Thursday, December 30, 2010

Odd Science 2010

Besides highly publicized science stories of 2010 (Gulf oil spill, Chilean miner rescue, bedbugs, etc.), there were some intriguing and somewhat odd science stories:

1. You think like a worm – The human brain’s center of deep thought is curiously similar to a clump of neurons inside the head of the lowly ragworm. So similar, in fact, that ragworms, which evolved 600 million years ago, probably share a common ancestor with us humans. Hmmm…

2. The shrinking moon – Lunar geologists have found cliff-like scarps on the moon that they believe formed as the moon lost heat and contracted. But don’t panic – the moon’s radius has only shrunk a few hundred feet in the last billion years. Considering its small size, though (its diameter is less than the distance from Washington, DC to San Francisco), let’s hope it doesn’t shrink too much more…

3. Dinosaurs in color – Sinosauropteryx, a chicken-size dinosaur, and was covered with spiny hair, ate meat and walked on its hind legs. Scientists examining the hair bristles under a powerful microscope discovered its tail contained melanosomes, color-bearing cell parts found in modern birds. And what color was it? Sinosauropteryx sported a chestnut and white striped tail! Cool!

4. Bowerbirds exaggerate – Male bowerbirds lure their mates with large collections of stones, shells, bones and other trinkets, even some man-made ones. Their display is usually arranged from largest to smallest, creating an optical illusion. As the female approaches, the display area appears smaller, making the male in the center appear bigger. Clever guy!

5. Rubik’s Cube decoded – Have you ever tried to solve a Rubik’s Cube? How many moves did it take you? Mathematicians have discovered that out of the 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible starting positions, you should never have to make more than 20 moves to solve the puzzle. Can you do it?

These 5 are just a taste; Discover magazine's current issue includes the 100 Top Stories of 2010.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Question of the Week

Fruitcake facts:
  • The average fruitcake weighs 2 pounds.
  • Fruitcake has the same density as mahogany.
  • Fruitcake has been around since Roman times.
  • In the 18th century, fruitcake was outlawed in Europe.
  • Almost 3000 pounds of fruitcake were delivered to Iraq in 2006.
Can you answer this question:

What percent of people who received a fruitcake as a gift would throw it away?  What percent would regift it?

Did you receive a fruitcake as a gift this holiday season?  You can regift it to the Science Museum of Virginia!  Join us for Fruitcake Science on Wednesday, December 29 and watch all the fun we have with fruitcake.

Answer:  47% of people who receive the gift of fruitcake would throw it away immediately.  Another 11% would regift it.  So more than half (58%) would not keep it or eat it.  You have to wonder how many fruitcakes are continually regifted for years and years... maybe since Roman times???

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is It Winter Yet? Maybe, Maybe Not…

Snow frozen onto a tree in Germany.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Tuesday, December 21, is the Winter Solstice and usually considered the first day of winter. However, meteorological winter is already here! So what’s the deal? Well, the definition of winter depends on whom you ask.

A meteorologist defines winter as the three coldest months of the year: December, January and February. An astronomer defines winter as the three months between the Winter Solstice (December 21 or 22) and the Spring or Vernal Equinox (March 20 or 21). What’s the difference?

The definition of meteorological winter is fairly straightforward. Climatologically-speaking, the three coldest months of the year are December, January and February in the Northern Hemisphere. Therefore, meteorological winter begins on December 1 and ends on February 28 (or 29). In the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed, meaning if you lived in Rio or Buenos Aires, summer would begin in December and winter would begin in June.

Astronomical winter begins on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. The Earth has seasons and variable daylight hours because its axis is tilted 23.5° relative to its orbit around the sun. Winter in the Northern Hemisphere occurs when the northern half of the planet is tilted away from the sun. This tilt causes sun’s energy to be weaker on the Earth’s surface because:
  • The sun shines on the Earth’s surface at an oblique angle.
  • The sun’s energy is spread out over a larger area, diluting its strength. 
  • The sun’s rays travel through more atmosphere before they reach the surface. 
  • Days are shorter so there is less time for the sun to heat the surface. 
Less energy from the sun on the Earth’s surface means colder temperatures in the atmosphere – so winter arrives. For more information, check out last year’s blog about the Winter Solstice:

Here are some questions for you to ponder:
  • If the Earth’s axis had no tilt, would we have seasons? 
  • If the tilt was at a greater angle, what would our seasons be like? 
  • Do you think other planets in the solar system have seasons too? 
  • How did Earth’s axis get tilted in the first place?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Question of the Week

It's snowing!  Snow showers are also predicted for Thursday and a winter storm might hit us this weekend.  Remember last December? 

Now for the Question of the Week:
What is the percent chance of a white Christmas in Richmond (in any given year)?

Answer:  In Richmond, there is a less than 10% chance that measurable snow will fall on Christmas Day.  There's about a 13% chance that at least a trace of snow will be on the ground and about a 7% chance that at least 1" will be on the ground.

Several inches of snow are predicted for today (Thursday, December 16), and a coastal storm this weekend has a 50-50 chance of bringing us more snow.  Will we see snow on the ground for Christmas?  We might...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The First Flight of 2nd Lt. Thomas Love Chrisman

Do you remember the first time you were on an airplane? My first flight was when I was in 4th grade to visit relatives in Arizona. Many of us experienced our first flight on a commercial airliner, complete with cushioned seats, in flight movies, and a snack. But what do you think it would have felt like to have your first flight in the open air cockpit of a Curtiss Jenny during World War I? (My guess: loud, bumpy, and no snacks). Native Virginian Thomas Love Chrisman did just that when he left school at the University of Virginia to serve in World War I. Flight was still in its early stages during these days and Chrisman documented many of the accidents the cadets had during their training with photographs. Chrisman wrote on the back of this photograph at right that this was an “unusual entry into barracks”. Fortunately for Chrisman, his first flight was more successful.
Chrisman faithfully wrote home to his mother, Louisa B. Chrisman and described in great detail his experiences. She in turn gave the letters to the local Clarke County newspaper who published his accounts. Here is an except from his description of his first flight:

“While you were getting ready to take your trip Monday a.m. I was undergoing one of the greatest sensations of my life-e-g., my first flight…As strange as it may sound I found myself marching along wondering if my feelings weren’t similar to those of a prospective bridegroom on his wedding eve, in that I was entering into an existence which might prove wonderfully happy or fatal…

At last my turn came and I climbed into the “cock-pit” all dolled up in helmet and goggles…The lieutenant told me that my first trip would be a joy ride at 1000 feet and that I was to look around and enjoy the scenery… After turning the propeller over two or three times to prime the cylinders the mechanic said “contact” and after hearing the lieutenant repeat “contact” the mechanic gave the propeller one little yank and the old ninety-horse power Curtiss was off with a roar…we taxied (bumped along on two wheels and the tail skid) to the opposite end of the field…Having arrived there and turned into the wind, the lieutenant looked back (he’s in the front and the most dangerous cock-pit) and yelled (engine is running) “are you ready?” That “are you ready” made me feel funny…I managed to shake my head, however, (after making sure I was strapped in tight) and he “gave her the gun” (opened the throttle).

She started to roll along on the ground and I felt the body come up to a horizontal position as we gained speed rapidly. We were then riding along on two wheels and the sensation was just like one experiences in an automobile as it goes from low to high speed. Presently it seemed to ride exceptionally easy and but for the throb of the engine we were apparently floating. I peeped out and saw the ground was about ten feet below and falling lower all the time…I realized for the first time that my future existence depended upon the will of the lieutenant, and the strength of a few little cables that hold the wings of the plane.”

Once in the sky, Chrisman notes: “In general the earth seems to have a beautiful green carpet on it and is apparently very smooth. We have been climbing steadily and the altimeter now shows 1000 feet. Thus we ride around and enjoy the view when suddenly the roar stops and as the nose points down you hear the wind sing by the wires of the wings and you realize (after making sure your breakfast isn’t in your mouth) that the engine is cut off and you are gliding to earth at about 80 miles per hour. The average “landing” is rougher than the “take off” but not objectionable. He gets close to the ground and runs paralel [sic] to it until the wheels settle to earth due to loss of speed.”

Chrisman survived the war, returned to Virginia, married, and had two daughters. He would later serve again in World War II as part of the 8th Army Air Force stationed in England. His first experiences with flight are very different from ours today.

Monday, December 6, 2010

"Fruitcake" Question of the Week

How long would you dare to age a fruitcake and still eat it, assuming it was made and stored properly?
          a.  1 year
          b.  5 years
          d.  10 years
          e.  25 years
          f.  I wouldn't eat it, no matter how fresh it was...

Enjoy a special evening of "Fruitcake Science" on Wednesday, December 29 at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Answer:  e - Yes, a fruitcake will keep 25 years if stored in an airtight container, provided it was prepared with the right preservatives.  And what are the "right preservatives?"  Send us your suggestions.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

It's not a Parachute, it's an Improvised Shade Hat!

In sixth grade my teacher gave us a scenario. We were stuck in the desert and could only have one item for rescue- what would we use? He gave us a list, from which I believe I picked a broken radio (I was optimistic-maybe I could fix it?). But the right answer was a mirror. A mirror could be used to signal your location when it reflected sunlight. That idea has always stuck with me and I always keep a mirror nearby in case….I’m ever stuck in the desert, or have something stuck in my teeth.

But what if you only had a parachute? While cataloging items in our collection I found this booklet printed by the US Army Air Forces in February of 1945. Titled “Emergency Uses of the Parachute” it details just that. Inside are some ingenious uses for something every aviator has, the parachute!

Here are some examples:

1. Trade some of your chute for food: Many people value the quality of the silk. But be thrifty, don’t give it all away for a small meal!
2. Use it as a signal: tie parts of the parachute over a stream to show your location if you are in an area with a lot of trees.
3. Make a slingshot: a portion of the harness of the chute is used as the sling which is tied to the elastic cord from the parachute pack, which is then tied to a single bent rod from the pack frame wire.
4. And my favorite, the Improvised Shade Hat: Using the metal frame and canvas from the cover of the pack make a brim, then make the crown of the hat with the cloth. And for extra comfort, “to promote coolness, stuff wadded grass or cloth in the crown”.

These are just a few of some of the clever ways that aviators were trained to survive should they find themselves in an emergency situation.