Zombie Starfish: Nature’s Undeadliest Catch

My four-year-old is really interested in sea creatures and in zombies. One of her very favorite water dwellers is the mysterious and lovely Sea Star (or the star formally known as fish).

In our morning search on Youtube we came across a true-to-life ‘Zombie Starfish’ mash up that peaked Ella’s curiosity. The video is from a BBC-two popular show called Nature’s Weirdest Events.

Just what is happening here? The images shows what looks to be Sea Stars actually ripping off their own limbs. If that wasn’t alarming enough, those limbs then look to crawl away, zombie like on their own. Could this be a real life undeadliest catch happening on the West Coast from Alaska to Mexico? My daughter wanted to know more. Continue reading Zombie Starfish: Nature’s Undeadliest Catch

Repopulate! Keeping Your Gut Healthy On Antibiotics

My house has the Two Week Rule: no doctor unless the illness is getting worse after two weeks. Unfortunately, both my daughter and I passed that two-week mark for completely different bacterial infections, and found ourselves taking antibiotics. I was worried.

Both of us have digestive problems and antibiotics are harsh on that system. So I read some of my nutrition books, chatted with friends and family, and flipped through the web for advice. Here is what I found:

Yes, antibiotics can cause stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and exacerbate existing intestinal problems. Why? Because antibiotics kill bacteria, but they don’t stop with just the infection plaguing you, they wipe out the beneficial bacteria in other parts of your body as well.

Our gut is filled with an effective and diverse population of microorganisms (also called flora) that help us digest our food to get the nutrients we need. You can put all the healthy food in your mouth you want, but unless your body is breaking it down and absorbing the vitamins and minerals, you will become ill and eventually die. Killing off our natural digestive ecosystem with antibiotics is a dangerous side effect, especially for those prone to stomach upset. Continue reading Repopulate! Keeping Your Gut Healthy On Antibiotics

If You Can Dance, You Can Code

Can you shimmy? Can you shake?
Can you step-clap-twirl to the right then the left?
Can you do the Hokey Pokey and turn yourself around?
Because that’s what it’s all about.

Coding, that is. Behind the intimidating circuitry hidden inside the impersonal hardshell exterior known as computers is an elegant simplicity that can unlock countless possibilities limited only by your imagination. The beauty of it is that it is so fundamentally easy to understand, yet capable of doing so, so much. Much like dancing.
Continue reading If You Can Dance, You Can Code

Don’t Be Afraid to Grieve for Professor Snape

Twenty years ago I was in the same room as Alan Rickman. It was 1994, in between my first and second years of college, and I was in Oxford, England, studying with the British American Drama Academy. During the five-week summer program I was privileged to attend Master Classes and Lectures given by various British actors such as Fiona Shaw, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Irons — and Alan Rickman.

Unlike the others, he was completely disinterested in inspiring us as young and hungry acting students. Although it was years before he took the role, he was very like Professor Snape: arrogant, vaguely bored, amused by our passion, deeply British, and utterly magnetic.

I will never forget it. Continue reading Don’t Be Afraid to Grieve for Professor Snape

Kitchin’ Witchin’: Why Does Yeast Make Things Rise?

“Why” is a common question in our home as I’m sure it is in yours. Right now, the kidlets still think I’m a genius because I can read more easily and faster than they can, though I know those days are rapidly coming to a close. And thank goodness for the internet and the quick Google… I think their tiny little heads would explode if they had to wait for me to look something up in a book.

One of the activities we enjoy most is baking and both kids, but Stinky 2 especially, is starting to express an interest in why things happen the way they do in the baking process. So, this is really me crib sheeting various answers before the fact. Hopefully, they’ll come in handy for you too.

Why Does Yeast Make Things Rise?

Yeast is a single celled fungus. That’s right, a fungus. For those of you who hate mushrooms but love bread, I have news for you.

Fungus. Continue reading Kitchin’ Witchin’: Why Does Yeast Make Things Rise?

Interview: PlayStation First and the Gaming Community

Hour of Code has come and gone; the reviews are jumping all around the interwebs (my own is coming shortly). But was it enough for your kids? Did your spawnlings savour the taste of coding … and then ask for more? And is coding really enough for them to start their career in-game development?

Continue reading Interview: PlayStation First and the Gaming Community

Falling for Chuck, Part Two: NIPS – a Screen, Not a Diagnostic

To recap: we got word very abruptly from our OB that one of the test results of a Non-Invasive Prenatal Screen (NIPS) had come back positive for Down Syndrome. As a writer I research everything. I Googled the test and between articles and speaking with Heather Bradley of Down Syndrome Diagnosis Network I learned that my odds were likely far lower.

On my OB’s advice, we went to meet with a genetic counselor who also told us very firmly that there was a 99% chance of the baby having Down Syndrome. She gave us no information about Down Syndrome itself. All she had to offer for our situation was her belief that we should have an amnio. When I told her I wasn’t interested she talked over me “Or, right, you don’t abort for religious reasons.” I told her that I wasn’t having the amnio for medical reasons, but I felt like I was trapped in an absurdist play where I was speaking and no one could hear my voice. Continue reading Falling for Chuck, Part Two: NIPS – a Screen, Not a Diagnostic

Half Hour of Code, Montessori Style: Check Out This Free Binary Counter

When I approached my four-year old’s teacher about Hour of Code, she invited me into the classroom to do a half hour lesson. My little ballerina goes to a Montessori, so the classroom is computer free.

“How hard can it be,” I thought. “I will just grab something off the internet and teach from that.”

So I told the teacher that I would be happy to do this.

I discovered how hard it is to plan a lesson for four-year-olds, both when following a lesson plan and making a new one.

I also created a binary counter that you can download and use with your children.

Counter
Copyright Claire Jennings

After giving a successful lesson on counting in binary and the Divide and Conquer algorithm, I have a new found respect for preschool teachers.

Continue reading Half Hour of Code, Montessori Style: Check Out This Free Binary Counter

Lessons From a First-Time Mini Maker Faire Exhibitor

The excitement in our household was barely containable. Anticipation, joy, and dreams of what could be all radiated from the two geeks who live with me.

What caused such enthusiasm, you ask? Was it Christmas? Someone’s birthday? An anniversary, perhaps? The new Star Wars movie?

No, my friends. It was the announcement that Barnes & Noble, in partnership with Make Magazine, was going to be hosting a Mini Maker Faire at every single store location in the U.S. Continue reading Lessons From a First-Time Mini Maker Faire Exhibitor

Keeping Teen Brains Safe

Image by Luke Maxwell

I have a disconcerting memory from when I was in my early twenties: I was reading an article in a magazine about how the adolescent brain is still changing and developing longer than most people realize. The article had an example which showed a photo of a woman. According to the article, adolescents saw anger while adults saw fear. I stared and stared at the photo but could not see fear instead of anger—even knowing what it was!

I was startled into realizing that no matter what stage of life I was in at the moment, my brain was not done yet. Was that a relief that any mistakes were the fault of not-full-adulthood? Or should I second guess all my decisions now? I decided not to worry about it, shrugged and put it out of my still-developing mind. Continue reading Keeping Teen Brains Safe

The Davis Instruments Weather Box Fills My Need for Data

While I wouldn’t call myself a “weather geek” per se, meteorology and weather have interested me since at least high school. I love looking at weather maps, learning about low and high pressures, knowing what the marks on wind direction maps mean, and parsing the extensive data tables that come out of weather records.

Seeing how weather changes over a year for a particular spot really helps me get a feel of a place. Is it a wet winter or a rainy summer? Does it get above freezing during the winter? Is there a monsoon season? How likely are there to be mosquitoes (see: rainfall, among other things)? I’ve especially enjoyed how much more accurate weather forecasting has gotten over my (42 year) lifetime.

Before I got to try out the Davis Instruments Weather Box recently, the closest I ever got to a weather station was an outdoor temperature probe that was connected to an indoor wall clock. I loved weather data but had never had my own data to play with. So when the Weather Box arrived in the mail, I was excited to set it up. My 14-year-old daughter, equally excited, made me wait until she was available before getting started. She’s the type of weather geek who keeps a cloud journal.

Continue reading The Davis Instruments Weather Box Fills My Need for Data

A Healthcare Headache

I am extremely grateful for the many, many years we have had of employer-provided healthcare. We decided to look at the Pennsylvania healthcare exchange and find a plan that works for our family of 6 should we need to purchase our own coverage.

But I found myself staring blankly at the screen, trying to figure out which plan would provide for us without bankrupting us. Continue reading A Healthcare Headache

The Hour of Code Awakens: Build Your Own Game With Star Wars

Remember in my PAX Review how I mentioned that Disney Infinity was going to be even bigger—especially with anything Star Wars related? Well, this is it.

Disney is teaming up with Code.org for this year’s Hour of Code and it is going to be big: Coding. Gaming. And, best of all, sharing!!

Continue reading The Hour of Code Awakens: Build Your Own Game With Star Wars

Tech Support for Curious Kids (and Low-Tech Parents)

One Saturday a month, dozens of kids from across the New York metro area, with parents in tow, attend free learn-to-code workshops run by CoderDojo NYC. 

Kids as young as six years old are let loose to explore computer science with tech industry pros who volunteer as mentors.

I discovered CoderDojo NYC in 2013 during an otherwise fruitless search for coding classes for my tech-enthusiastic, (then) nine-year-old daughter. We made the trek into Manhattan for a November workshop, not knowing what to expect. After a few hours of playing with binary code, we were both hooked.

And I’m not alone. Despite the quiet and free wi-fi in designated “parent zones,” many adults opt to hang out on the workshop floor to help their kids embrace their inner geek and, in some cases, because they’re tech-curious, too. Continue reading Tech Support for Curious Kids (and Low-Tech Parents)

Pink Is Just Light Red

“It clashes.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Pink and red clash.”
“Do blue and light blue clash? Green and light green?”
“That’s different.”
“Why?! Pink it just light red! We’ve been culturally brainwashed to see pink as a completely different color!”
“Mom…”

I argued this with my daughter. She agreed that it was strange that light red had its own name, but pointed out “grey” was also light black with its own name. I told her grey had its own cultural preconceptions as well and technically isn’t a color. It also depends if you’re talking about pigment or light.

She is an art student and we debated color and culture. She told me about a lecture she heard on how indigo was included in the rainbow. (There needed to be seven colors since that’s a super-duper-special number, and purple is only one color so it was made into two: indigo and violet.)

We touched on how we see color in the first place, but then how language shapes our perception of color. A study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology looking at color and language from children in different cultures concluded: “Across cultures, the children acquired color terms the same way: They gradually and with some effort moved from an uncategorized organization of color, based on a continuum of perceptual similarity, to structured categories that varied across languages and cultures. Over time, language wielded increasing influence on how children categorized and remembered colors.”

Continue reading Pink Is Just Light Red

Myth, Busted! How ‘Mythbusters’ Helped Me Embrace Science Again

It was late 2004.

In November, I’d given birth to my firstborn son. By December, it was often cold and snowy, Western New York being what it is, and we’d been cautioned to keep the baby indoors and away from people for his first few months. Worried first-time parents with an infant with a heart defect, we took this advice to heart.

My husband had his job. Me? I was off work for the first time in more than a decade. I had Jim to care for, of course, but he was a remarkably laid-back baby. I was used to noisy newsrooms, constant activity, people all around me.

I was bored out of my mind.

I read everything I could get my hands on. I picked up a scrapbooking habit. I even started watching more TV than usual and I am not a TV person. I devoured odd stuff: cartoons, documentaries, cooking shows. (My love for Good Eats also dates from this time.)

Then, aimlessly channel-surfing while my son slept in my arms, I came across a show on the Discovery Channel.

“Huh,” I thought. (I actually remember thinking this.) “I like urban legends. Could be interesting.

What are they doing to that elevator?”

Years later, that baby is about to turn 11 years old. And that TV show is ending.

Continue reading Myth, Busted! How ‘Mythbusters’ Helped Me Embrace Science Again

50 Ways to Fight Nature Deficit Disorder This Fall and Winter

You can’t go very far these days without hearing about Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but have you heard of Nature-Deficit Disorder?

In his best-selling book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit DisorderRichard Louv explores research linking children’s health and well-being to direct exposure to nature.

The reality is, nowadays, our children are better able to identify jungle and zoo animals than the animals that reside in their own backyard.

In this age of screens, our nation’s children are not getting out there and this has a direct impact on their health and happiness. And, lest you think nature only benefits children, Louv shares the benefits for adults in his book, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age.

After reading Louv’s books, you won’t want to come inside. Louv uses research to show the many benefits of time spent in nature, including: Continue reading 50 Ways to Fight Nature Deficit Disorder This Fall and Winter

Curiosity Killed the Furby, the Cell Phone, and the Laptop

Furby horrifies me.

I was NEVER a fan, and my kids knew it. My daughter, the evil genius that she is, would place Furby in my dresser drawers. As I would put away laundry, Furby would wake up and start talking. Naturally I would start screaming when my undergarments voiced a yawn and cried about hunger pains.

Sometimes I wonder if my mom bought my daughter a Furby as retribution for all the horrible things I did in my childhood. So, when I discovered that my son took Furby apart to see the components that made it function, I wasn’t as mad as I should have been.

I didn’t know it at the time, but deconstructed Furby was the beginning of our journey to harness my son’s curiosity. Fortune favored me because I eventually stumbled upon a geeky dad with the answer to my problem.

Continue reading Curiosity Killed the Furby, the Cell Phone, and the Laptop

An Acrostic Poem In Honor of Ada Lovelace

I have to admit that when I first heard the name of Ada Lovelace, I had to look her up. When girls and women had few options outside the home, Ada followed her dreams, studied mathematics and became the world’s first computer programmer.

It’s awesome to see so many women who’ve made vast contributions to the world finally coming to light. And it’s even more awesome that my friend, Laurie Wallmark, got to tell her story in Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

In honor of the book’s release, Laure composed an acrostic poem to Ada:

A proper Victorian gentlewoman,
Determined to become
A professional mathematician.

Lady Ada Lovelace,
Of noble birth, a
Visionary,
Excited by the marvels of the Industrial Age.
Lord Byron’s daughter,
Appreciator of technology, the world’s first
Computer programmer and an
Exceptional mathematician.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Of course I had to plague Laurie to pen an acrostic poem to describe her debut picture book.

Laurie  is one of my oldest friends in NJSCBWI (the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Our resident technical wizard, Laurie maintains the chapter website and builds the online forms that make registering for events and workshops so easy for our membership.

You can find out more about the book and Laurie at her website, or on Facebook and Twitter.

Starting From Scratch: Developing Interest

Teaching kids coding is one of the current buzz topics in schools, and rightly so. Programming is a vital skill, so much so that the National Curriculum in the UK—the government’s official guidelines on what schools are required to teach—has recently been updated to include the subject from a very young age.

My six year old has already come home talking about debugging algorithms, words I never used in all my years of schooling. I wanted to be involved in this journey with him and this new post series will follow our adventures in learning more about robotics, programming and more.

Continue reading Starting From Scratch: Developing Interest

A Girl and The “Apple Demon” – My First MacBook Pro

The Apple Demon. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
The Apple Demon. \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

This is a story about a girl name Dakster and her adventure into Apple Land.

Dakster loved Windows computers more than anything. They’re shiny. They’re easy to use. And if they break, her degree in Computer Engineering and day job as a Network Administrator gave her the skills to either fix it or turn it into a toaster.

She can take a computer apart, put it back together, and get it working again quicker than most people can take apart a pen and put it back in working condition. She’s tamed servers, copiers, laptops, and desktop PCs with her mad computer skills that she’s obtained over her 15 years of working with Windows computers. Continue reading A Girl and The “Apple Demon” – My First MacBook Pro

Change Movie Quotes With Science—The best tweets of #ScienceAMovieQuote

A little taste of #ScienceAMovieQuote. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.
A little taste of #ScienceAMovieQuote. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

Sometimes the trending Twitter hashtags make lose my faith in humanity, and sometimes they make very happy. The latter happened last night when I found #ScienceAMovieQuote trending. That’s people turning famous movie quotes into geekier alternatives by replacing one word (or a few) with something more scientific.

Here’s my favorites thus far! (And yes, I included my own somewhere in there, because I’m cocky like that.)

GeekMom Is On Instagram!

Follow us on Instagram @GeekMomBlog. Logo courtesy of Instagram.
Follow us on Instagram. Logo courtesy of Instagram.

GeekMom has joined Instagram as @GeekMomBlog! Follow us to see the products we’re loving right now, events we’re attending, great DIYs, and some old favorites from our archives.

We’ll be kicking things off with some back-to-school ideas and photos from PAX Prime this weekend. We’ll also be at DragonCon!

Tag your geeky photos #geekmomblog so we can see your geeky adventures, too.

Create Your Own SumoBots Battle

Sumobot Teamwork
SumoBot teamwork. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

There was a lot of fanfare in our house earlier this summer when BattleBots returned to TV. In our home, watching the show turned into a family event, with friendly bets on which bots would continue on in the competition. If you walked by our house during an episode, I’m sure you would have wondered what all the shouting and commotion was about. If you missed out on the excitement, you can read weekly recaps on GeekDad. And if you want to create your own competition, read on to get the scoop on how you can use Lego Mindstorms robotics to create your own robot battles.

Last year, after our FIRST Lego League (FLL) competition season came to an end in November, our team wanted to move forward with more robotics fun and activities. Engaging in a SumoBot competition seemed like a great idea, and we set out to learn all things Sumo.

If you’re not familiar, the art of robot Sumo is modeled after the sport of Sumo. You put two robots, created following a given specification, into a round ring, and the robots try to push each other out. The first robot out loses. The robots can vary in size from fitting inside a 7-by-7-inch cube to much bigger. There may be weight restrictions along with the number of sensors and motors that may be used. The ring, or arena, can vary in size but is often 3- or 4-feet wide and either white with a black outer 2-inch ring or black with a white outer 2-inch ring. The robots will often have tools mounted on them to push or move the other robot out of the ring.

Our team consulted Phil Malone’s SuGo website for guidance and ended up participating in a contest following a set of rules outlined by Appalachian State at the NC Science Festival. Don’t get hung up on the rules; just make sure everyone participating is following the same ones.

So what do you need to get started? Well, you need at least two kids or competitors, two robots, an arena, and some agreed-upon rules. Just make sure to nail down the rules and equipment you are going to use before proceeding.

Sumobot Arena Construction
SumoBot arena construction. Photos: Maryann Goldman.

You can either buy a SumoBot ring or make your own. I was crazy lucky and noticed a round piece of wood sitting on the side of the road. It had obviously fallen off a truck, and it was a little smashed, but it still looked usable and was small enough for me to get in my minivan on my own. My luck continued when I gave my guy the specifications for the ring, and a short time later, I had an awesome SumoBot arena. He trimmed the wood, sanded the platform, and painted it. You don’t have to have woodworking skills or lots of money to spend, though. The ring does not have to be raised off the ground. You could make a ring out of poster board or cardboard, some duct tape, and paint.

Sumobot Designs
SumoBot designs. Photos: Maryann Goldman.

You need to come up with a design for your robot. Do you want your robot to be lightweight, small, and dash around the ring and the opponent quickly? Or, maybe you want your robot to be as large and heavy as possible and attempt to overpower the opponent. Perhaps something in the middle is appropriate. Our team started out with a simple SumoBot and then made modifications. You could use the same robot from your FLL competition. As long as it follows the weight, size, and sensor/motor rules, let your imagination and personal experience guide you. Some of the kids on our team really wanted to test a robot with tracks against a robot with wheels to see which would perform better. The kids followed the TRACK3r building instructions, made a few modifications such as mounting the ultrasonic sensor on the front, and then tested against our simple SumoBot. Our results showed that wheels work better than tracks. TRACK3r kept trying to climb his opponent instead of push him out of the ring.

Sumobots Under Construction
SumoBots under construction. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Once you have a SumoBot to test out, you’ll need to write a program to run him. Phil Malone’s website has a wonderfully sophisticated program that you can review, dissect, and run to get started. I found it to be of immense help to me, although it was a little too complicated for my kids. I encouraged them to study Phil’s program and to then create their own program keeping in mind several factors:

  1. The robot has to stay moving at all times once the match starts.
  2. The robot has to stay inside the ring.
  3. The robot should try to find and push the opponent out of the ring.
SumoBot Competition
SumoBot competition. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Our program ended up being a stripped down version of Phil’s program. Move out of the starting box to the left or right, as indicated by the judge. We used two programs to accomplish this; one had a hard-coded left turn, and the other had a hard-coded right turn. The rest of the programs were identical. Start moving forward and stay moving forward until you see the arena boundary (a white line, in our case) or the opponent. If you encounter the white line, back up, turn, and resume moving forward. If you encounter the opponent, speed up and push forward, trying to knock your opponent out. You will also need to keep an eye out for the white line while pushing. It doesn’t sound terribly complicated, but it is. A loop along with an impressive switch (case) statement are required.

SumoEyes from Mindsensors. Photo: Mindsensors.
SumoEyes from MindSensors. Photo: MindSensors.

Your program will need to use the infrared, ultrasonic, or SumoEyes sensor to detect the opponent. Although not genuine Lego, the SumoEyes sensor is a lot of fun to use. It will allow your robot to not only see the opponent when he’s directly in front of you, but also when he’s to the right or left. We were not able to compete with SumoEyes, but we sure did have a lot of fun playing around with the SumoEyes sensor from MindSensors within our own team.

Our FLL team found preparing and competing with SumoBots to be very exciting. The kids really got into the competition of trying to decide on the best SumoBot design. They loved cheering for their SumoBot to win. The whole experience was a pleasant break from the more vigorous FLL season.

Check out this video of our SumoBot in action at the competition this year! 1. 2. 3. Sumo!

Summer Science Fun: Shooting Star Party

Photo Courtesy © Grand Canyon National Park, licensed by CC BY 2.0

Summer nights are more than ideal for heading outside to stargaze. Every summer, the night sky lights up with the Perseids meteor shower, a perfect opportunity to watch the stars. This year promises one of the best shows yet, with the peak night predicted for August 13 paired with a new moon. Continue reading Summer Science Fun: Shooting Star Party

10 Geeky Butterfly Facts to Share With Your Kids

Eastern tiger swallowtail on butterfly bush. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Eastern tiger swallowtail on butterfly bush. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Summer vacation provides a fantastic opportunity to spend some time with your kids learning about nature. I know it’s hot out there in August, and that it may take some extra motivation for you and your kids to leave the comfort of air conditioning and go outside, but I promise it will be worth it. Science is all around us, and I encourage you to take a few minutes to enjoy it with your kids.

I’m particularly interested in insects, and one of the creatures that fascinates me personally, as well as my kids, is butterflies. We see them in our yard. We see them at local parks. We see them at various museum butterfly houses. They are everywhere, and there’s something magical about watching a butterfly flutter past.

Sulpher butterfly. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Sulphur butterfly. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Without stopping and telling your kids that you’re going to flat out teach them something, I suggest that you casually interject a few interesting facts into your conversation. Seize the opportunity of your child starting to chase a butterfly across the yard. Take a moment to engage your child as they stop to watch a butterfly move from flower to flower.

Sometimes I stand out in the humid and hot North Carolina sun just to watch butterflies and take pictures. I’ve been known to snap 100 pictures in 15 minutes hoping to capture just the perfect one. You know. The one where the wings are all in focus. The one where the sun perfectly illuminates the wings. The one where the colors aren’t washed out. The one where the butterfly is perfectly perched on a beautiful flower. It’s an endless passion for me, and it’s one my kids are quick to pick up on. When your child sees you being passionate about something, they are bound to follow suit.

Eastern tiger swallowtail on coneflower. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Eastern tiger swallowtail on coneflower. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

So, what geeky butterfly facts can you share with your child? There are so many to choose from!

Fact 1 – Did you know that the straw-shaped tube that a butterfly uses to suck nectar from flowers is called a proboscis? There are a lot of interesting butterfly anatomy vocabulary words that you can introduce your child to.
Fact 2 – Is that butterfly really a butterfly, or is it a moth? There’s an easy method to tell a butterfly from a moth. Take a close-up look at the antennae. Butterfly antennae are long and slender with a bump on the end. Moth antennae are feathered and much wider.
Fact 3 – Do you know how long butterflies live? Some live as short as a week while Monarchs can live up to 9 months. The average lifespan is about a month.
Fact 4 – Why do you sometimes see butterflies down in the mud instead of on a pretty flower? They are looking for minerals and sodium. It’s a process called mud-puddling. Males are more likely to exhibit this behavior than females.
Fact 5 – The inevitable question…where do butterflies come from? It’s a great time to introduce the butterfly life cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly.
Fact 6 – Did you know that there are a lot of artists out there that take the wings of naturally expired butterflies and turn them into jewelry and other crafts? I own a pendant, bracelet, and pair of earrings, and they always make for great conversation pieces when I wear them. Butterflies also make for interesting photo art. Sometimes you can take an ordinary butterfly picture and make it extraordinary.

Butterfly wings mandala. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman
Butterfly wings mandala. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman
Butterfly crystal ball. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman
Butterfly crystal ball. Photo Art: Maryann Goldman

Fact 7 – How many types of butterflies are there? According to the North American Butterfly Association, “There are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world. About 725 species have occurred in North American north of Mexico, with about 575 of these occurring regularly in the lower 48 states of the United States, and with about 275 species occurring regularly in Canada. Roughly 2000 species are found in Mexico.” Each area of the country and part of the world has its own butterfly varieties. This is similar to the differences you would see in birds as you travel. So if you’re familiar with the butterfly species that live in your own backyard, when you travel, it can be fascinating to study the different varieties you see along the way.
Fact 8 – Did you know that if you see a butterfly with a broken wing that’s having trouble flying that you might be able to assist? Yep, some people will follow a set of instructions to repair a butterfly wing. I’ve never tried this, but now that I know, I might be tempted. Obviously, this is something kids shouldn’t attempt on their own, but if you happen upon a dead butterfly, I suggest encouraging your kids to treat it as a specimen and study it.
Fact 9 – Where do butterflies sleep at night? Well, they typically sleep under leaves. This protects them from rain that might fall at night as well as from becoming bird food in the early morning.
Fact 10 – Talking about butterflies is a great way to introduce the topics of conservation and migration. The 3-D movie Flight of the Butterflies talks about the plight of Monarchs and their migratory path. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

Monarch on zinnia. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Monarch on zinnia. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Not quite ready to get out in the heat to enjoy the butterflies? Look for a butterfly house near you! Conveniently, there is a website that lists butterfly houses by state. You might be surprised to find one closer than you expect. We often visit our favorite butterfly house, the Magic Wings Butterfly House at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina. We’ve had many fascinating butterfly encounters there including having butterflies land on our outstretched finger. If you do plan a butterfly house visit, check to see if they have a butterfly release time. Kids love that!

Johnny fascinated with a butterfly at the Magic Wings Butterfly House butterfly release. Photo: Maryann Goldman.
Johnny fascinated with a butterfly at the Magic Wings Butterfly House butterfly release. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

I hope you enjoy this factual and visual tour of the butterflies in my yard and hometown. Happy butterfly watching!

Bye bye. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Bye bye. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Deep Water Interests

Blue Abyss
Image: Blue Abyss Facebook page

As a child we would go swimming at our local public pool. It’s an indoor pool in my hometown of Walsall, and was the biggest pool I had ever seen. For some reason there were plastic windows part way down underneath the water. I would swim down to see them, and my shadow looming over them would make it appear as though some creature of the deep was passing by. It was tranquil underneath that water, and I loved being there.

I have always had an obsession with water, a love of marine life, a borderline obsession with sharks, and so I read with interest this week that the University of Essex in England, in conjunction with Blue Abyss, is planning the construction of the world’s deepest swimming pool to conduct research into spaceflight and human endurance. At 164 ft, it would be deeper than NASA’s training pool in Houston, by 124 feet, and they say things are bigger in Texas? Currently the deepest pool is in Montegretto Terme, Italy, but it too would be in the shadows of this planned pool, by 23 feet.

109245The project is being crowdfunded, and personally I’m tempted by the Hollywood star at the bottom of the 50m shaft. You can keep track of the project and its crowdfunding efforts on their Facebook page.

So, beyond my obsession with the water, why the interest in this project?

One of my favorite quotes from Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing sums up how I feel about most projects of this nature, why I support them, and why I like my tax dollars to go to them when possible.

“Because it’s next. Because we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.” – Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe) on NASA’s trip to Mars.

Many people think that we should be exploring our oceans more. That there is much of our own world still left to discover, let alone that beyond the stars. For me, this project seems to have it all. The creation of an environment that would help us study our own bodies, and find better ways of moving in deep space and in deep water. A deep water pool may not be what’s next in terms of exploration, but it’s certainly a step towards further exploration, whether we choose to sink to new depths or soar to new heights.

Why Is Matisse’s Brilliant Yellow Fading?

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Images illustrate a virtual reconstruction (left) and the actual condition (right) of Le Bonheur de Vivre/The Joy of Life by Henri Matisse, 1905 – 06, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, U.S. Photo courtesy of Winterthur Museum.

When we were kids, we visited art museums to examine all of the big, bright paintings with wide-eyed wonder. Today, some of those paintings aren’t as bright as they used to be.

In a new study, an international team of scientists have discovered exactly why the bright yellow pigment favored a century ago is turning to a drab beige.

It turns out that the original chemical compound, cadmium sulphide, which is a highly water-insoluble and bright yellow, is subject to a light-induced oxidation process that turns it into a colorless, water-soluble cadmium sulphate. Yikes! This is not a good thing, since it was favored by so many of the Impressionist, post-Impressionist, and early modernist masters. Henri Matisse is just one of the many artists who used it in their works—works that are fading fast.

“The results of this study reveal how critical it is to understand not only the chemistry of the discolored paint, but also the chemistry used to prepare the paints that were available to the turn of the 20th-century’s most enduring artists,” said Winterthur Museum‘s Senior Scientist Jennifer Mass, Ph.D. “Our study points the way toward several important areas requiring further investigation, among the most critical of which is developing a protocol for identifying the ‘at risk’ paintings that are in their earliest stages of degradation, even before it is visible to the naked eye, so that such works can be placed in the proper display environments that will prevent their degradation from worsening.”

Mass led the international team, who used X-ray diffraction, X-ray absorption spectroscopy, X-ray fluorescence analysis, and infrared microscopy to study the fading pieces at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France. The study specifically looked at Matisse’s The Joy of Life, although the discoveries could also apply to other Matisse works, as well as those by James Ensor and Vincent Van Gogh.

“As a chemist, I find it striking that in paintings of different artists and different geographical origins that (presumably) were conserved for circa 100 years in various museum conditions, very similar chemical transformations are taking place,” said Koen Janssens, chemistry professor at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “This will allow us to predict with higher confidence what may be happening to these works of art in the coming decades.”

The ESRF said that museum scientists over the past decade have estimated that “this disfiguring phenomenon is affecting billions of dollars of our global cultural heritage.” The findings can help them identify and help preserve “at risk” paintings, as well as learn how to properly digitally restore damaged paintings and create a computer-generated image that reveals the artists’ original intent.

“When we combine our findings on the works of Henri Matisse with the studies carried out on works by Vincent Van Gogh and James Ensor, the understanding of their degradation gives us a road map to guide us in the preservation of these works,” Mass said. “It also provides us with the information needed to digitally restore the damaged paintings, creating a computer-generated image that reveals the artists’ original intent.”

The study is featured in an article, “2D X-ray and FTIR micro-analysis of the degradation of cadmium yellow pigment in paintings of Henri Matisse,” in the June 2015 issue of Applied Physics A.

How Does Google’s Cardboard Hold Up?

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The Google Expeditions app turns a smart phone and a little cardboard view kit into a fun virtual reality experience for as little as $20. Image: Rick Tate

When Google first announced their Google Cardboard VR (virtual reality) devices as an inexpensive means of obtaining the VR effect, my husband was thrilled at the prospect.

As a history and world geography teacher, he had been following the teaching potential—both at home and in the classroom—of Google’s free educational application, Google Expeditions. The program helps sends students on virtual field trips to from Paris, France to the surface of Mars.

The basic engineering of this item harkens back to the Victorian era stereoscopic (split screen) photograph viewers, on which today’s View-Master toys are based. The concept is to take two nearly identical photos side by side and, when viewed through lenses set a specific distance apart, it appears as one 3-D image.

Even today, most 3-D tech takes advantage of this simple idea, and tech behind Google Cardboard devices is no exception. There are several cardboard device designs available, as well as an easy template pattern to make one at home with upcycled cardboard. Most of the pre-made models range in price from $15 to $25, and we settled on the $19.99 I Am Cardboard version we purchased of Amazon. We even found images of viewers modifying vintage stereoscopes to use with the Google Expedition app. All of these are much more digestible prices for the home consumers, considering many high end VR devices will run well over $100, and sometimes into the thousands.

When we received our I AM Cardboard viewing kit, putting it together took less than ten minutes, even though it included just the bare minimum of instructions. We also had to learn how to properly use the device, which takes advantage of magnets on the side to help activate or control the features and interactive environments. The process is similar to clicking the little lever on the side of a View-Master, but not quite as easy. It takes a couple of tries sometimes to make it work.

By the end of the day, our entire family had gotten a chance to explore the surface of Mars, walk across London’s Tower Bridge (including the upper level walkway), swim in Great Barrier Reef, stroll through natural history, fine art, and air and space museums, do a barrel roll with pilots, and drive around the Top Gear test track with The Stig. Imagine how this type of experience could help excite students in a classroom situation.

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You really have to stand up to get the full effect of this application and device, at you can look up, down,  and all around during your virtual adventures. Images: Rick Tate.

Unlike traditional stereoscope images, the Google Expeditions options are 360 degree panoramic, and often explorable, scenes. The first scene I found was on the much-photographed grounds surrounding the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but through the Google Map street-view style application I was able to wander away from the tourist-heavy path, and by a secluded playground area in a nearby park, getting to see a slice of everyday life, as if I were there. That, I’ll admit, was really incredible.

Yes, there are plenty of 360 degree panoramic scenes people can explore with their smart phone and tablet devices, including photosphere camera apps to create your own scene, but looking at it via the I Am Cardboard device isolates viewers from the rest of the world, providing a little more feel of actual escape.

However, finding the escapes, especially those that can be crated in the stereoscope split screen suitable for Google Cardboard viewing, takes a some digging.

We found the biggest issue with this fun little gadget is gathering material suitable for use on the device.

The Google Cardboard application was at first introduced for Android devices, and although it is also available for iPhone and iPad, the viewing options are much slimmer. Android users have many more experiences from which to choose.

After exploring the limited albeit extremely cool options readily available, my husband spent a considerable amount of time that afternoon surfing for other options available to use. We found plenty of panoramic and photosphere environments, but not all ready for stereoscopic viewing.

However, we didn’t come up empty. Some of the apps and websites that work well with Google Cardboard include Air Pano, the Littlstar app (not Littlestar; it’s a kids’ music app), 360cities, and the Roundme App. All these can be viewed in stereoscopic VR images.

Also, cardboard being cardboard, we had to reinforce the viewer with some clear packing tape after just one day of wear-and-tear from one family. This means, be wary of just throwing it into the eager grabby hands of an entire school classroom without strict supervision on using it. I also recommend a back up for those wanting to use it regularly in class.

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The I AM Cardboard view kits are really very simple little devices…and they can be as fragile as any cardboard box…but they are certainly more affordable than a high end virtual reality device. Images: Rick Tate.

The idea of this item is excellent, but if you want to jump into having a large library of items straight away, especially for non-Android users, I would suggest waiting a while until more content is available.

If you don’t mind hunting a little, there is usable content out there, that, although might not be completely hi-def or interactive.

Even with these limits, I really loved this small, foldable product that requires only smart phone to bring an entire world of learning, virtual travel, and fun into the classroom… or home.