Review: ‘Space Match’

We are a gaming family. We love ’em, all four of us. Card, board, RPG, you name it, we have at least one example of the type; we’ve even played most of them at least once. Our six year old is patient enough for Doctor Who RiskGloom, and the Imperial Assault training missions (we haven’t tried the longer missions yet). Even our rightfully shorter-in-the-attention-span three year old will play Trouble, Surprise Slidesand King of Tokyo.

Finding time to game as a family can be challenging, however, with my weird and irregular nurse schedule, which includes a fair number of weekends and evenings, and the boy being in school full-time plus attending Hebrew School on Sunday mornings. In an effort to increase playing opportunity, nights we’re all here, we’ve been trying to take the half hour between dinner and bedtime once devoted to the day’s non-educational television (except on Dinner and Rebels night; nothing shall replace Dinner and Rebels night so long as there are episodes of Rebels to watch) to play a family game. Not that there’s anything wrong with TV. There isn’t. I love the stuff, probably too much, but it’s more fun for the four of us to spend that half-hour engaged with one another when we can, especially since we don’t have that time as regularly as many families.

Continue reading Review: ‘Space Match’

‘Earth+Space’: The Coffee Table Book That’s Out of This World

Earth+Space: Other than the attractive but questionable title (which sometimes wreaks havoc on precise search engine searches), I love this book. I mean, you’ve got space. You’ve got photography. And I’m pretty sure there are very few people out there who do astrophotography better than NASA. I mean, how many space telescopes do you have?

Image: Chronicle Books
Image: Chronicle Books

With a preface from Bill Nye (the Science Guy, don’tcha know), Earth+Space begins with several photos of Earth from space, including a beautiful nighttime shot. Then it quickly turns its cameras in the other direction, pointing us toward other planets and moons in the solar system, and then out to galaxies, comets, nebulae, brown dwarfs, various other space phenomena, and, one of my favorite things to say, globular clusters. As you move through the book, you get farther and farther away from Earth. Though the distance increases, the beauty does not decrease. NASA’s technology is second to none, and can get clear, detailed, intricate photos of objects far, far away. It also takes us back in time, as we see far away objects as they were many, many years ago.

Continue reading ‘Earth+Space’: The Coffee Table Book That’s Out of This World

Happy 25th Anniversary, Hubble!

Image Credit:, NASA
Image Credit:, NASA

Who remembers April 1990?

I was a junior in high school. “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor topped the Billboard 100, while the films Pretty Woman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were dominating the box office.

On April 24, 1990, the space shuttle Discovery lifted off carrying a remarkable piece of hardware: the Hubble Space Telescope, named for American astronomer Edwin Hubble. The day after liftoff, the telescope was placed into low earth orbit. By having this telescope outside of Earth’s atmosphere, brilliant images in the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared spectra are possible.

Today we honor this invention’s 25th anniversary with commemorative events and celebrations of the amazing discoveries we’ve had based on the brilliant images it’s sent back to earth.

Image credit:
The Hubble Space Telescope is placed into low-earth orbit. Image credit:

I remember the news about how there were problems with the first images. Within a few weeks the cause of the problem was identified: the blurriness was due to errors in mirror construction. What’s remarkable is that the error was on the order of just a few nanometers, yet it caused significant problems in the sharpness of the images.

It wasn’t until late 1993 that the first repair mission was launched, and a series of corrective components were installed during a record-breaking five-days worth of space walks.

The difference in image clarity was amazing!

Note the clarity in this image of Melnick-34 after the correction components were installed on the Hubble! Image credit:
Note the clarity in this image of Melnick-34 after the correction components were installed on the Hubble! Image credit:

I remember the news about the corrections: I was in college, having had made several friends in the Penn State Astronomy Club. My friends had access to the first of the images coming in. For those who are familiar with the Apollo 13 story, the spirit of innovation and critical thinking rose to the challenge in a similar manner. America as a whole was rooting for science!

Yesterday, in honor of the 25th anniversary, NASA and ESA released a gorgeous image of the Westerlund 2 star cluster. The image was deemed “celestial fireworks” in honor of the anniversary.

There are events scheduled throughout the year honor this great invention. To learn more, be sure to visit the telescope’s anniversary site, the official Hubble Space Telescope site, and the Hubble’s Flickr site to enjoy the best images.

Solar Eclipse? Don’t Be Left in the Dark

Photo: University of New Mexico (Creative Commons)

On Thursday, October 23, most of North America will be able to see a partial solar eclipse. Things start getting dark in the late afternoon, and viewing will start around 6PM EDT. You can find the time of the eclipse in your area on this chart from NASA.

Of course, when I went to see when the best viewing time would be for my area in New England, I found out that I was out of luck. The eclipse will happen just after the sun sets. Thankfully, we all live in the age of technology. Many observatories will be doing live webcasts of the event. These include Slooh, Griffith Observatory, and the Coca-Cola Space Science Center.

What exactly is a partial solar eclipse? Well, a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, and lines up just right so that it blocks the light from the sun from reaching us on Earth. A total solar eclipse will block the entire sun, so that it looks like this:

Photo: Lutfar Rahman Nirjhar, Bangladesh, 2009 (Creative Commons)

A partial eclipse, like the one happening on Thursday, will look like the moon is taking a bite out of the sun, like this:

Photo: נצח פרביאש (Creative Commons)

There are many ways to observe a solar eclipse, but one definite, absolutely WRONG way to do it: YOU SHOULD NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN WITHOUT PROPER EQUIPMENT. Do not watch a solar eclipse even with sunglasses. Never. No way, no how. This will cause permanent damage to your eyes. Instead, go to this website and find out how to build your own easy sun viewer.

Hope everyone has fun watching one of our solar system’s finest shows!

Start Your Day With a…Lunar Eclipse?

Image: Brian Lockett

If you’re in the mood to wake up a bit early tomorrow morning (October 8, 2014), you’ll get a pretty awesome lunar treat. That’s right, it’s total lunar eclipse time!

The eclipse will start at 5:14 AM ESD, and become total at 6:24 AM EDT. There are a few interesting things about this eclipse in particular.

The totality of the eclipse and sunrise will be happening at the same time. So if you have a place nearby where you can see both the east and west horizons, you could watch both events simultaneously! This might take away a little from the color of the eclipse, but will make for a gorgeous experience nonetheless.

Viewers will have a window of about two to nine minutes to see the eclipse and the rising sun in the eastern United States.

Another interesting thing is that there is a bit of volcanic activity happening on Earth right now, which puts particulate in the atmosphere. We can’t really see a lot of the particulate with our eyes here in the U.S., but during the eclipse when the sun’s light passes through the earth’s atmosphere before it hits the moon, when there is more particulate, less light is able to pass. So the moon could be a darker red color than it would be if there were no volcanic activity.

This lunar eclipse is part of a tetrad, a series of four lunar eclipses. The first happened in April 2014. The next two will occur in April and September 2015.

So, grab your binoculars or your telescope and get ready for a morning of astronomical proportions! And if you can’t or if weather doesn’t cooperate, you can check out the live webcast from the folks at Slooh Community Observatory.

Image: NASA/GSFC/Espenak

Hobby or Career?

Image by Rebecca Angel

For the longest time, my son was only interested in two things: games and Lego. Then we participated in the Science Olympiad, and he randomly chose astronomy as one of his study topics for the team. We found some books on basic astronomy, and he studied. My father heard about the topic of choice, and sent a season of The Universe on DVD.

By the time of the test, my son had become bored with studying the facts of astronomy, but was completely inspired by the DVDs. He would watch episodes with a friend of his and they would discuss the many ways Earth could be destroyed, or the true nature of a black hole. We found more interesting books for him to read like The Pluto Files and Death by Black Hole. His love of astronomy grew.

Could this be his career path? Astrobiology, the study of potential life on other planets, became his focus. There is a college program at our local university. Bingo! Although games and Lego are fun, I was starting to worry about how that might apply to getting a job in life. I looked into any local astronomy things. How could I foster this interest in a fun way?

This past school year, he was an intern at The Dudley Observatory. To be accepted, he had to write an essay, and have a recommendation letter. This is a great program. He was given a telescope of his own, and was expected to learn how to use it. He attended as many star parties as our schedule (and the weather—it’s very cloudy around here) allowed, there were specific education evenings for the interns, and he heard a few talks through the local chapter of the Amateur Astronomy Association. Plus, there were always people to chat with about the latest episode of Cosmos.

A highlight of the program was attending a star party at a local school, setting up his telescope with the other interns, and helping the school kids find different constellations. My son is shy, but he was happy to share what he knew, and to see younger kids excited about the stars.

We live in a city, amongst trees, so taking his telescope outside our house is rarely gratifying. But sometimes we can get a cool view of the moon.

Image by Rebecca Angel

Last month we visited his grandparents who live on a farm, far away from anything. It was a gorgeous night. The moon hadn’t come up yet, and the stars were just amazing. Through the telescope, we were able to see four moons of Jupiter, the Orion Nebula, Beehive Cluster, and everything else my son could remember.

The program is officially over, but his mentor invited all the interns to continue to attend the AAA meetings, local star parties, and of course, keep using their telescope. I recently asked my son what he thought about the program, what he learned, and his interest in astronomy.

“I realize that I really like astronomy, but studying all the facts and details isn’t as fun as just looking at the stars and talking to people excited like me. I think I want this for a hobby, not a career.”

Sigh… I’m not sure what this kid is going to do. But better for him to realize something is a hobby and not a career now, rather than after going into debt with a degree he won’t use. I just signed him up for a video game creation camp, also an area of study at our local university. We’ll see.

Snag the Starlight App for Free Over Memorial Day Weekend

Screenshot courtesy of Gyrocade/iTunes.

If you are thinking about pulling out your field guides this weekend to do a little stargazing, you might enjoy checking out Starlight HD from Gyrocade, a mobile planetarium for your iPhone or iPad. Just set your location and point the device to the sky. The app will show you which stars you are looking at, in simple images, or with lines drawn in for easy recognition of the constellations. You can even point your device to the ground and see what’s going on far on the other side of the planet. The app is well developed for quick navigation and contains over 100,000 stars from the Hipparcos database, all painted accurately according to their spectral type. The app also contains a plethora of trivia, connecting stars to some of your favorite science fiction. It also contains the folklore behind constellations. You can even map out all the planets from your backyard, including Pluto for sentiments sake.

The Starlight HD app is available for free this Memorial Day weekend. We have been playing with it all morning, with no stars in the sky, just imagining what is beyond our daylight viewing.

GeekMom Video Playlist

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 10.13.41 PM
Image By The Slow Mo Guys.

Take a break, sit back, and enjoy some videos.
Crazy photoshopping, and a sky all aglow.
Liquids that don’t stick.
A kitten video pick.
Star Trek parody, and how imagination grows.

Let’s start with something gorgeous. This month, there was a slight chance I could have seen the northern lights with my own eyes in upstate New York. My family and I trekked out around midnight, drove out of the city and waited, watching the sky…nothing. Someday I will see them. For anyone who marvels at the night sky, the movement of clouds, the allure of northern lights, enjoy this:

Superhydrophobic Surface and Magnetic Liquid! Impress your friends with a new vocabulary science word. I’ve never heard of The Slow Mo Guys before this video. Cool stuff.

Many of you have probably seen the Dove video, where a nice-looking girl is made up and photoshopped to look like a fantasy model. Here is a musical artist singing her (very cool) song, while being photoshopped in real-time.

And this just cracked me up: A kitten trying to stalk an iguana’s tail. I don’t watch every kitten video. Really. This one is funny.

And what would this playlist be without a Star Trek musical parody? This one is to a song from Frozen.

Finally, I’ll end with some sweet animation. Did you ever wonder where imaginary friends came from?

Geeky States of America: Maine’s Scale Model of Planet Earth

Image: Sarah Pinault

In case you’ve missed the news recently, it has been a little cold in Maine recently.

Once you have exhausted the Children’s Museum, the new play center at the mall, and the various play centers around town, you might consider taking a trip that’s a little more out of this world.

Just twenty minutes from Portland, DeLorme, renowned maker of maps, offers far more than a gift shop for your little (and big) ones to explore on a less than clement day. Eartha is a scale replica of the Earth, complete with a scaled down simulation of the Earth’s rotation. In 1991, at forty-one feet, one and one-half inches, Guinness proclaimed it the ”World’s Largest Revolving/Rotating Globe.” You can observe Eartha from three different levels, and even at a young age my pre-schooler had a lot of fun checking out the planet he lives on, from a unique perspective. We were able to show him where his grandparents live in England, in comparison to us, and where his Australian cousins, somewhat distants(!) live.

Here are some fun facts about Eartha to enhance your trip:

  • At a scale of 1:1,000,000, California is three and a half feet tall.
  • Eartha is constructed of over 6,000 pieces of lightweight aluminum tubing and 792 map sections, each of which covers 8° latitude by 10° longitude.
  • Eartha tilts at 23.5 degrees on a specially designed cantilever arm.
  • The mapping data required to produce Eartha takes up 140 gigabytes.
  • A complete rotation takes eighteen minutes, though it is rumored that the machinery would withstand a sixty second rotation, albeit not too often!
  • While the building is only open from 9 til 6, Eartha is visible 24/7 through the three-story glass atrium that holds it. It’s certainly a sight when you drive off the highway.
  • The next closest replica is the previous record holder in Italy. The Globe of Peace in Apeccio, Pesaro measures only 33 feet in diameter and neither revolves nor rotates.

Geekmom Video Playlist

Image By ががめ
Image By ががめ

What is cute, silly, educational, fun, magical, and leaves you wanting more? All the videos rounded up for your viewing pleasure:

Leaves you wanting more: At the top of the post. It doesn’t really tell you ANYTHING, but this will still get fans of Sherlock going.

Cute: Here is an anime girl dancing to “Moses Supposes” from the classic movie: Singing in the Rain. Damn adorable.


Educational: I made this little clip for my video editing students. Considering how many of us are putting together family videos to share this time of year, I thought ya’ll could learn something: Why Music Matters

Magical: I was checking out some origami videos and came upon this gem. Take a short break from work, get a cup of green tea, and watch.

My Son’s Picks

Silly: My fifteen year old son recommended this as his favorite video this week. Absolutely ridiculous. Freddie Wong is always entertaining, but be sure to check out the videos showing how it was made afterwards too.

Fun: And he also is bouncing over the new Lego feature film. Here’s the trailer:

Perseid Meteor Shower Viewing Sunday and Monday Nights

Sunday and Monday nights (August 11 and 12) we have our annual chance to bask in the Perseid meteor shower. If you’ve never gone out to see such a thing, the Perseid shower is a good, reliable phenomenon. If you go out and follow these tips and are patient, you should see multiple meteors quickly streak across the sky. Just make sure the sky conditions (cloud, fog) and weather are appropriate, and prepare for a lengthy dark outing. It’s best to go after midnight to see the most meteors.

Getting away from all lights, including passing traffic, and having a wide sky view will maximize your chances of seeing “shooting stars.” Reclining on the hood of a car or in lawn chairs with blankets or sleeping bags was our favorite method with the kids. When my husband and I were dating, we skipped the lawn chairs.

Get some good tips and background info from Andrew Fraknoi of Foothill College and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in his blog post about the Perseid meteor shower. You can see what the Perseid meteor show looked like for one viewer in the 2007 time-lapse video above.

Meet Grace from Outer Space

Grace from Outer Space © Mike Davis

If you’re the parent of a young girl, chances are you’ve been inundated with princesses and Barbie in “girl” books and movies. My daughter has created her own interesting mix with her playtime, with passions ranging from Barbie and princesses to Power Rangers. What I’d really love, though, is to give my four-year-old a story to latch on to that includes not just a plucky heroine, but introduces her to new science concepts as well. I was delighted, then, to come across this Kickstarter campaign for Grace from Outer Space—a picture book app aimed to “get young girls interested in astronomy, science, and technology.”

Project creator Jenna Bryson has a background working with children as a musician and entertainer. She enlisted the help of an illustrator and an astronomy graduate student to create a factually correct story that follows the adventures of a little girl whose home is among the stars.

[Grace from Outer Space] is a rhyming picture book story for kids about ages 4-8 years old. It’s a slice of life story, depicting what it might be like for a little girl to live on a space ship with her family. It’s full of wonder, imagination, and best of all, scientific facts!

In reading the book, kids will learn through the eyes of our curious heroine. Some of the ideas introduced by ‘Grace’ include the concept of black holes, the speed of light, and dark energy.

The fundraising campaign has just a few days left and a long way to go, so consider donating to its efforts if you’ve been looking for an iOS app with a STEM focus for your young kids.

Astronomical Society Meeting Open to Public for First Time Monday, Tuesday, June 3-4


If your eyes are always pointed to the stars, you may be interested in news that for the first time, the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) will be open to the public. Astronomers, academics, and media plus guests are expected to total more than 500 during the conference in Indianapolis, Indiana, June 2-6. A single-day registration rate of $50 is available on Monday and Tuesday, and these two days include special presentations and events aimed at amateurs. In addition to special daytime programming, these evening events are open to all:

  • Monday evening includes a star party featuring Saturn and its moon, Titan, with telescopes set up outside the Indiana Convention Center, and all members of the public are welcome to participate.
  • Tuesday evening anyone can hear Chris Lintott, “BBC Sky at Night” presenter (Adler Planetarium and Oxford University) speaking about citizen science and citizen contributions to astronomy.

For more information on public registration, sessions, or events, see If you, like me, can’t make it to Indianapolis, follow the meeting on Twitter at #AAS222.

Meteor Shower Sunday Night: View Live or via NASA Webcast

An image of Halley's Comet from 1986. (NASA)
An image of Halley’s Comet from 1986. (NASA)

The night of Sunday, May 5, shortly before (Monday’s) sunrise, is your chance to view a dramatic meteor shower as Earth passes through the belt of debris in the Halley’s comet orbit. NASA will livestream the meteor shower (with chat) from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, from 11pm Sunday to 3am Monday Eastern Daylight Time. The webcast will also be available from

This annual spring-time orbit through the trail of Halley’s debris is known as the Eta Aquarid meteor shower because to an observer, these meteors appear to radiate from an origin near the constellation Aquarius. The planet passes through the comet’s debris twice a year, creating these meteor viewing opportunities, but since Halley’s comet orbits the sun every 76 years, it will not be near the Earth again until 2061.

For viewing tips, links to videos and images, and further details, go to NASA or EarthSky has a great meteor shower guide for 2013.

The Solar Eclipse Marathon … and Other Ways to Make Running More Interesting

Event logo from the Solar Eclipse Marathon Facebook site.

What better way to endure a grueling 26.2 mile race than with the excitement of a total solar eclipse in the sky above?

That’s what the city of Port Douglas in Queensland, Australia is planning with the first-ever Solar Eclipse Marathon.

The next total solar eclipse will occur on 13-14 November 2012, with the event crossing the International Date Line such that those in Australia will see it on very early on the 14th, while those in Chile will see a partial eclipse near sunset on the 13th. There is a very narrow strip on the planet that will be under a total eclipse. Of that very narrow strip, only a very small percentage will be on land, including Port Douglas.

The blue area shows the path of the planet that would see a total eclipse. Note that extreme northern Australia is the only significant land mass under the totality. Image by Eclipse Predictions by Fred Espenak, NASA’s GSFC

The city of Port Douglas is a popular vacation location, with easy opportunities to take a tour of the Great Barrier Reef. The marathon website is full of information for how foreigners can turn the race trip into a full-fledged northern Australia vacation.

Are you up to the challenge? Well, get out your checkbooks along with your eclipse glasses and pinhole viewers: Simply running the race will cost folks AU 310 (US $316)! The website is set up such that tourists are asked to purchase a “holiday package” as well, which includes the lodging and a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef.

As we always do here among the GeekMoms, we thought about the many other “themed” races that are popular around the world. This fun list came out earlier this month. I was tickled to see the runDisney races on the list, as well as the Run for Your Lives races, the Warrior Dash, and the Krispy Kreme Challenge … all of which are on my bucket list.

How many of these races have you done?  Are you going to try to run in the Solar Eclipse Marathon?

Don't Miss Your Last Chance Ever to See a Venus Transit!

Image Credit: Karl Tate

It has been a busy month for solar enthusiasts, but tonight will host a once-in-a-lifetime event. Tonight is the last time that any of us will be able to view the transit of Venus across the solar plane. The planets won’t be in such perfect alignment for another 105 years, so head outside and carefully watch the celestial bodies dance before your eyes.

Planetary transit occurs when a planet passes directly between the sun and the Earth. This alignment can only occur between Earth and either Mercury or Venus since their planetary orbits lie closer to the sun than our own. Since Mercury orbits very close to the Sun, we can observe its transit every 13 to 14 years. Venus, on the other hand, has a tilted orbit with respect to the celestial plane, so being in the correct alignment to view a transit is a lot more rare, and won’t happen again till the year 2117.

Continue reading Don't Miss Your Last Chance Ever to See a Venus Transit!

Try to Catch the Lyrids Tonight!

Milky Way over Lake Mary, Flagstaff - AZ - Perseids Meteor Shower photo by L.Brumm Photography and Design on Flickr

If you see a shooting star, do you stop and make a wish? No? You should, it’s fun! OK, OK … so a shooting star isn’t really a “star,” nor is it “shooting.” It is a meteorite burning up upon re-entry into the Earth atmosphere. (I suppose that’s not as romantic a description as a shooting star, but hey, its science, and science is REAL!)

Tonight, if you are up after midnight and it’s a clear weather night, it just might be the best ever chance to see the Lyrid meteor shower. Every year, about this time in April, the Earth passes through the orbit of a comet called Thatcher. Thatcher is very far away from us now, having a very oblong orbit lasting approximately 415 years. It was discovered in 1861 right at the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Comets leave debris in their orbits as they melt on their way towards the sun. This debris then is stuck in that orbit until the comet returns and collects it again or until another object collides with it. When another object like the Earth collides with a meteorite (rarely bigger then a grain of rice), the meteorite will get caught in the friction of the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up as it moves across the sky. This is what causes such a bright streak, visible to the naked eye.

The Lyrid meteor shower is less spectacular than its counterparts in February (Perseids) and November (Leonids), only boasting 10-20 streaks per hour. However, tomorrow is expected to be one of the best performances of the little meteor shower, since there is a new moon, leaving the sky very dark.

Watching the Lyrids is simple enough. All you need to do is get to a place where there is no (or as little as possible) light pollution and get comfortable. You have to watch carefully because the streaks usually don’t last for more then a second or two. The streaks could appear anywhere in the sky, though they’ll seem to come from the constellation Lyra in the northeast.

If you are curious about your weather prospects for the evening, check out The Weather Channel or Weather Underground. Unless you are expecting a clear night, it is probably not worth getting out of bed at all. You can’t see any meteorites through a cloud layer, so take the time and get some rest instead.

Oh, and when you see that bright little streak across the sky, go ahead, make a wish. It can’t hurt, can it?

The Universe Is Your Sandbox With Universe Sandbox

Image source: Universe Sandbox

I’ve seen some pretty wonderful interactive programs that allow you and your family to explore the vast regions of the universe, but nothing nearly as enthralling as Universe Sandbox. In a nutshell, it is an interactive program that allows you to explore our solar system, galaxies and the universe. It also allows you to manipulate certain variables and witness how those changes would effect the universe.

A longer explanation reads:

Universe Sandbox is an interactive space simulator for Windows based PCs.

Unlike most astronomy software that just shows you what the sky looks like or where the planets are, Universe Sandbox is a powerful gravity simulator. You can add another star to our solar system and watch it rip the planets from their orbits.

The free forever version allows you to explore and discover any simulation. Optionally you can upgrade to to the premium version for unlimited control.

There is a limited free version, or for even more educational fun, you can purchase the full version, either for $19.99 on the Universe Sandbox website or for $9.99 through Steam.

The only critique I have of this program is that I wish there was music playing, such as in the video, when you are working through it. Some of the simulations would probably grab my attention for longer periods of time, not causing me to speed them up, if there was music. However, it was still fun watching moons collide, Saturn getting bombarded and so much more.

Now go have fun exploring the universe!

Let It Rip!: How Beyblades Are Teaching My Sons Science

Meet Phoenix, Aquila and Drago. Photo: Flickr user via CC.

It all started with a birthday party.  My 8- and 6-year-old sons were invited to a pair of brothers’ combined birthday party.  The party would be a Beyblade tournament, so the guests were invited to bring their “best” Beyblades and “Let It Rip!”.

Beyblade on a launcher. I’d have a better picture except my sons took all their working tops to their grandparents’ house this week.  Photo: Patricia Vollmer

It took a bit of research to learn that what my kids were going to play with were actually toys spun-off from a Japanese manga series adapted to Japanese television.  My college roommate’s son had asked for a set for his birthday last year and I ordered what he wanted from Amazon and had it shipped.  Megan explained to me the concept — customizable tops that have assorted attributes that compete in a battle arena.  In a Beyblade battle more than one top launches into a stadium, and the last-top spinning is the winner.  My sons didn’t have any, and between their Legos and Kung Zhu pets, we had too many other toys keeping my checkbook active.

For this birthday party, the boys’ mother said there were plenty of extra Beyblades to go around, and my boys were introduced during the party. They loved it!  By the time they left, they were talking about which ones to buy first, which stadiums to buy, and which “attributes” each of the Beyblades had.   They used some of their own money to buy their first Beyblade “battle tops” and stadiums.  The average top is about $10, and the average a la carte stadium is about $20.

The Lightning L-Drago Stadium. Various stadium designs allow Beyblades to perform differently. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

It was fascinating helping the boys put together their first two Beyblades.  Each top comes with a set group of parts, which is better explained through this Wikipedia entry.  They had to assemble the “face”, “energy ring”, “metal wheel”, “spin track” and “performance tip” with the help of this wrench that’s included.  I got the impression that you could interchange these parts amongst different Beyblade tops and really come up with something spectacular.

As the boys played and slowly accumulated additional tops, they began to develop strategies with their tops’ attributes: balance, stamina or attack.  Tops can also be “left spinning” or “right spinning” and use of that tactic can come into play too.  It was fun to see the boys attempt to launch into different sections of the stadiums and see what would happen.  I saw kinematic physics at work here: conservation of angular momentum, centrifugal force, friction and gravity are all in play during a battle!

A representative image of what we were seeing at the Pensacola State College planetarium. A great way to teach kids constellations.

Not only did the boys start to use some physics skills, but a Cub Scout trip to the planetarium at Pensacola State College showed something else the Beyblades taught my young sons: basic astronomy and astrology.

I use both terms here on purpose.  I say “astrology” because the names of the Beyblades in the Metal Fusion series are expressly tied to the Zodiac.  But in our case, the astronomy was evident too.  At the planetarium, the host was showing us what the Pensacola night sky would be on July 14th.  He connected the stars over our heads with the lines and pictures for the constellations.  As the sky fast-forwarded over our heads, the boys saw Pegasus and recognized the name from Beyblades.  So then they kept their eyes on the images seeking the other astrological names from Beyblades: Leo, Sagittarius, Aries, Pisces, and Scorpio.  They begged and begged to look for these constellations that evening (except it thunderstormed all weekend and we didn’t have a clear night until this week, and they aren’t even here now, they’re visiting relatives).

I’m excited that these strange little battle tops have inspired my sons to want to learn more about both kinematics and astronomy!

Another thing I love about these toys?  They are completely FREE of batteries!  At least for now…

Do your kids play Beyblades?

Imiloa Astronomy Center

P1230772-225x300The ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center on the Big Island of Hawai‘i blends past and present with a focus on the night sky. Part of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, the center is a kid-friendly, hands-on sort of place where families can roam through various exhibit areas or enjoy a show in the planetarium.

My husband and I spent some time at the center over the weekend with two teen boys – one mine, one visiting from out of state. Before entering the exhibit area, we learned a little about Mauna Kea, a mountain significant to the native Hawaiians as well as the astronomers who count on Mauna Kea’s clear skies for some great views of the Universe. We got a chance to explore both inside the exhibit hall.

Polynesian voyagers arrived in the islands by navigating with the stars. As we stood on a mock voyaging canoe painted on the floor, we wondered at the ability of the Polynesians to survive on such a small vessel in the open ocean with no technology to guide them. Rather than technology, these voyagers used the stars in the sky to find their way, eventually making their way to the Hawaiian Islands. Interesting side note: This skill was nearly lost to the Hawaiian people as modern technology took over and voyaging with the stars as guides became unnecessary. The Polynesian Voyaging Society was founded to revive this lost practice, and with the help of Mau Piailug, or “Papa Mau,” this cultural practice has been successfully restored to the Hawaiian people. Today, two traditional voyaging canoes ply the waters around the islands: Hokule‘a and Makali‘i.

Moving into the present, a large photo mural gave us an up-close look at the high-tech observatories atop Mauna Kea today and a bank of computers allow us to take a virtual tour inside the Gemini observatory. The boys traversed the top of Mauna Kea and tried their hand at maneuvering a black black hole, astronomy, stars,hole (epic fail!). Throughout the room are big, clear columns filled with different amounts of sand. The grains of sand represent different items. One, with very few grains of sand, represented the known objects in the Universe. Another, full of sand, represented all of the galaxies in the Universe. This was accompanied by a placard that notified visitors that even if they started with the column full of sand, it would still take them 3,200 more years of counting grains of sand in order to tally the other galaxies.

galazies, sand, planetsThere is plenty to see and do at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center and it’s a favorite weekend spot for locals and frequented by visitors as well. The center has done an amazing job of integrating the cultural and the scientific. Beyond the exhibits, one thing I love about the center is that all of the placards throughout the facility include information in both the Hawaiian and English languages. Some of the exhibits, too, offer the option to listen in either of the official languages of the state of Hawai‘i.Hawaiian, English, language

Of course, we couldn’t call it a day until we’d enjoyed the Planetarium show. We had two to choose from, and ending up watching Natural Selection, a 3-D movie about the discoveries of Charles Darwin. That is, three of us watched while one member of our party who’s famous for falling asleep in theaters took a little nap.

We enjoyed our day as guests of ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.

My First Steps in Astrophotography


For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by photographs of outer space. Whether it is the glowing moon hanging in the night sky, the banded clouds of Jupiter or multicolored nebulae light years from Earth, these kinds of pictures have a consistent ability to thrill me. Recently I began experimenting with taking some photographs of space myself, and whilst my results could never hope to come close to the majestic photos taken by Hubble and its companions, the results can be quite impressive with even the most basic equipment. Quite simply, if you own a camera, even only a low quality one embedded in your phone, chances are you can take something to be proud of.

My efforts at astrophotography so far have mostly centered on the moon. It’s a good target to begin with: lots of available light, easy to locate and it can be photographed well without any magnification. In fact the most basic of space photography can be done by simply pointing your camera skywards and clicking.

I would highly recommend a tripod if you want to take photos like this. Don’t concern yourself with spending any great amount of money on one though, my current tripod cost me £3 (about $5) and came from a car boot sale (the equivalent of a flea market) in the local school car park! More expensive models will clearly offer advantages but for beginners, a cheap model should happily suffice.

If you’d like to shoot something a bit more detailed than this, you’ll need some magnification. Whilst the higher you go, the more detailed your photos will be, again don’t think you need top dollar telescopes to take something. I bought a pair of binoculars for £1 at the pound shop (the English equivalent of a dollar store) when I was going on a cruise and used them to take this photo of the moon by holding one eyepiece in front of my camera.



Whilst rather blurry, we are now beginning to see some distinction to the surface with clear patches of light and dark. Not bad for a pair of £1 binoculars and my standard camera lens.

So far, we’ve only looked at our nearest neighbor, but what about some of those a little farther away? The stars are both very easy to photograph and very hard. They are easy enough to take because there are so many of them; point your camera to the sky, leave it on a long exposure and voilà, instant star photo. What makes it trickier is that the stars are naturally faint and tend to disappear at the first hint of street lighting, or the glow of a nearby city, a problem for many given the ubiquity of light pollution worldwide.  This photo was taken from my bedroom window when I lived close to the large city of Leeds and it’s easy to see the effect the city’s glow had on the night sky (the streaks down the right hand side are the reflection of my curtains, not some strange paranormal phenomena).


In order to take good stellar photos, you need to be somewhere dark, with little light pollution. Some of you may be lucky enough to have this scenario in your backyard but for me, it required an hour’s drive to the Peak District national park in the dead of night. You can instantly see the difference in the sky. This photo was taken by simply setting the camera to a thirty second exposure and lying it on the roof of my friend’s car. A remote trigger – available cheaply on eBay – helps here as it allows you to take the photo without having to touch the camera, risking it moving under the pressure. Most DSLR camera will work with remote triggers.

At this point I feel it is worth mentioning safety. The very nature of astrophotography means shooting at night and whilst taking pictures from a bedroom window is safe enough, driving to the middle of nowhere late at night is decidedly less so. If you decide to take your own field trip, be sure to have someone with you, emergency supplies in the car and to keep safe. My friend and I shot from a lay-by on a main road that is well-traveled even late at night and we had people who knew where we were at all times and were expecting calls at set times. Remember that no photograph is worth taking chances for.

Back at home, the photos I have shown you so far have all been taken with a digital SLR camera (a Canon 300D with standard lens to be precise) which isn’t the most basic camera out there. Taking photographs of anything in the sky with only a small camera will always be tricky, but you can get some results. I have been playing with my telescope, a refractor with 360mm focal length, over the past few weeks and took this picture by simply placing my iPhone’s camera lens at the eyepiece once I had lined up the image in the scope.

Moon through iPhone

Finally, the best results I have had so far have come from using the same technique above but using the SLR camera instead of the iPhone. This last photograph was taken last Sunday whilst sat comfortably in my living room, shooting through the patio doors.

Moon Through Telescope Eyepiece

Personally, I am incredibly proud of this photograph; it has inspired me to keep trying to get better and better shots, with my new aim being to try to photograph a planet.

If you have been inspired to try your hand at some astrophotography, the internet is packed full of resources and a quick search on Flickr will bring up thousands of amateur photos taken in back yards the world over. If you own a smart phone, I  recommend getting yourself a stargazing app such as the wonderful Star Walk which will help you quickly find what you’re looking for and identify the objects you can see in the skies. However, remember that all you need is a camera and some patience to take photos worth sharing. I look forward to seeing your results.

Pandora’s Juicebox: The Making of a Geek

When I was a little girl, a box of Tang changed my life. I didn’t want to try it at first – because like many things marketed to children in the 1980’s, it looked and smelled like toxic waste – but the clerk told me that astronauts drank it. And then he explained what astronauts were.

A while ago, I wrote about the incredible fortune ‘Pandora’s juicebox’ bestowed upon me during that fateful breakfast:

Only three years old, yet she already had that ache.  “I’ll be an astronaut,” she told the moon. Of course it was listening.

The rockets roaring in her mind mostly drowned out her dad’s jibe and the clerk’s derisive laugh.

Last week, I took my son to the grand re-opening of the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science in Boston. A few of the adults in line with us gave me odd looks – I assume they expected my preschooler to act up during the show and spoil their experience of ‘Cosmic Collisions’. They obviously didn’t know who they were looking at.

When the lights went down and the dome appeared to open above us onto the naked sky, Bastian gasped in my ear, “It feels like we’re flying!” I swear I could smell Tang on his breath…

I can’t help it; I’m ten times as old as I was when I first dreamed of going into space, and I still choke up whenever a camera zooms out to show the Earth in a field of stars. At the planetarium last week, I let the tears flow.

Now, it’s unlikely that NASA will ever want me for a mission, but Tang made me a geek, time made me a geek mom, and technology lets me fly to the moon with my son whenever we’ve got a spare afternoon. And who knows what the future holds for my little stargazer?

Five, four, three, two, one…

“And then what?” she asked.

Only three years old, yet he already had that ache. “BLAST-OFF!!”

Your 2011 Meteor Shower Schedule

Geminid meteor by Flickr user evosia

I love meteor showers, and yet, they always sneak up on me. Other than the Perseids in August and Leonids in November (both near family members’ birthdays), I can never seem to remember when they happen. Case in point: Today, “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait tweeted about the Quadrantids peaking tonight. Of course, I had forgotten about them.

To prevent this from happening again, I thought I’d offer up a calendar of annually reoccurring meteor showers with a link to more information on

If you’re a meteor lover, too, you’ll want to try to get out for the Quadrantids. Most of this year’s other predictably good shows will be washed out by bright moons.

January 1-10: Quadrantids, as mentioned above. Potentially the most visible shower this year and peaking today and tomorrow.

April 16-26: The Lyrids are not a strong shower, and this year they will be accompanied at the peak by a gibbous moon April 21-22.

April 21-May 12: The Eta Aquarids, peaking May 4-7, and the Orionids (see October) are all we get to see of Halley’s comet until 2061. This one is good for our friends in the southern hemisphere.

June 10-21: The June Lyrids, unlike many meteor showers that have been known throughout recorded history, weren’t really noticed until 1966. They will peak June 14-16.

July 14-August 18: The Delta Aquarids peak July 28-29. Like the Eta Aquarids, this one’s good if you live below the equator.

July 29-August 1: The Capricornids last quite a while, from July to September. The peak is towards the end of July and beginning of August.

July 23-August 22: The Perseids are a favorite for many and maybe the most well-known. They’re a consistent show-off, but this year they’re accompanied by a full moon at the August 12-13 peak, which will wash out the usually good show.

September 25-November 25: The South Taurids offer a slow stream, peaking November 5-6. Combined with a gibbous moon, and this one is for hard-core meteor hunters only.

October 6-10: The Draconids are not for those in the southern hemisphere, as your only viewing chance is around dawn. But for those above the equator, they’ll peak October 8-9.

October 12-December 2: Like the South Taurids, the North Taurids aren’t high in number, and there’s a gibbous moon in front of Taurus at peak. If you want to try anyway, peak is Nov. 11-12.

October 15-29: The Orionids are your second chance to look at a bit of Halley’s Comet, peaking October 21-22. And since Orion is pretty easy to spot in the night sky, you know where to look for the point of origin.

November 17-18: The Leonids are popular like the Perseids, but not as consistently great for viewing. There will be a crescent moon in Leo at peak, making this a lesser year for viewing.

December 6-18: The Geminids, which were put on an excellent show in 2010. Peak will be around December 13-14, but with another gibbous moon.

How to Watch Tonight’s Lunar Eclipse

I snapped this series of photos during a 2008 lunar eclipse.

Not only is tonight’s total lunar eclipse the only one of 2010, it’s the first one any of us on this planet have seen in almost three years, and it won’t happen again until 2014. This one’s also a little extra special by being the first one to happen during a winter solstice in half a millennium. So take an afternoon nap, make some hot chocolate, and find a good spot for late-night eclipse watching.

The 72 minutes of totality will be visible from all of North and South America, as well as much of Europe and part of northeast Asia.

Credit: F. Espenak, NASA

Although it technically starts earlier, you won’t see much happening until around 1:30 a.m. ET (6:30 UT). If you want to catch the “total” part of “total eclipse,” you’ll have those 72 minutes starting around 2:40 ET (7:40 UT).

And if it helps you feel less guilty about keeping the kids up all night, turn it into science class. I went to many a late-night astronomy lab in college–sometimes sleep must be sacrificed for the stars.

  • Take turns rating your viewing on the Danjon scale.
  • If you have an Android phone, try out Google SkyMap for identifying the stars and constellations.
  • Take pictures. If you’re not too confident with the camera yet, this guide might help.
  • For kids more interested in history than science, send them to NASA’s list of eclipses of historical interest. Have them talk about how it would feel to have experienced an eclipse like this if you didn’t know why it was happening.

Total lunar eclipses are my favorite sort of eclipses. Solar eclipses are fun, but you can’t look at them without a tool, even a quick homemade one. And the moon changes colors. Good stuff. Where’s my tripod and hot chocolate?

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GeekMom Secret Origins: Jenn Hansen

Jenn in real life.

Beneath the tree called Grandfather, standing tall in a small copse of trees amid the sweet grass of the eastern plains of Colorado, I listened to leafy tales. Hiding in a lilac hedge along the fence-line in my backyard, I made my home with faeries and many insects, closely observing the natural world. More often than not, I could be found lounging in the branches of a tree with either a book or a pencil and notebook, vehicles for my imagination. Climbing a hill, I once saw the moon, full and sitting low on the horizon. It was orange and I could see nothing else. I hunt for that moon in every evening sky, amid the constellations and their epics.

I cannot remember feeling like I fit in with other kids my age, but it wasn’t until junior high school that I was labeled a geek (nerd, dork, etc.).  However uncomfortable the term was in those adolescent days, I eventually embraced the term. Star Wars, Star Trek, Tolkien, griffins and unicorns, faeries and elves, aliens, talking animals, Lego, He-Man and She-ra; I’m a geek and I’m proud!

I’m not particularly gadgety; I leave the high-tech to my husband. (I can, however, rock NES Tetris and SNES Killer Instinct.) I am decidedly low-tech. I geek-out over old school crafts like ink- and paper-making, foraging for food in the backyard, calligraphy, hand-crafted books, instruments, cooking and spinning. Classical music (especially early music and opera), medieval literature (Caedmon to Chaucer, and Shakespeare too), history, astronomy, nature and Celtic and Norse culture–I love it!

I’m a newborn mom, determined to raise my son to walk in the world without the fear of labels, with pride for whatever he chooses to geek-out about.