Archive for December, 2009

Microscopic masterpieces

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

If you’re anything like me, you appreciate the finer things in life: the blue resin channels of a pine needle, the hairs on a fly’s foot, the carpospores of an algae, the cilia of a rotifer.

For some of the most beautiful photographs I’ve seen of the micro-world, visit the Micropolitan Museum of Microscopic Art Forms. This website, presented by the Institute for the Promotion of the Less Than One Millimetre, is the creation of artist and curator Wim van Egmond and highlights the microscopic art of the ocean, freshwater, insects, and plants.

Freshwater crustaceans, The Micropolitan Museum

While you’re there, be sure to stop by the Hall of Arthopods and the Water flea Circus, but don’t go into the Bacteria Basement – that’s where all the trouble organisms hang out.


New Year’s Eve blue moon

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

For those readers lucky enough to live in the Eastern Hemisphere (Europe, Africa, Australia and Asia), you’ll have a treat on December 31st – the last lunar eclipse of the year. Lunar eclipses occur when the Moon passes through the Earth’s shadow. The more central the moon in the shadow, the more total the eclipse. This eclipse, known as a minor partial eclipse, won’t be too spectacular – just a tiny sliver of the Moon (~7.6%) will go dark as it passes through the Earth’s shadow. However, no matter where you live, we’re all in for another treat this New Year’s Eve, something that only happens once in a blue moon. What’s that? A Blue Moon.

Full Moon from Air & Space Museum

Today, the expression “blue moon” has two meanings: (1) something rare and (2) two full Moons occurring in one month. However, those meanings have changed over time (the last 400-ish years, to be exact).

The earliest recorded use of the phrase “blue moon” happened in 1528, in a pamphlet criticizing the English clergy. The line, “Yf they say the mone is belewe/We must believe that it is true” (If they say the moon is blue, we must believe that it is true), was used to describe an impossible event. By the 18th century, the phrase “until a blue moon” was used to mean “never.” So why, today, do we used the expression “once in a blue moon” to mean something that happens every now and then, or rarely? Well, it turns out the moon can appear blue.

When the Indonesian volcanic island Krakatoa erupted in 1883, the particles of ash it shot into the atmosphere were around 1 micron wide, the right size to scatter red light while letting other colors pass through.  Sunsets looked green and the Moon looked blue all around the world for almost two years. Blue Moons could happen. A similar phenomenon happened in 1927 when an extra-long dry season created enough dust in the air for a blue Moon in India, and in 1951, smoke from forest fires in Canada turned the Moon blue over North America.

So when I say that we’ll see a blue Moon this Thursday, am I psychically predicting a forest fire or volcanic eruption? Happily, no. Besides, if I had psychic powers, I’d want to know lotto numbers, not the color of the Moon.

Here’s where the story continues: In North America, the expression “blue moon” also came to mean the third of four full Moons in a season. Traditionally, almanacs (the handy publications that tell you things like when the Moon was going to be full) worked on the tropical year, which goes from Winter Solstice to Winter Solstice, instead of from January 1st to December 31st. Most tropical years have 12 Moons, three per season (winter, spring, summer, and fall). But every once in a while, a tropical year will have 13 Moons – giving one season four Moons instead of three. The third of those four Moons was the one that didn’t belong, and came to be called the “Blue Moon.”

1853 Maine Farmers' Almanac from Old Farmer Almanacs

The switch in definition from “Blue Moon” meaning the third of four full Moons per season to meaning the second full Moon in a calendar month happened in 1946, when a writer for Sky & Telescope Magazine misinterpreted the Maine Farmers’ Almanac’s listing of a “Blue Moon.” The new definition caught on, which is why on Thursday the second full Moon of December will be a “Blue Moon.”

So, why are there two full Moons this month? We usually only have one full Moon per month because there are 29.53 days between each moon. However, get a month that’s long enough (31 days) with a full moon happening early enough (this month the first one happened December 2nd), and you can have two full Moons in one month. The definition of a “Blue Moon” as something rare still holds up, too, since these double Moons only occur once every 2.7 years.

Happy New Year and, as always, “Good seeing.”

Science at home: Who did I see?

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

I rarely see or even hear one of my favorite animals, and, no, that’s not because I love elephants and can only see them in a zoo or on safari (which is a highly unlikely trip for me anyway). No, this critter is a native of Colorado but it’s a nocturnal carnivore with such specialized adaptations that even sensitive-eared prey animals like mice don’t hear it coming. So imagine my surprise when on an evening a couple of weeks ago, sitting in my car at a stoplight west of Windsor on 392, with the temperature hovering at 0º F, my favorite animal, an owl, emerged from the blackness of the night, flying slightly above the intersection right over my car! Just enough light was emitted from my headlights and the street lamps to cause its light-colored belly feathers and under-wings to faintly glow in the night. It was beautiful!

My mom, another bird-lover, was with me. We’ve been debating about what species of owl we saw. It was a large owl but I’ve certainly seen larger. I’d guess it had a wing span of 3 feet. Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) have a wing span range of 3 to 5 feet, and a wide range of color variation, but a white belly is one possibility. Barn Owls (Tyto alba) all have white bellies, with a wing span of 3 to 3.5 feet. We could have seen a small Great Horned Owl or an average-sized Barn Owl. In flight, the feathers on its head that give the Great Horned its “horned” appearance, are folded against the head, so that diagnostic feature was not visible to us (if it was a Great Horned). Barn Owls have distinctive heart-shaped faces, long legs and a squared tail but in all honesty, this sighting occurred so fast and in such dim light I didn’t really catch anything of those features.

Great Horned Owl. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

That said, I’m leaning towards Barn Owl simply because the owl, including its face, looked so white to me. Barn Owls are often called “ghost owls” because they are so eerily silent in flight and their faces and underbellies are so pale. I’m hoping we might see this owl again sometime. Owls are creatures of habit: they have roosts and hunting grounds they return to over and over again. You can spot these locations not by spotting the owl (my goodness, owls are hard to spot!) but the cough pellets and whitewash they leave behind over many, many visits to the same favored haunt. It’s possible my mom and I crossed the regular evening route of a hunting owl. I’m going to time my trips down 392 and keep my eyes open!

Barn Owl. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

If you ever have a chance to go on an “owl prowl” with a professional ornithologist, I highly encourage it. An owl prowl is a late night walk through an area where owls live. By using their own voices, or sometimes tape recordings or calls, these owl experts can call to owls that will sometimes respond with calls of their own or even a flight in to see what’s up. Owl prowls are not for the impatient, nor are they for cold-weather-averse folks. The best prowls I’ve been on are at 10 pm in freezing weather (less than 30º F) – shout out to Jerry Garden of the Chicago Audubon Society – thank you for all the prowls you lead that I attended while I lived in Chicago!

Be prepared to be amazed and totally surprised by the sight of the feathered hunter who sneaks up on you. I once saw a great raptor naturalist and educator, Ryan DePauw, formerly of Spring Brook Nature Center in Illinois, illustrate the sound a single hawk feather makes when flapped, versus the sound of an entire owl’s wing when flapped. There’s no comparison: the single hawk feather sounds like a herd of elephants tap dancing with the Rockettes, while the owl’s wing didn’t make a sound at all.

One thing I will never, never do is call an owl myself. If you call different species of owls in the wrong order, you will either fail to hear or see any owls, or worse, you may cause the death of a small owl. Great Horned Owls eat smaller species of owls, like saw-whets and screech owls. I would hate to call in a screech owl only to draw the attention of a Great Horned!

The best Fort Collins-area resource for learning about owls is the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program. Their mission is to rehabilitate and return to the wild injured and sick raptors, including owls. Some birds that cannot be released are used for educational programs. Check out their website: See if you can identify the Great Horned Owl and the Barn Owl in the pictures on their homepage!

Man, myth & legend

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Thomas Nast's Santa Claus

Historical figures often become the stuff of legend with anecdotes being spun into greatly exaggerated versions of what at one time may have been the truth. George Washington’s cherry tree and Newton’s apple are good examples of this, but perhaps the granddaddy of fact becoming fiction is the story of Saint Nicholas. Who was this man, and how has his legend grown to what it is today? To find out we’ll need to travel back to where it all began somewhere in the neighborhood of Patara, circa 280 A.D. – near what is now Myra in modern Turkey.

The young Nicholas that would grow up to be a monk, or Bishop, in the 4th century is said to have had a generous and giving spirit throughout his life. He is also reported to have given up all of his wealth and possessions in order to help those in need. Some of the stories involving Nicholas have him saving individuals from lives of slavery, including three sisters who were offered up for sale by their own father. Another account has him rescuing a boy named Piter from a similar fate, with the young Ethiopian pledging loyalty to Nicholas and following him on his quest to bring relief to others.

Because of his generosity and willingness to help the downtrodden, Nicholas became well known through the region, especially as a protector of children. He was made a saint after his passing and a feast in his honor was established on the 6th of December, the day that marked his death. The Feast of St. Nicholas soon became one of the most popular traditions that filled the long winter season, and Nicholas himself was among the most loved saints throughout Europe. By 1087, everyone wanted a piece of St. Nicholas, literally, with the town of Bari, Italy mounting an official expedition to locate the tomb of the well known saint. His reliquary was desecrated; his remains and artifacts relocated to Bari, where they still reside to this day.

Long after the veneration of saints was discouraged by the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Saint Nicholas was remembered for his courageous and generous nature — although by this time, some of the details of his life had begun to take on some of the legendary qualities with which we’re now familiar. The Feast of St. Nicholas began to be associated with other Yule time celebrations, and tales of St. Nicholas leaving gifts for good little boys and girls spread.

This tradition blurred with one usually associated with the Norse god, Odin. Odin was often described as having a long white beard, and was sometimes identified as Jolnir, or the Yule Father. Odin was also said to lead hunting parties across the night sky, flying on his eight legged horse, Sleipnir. Children would leave their boots out for Sleipnir, filling them with hay and sugar for the steed to eat during Odin’s journey. In return Odin would leave candy and small gifts inside the boots to thank the children for their kindness. The boots were usually left near the hearth, often associated with ideas of warmth and prosperity. This custom quickly spread through Scandinavia, as well as Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

As Christianity began to flourish in the region, so too did the story of Saint Nicholas. Elements of the tradition involving Odin and his horse were folded in and St. Nicholas was soon depicted as having a long beard and riding upon a large white horse. Piter, the child that was saved from a life of slavery, became Nicholas’s helper as he delivered presents to the children. The small boy was able to climb on rooftops and deliver gifts down the chimney. He was soon identified as Black Peter, and today is usually seen dressed as a diminutive chimney sweep covered in soot. Some argue that the name was ethnically influenced due to Piter’s Ethiopian heritage, while others point out that Odin was also depicted as having similarly themed helpers in both his ravens that would report information back to him, and Norwi, the dark father of the night.

As the legend of Saint Nicholas grew throughout much of Europe, the name also morphed into “Sinter Klaas” in some regions. Other names began to be associated with Nicholas including Pere Noel, or Father Christmas. Nicholas was even associated with Christkindl, which translates as Christ Child in German but soon became the more familiar Chris Kringle. The Christkindl was usually depicted as an angelic creature that filled the same role of helper as Black Peter. As the idea of St. Nicholas spread throughout Europe each region mixed in elements from their existing traditions, and created new ones along the way.

Sinter Klaas was brought to America in the late 1700s by Dutch immigrants, with New York newspapers reporting celebrations of the Feast of St. Nicholas in both 1773 and 1774. Within a few years, Sinter Klaas was Americanized to “Santa Claus”. While the name stuck his appearance wouldn’t be firmly established for quite some time. In 1804, John Pintard of the New York Historical Society distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas to other members of his group. Nicholas wore the traditional vestments of the clergy including robes and miter board, however the background depicted stockings filled with fruit and toys hung over a fireplace. Washington Irving included Santa Claus in his fictional History of New York, even making Nicholas the city’s patron saint.  Still the description of Santa ranged from a rascal wearing a blue tri-corn hat, red vest, and yellow stockings, to an old man adorned in Flemish trunk hose, a rather elaborate style of pantaloon.

1822 saw the publication of a poem that would change everything, An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas. Originally published anonymously (due to its “frivolous” nature) by Episcopal minister, Clement Clarke Moore, the poem helped to cement the idea of Santa Claus firmly in the public conscience. Best known by its opening line, Twas the Night Before Christmas, the piece established such trappings as the a team of reindeer and sleigh, along with Santa’s ability to enter and exit a dwelling via the chimney.

Drawing inspiration from the poem, artist Thomas Nast created the first image of our modern Santa Claus in 1863. In a cartoon appearing in Harper’s Weekly, Santa is shown as a cheerful man with a full white beard holding a sack full of toys. He’s also seen wearing a red coat and pants, trimmed in white fur and accented by black boots and belt. Thomas Nast would also create ideas like Mrs. Claus and the band of elves that help Santa with his annual mission. He introduced the notion of Santa’s North Pole workshop in a collection entitled Santa Claus and his Works. The book of illustrations was accompanied by a poem written by George P. Webster that included a description of Santa’s home near the North Pole, in the ice and snow.

The image created by Thomas Nast would be further set as that of Santa Claus when another artist, Haddon Sandblom, used it as inspiration in a series of ads for Coca-Cola in the 1930’s. This eventually lead to a popular urban legend that Santa wears the red and white suit because of the cola company’s trademark colors, in spite of the fact that Thomas Nast had originally designed the well recognized costume 60 years before the ad campaign initially ran.

Today, Santa Claus is firmly associated with the Christmas Season and his likeness is the most recognizable image in the world, leaving Ronald McDonald a distant second. The US Postal Service receives bags of letters addressed to Santa every year. NORAD even tracks Santa’s progress every Christmas Eve, dedicating a special website to the event at

How to power your Christmas tree with an electric eel

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Warning: don’t try this at home.

As the holiday season gets into full swing, you may be looking for ways to make your celebrations a little “greener.” Sure, you could do the usual eco-friendly festivities: use LED lights, have a real tree grown on a sustainable tree farm that you will recycle after the holidays, and re-gift those presents you didn’t want (hey, it’s almost the same as recycling…), but if you really want to be an winter eco-warrior, I have just five words for you: Electric Eel-Powered Christmas tree/Hanukkah Menorah/Kwanzaa Kinara (it’s still sort of five words – go with it).

The electric eel, Electrophorus electricus, is in fact a fish, not a true eel, but it is quite electric. Three abdominal organs, the Main organ, Hunters organ, and Sachs organ, take up approximately 80% of the animal’s body and work something like batteries connected in a series. The organs are made of electrolytes, or electric cells, lined up so that an electric current can flow through them and produce an electrical charge. These organs give the electric eel the ability to generate both low and high voltage electric discharges that can stun and even kill other organisms. While the primary purposes of electric eel discharges are for echolocation and communication (weak discharges) and predation and defense (strong discharges), their ability to power holiday decorations may open up a whole new niche for these animals.

It’s pretty simple:

  1. Take one electric eel (they may be hard to find – it helps if you live in northeastern South America, where they’re found)
  2. Install one end of a conductive copper wire in the eel’s tank
  3. Connect the other end of the conductive copper wire to a Christmas tree/Hanukah Menorah/Kwanza Kinara already wired for electricity
  4. Wait for the eel to brush against the copper wire, send the electrical discharge up the wire, and light up your holiday decorations

While this may sound like science fiction, its fact and it’s happening in Japan at the Enoshima Aquarium. Since almost every neat new electronic gadget from Japan eventually becomes popular here, I say let’s jump on the eel bandwagon now.

Check out this video:

“Rockin’ around the [eel-lit] Christmas tree, at the Christmas party hop…”

Virtual Space Community teleconference with Space Center Houston on Dec. 29

by Deb Price, Virtual Space Community Educator

The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center is hosting a videoconference with Space Center Houston on December 29. Come by the Museum to participate in Under Pressure, a program presented via live, interactive videoconference in collaboration with Space Center Houston.

Between 11 am and 1 pm, participate in Suit Up for Space to make a miniature “space suit” out of balloons. Then at 1 pm, the Museum will connect with educators at Space Center Houston for the  videoconference Under Pressure, during which visitors will learn how and why astronaut suits are designed they way they are, and visitors will have a chance to test the durability of their homemade, balloon space suit against meteorite impacts.

The videoconference is possible through a Virtual Space Community grant to the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center from NASA’s Space Center Houston. Virtual Space Community programs encourage students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics studies and careers, particularly those related to space science. The event is free with paid admission to the Museum. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact our Education Department at 970-416-2768.

Winter solstice

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

The Winter Solstice usually occurs on December 21st or 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere. Described as the first day of winter, the solstice is caused by the Earth’s tilted axis (roughly 23.5 degrees) as it orbits around the sun. This is the phenomenon that causes both the change of seasons and the amount of sunlight we receive each day. Speaking of which, the Winter Solstice is often described as the shortest day of the year, although it technically still has 24-hours in it. Granted most of those hours are a little on the dark side (at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), with sunrise occurring around 7:30 AM, and the sun setting just nine hours later at 4:30 PM.

During the late fall and early winter, the sun seems to hang lower on the horizon than at any other time of the year, due to the Northern Hemisphere being tilted away from the sun at its most extreme angle during our year long journey around the solar system. Conversely, the Summer Solstice takes place when the North Pole is angled closer to the sun, giving us the maximum amount of daylight we’ll get all year.

The term solstice is derived from the Latin, translating as the “sun stands still.” If you watch the sun rise and set over the next few days, these events will seem to take place in the same two parts of the sky each day. This stability is short lived and in the next few weeks the daylight will begin to last a bit longer. This occurrence held special meaning for many of the cultures found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and is the basis for the myriad of winter holidays celebrated today.

Edible history: 19th century heart-shaped Christmas cakes

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

Who hasn’t read Little House on the Prairie? I did, and I read all the other books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read biographies of Laura, too, including my favorite from childhood, Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Donald Zochert. It was packed with information and lots of pictures. I still have that book; it’s in pretty rough shape, much like my personal book-version of a Velveteen Rabbit.

I loved Laura so much that my mom made the heart-shaped Christmas cakes from Little House on the Prairie for breakfast every Christmas morning when I was young:

“Mary and Laura pulled out two small packages. They unwrapped them, and each found a little heart-shaped cake. Over their delicate brown tops was sprinkled white sugar.”

This year, my family will be with my parents for Christmas and my mom and I will cook heart-shaped Christmas cakes for my own daughter. Take a page from 19th century history and try the cakes for yourself. They are more like sweet biscuits than cake. I like them with honey!

Heart-Shaped Christmas Cakes Recipe (from The Little House Treasury by Carolyn Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Erikson)


½ cup (1 stick) butter or margarine, softened
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus some extra for sprinkling on the tops of the cakes
¼ teaspoon vanilla
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
Flour for sprinkling
Granulated sugar for sprinkling

Heat the oven to 325º F

Beat the butter, sugar, and vanilla together until they are light and fluffy. Stir in the flour.

On a floured board, pat the dough out in a circle about 1/3″ thick. Cut out shapes with the cookie cutter.* Sprinkle the tops with granulated sugar. Put the heart shapes on the cookie sheet and bake them for about 15-20 minutes, until they are lightly browned. Take them out of the oven and sprinkle more granulated sugar on the tops. Carefully remove the cakes from the cookie sheet with the spatula and put them on the wire rack to cool.

Makes about 12 cakes.

*Ma likely did not have a heart-shaped cookie cutter. My mom rolls the dough and cuts triangular pieces, like wedges from a small pizza. On the wide end of the wedge, cut a slit about 1-2 inches, toward the pointed end. Pull the two flaps slightly apart. During baking, this will form a heart-shape more reminiscent of Laura’s cake.

If you try this recipe, let us know how it turned out! And send us pictures, too.

Blue shadows around the Front Range

by Jeff Bowell, guest blogger

Sometimes, shadows aren’t black.

I was reminded of this during my career as a musician with many, many hours spent on stage. Some stages would have overhead banks of lights, and these lights could produce shadows of the “opposite” color. White lights, of course, produced black shadows, but if the overhead lights were an intense red, your hand held over a white page of music would produce a dark green shadow.

Image from

The opposite applied as well. If the overhead lights were green, a faint but still noticeable red shadow would appear on a white surface. Strong purple lights would yield a faint yellow shadow, and an orange light left a shadow that was distinctly blue. And an orange light left a shadow that was distinctly blue.

Actually, blue shadows are something that residents of the Front Range can see for themselves these wintry days, if you know where to look and when.

We think of our sun as just that – the “Sun,” but it’s also a star. Different stars shine at different frequencies of visible color, as well as producing frequencies of color invisible to the human eye, like the ultraviolet that can give you sunburn and fade paint.

If you look up into a clear night sky during the winter, you’ll see stars which, at first, all appear to be the same shade of white. But, if you keep looking for a few minutes you’ll notice that the stars are many different colors: some silvery white, some almost brick red, and some a mix of orange-and-yellow.

Star field photographed by the Hubble telescope, courtesy of the Space Telescope Science Institute

Our sun is one of the latter stars: not so young and hot that it shines brilliant white, but not so old and cool that it shines with a reddish color. No, “Sol” (as it’s known to astronomers) shines a yellowish-white color, and the shadows it gives are an intriguing shade of blue-purple.

This time of year is the best to see the blue shadows because there’s snow on the ground. If you look carefully on a day when the sun is shining, you’ll see that shadows cast onto snow will look just s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y blue. If the same shadow falls onto something not white, like the grey of a street, you’ll see a distinct difference in the shadow’s color.

Image courtesy of Gary Czerwinski

The best time to see this subtle phenomenon is when the sun is low and casting long shadows. Early morning or in the late afternoon before sunset when the skies are clear is best. For example, if you’re driving along a side road, try this: first be sure that it’s safe to briefly glance away from the road. Then, look at the fields on either side of the road. Snow tends to collect along slopes and in hollows, and if there’s fence between the sun and the snow, you’ll see a bluish shadow cast by the fence. Or, if you’re outside shoveling snow on a sunny day, you can see for yourself that your own shadow isn’t black.

Many stars — indeed, more than you might first expect — are “double stars”; that is two stars orbiting around a central point, and they make double shadows. If our yellow-white Sol was half of a double star, say with another star that was red, everything outside would have two shadows: the bluish shadow that Sol produces, and a green shadow from the red star.

Compared to certain more impressive astronomical events, things like eclipses and meteor showers, a colored shadow might seem insignificant. However, there’s the idea in astronomy of how “everything is its own opposite.” When the moon is full, its position relative to the earth is the opposite from where it was when it was new. The full moon is in the part of the sky where the sun will be in six months (and twelve hours!). And, the “color” that makes up a sun-cast shadow is the opposite color of the light given by the sun.

It’s a small and subtle thing, but treat yourself to the blue shadows against the snow. Once you recognize them, you’ll find that you see them more often, and it’s very likely that you’ll find that you enjoy the sight!

Speaking of shadows, the planet Venus sometimes can produce a shadow, although conditions have to be exactly right for this to happen. Venus has to be high and bright, the sun must either have set or not yet risen, the skies must be close to perfectly clear, and a white background (like snow) is essential. Some people have seen a Venus-produced shadow. I haven’t, but when Venus re-appears in the evening skies this winter and spring, and if there’s snow on the ground in April, we might just see it.

As always, “Good seeing.”

Bringing science and history together

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

Maria Mortati  posted  a great piece yesterday in the “Museums Now” blog about the process we’re going through to bring science and history together in our new museum. Maria is one of team members at Gyroscope, Inc., the group that’s designing the exhibit experiences that will, I guarantee you, knock people’s socks off when our new museum opens. If you’d like to see some of the very interesting and multi-layered thinking that’s going on as we design this new facility, see “Relevance and Wonder, Science and History” in Museums Now.

December 2009

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