a couple thousand international scientists. Most are only in Antarctica during its summer field season, which only lasts from October to February.

The vast majority of Americans who are lucky enough to visit the bottom of the Earth have received research grants through the National Science Foundation. The National Science Foundation receives its funding from the federal government, and has announced that it has run out of money and cannot afford to open three of its Antarctic bases for the 2013-2014 summer field season. The NSF has already sent support staff home from the ice and turned scientists around that had been starring to arrive for the season. Some were turned around just as they reached the ice for the first time.

This government shutdown isn’t just a freeze on research; it could lead to a complete loss of many research programs. Field research in Antarctica usually entails some combination of harsh conditions, very short working time windows, the possibility of lost equipment due to weather, and inaccessibility for the majority of the year. Programs that placed equipment last year (or any previous year) cannot collect the past years data, cannot proceed with scheduled maintenance, and will possibly lose their equipment under extreme snowfall or icy conditions.

This week I interviewed Heather Buelow, a friend and antarctic field researcher. She explained what the shut down means to her and her doctorate dissertation, as well a the work of her collaborators.

I’m a second year doctoral student. I specifically applied to my advisor’s lab because studying microbial life in Antarctica was a dream of mine. Last year (2011-2012 field season) was my first season on the ice, and it was absolutely a dream come true.

While I was in Antarctica doing field work for my advisor’s projects, I would also spend time writing research proposals, seeking funding to begin my own research projects the following season. I was awarded a fellowship by the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium (NASA EPSCoR) to begin a project that seeks to characterize Antarctic microbial activity, and also ties in with another love of mine: astrobiology. (Antarctic environments are often cited as excellent terrestrial analogues to other planets.) I hope that my research will contribute to both microbial ecology and astrobiology.

However, the shutdown has thrown a kink in the deployment schedule, and we won’t know how bad it is until the government reopens. Many people who maintain the research stations have already been sent home from the ice, and they would need to be brought back to accommodate scientific crews. I was supposed to deploy on October 21, but that seems impossible now. My lab group continues to hope that there will only be a delay of deployments, and not a complete field season cancellation.

This season, I was supposed to do field work for 4 projects: my own, my advisor’s, and 2 different collaborators’. All of these projects will factor into my doctoral dissertation, and each project allows me to gain experience with different sampling techniques in extreme environments.

If the field season is delayed, our research window will likely be cut short. (I’ve already had to start thinking about the minimum amount of field time I’ll need to accomplish different projects.) However, if the field season is too delayed—or worse, cancelled—it will change everything. My dissertation focus will change significantly if I’m unable to work on the projects I’ve already spent months preparing for. The fellowship I was awarded is good for one year, meaning I’m supposed to carry out my research within that time frame. A field season cancellation, or even too much of a delay, would make that impossible.

That being said, I know that NSF is eager to ramp up operations as soon as possible, and is fully aware of the ramifications that a cancellation would have on students and research in general. I believe they will try to restore our planned activities and schedule as much as possible.

NIH Clinical Research Studies

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) are known for their breaking edge research on a myriad of healthcare topics. Since the government shutdown, the NIH has been forced to send most of its workforce home to wait till there is funding to pay them. Unfortunately, when you are dealing with live animals or extremely ill patients, time isn’t on your side. NPR reported earlier this week that thousands of mice used in diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s research will likely have to be euthanized due to the government shutdown. Some of the mice will be killed simply due to overcrowding, but more heartbreaking are the mice that will be euthanized because it is impossible to maintain certain lines of genetically altered mice without constant monitoring by scientists. Also, most federal scientists have been banned from their own labs since October 1st—even the few that have attempted to return to their research have found their security key cards completely inactivated.

Every week, about 200 new patients—including sick children—begin NIH clinical trials. Due to the government shutdown, the NIH has been forced to stop accepting all new patients into its clinical research programs. For example, Michelle Langbehn was expecting to start an aggressive clinical trial as a last attempt to fight her battle with sarcoma as she had exhausted her body’s ability to withstand any additional chemotherapy. Instead of fighting for her life, Michelle has been spending her precious time left with her young daughter and advocating for the government to reopen so that all of the clinical trials can get back on track before time runs out. NIH has made exceptions to allow only 12 patients with immediately life-threatening illnesses, mostly cancer, into research studies since the beginning of the shutdown.

Smithsonian National Observatory

The massive radio telescope array, Smithsonian National Observatory, is used on a nearly constant basis to map stars within the Milky Way galaxy. Scientists like Mark Reid combine three or four seasons of data to triangulate stellar positions to an incredibly high accuracy. Even with a relatively short government shutdown (in comparison to stellar life cycles) every star that has been observed the last two or three seasons that were scheduled to be observed has to start fresh, and years of data are meaningless unless they are collected in ways that reduce as many variables as possible.

NASA Astronomy

Over 97% of the NASA workforce has remained furloughed without work or pay since the beginning of the shutdown.  While the Hubble Space Telescope has remained in in data collection mode thus far, its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, has been forced to suspend all testing that was planned. This is particularly unfortunate since the main instrument module and three instruments had just started a thermal vacuum testing campaign which finished its initial month of chamber cooling down to 40K.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which is a 747 airplane with a huge infrared telescope onboard, has been grounded since October 1st. There are a number of programs that the grounding has affected, but none greater then the new research involving Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

If you are looking for educational information from the NASA website, you are redirected to the following notice, “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available. We sincerely regret this inconvenience.” Since there are so many NASA employees who have been furloughed, reliable information has been hard to come by since there are  no public relations officers working to confirm or deny rumors of ongoing changes in the current status of programs that were allowed to continue on a skeleton crew. Many non-PR employees who might have the latest information were asked specifically not to speak to the press in any official capacity while on furlough.

The programs that I have pointed out above are just a small number of affected scientific programs by the U.S. government shutdown. Without getting politics involved, I can only hope a resolution is found by Congress as soon as possible, so science research can be salvaged. If you are interested in doing something to help, call your local Congresspeople and let them know how important all science is to our nation. Science needs funding and our government needs to reopen.

Hangout with Astronauts Today

International Space Station Expedition 34 Crew. Pictured on the front row are NASA astronaut Kevin Ford (right), commander; and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, flight engineer. Pictured on the back row (from the left) are NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy, Evgeny Tarelkin and Roman Romanenko, all flight engineers. Image: NASA.
International Space Station Expedition 34 Crew. Pictured on the front row are NASA astronaut Kevin Ford (right), commander; and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, flight engineer. Pictured on the back row (from the left) are NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy, Evgeny Tarelkin and Roman Romanenko, all flight engineers. Photo: NASA/Public Domain

Today, May 23rd, from 3-4 PM EDT, you can join a NASA hosted Google+ hangout with three of the former International Space Station (ISS) astronauts. NASA astronauts Kevin Ford and Tom Marshburn and Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency are back home in Houston, Texas, and undergoing physical rehabilitation after their recent return from their extended time in the nearly weightless environment.

The three are prepared to answer questions about their daily life on the orbiting outpost. As part of their normal onboard operations, the three were involved in scientific experiments, spacewalks, and normal maintenance.

Google+ Hangouts allow as many as 10 people or groups to chat face-to-face, while thousands more can watch the conversation live on Google+ or YouTube. The hangout also will be carried live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

If you have a specific question that you would like to ask, submit it on twitter to the NASA social media team! Simply include #askAstro as part of your tweet, and it will be added to the pool of questions that will be answered. Just before the hangout begins, NASA will also be opening a discussion on its Facebook page for questions to be asked. Remember the more original and unique the question the more likely it is to be chosen.

NASA’s Google+ page:
NASA’s TV Streaming video:

Anakin Skywalker’s New Shoes

Image: Helene McLaughlin
Image: Helene McLaughlin

When Anakin was a young boy, he must have been outfitted with shoes from the Stride Rite on Tatooine. These children’s shoes are the latest in the Star Wars collection offered by Stride Rite. This latest collection was designed especially for the youngling that isn’t sure wether they are destined to be a Jedi or a Sith. The shoes are designed with color morphing lightsabers! Younglings can explore both sides of the force equally before they must choose.

The Stride Rite brand’s famous quality is incomparable to other brands of kids shoes, and their newest collection is no exception. The designers have taken exceptional care to create shoes that can withstand the rigorous activities of my wild and crazy kids. My son is very hard on his shoes and being a very quickly growing four year old, you can imagine how many shoes we go through as a family. Stride Rite shoes are the only brand of shoes that have lasted long enough to be passed down to his younger brother and beyond, this is why I’m always willing to spend $45-56 on a pair of Stride Rite shoes because I know that they will last.

There are three new designs in the Star Wars collection, the Star Wars Morphing sneaker, the Star Wars Jedi to Sith sneakers and the Star Wars Clone Wars Captain Rex 2.0 sneaker. Each sneaker features a new enhanced light system.

Star Wars™ by Stride Rite Morphing Lightsaber Image: Stride Rite
Star Wars™ by Stride Rite Morphing Lightsaber Image: Stride Rite

The Morphing sneaker has a lightsaber that lights up either green or red each time you step, the new side of this being that your child can choose which color light they prefer. I’m thinking of having my 4 year old set his shoes each morning to let me know if he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed or not.

Star Wars™ by Stride Rite Jedi to Sith  Image: Stride Rite
Star Wars™ by Stride Rite Jedi to Sith
Image: Stride Rite


The Jedi to Sith sneaker features Stride Rite exclusive light and dark sensor technology. Anakin’s lightsaber blinks bright blue with each step, however when you enter the shadows or night falls, the lights glow red. These shoes foreshadow Anakin’s turn to the dark side.

Star Wars™ by Stride Rite Captain Rex™ 2.0  Image: Stride Rite
Star Wars™ by Stride Rite Captain Rex™ 2.0
Image: Stride Rite


The Captain Rex 2.0, is an updated version of the popular Clone Wars character shoe. Now with every step the black of Captain Rex’s helmet lights up showing his very own silhouette.



When I asked my son to pick his favorite shoe he carefully looked at each of them, examining all of the buttons and lights and settled on the Morphing sneaker as his favorite. He is now sporting green lightsabers everywhere he goes, although more often then not I’ll find that he has changed them to red by the end of the day. I wonder if I have the next Anakin Skywalker living under my roof.

Stride Rite provided samples of the shoes for review. 

Accidents Happen. It’s SCIENCE!

Mythbuster’s Tory’s Warning Science shirt

On Wednesday the news feeds and Twitter were all aflutter about the Mythbuster team’s wild cannonball. Seems a test firing went awry during a shoot, and a 30-pound cannonball traveling 1,000 feet per second escaped the test site, struck a house 700 yards away, and continued straight through, coming to rest in a parked minivan. No one was injured in the incident, luckily. I’ve read many of the accounts which make it sound like the Mythbuster team were recklessly shooting cannons into an unprotected California neighborhood. Based on everything that I have read, it was a complete accident that no one could have predicted.

No, the Mythbusters weren’t testing the myth of being able to shoot a cannon ball more then two miles and see if it can punch through the side of a house. They were testing a myth to see if objects other then a cannon ball could be shot out of a cannon. I’m having visions of Adam and Jamie dressed as pirates planning on sticking cutlery into the cannon and lighting the fuse, a la Pirates of the Caribbean. Tory Belleci, Kari Byron and Grant Imahara had assembled at a bomb disposal site in Dublin, CA along with a safety supervisor from the Alameda police department. This is a location they have used more then 50 times for this kind of shoot. The idea was to shoot the softball to cantaloupe-sized projectile where it would hit a series of barriers to help it slow down before it reached the ground. On the third firing of this cannon, the cannon ball missed a set of water barrels, crashed straight through a concrete wall, took a bad bounce on a safety berm and bounced off into the local neighborhood. Normally the size of the range and the barriers that had been put in place would easily be enough to slow that size projectile. This time, they didn’t.

What many people don’t understand is that while performing science, accidents can and do happen. The best you can do is mitigate the risks you are aware of ahead of time. It looks to me like a slight miscalculation or mis-setting of the firing angle is the likely culprit that caused the quoted “mis-fire.” The bad bounce after the cinderblock wall was likely a variable that wasn’t considered. When you combine these two events the results seem to be a “wild” cannon ball.  As I was writing this a statement was released by the Mythbusters team that confirmed that the firing angle was too high during this particular shoot.

Here’s a quick lesson in projectile motion. It’s actually very simple to determine where a projectile will land and how long the flight will take. In perfect conditions, without any other forces acting upon the system, all you need to know is the projectile’s initial velocity (vo) and firing angle (θo). (See picture below for labeled vectors and angles.) The Mythbusters often determine the initial velocity with a slow motion camera and measure the firing angle based on their rig design.

  1. Determine the initial velocity vector: Break it into its respective x and y components. 
  2. Then determine its vertical motion (how high it flies) and total elapsed flying time, assuming constant acceleration of gravity.
  3. Then determine the total distance traveled in the x-direction. Due to conservation of momentum, the final velocity should be equal to the initial velocity.

It’s safe to assume that the folks at Mythbusters have done these calculations hundreds of times. It’s also unlikely that they would have been incorrect, especially after two the previous, successful, shots. This was an accident. Although, I’m sure there will be extensive investigations to prove exactly what caused the problem.

What I’m trying to say is that even when you think you have worked out all of the details of a science experiment there can be variables that you never considered in play. It is why an experiment is usually repeated a number of times to find a statistical result. Many times those minor differences are hardly noticeable. However, in this particular instance it would be hard to ignore two damaged houses and a wrecked car. It’s all part of the scientific method. Accidents happen — and that is why we have insurance!

Giving Thanks One Brick at a Time

via GammaSquad

Here at GeekMom, we want to wish all of our American readers a Happy Thanksgiving!

This year make sure to take time to find the perfect turkey!

Lego Turkey by Ben of Kismet Art Blog

Even the most armed turkey tastes good with gravy and stuffing!

“Turkey” Tactical Response and Combat Enforcer by

Although there are a few turkeys that aren’t quite right and should remain in the wild.

LEGO Turkey by Scott Yates – New Technology Examiner

Now that you have found the perfect turkey, time to cook it up. Make sure to have that fire extinguisher handy!

From Titolian Flickr Photo Stream

Once all the trimmings are ready, raise a glass and toast everything that you are thankful for.

Time to feast with friends and family!

“Legoland Thanksgiving Dinner” Photo by Jenn C. on

This is what every table should look like Thursday Night after the festivities.

“The Day After T-day” Model Gal Flickr Photo Stream

Now that we have given proper dues to the turkey, it is time to welcome the Christmas season. Let’s trim the tree!

from ΞLLΞ∩ Flickr Photo Stream

And wait for the big guy!

Lego Santa by Lego Brickbuilders

Nobel Prize in Physics Hits Close to Home

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded yesterday. I have to tell you that I was shocked and thrilled when I heard the announcement on the radio. You see, when I was working at Space Telescope Science Institute, one of my absolute favorite programs that I worked on was a high-z supernova search lead by Adam Riess. I actually discovered a couple of supernovae during that program, and while it was meticulous work, it was incredibly rewarding. The search that I was part of was follow-up to the work for which he earned the Nobel Prize for yesterday. Congratulations to all of the Nobel Prize winners, especially my former boss, Adam Riess!

Yesterday morning’s press release was short, but changed three lives forever.

4 October 2011
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2011
with one half to
Saul Perlmutter
The Supernova Cosmology Project
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of California,
Berkeley, CA, USA
and the other half jointly to
Brian P. Schmidt
The High-z Supernova Search Team
Australian National University,
Weston Creek, Australia
Adam G. Riess
The High-z Supernova Search Team
Johns Hopkins University and Space Telescope Science Institute,
Baltimore, MD, USA
“for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae”

In 1998, the field of cosmology was rocked by the findings of two different research teams, one led by Perlmutter and another led by Schmidt and Riess. These teams simultaneously mapped extremely distant Type Ia supernova in an effort to map the Universe. A Type Ia supernova is an explosion of an old compact star that is as heavy as the Sun but as small as the Earth. These supernova can emit as much light as a whole galaxy.

Combined, the two research teams found over 50 distant supernovae whose light was weaker than expected — a sign that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. The fact that both teams came to the same conclusion at about the same time was confirmation that both teams had overcome the numerous obstacles to observing extremely distant supernovae. It had been widely accepted for nearly 100 years that the Universe has been steadily expanding since the Big Bang. This discovery stated that the expansion is accelerating over time, implying that at some point in the extremely distant future the Universe will end in ice.

It is theorized that this acceleration of expansion is due to dark energy. Of course, defining dark energy is one of the driving forces in physics today. However, it is widely accepted that nearly 75% of the known universe is filled with dark energy. What does that mean? That we have so much more to learn about our Universe.

One of the most famous Type 1a Supernova: Eta Carina

Tips for Dating Geeks

GeekMom Chaos Mandy and her date (now her husband)

Who knew dating a geek could be so confusing or controversial? GeekMom Ruth‘s post concerning Alyssa Bereznak’s online rant about her date with Jon Finkel, was just the tip of the iceberg. I’d bet every geek out there has had to deal with an “Alyssa” from time to time in the awkwardness of dating, mind you few of those experiences are made public on a blog.

Geek is a very broad term and really only means that someone is passionately involved with something. Geeks come in all shapes and sizes and their interests are incredibly diverse, just ask Scott Johnson the creator of The 56 Geek Project.

It got me thinking, what advice would I give my children if they ever found themselves dating a person they didn’t understand? Conversation on a first date can be excruciating, wouldn’t it be nice to have a little insight into the interests of the person across the table? Sometimes breaking the ice is all it takes to get a geek to break out of their shell and become comfortable with the situation they are in.

So here it is, a primer. Tips for dating the:

  • Astrophysics Geek: When units are measured in lightyears and parsecs, pi equals 3.
  • Trek Geek: Kirk or Picard? You must have an answer, it will come up and its important.
  • Jedi Geek: Han shot first.
  • Apple Geek: Its release is purely speculative, no one knows what it will actually look like, no one knows what it will actually do, but its been pre-ordered.
  • Engineering Geek: Duct tape can fix everything, and yes they have it with them.
  • Food Geek: Do not ask for steak sauce with your $100 steak.
  • Hitchhikers Guide Geek: 42 is the answer.
  • Linux Geek: That source could be a little more open.
  • Board Gaming Geek: No, you can’t put your stuff in their trunk, its full of games.
  • Physics Geek: A cow is simply a series of spheres.
  • Doctor Who Geek: Bow ties  are cool.
  • Conspiracy Geek: Gas prices too high? Global Warming? Fluorinated Water? Burnt the toast? All the Illuminati.
  • Electronics Geek: If you just add one component to that clock it could also bake bread.
  • Simpsons Geek: They are so smart, S-M-R-T, I mean S-M-A-R-T.
  • Photography Geek: Yes thats a camera in their pocket, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happy to see you as well.

Mind you this is an incredibly short list of the possible geeky realms, only the ones that I (and my husband GeekDad Brian McLaughlin) are personally familiar with.

If you are a geek, what one tidbit would be imperative to getting to know you?

GeekMom Home Experiment: Can You Spot an Earthquake?

From Seismograph from Aug. 23, 2011 Virginia Earthquake

I have now experienced two earthquakes in my life, the first on July 16, 2010, the same morning my son was born, and again yesterday, August 23, 2011. I never thought that living on the East Coast that I’d ever rock the way that I did today. My two-year-old thought that he was on a roller coaster, and loved it. On the other hand, my heart was pounding for hours after the quake.

I know that I always love looking at the scientific data after an earthquake, especially looking at seismograph strips where you can see where the earth moved and each subsequent aftershock. A seismograph is an instrument used by seismologists (earthquake scientists) to record the strength or intensity of earthquakes. Seismologists use a seismograph recorded strip to determine the intensity of the initial quake (5.8 on the Richter scale) and its subsequent aftershocks. Seismologists can also gather more information from a seismograph than just intensity; they are trained to analyze all of the bumps and movements to determine what kind of tectonic movement caused the quake, whether it is a dip slip fault or a strike slip fault.

Building a home seismograph is pretty easy. (Not to mention it will give your kids something to do if school has been cancelled because of East Coast Quake 2011.)

Directions to make your seismograph:

Materials: scissors, shoebox with a lid, a heavy weight, masking tape, a pencil with an eraser, a weight for the pencil like nails or washers, Playdoh or clay, two paper clips, string and 2 (or more) sheets of paper.

  1. Carefully cut a tiny slit in the middle near one end of the shoebox lid.
  2. Place the open box upright, on one end, and put something small and heavy inside to keep it in position.
  3. Tape the lid onto the top of the box forming an upside-down “L” with the slit in the lid facing away from the box.
  4. Attach the weights to the pencil near the sharpened end, make sure not to cover the point. Tape the weights tightly to the pencil. A small piece of clay will keep the weights from slipping off. The weights must be fairly heavy so the seismograph recorder pencil will make good contact with the paper and draw fairly dark drag lines on it.
  5. Open one end of a paper clip and push it securely into the eraser end of the pencil. Tie the string to the unopened end of the clip.
  6. Attach the second paperclip to the other end of the string, and wind the string around the paperclip like you would wind kite string.
  7. Slip the top clip through the slit and adjust the pencil marker so the tip rests on the table, not perfectly straight, but dragging as it moves.
  8. Slip the remaining string under one side of the clasp to fasten the upright pencil into place.
  9. Cut each sheet of paper into thirds lengthwise. These strips will act as your roll paper and record your “earthquake movements”.

Time to record an “earthquake”!

Place a paper strip against the box (below the slit you made in the lid) and slowly pull the strip forward.

  • Notice how straight the drawn line is as you move the strip of paper.

Have someone else bump and shake the table as you pull the paper strips under the dragging pencil marker.

  • Notice how your seismograph makes sideways and up and down movements.

Compare the separate strips of paper.

  • How do the lines differ? how do they show the effects of movement? Could you learn to recognize the difference between a shake and a bump of the table?
Seismograph created by Students at John F. Pattie Elementary School in Dumfries, Virginia

Potty Weekend: Because An App Can’t Do This…

Image by Artnow314 Licensed under Creative Commons

I’m scared, no… terrified. There it is on the horizon. Looming in the not so distant future. If humans can build a rocket to take astronauts to the moon why can’t they build something to make this process painless. Potty training….. there I said the two words that every parent fears.

I have a little boy who is almost three years old and, honestly, I’ve tried to pretend that he would wake up one morning and in a confident voice tell me “Mother Dear, I do not require diapers anymore, thank you for your years of service.” Yeah, I know I’m delusional but it could happen… right?

We bought a couple potty chairs ages ago and they have been sitting in the bathrooms, collecting dust, waiting for their impending use. My son likes to take them apart more then he likes to sit on it to use it appropriately. We picked out underwear in a variety of designs including Lego Star Wars, Pixar movies, and Marvel Super Heros. We are learning that they aren’t actually headgear.

While reading all of the potty training books I find my mind wandering to more pleasurable thoughts like running away from killer zombies or being covered in spiders. I think I’ve reread those manuals a dozen times. However, each time I close the book in disbelief that my child will EVER be out of diapers. I have nightmares of sending my sons off to their senior proms sporting the largest possible size of Pamper’s Cruisers.

In reality I know that it will be easy when he is ready but my kid is stubborn and willful. He laughs at the status quo. He knows that the status is not quo. I ask if he has pooped his obviously dirty diaper and he looks me in the eyes and says, “um….. nope”.

Ah well, my day is coming and fast. Time to pull out the big guns… or attach an orange portal to his underpants and a blue portal to the underside of a toilet seat. If only it could be that easy. Instead the reality is that there will be SO many accidents… and SO many successes.

The reality of potty training is it is the last step of my son’s babyhood. In reality that is what I am dreading more then anything else. So… I suppose it is time to create a game plan. This weekend the GeekMom’s are going to help anyone dealing with potty training with a few experiences of their own.

For those of you yet to potty train, good luck, I’m right there with you. For those of you that have been through the gauntlet and survived, please share your experience with the rest of us.

Shuttle Countdown T-5 Days: A Tribute to Endeavour

Graphic design credit: NASA/Amy Lombardo. NASA publication number: SP-2010-08-165-KSC

Endeavour is the youngest of all of the orbiters, having been authorized for construction in 1987 as a replacement to the Challenger orbiter.  Endeavour (OV-105) arrived to Kennedy Space Center for final check-out and testing in May of 1991.

Endeavour name was the result of a national public contest of elementary and secondary school students. They were asked to choose a name based on an exploratory or research maritime vessel. In May of 1989, President George Bush announced the winning name in a public address. Endeavour was named after an 18th century research vessel, the HMS Endeavour, commanded by British explorer James Cook. Cook was an experienced seaman, navigator and amateur astronomer. He commanded a crew of 93 men, including 11 scientists and artists, to cross the South Pacific in 1768.

Cook’s main objective on this mission was to measure the transiting period of Venus. This period could then be used to determine the accurate distance between the Earth and the sun, and thus allow for many other amazing discoveries in the universe. Cook’s mission was wildly successful. He not only was able to accurately calculate the transiting period of the sun, he also managed to accurately map Australia and New Zealand. Cook also established the usefulness of including scientists on voyages of exploration when they navigated the Great Barrier Reef and were able to identify and illustrate a massive number of plant and animal species. This namesake was well chosen as Endeavour’s missions were destined to be filled with new scientific findings and new engineering challenges.

Endeavour’s first launch was on May 7, 1992 with STS-41, a mission with many scheduled firsts. The mission’s main objective was to recapture a communications satellite (INTELSAT VI), repair it and re-release it. After many suggestions from the public on how to capture the satellite, a solution was devised and tested, and the satellite was captured. The repair procedure included an unprecedented three-man space walk, and it was released back to fly again in the correct orbit. This mission was the first time that four spacewalks had ever been conducted within the same mission. Due to its success, the mission was extended an extra two days to complete additional mission objectives. When STS-41 landed, it was the first time that a space orbiter used the drag chute during landing — one of many technical improvements made to Endeavour when it was built.

Other improvements that were made during upgrades during Endeavour’s lifetime were modifications to the cockpit and the installation of a three-string GPS system designed to allow the shuttle to land at any landing strip in the world that is long enough. The new cockpit is referred to as the “glass cockpit,” It is a full color touchscreen display that improves information and interaction between the crew and the orbiter.

The first African-American woman astronaut, Mae Jemison, was brought into space on the mission STS-47 on September 12, 1992. The STS-118 mission, the first for Endeavour following a lengthy refit, included astronaut Barbara Morgan, formerly assigned to the Educator Astronaut program, but now a full member of the Astronaut Corps, as part of the crew. Morgan was the backup for Christa McAullife on the ill-fated STS-51-L mission.

Endeavour’s final flight, STS-134, launched on May 16, 2011 after months of delays due to hardware problems, and then due to scheduling conflicts aboard the International Space Station. When Endeavour returned on June 1, 2011, it had logged 299 days in space and 122,853,121 million miles in flight. After a full decommissioning, Endeavour will go to the California Science Center for permanent display. Endeavour’s Canadarm will be removed and sent to a yet-to-be-determined museum in Canada, while the other two Canadarms will remain in their respective shuttles.


Shuttle Countdown T-7 Days: A Tribute to Discovery

Graphic design credit: NASA/Amy Lombardo. NASA publication number: SP-2010-08-164-KSC

The Discovery space shuttle was the third space rated orbiter in the NASA fleet after Columbia and Challenger. Before its retirement earlier this year, it was the shuttle fleets leader at 39 missions.

Discovery was named after three very historic ships in history. Henry Hudson’s Discovery was used in the 1609 founding of Jamestown and it is also famous for Hudson’s 1610-1611 search for the Northwest Passage. The HMS Discovery which was the ship that carried Captain George Nares on the British expedition to the North Pole in 1875-1876. Finally, the RRS Discovery was the main ship of the “Discovery Expedition” lead by Scott and Shackelton to Antarctica.

Discovery (OV-103) was originally delivered to Kennedy Space Center for final verification in November 1983. Having benefited from lessons learned in the construction and testing of Enterprise, Columbia and Challenger, at rollout, its weight was some 6,870 pounds less than Columbia. Its first launch was August 30, 1984 with STS-41-D, a mission planned to deploy three communications satellites. Its final touchdown at Kennedy Space Center was on March 9, 2011 at 10:57 am CST at the end of STS-133.

During its tenure as the oldest remaining shuttle in the fleet, it was best known for its deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) on STS-31, in April of 1990. Discovery also ferried the second and third HST servicing missions to space.

Discovery is know for having been chosen as the Return to Flight orbiter twice. The first time in 1988,more then two years after the Challenger accident, with STS-26 and a launch of another TDRS satellite. Then a second time in 2005, more than 2 years after the Columbia disaster, with STS-114 and testing of the new procedures to repair orbiters while in flight.

Discovery was host to Mercury astronaut John Glenn, who was 77 at the time, back into space during STS-95 on October 29, 1998, making him the oldest person to go into space.

Discovery is currently undergoing an extensive decommissioning program that will prepare it for museum viewing. Sometime in 2012, Discovery will be placed for permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

Shuttle Countdown T-9 Days: A Tribute to Challenger

Graphic design credit: NASA/Lynda Brammer. NASA publication number: SP-2010-08-162-KSC

Challenger… simply the word evokes memories of one of the worst disasters of the NASA space program. While we will always remember that final mission, Challenger’s legacy is so much bigger.

In the late 70’s Challenger, then known as STA-099, was constructed as a testbed vehicle to test NASA’s new lighter airframe. STA-099 was subjected to over a year of intense vibration and thermal testing before it was approved for space flight conversion. In 1979, shuttle orbiter manufacturer Rockwell started work to convert STA-099 into a space-rated orbiter, now known as OV-099. This was Rockwell’s second orbiter — the first was Enterprise — and its first that was space-rated.

The second orbiter in NASA’s space shuttle fleet, OV-099 arrived at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida in July 1982. The Challenger space orbiter was named after a British naval research vessel HMS Challenger that sailed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans during the 1870s.

Challenger’s maiden voyage to space was April 6, 1983, on STS-6. STS-6 is most well known for the first spacewalk of the shuttle program and the deployment of the first satellite of the Tracking and Data Relay System (TDRS) constellation.

Challenger was the first orbiter to carry a woman into space, Sally Ride, on STS-7, and was the orbiter which first carried two women into space at the same time on STS-41G.

Challenger was the first orbiter to launch and land at night on STS-8, and it was the first to land at KSC at the conclusion of STS-41-C. Challenger was host to many of the Spacelab missions as well as countless other scientific experiments and satellite deployments in its short lifespan.

Challenger’s service to the NASA space program abruptly ended on the very cold morning of January 28, 1986. A failure of an O-ring on the right solid rocket booster 73 seconds into the STS-51-L flight caused a catastrophic explosion that lead to the loss of all seven astronauts on board as well as Challenger herself.

STS-51-L was to host the Teacher in Space program. Christa McAuliffe‘s journey into space was hugely anticipated by school age children, and she was scheduled to make a live broadcast from space two days into the flight. Many schools had decided to view the launch in the classroom live, and so when Challenger exploded school children were among the very first to know. They had to process the gravity of what they had just witnessed first hand, and it was profound. The loss of Challenger led to a nearly four-year hiatus of the shuttle program, and numerous changes in the shuttle safety protocols.

While it’s been over 25 years since Challenger last took to the sky, it still holds a very special place in the hearts of many of us. Its legacy will live on long after the end of the shuttle program.