Friday, December 21, 2012

Holiday Fun at the Polar Express Pajama Party

Thanks to all of the Museum member families who brought cute pajamas and lots of holiday cheer to our Polar Express pajama parties! Hundreds of cookies and numerous gallons of milk were consumed - and our member kids handcrafted tons of holiday ornaments. But of course, the highlight was the super-comfy showing of The Polar Express on the biggest screen in Virginia.
We want to repeat the parties next year and give more member families a chance to come. What do you think members – should we do it again? Any ideas on how to make it even more fun?  
If you haven’t seen The Polar Express in IMAX® yet, it’s still showing through December 31. Members can use their free passes or buy discounted tickets for only $5. It’s a great accompaniment to our Fruitcake Science experiments that will happen December 26-30. Come see us during holiday break!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

From Elated to Deflated

The Barbieris getting ready to
wrangle the fruitcake balloon
On December 1, our fruitcake balloon made its debut in the Dominion Christmas Parade. Created to celebrate Fruitcake Science, our favorite holiday tradition of destroying – oops, we mean experimenting on holiday fruitcakes in the name of scientific inquiry, we were thrilled to be floating everyone’s least-favorite holiday treat down Broad Street. A hearty bunch of staff and friends of the Museum wrangled the balloon, including our member contest winners – the Barbieri Family.
The drama began about four blocks into the journey, when the fruitcake encountered the low-hanging traffic lights at Broad and Allen Streets – the same intersection that gave the Rudolph balloon an unfortunate head injury two years ago.

The fruitcake handlers used all their muscle and might to get the fruitcake low enough to pass below the lights. After a few agonizing minutes of struggle, the fruitcake finally moved under the light and across the intersection.

But alas, the fruitcake had sustained a puncture wound and quickly began to deflate, ending its parade journey almost as soon as it began. You can watch the drama unfold here.

Do you think we will let a traffic light get in the way of our holiday fun? No way. The fruitcake balloon will be back next year – just a few feet shorter.  

Join us December 26-30 and help us perform some despicable experiments on fruitcakes, and bring a fruitcake to donate to science. Don’t worry about us telling your grandma or aunt. It will be our little secret.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

It's the End of the World...Again!!!


If the world had ended every time a bad prediction was made, we would be in some real trouble!  

Humanity's doom and gloom world ending predictions have happened several times in the past.  So, its no surprise that we're hearing a lot of buzz about it again, after all, it's been a while.  This time around the cause is based around the Mayan Calendar.  Here's what you need to know about this alleged curtain call that the Earth is facing on Dec 21, 2012.  First of all the initial chaos was based around a bad prediction made for the year May 2003 when a rouge planet by the name of Nabiru would sweep into the inner solar system and smash right into Earth.  Okay, so that didn't work out quite as well as the predictors anticipated.  NASA and various space agencies around the planet keep a watchful eye for asteroids, space junk, and definitely rouge planets that could cause problems.  Much to some people's dismay, the no-show of planet Nabiru in May of 2003 was embarrassing.  I mean, no one wants to be  totally wrong, right?  So, the next best option was to shift the end of the world to the next 'logical' time, Dec 21, 2012.  

Why Dec 21, 2012?  Its right before the holidays, everyone's cozy in scarves and sweaters, and we're smack dab in the middle of big holiday feasts.  Why would anyone possibly want this to be the end of the world?  Well, some people noticed that the Mayan Calendar ended on Dec 21, 2012.  This gave enough creative freedom to examine various other earth-ending options.  All of a sudden new ideas started to pop up surrounding this wintery deadline.  The predictions got real out there, real fast!  


It's not just a fun video game, it's a great way to end the world!  So, of course, plenty of asteroid theories started to appear.  Again, the experts shook their heads and used the proof of the planet's astronomical resources to explain that this could not happen.  Currently, we have the ability to track any major threatening asteroids all the way out to the asteroid belt!  That's about 100 million miles away, and moving at the speeds asteroids do we're able to spot them about 20 years in advance.  We've looked up and we've tracked the trajectories of all the big problems that could happen and we seem to be in the clear at the moment.  Regardless, the skeptics continued to think of other fun ways to keep the garbage from going out on Dec 22.  If asteroids wouldn't do it then perhaps something bigger could.  

How about…the…planets!

Yeah, that's the ticket!  Planets lining up and causing problems.  Kind of like when you see a line of bullies in the playground, you know you're in trouble.  However, other than the relatively larger size of some planets compared to us, they bare very little resemblance to a school yard bully.  If you see a line of bullies, you may be in trouble.  If you see a line of planets, you're going to be just fine.  In fact the planets in our solar system have aligned several times in this century alone.  With the exception of causing some fear on internet blogs, nothing else has really happened.  The 'fear' was that the planetary alignments would trigger a series of world ending natural disasters.  The prediction was that on Dec 21, 2012 the Earth would experience several huge volcanoes going off all at once!  Hurricanes would sweep the coast lines!  Earthquakes would bring major cities to the ground!  Tornadoes! Lightning! Tsunamis!  Snow storms! Ahhhhh!!!!!  Whoa, wait a minute.  So, in theory, if all this happens when the planets line up, shouldn't we have already seen this happen once or twice already?  After all, the planets have been aligned in the past and from what we can recall, there are no records in recent or even in previous times where THAT much chaos has happened all at once.  Plus the planets ARE NOT lining up this year at all, they're all over the place! Hmm….okay, so that one's not as likely.  So, what else could they dream up?  

The Earth's magnetic poles?

Some people started to tout the change in the magnetic poles which would shift the Earth (literally) UPSIDE DOWN!  It seems the only thing that's upside down about this prediction is the science involved.  The Earth does shift its magnetic poles from time to time, but much like anything that's worth doing, it takes a while.  You can't just flip a light switch and turn the world upside down, yet.  Our planet takes thousands of years to shift its magnetic poles and it is very much so a part of the natural process of being our planet.  To switch poles in the course of one day?  That may be a little out of the question based on what we have learned from billions of years of geologic records and all the very smart educated experts around the world.  Okay, so that one's a little out of the realm of possibility.  What else could possibly be left? 

Here comes the Sun!

Ah, yes, the sun!  The sun is a great way to end the world.  The heat of the sun is what gives us life, but if it were to somehow vastly grow or send a massive sun flair our way, it could become a very bad day on Earth.  So, this became the next runner up for the big catastrophic event that would end the world on Dec 21, 2012.  Okay, so sure, lets talk about the sun.  Now, billions of years from now, the sun will grow in size vastly as it becomes a red giant, right before it collapses into a little white dwarf and spend the rest of its time in retirement, but for now the sun is going to be chillin' (or heating…depending on how you look at it) and carrying on business as usual.  So, the fear behind the earth ending sun-show can be put to rest as well.  What else could they possible come up with that could cause legitimate alarm?

How…about…the….ENTIRE UNIVERSE!!!

There's something to be said about coming up with the most creative end of the world prediction.  In the past people have used piddly little things like comets, asteroids, planets, sun flairs, and what have you.  This Dec 21 cut off has yielded a pretty fantastic and imaginative theory.  According to some, on Dec 21st, THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE WILL LINE UP!!  Now, before we get into the science behind why this prediction is just plain wrong, lets give props to the amazing imagination that allowed this theory to happen in the first place.  Imagine every star, black hole, comet, asteroid, random hydrogen particle, new forming stars, old dying ones, all escaped light….EVERYTHING!! Everything in a nice neat line.  An O.C.D. person's dream come true!  However, things are moving in specific trajectories that will make this alignment 100% IMPOSSIBLE.  However, again if the entire universe were to line up, the events happening on Earth would have little to no impact based on gravitational pulls. The gravity of the sun and the moon (though much smaller than the sun's gravity) have the most impact on what happens here on Earth.  Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and even it has no urgent gravitational impact on our major natural processes.  The universe lining up would make for one amazing photo opt, but life on Earth would more likely than not continue.

There's one other major thing that needs to be mentioned here.  We've spent some time looking into all the sciences behind these bad-predictions, but we've saved the best for last.  Let's discuss the mystical and magical powers of calendars.  First of all, a calendar is simply a way to organize our days.  Various cultures all over the world in many different time periods have created their own calendars.  The Mayans were one of them.  We, currently, are another group of individuals that use our own calendars.  There is a calendar somewhere in your life.  Perhaps hanging at your office, in your class room, or maybe in your home.  Regardless of where the calendar is hanging, there's a really good chance that it has a 'last day' on it.  Go to your calendar, look for the last day.  Does that mean the world is going to end?  No, it means its time for a new calendar.  The Mayans made some wonderful observations about the cosmos and noted them down using the technology and resources they had available to them.  There have been many times that we've learned more about our place in the natural world based on research and understanding.  Thousands of years ago when the Mayans were making the calendars they were unaware of computer algorithms.  Those didn't exist then.  Currently we can map out what day of the week Dec 21 will fall on in the year 2015, 2080, 3500, or even 999,999 if we wanted to.  When the Mayans were working on the calendar they had limited resources and at some point the physical organization of days had to end, because physical resources are limited.  The concept of time is an infinite…not easily applicable to paper and pencil.  So, this calendar had to have a 'last day' NOT because of the end of the world, but because you can't physically write down all the days from now till, well, infinity.  So, the last day on the Mayan calendar is very similar to the last day on your calendar.  It's just not indicative of the end of all life as we know it.  

So, there's no need to fear and panic.  For now, the phrase "It's the end of the world as we know it..." will just be part of a pop song by REM.  No need to go crazy and start giving away personal possessions. Well, except for maybe some outdated calendars. 

It's The End Of The World...Again
Produced by Prabir Mehta
Animation by Caroline Miller

Sunday, December 2, 2012

From New York city to Tokyo in just 45 minutes?

So, who's up for grabbing lunch in Tokyo today?

Yes, Tokyo, Japan.  Well, today this may not be a possibility, but scientists are working on new plane designs that could make this lunch date a distinct possibility.

XCOR, a rocket engineering firm, has announced the design of a new suborbital plane called the Lynx.  This vehicle would be able to take passengers from New York City to Tokyo in just 45 minutes.  Pretty amazing, right?  This plane would launch into the sky and reach about 60 miles above the Earth's surface.  This would place the passenger above almost all of our atmosphere.  Currently most commercial flights only get about 23,000 feet up (a little over 4 miles).  So, 60 miles above the Earth is a pretty large step up considering today's standards.  The lynx would be high enough for passengers to see the curve of the Earth, the blackness of space, and experience a little bit of weightlessness.  The flight would take only 45 minutes at the amazing speed of 3,800 mph (mach 5) that the engineering firm wishes to achieve. 

Travel has always been a great source of inspiration and invention among humans.  The earliest means of long range travel took place on foot.  Our earliest ancestors walked a lot.  This was made a little easier with the advent of floating wood on water, boats.  Once upon a time it took nearly nine months to cross the ocean.  As boats became more efficient the time took a little bit less, but you just could not make it faster than months at a time.  On Dec 17, 1903, the Wright brothers took one giant step forward in human transportation when they successfully flew the very first plane in North Carolina.  This design was very elementary compared to our modern day flying machines, but at the time this was a monumental achievement.  The Wright flyer was the first spark that ignited the rapid evolution of flying technology.  Shortly after the Wright brothers invention, planes developed into machines that could make trans-atlantic flights.  The first non-stop transatlantic flight went from Maryland to Ireland in a whopping 29 hours.  Think about that for a moment.  Humans were used to taking months to make this journey and suddenly there came a time in which it only took 29 hours, a fraction of the time it took on boat.  As planes developed the flight times got shorter.  Currently, a flight from Maryland to Ireland takes about nine hours.  So, let's zoom out a little9 months on boat, to 29 hours on early plane, to 9 hours using modern technology, in a relatively short time period of technological evolution.  Sure, 45 minutes seems bizarre, but consider what the first plane passengers must have thought when crossing the ocean below them.  What XCOR is hoping to do is just continuing the growth of technology and use the process of science to help advance a very basic component of human life, travel.

The Lynx plans on launching in 2013 with ticket prices starting at $95,000.  There has been no official announcement on the on-board baggage just yet.  Stay tuned for more developments!

The Guitar!

The Guitar: The Instrument The Rocked The World.

Last year, about 3 million guitars were sold worldwide. That's more than all other instruments combined! Clearly this data indicates a large popularity for this relatively recent musical instrument.   

Though its ancestors date back to pre-recorded times, the earliest 'guitar' dates back to the Renaissance. A neck, which contained a fret board and tuning pegs, was attached to a hollowed out wooden body to project the sound of the strings. These early guitars were all acoustic, requiring no electricity. This is where six strings were strung together to create an instrument that could play chords (two or more notes played together) or melodic lines in which notes could create basic musical sentences, note by note. The evolution of the guitar happened slowly over a few hundred years with basic changes to the types of shapes, materials, and sizes. The landmark evolutionary step for the guitar was in 1932 when, for the first time ever, it went electric. Like many inventions, the electric guitar came about as a necessity. In the 1930s Hawaiian styled slide guitar compositions were very popular. The guitar was commonly accompanied by various other instruments ranging from the bombastic percussion to loud and blaring horns! This presented a problem to the guitar players that who wanted to be able to be heard in their various musical combos.  

In 1932 George Beauchamp, Adolph Rickenbacker and a few others founded a company to manufacture a guitar that could be amplified. These steps would lead to a musical revolution that now yields the sale of 3 million units annually. So, how did they do this? Well, the answer lies in one of the most powerful forces that exists in our natural world, electromagnetism. The component added was the pick-up. The pick-up is a bar magnet surrounded by a tightly wound wire. This wire is wrapped around the magnet several thousand times. The pick-up is placed near the steel strings of a guitar. The motion of the strings, when plucked or strummed, creates a vibration in the magnetic field thus sending a current through the wire. That current comes out as a small electrical signal. Well, small's not going to cut it if we want to compete with drums and brass. So, the signal was then sent into a radio, which has the ability to amplify or boost electrical pulses and signals. This would create a larger more audible version of that electrical signal. This was the first time an electric guitar signal was sent through an amplifier to create a louder signal that could compete with the accompanying instruments.  

Soon after, this technology was harnessed by many other musical and technological explorers. Varying designs on both the guitar and the amplifier quickly started to appear. The evolution of the guitar took a drastic shift once this technical component was added. Currently there are thousands upon thousands of types of guitars and amplifiers ranging from the simple and basic to the bizarre and complicated. 

This new instrument was an integral player in the creation of new genres of music. The older classical orchestral music had no composed parts for guitar so new compositions were needed. Though there are some classical pieces that feature the guitar, the instruments footprint on the musical world really was made clear once musicians started to play blues, jazz, country, and bluegrass. These were the predecessors to nearly everything we hear on the radio today. Once the evolution of the instrument started to take shape, the evolution of genres quickly followed. Many musicians such as Robert Johnson, B.B.King, Fats Domino, and Jackie Brenston were helping establish the new genre of rock and roll, but there was much more in store for the guitar in the very near future. 

In the early 1940s a young truck driver in Alabama took standard blues music and presented it with a slightly faster tempo and a more pronounced back beat. That truck driver was one of the many people who helped create a brand new style of music that was, as of then, a pretty uncommon sound in the average American household. What was the music?  Rock and Roll.  Who was the truck driver? Elvis Presley. Presley would later go on to be called 'The King of Rock Music'. With the influence of these early blues based musical pioneers, a fleet of musicians from around the planet started to perfect their 'rock' sound, including a quartet from Liverpool, England. The Beatles released their first album in 1963 and created a seemingly unstoppable musical trajectory. The fab four ushered in a cultural revolution that would change the guitar forever. For the first time ever a guitar based musical group was upheld in the public limelight as international celebrities. The guitar driven sound of the mop-top quartet became a staple on radio and television across the world. Soon after, other guitar-led musicians would sweep international media and inspire generations of future musicians.

The guitar is the instrument that rocked the world.