Archive for October, 2009

The Science of Collecting Halloween Candy

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

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Have you ever wondered what type of receptacle will optimize your candy collecting potential this Halloween? The website My Science Project conducted an experiment to find out, taking into account container AND candy size and shape to determine the ideal distribution of goodies. Visit the website to find out if a small bucket, large bucket, paper bag, or pillowcase will be your best bet tomorrow.

Nothing to fear

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

It’s okay to be scared; but it’s never good to be afraid. What’s the difference? We like to be scared. It can be fun, and allows us to feel brave as we face our fears. Being scared can also lead to learning and experiencing new things. The unknown can be scary, but it drives us to that sense of discovery that so often leaves us wanting more.

Fear has its uses; it helps protect us from things that may be dangerous like, for example, the edge of a cliff. Fear makes us approach things with caution. Knowing the danger helps keep us safe – accepting it and working past it allows us to grow. Being afraid, on the other hand, paralyzes us, prevents us from acting, and keeps us ignorant.

Almost every culture has its own mythology, most of which is filled with monsters and supernatural beings. If you look below the surface of those stories you’ll possibly find something deeper in that most of these stories attempt to explain something. What that “something” is, varies from story to story. Subject matter ranges from natural phenomena to the complexities of human nature. At their core, however, they all serve the same purpose of helping us makes sense of the world around us.

As someone who teaches history and science to children (and adults, for that matter) I am occasionally quick to dismiss superstition and myth. When a second grader wants to know if any of the old buildings in the museum’s Heritage Courtyard are haunted, it’s kind of cute. When the same question comes from an adult, it’s a bit disconcerting. Perhaps, I should ask, “Are they serious, or are they simply looking for a good ghost story?”

Growing up a somewhat timid child, I don’t have to look beyond my own past to understand the power that the unknown and frightening can have. I remember feeling left out when all of my friends discussed the classic monsters of the films shown during Horror Week on the local Dialing-for-Dollars afternoon movie. (Trust me, this was a special event. It may be hard to imagine for anyone growing up in a post 1980’s, zillion-channel world of on-demand cable, Blu-ray disks, and YouTube, that there once was a time when you would have to wait for certain films to air on broadcast television. If you missed them, you missed them. Better luck next year.) I, alas, hadn’t missed the films, I had been too afraid to watch them.

I knew that characters like Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster were scary, but I didn’t know why. I decided to arm myself against the things that haunted my nightmares, not with the traditional garlic, silver bullets, and mob of villagers carrying torches and pitch-forks; but, with knowledge. My weapon of choice – books.

Soon, I was steeped in the history of the monsters of the silver screen from the original silent films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu, the Vampyre, to the appearance of the Universal Studio’s monsters in comedy films. Once they met Abbott and Costello, it was difficult to take these creatures of the night seriously, ever again. Along the way, I picked up quite a bit of information, ranging from history and geography (how many of you knew that Transylvania was located in Central Romania?), to mythology and science.

I also picked up some interesting skincare techniques and trivia. Did you know that Lon Chaney Sr. washed his face in bleach to achieve his ghastly appearance in the Phantom of the Opera? Closer to home, Lon was born on April 1, 1883, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. If you’ve never seen Chaney as the Phantom, you owe it to yourself to do an image search. That’s not make-up. Lon Chaney not only bleached his skin, he inserted painful wire hoops into his eyes to make them bulge, and appliances into his nostrils and cheeks to make his visage more skeletal. Talk about suffering for your art.

I would have never encountered this information if I hadn’t decided at an early age to face my fears. The same also applies to real science, with similar motivation fueling my interest in dinosaurs, snakes, and sharks. Fear can be a powerful tool, knowing this I was able to turn my fear into understanding and knowledge of the things that once frightened me.

When dealing with the students that visit the museum, I encourage them to learn about things that might seem scary and to develop their own opinions. Many of them have gone on to dissect a squid, eat a bug, and enter an historic building; no longer haunted by the ghost of doubt, but moved by the spirit of discovery.

Embrace the things that are scary.

The Botany of Desire documentary

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

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A new PBS documentary, The Botany of Desire, premiered last night. Based on Michael Pollan’s book of the same name, the documentary follows the history of four domesticated plants: tulips, marijuana, potatoes, and apples, and looks at the ways those plants have “used” humans to help disperse them across the world and outcompete other plants. This incredible story, told from the plants’ points of view, blends history and science to tell tales of plant-people interactions spanning thousands of years. If you didn’t have the chance to watch it on television, have no fear! It’s available for free on the PBS website.

P.S. Read the book, too, it’s excellent!

Snow day

snow day

The City of Fort Collins has declared a snow emergency and closed all City offices, including the Museum, as of 1:00 today. Public transit will continue to run until 6:00. If you’re still out there, be careful. If you’re home, fill up your bird feeders and find a kid (inner or outer) and go play!

Check the City’s website tomorrow to see if the Museum is open.

Science at home: Meet Darwinopterus modularis

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Earlier this month we posted about Anchiornis huxleyi, a four-winged, chicken sized dinosaur that’s the oldest bird-like dinosaur found to date, and now there’s yet another feathered fossil making headlines.

Meet Darwinopterus modularis, a pterosaur hailing from the Middle Jurassic (over 160 millions years ago) with a long tail, long snout with spiky teeth, and a single nasal opening. While any new dinosaur discovery is cool, Darwinopterus is especially interesting because characteristics of the fossil support a somewhat controversial theory of evolution known as mosaic evolution.

The theory of mosaic evolution states that major evolutionary changes tend to occur in stages, and not all together. In this theory, different pieces of anatomy can become disassociated from one another and evolve at separate rates (so a dental system and a locomotor system don’t have to evolve at the same rate). In the case of Darwinopterus, the fossil shares characteristics with the two major pterosaur groups that existed in the Jurassic. Early pterosaurs had long tails, short necks, and a separate nasal opening in their skulls. Later pterosaurs had short tails, long necks, and a nasal opening that was combined with another skull opening. Because some characteristics are so different between early and later pterosaurs, scientists believed there were intermediate forms between the two major groups. Enter Darwinopterus, with the body of an early pterosaur but the head of a later pterosaur. This representation of a “new” head on an “old” body supports the theory that anatomical “areas” can evolve at different rates.

Researchers don’t know yet if Darwinopterus was an ancestor of later pterosaurs; rather the new species is a “transitional form” that helps us understand how an organism group evolved.

For more information on Darwinopterus, visit Tetrapod Zoology.

Darwinopterus Image from Tetrppod Zoology

Darwinopterus Image from Tetrppod Zoology

Update: Urban Wildlife Project

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

A few weeks ago we wrote about our new prototype project, the Urban Wildlife Photography Challenge. We wanted to create an exhibit where the content (in this case, photos) came from the community, and where visitors could interact with the content and add their experiences, too. Working with Maria Mortati from Gyroscope, Inc. (the wonderful crew who’s helping us design the exhibit master plan for the new Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center), we came up with the idea to create what we’re calling the Urban Wildlife Photography Challenge. The exhibit opened on October 17th.

Using Flickr as our “home base,” we asked the community to send us photos of wild animals or plants in urban settings here in northern Colorado. We received 120 submissions from Fort Collins, Estes Park, and Timnath — photos of everything from snapping turtles (who knew we had snapping turtles in Fort Collins?) to butterflies, and of course the ever-popular elk on the golf course in Estes Park (my personal favorite).

Our fantastic exhibit designer Cory Gundlach came up with a clip rail system where the printed photos from Flickr could be displayed on the wall in the prototype exhibit area (see photos below). And this is where the fun really gets going: beyond just looking at and admiring these great photos, visitors can rearrange them on the wall, add Post-It note comments and tags to the photos, and add their own content by drawing a picture of an urban wildlife encounter they’ve had, or writing a “field note” about it.

One of the most important pieces of information we want to capture from each of these contributions is where it happened. We asked that photos submitted through Flickr be “geotagged,” and that drawings and field notes left by visitors to the exhibit also include a location. Each photo, field note, and drawing has a number assigned to it, and a corresponding number is placed on the large maps on the back wall of the exhibit. The effect is really cool — we’re really starting to see clusters of activity, and not surprisingly, those clusters are popping up in a lot of Fort Collins’ wonderful urban natural areas.

There are a lot of things about this exhibit that we’re really excited about — and I think the biggest one is that every day, it’s different. We’ll be adding new photos as we get them, and every day we’re seeing new drawings and field notes that visitors have contributed. It seems like people are really digging it. People have been a little shy about actually rearranging the pictures, but hopefully that will get going soon as well. Or I may just go arrange everything by color, as I’ve been so tempted to do!

An exhibit built by the community, and curated by the community — we’re loving it. Come be a part of it too. You can upload your urban wildlife photos to our Urban Wildlife Photography Challenge Flickr group, or come to the Museum and draw a picture, write a field note, and interact with the photos already on display. It’s your exhibit — go for it!

The Urban Wildlife exhibit, with photos on the left wall and maps on the back wall

The Urban Wildlife exhibit, with photos on the left wall and maps on the back wall

The clip rail system

The clip rail system

Photos, field notes, and drawings with map numbers

Photos, field notes, and drawings with map numbers

The Fort Collins map

The Fort Collins map

A visitor-contributed drawing

A visitor-contributed drawing

Field notes

Field notes

Photo with a Post-It tag

Photo with a Post-It tag

From the Archive: Halloween greetings!

by Lesley Drayton, Curator, Local History Archive

As you don your costumes this Halloween and gear up for trick or treating, apple bobbing, and consuming copious amounts of candy, take some inspiration of good cheer from these images of a Halloween party held in Fort Collins around the 1910s. We don’t know who is in these pictures, but it certain seems like they were having a terrifyingly good time!

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The folks at the Preston Farm, located along County Road 9, certainly knew how to decorate for the season. Seven jack-o-lanterns haunt the fence in this photograph taken circa 1900.

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Finally, check out this eerie postcard sent to Flossie Jones of Greeley, Colorado in 1913 by her soon-to-be husband. The clock strikes midnight, a mirror and candle float in the air, and the young lady brews a potion revealing the image of, perhaps, her future beau? “What’s meant for thee, Thee’ll have” are the ominous words drifting above the cauldron….spooky!

Halloweencard


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