Archive for January, 2010

Brain games

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Growing up in the 1970’s, I was there for the beginning of the video game revolution.  The ability to control a few pixels on a screen seemed like the future had truly arrived at the local arcade.  Feeding quarters into the various incarnations of PONG, and latter Pac-Man, Defender, and Donkey Kong may have depleted my allowance, but apparently it wasn’t depleting my brain. At least that’s the claim of a recent study from the University of Illinois.

This is not your brain on video games

One of the things that has always interested me in playing video games was the learning curve; the feeling of accomplishment with mastering a new set of skills or defeating a particularly challenging level.  It turns out that there may be a physical reason for this.  In people that excel at videogames certain areas of the brain are larger, especially the caudate, the putamen, and the nucleus accumbens.

The putamen and caudate are related to motor learning and the ability to shift between different jobs quickly.  This ability to multitask has become ever more important in being successful in playing videogames.  If those areas of the brain help with the skills needed to play the game, the nucleus accumbens makes it all worth while.  Linked to feelings of reward and punishment, the nucleus accumbens is tweaked when the player makes it through a difficult section of the game, reinforcing the experience and making the player want to move on to the next level in the hopes of another reward.

Areas of the brain stimulated when you play video games

Game designers recognize this phenomenon and allow players to set difficulty levels within the game, as well as establishing learning curves with progressively harder tasks and new skills introduced as the game progresses.  This allows for players of different abilities to still have an enjoyable experience within their various skill levels, with good game design balancing the relationship between challenge and reinforcement.  In other words, a good game should be both stimulating and fun.

When it comes to these centers of the brain, is bigger better?  Yes and no.  The people in the study that possessed the larger areas learned more quickly than others, often mastering the required skills in a short amount of time.  Others showed little improvement, even after more than 20-hours of practice, leading the researchers to consider the possibility of an actual physical barrier to learning and developing these skills.  When it comes to playing a game, that barrier may not seem important. However, consider the multitasking that takes place with other daily activities such a driving a car.

While some people on the road are busy with basic tasks like steering, braking and accelerating, others are adept at doing all of these in addition to carrying on conversations, reading billboards, and listening to the radio.  These are all tasks that depend in part on the putamen and the caudate, but what happens when the nucleus accumbens gets into the act?  The area of the brain that looks for reward may try to find ways of stimulating itself; which may lead to other behaviors such as making calls or sending text messages, speeding, and generally treating the commute like, well, a video game.

Likewise, the desire for reward may lead some to spend excessive amounts of time in front of the video screen; in some extreme cases, allowing other requirements such as proper nutrition, exercise, hygiene, and social interaction to go by the wayside.   As with all things, moderation and balance are important.  Our brains are funny things and require a large variety of input and stimulation in order to grow and be healthy.  Find ways to invigorate the diverse centers of the mind; play games, read books, enjoy and create music and art, and yes, visit a museum.


Our close encounter with Mars

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Just a reminder: this week the planet Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been any other time between 2008 and 2014.The planet and its famous ice cap will be visible both through telescopes and binoculars, and to the naked eye.

For a special treat, be sure to watch the skies tomorrow.  On Friday, January 29th, both Mars and the full Moon will be out. Mars will be in opposition to the sun, and the planet and the Moon will rise together.


Dinosaur designs; or, What Color is Your Parasaurolophus?

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

I know I’m not alone in this, but dinosaurs may have been the beginning of my love affair with both science and museums.  Representations of the thunder lizards in question when I was a child usually ranged in muted shades of green and brown. (Granted, I was luckier than the generation of children that grew up under the notion that Tyrannosaurs were not only friendly and musical, but also purple.)  While science has been able to establish the skin textures of some dinosaurs based on a few fossil impressions, the skin colors have remained a mystery.   Recent discoveries shed new light on the subject as scientists have discovered a method of determining color on at least a few species of dinosaurs.

Sinosauropteryx fossil

Most fossils were once something hard – teeth, bones, shell, or another hard substance. Soft tissue doesn’t normally fossilize, although it will occasionally leave an imprint.  Fortunately, we know that some dinosaurs had feathers, similar to the birds today that descended from them, with their fossilized remains clearly showing the remains of tough, protein based plumage.  Usually, the fossilized feathers are the same color as the rest of the fossil, taking on the characteristics of the minerals in which they were fossilized.

Mike Benton, a paleontologist with the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, thought that if the feathers had been fossilized, the tiny structures inside the feathers probably had been, too.  Knowing that in modern birds pigments known as melanin are partially responsible for coloration, Benton thought that the same pigments might present clues to the coloration of feathered dinosaurs.  Melanin is stored inside tiny capsules, and each color or shade has a unique shape.  For example, black and dark brown shades come in long, sausage shaped capsules; where as reddish hues tend to be encapsulated inside balls, or spheres.

Benton chose to study Sinosauropteryx, due to its abundance of fossilized feathers, especially along the tail.  Although small, about the size of a turkey, Sinosauropteryx was no push over.  Benton describes the dinosaur as a carnivore, or meat-eater, “with sharp little teeth and grabby little hands,” who moved about quickly on two powerful hind limbs.  The feathers that ringed Sinosauropteryx’s tail were examined under a powerful microscope capable of looking at the internal structure.

Sure enough, the melanin capsules were present, shaped like the ones normally associated with the reddish-brown color affectionately known as ginger.  Those reddish bands of feathers may have alternated with stripes of white.  This idea is supported not by what was found, but what wasn’t.  The alternating colors are suggested by the absence of feathers in between the bands of red.  White feathers lack in the melanin capsules, making them much less structurally sound and therefore less likely to fossilize.

Fossilized Feather

This works continues research that has been conducted on fossilized bird feathers, including early avian species such as Confuciusornis, with melanin capsules that indicate a variety of colors including black, and an orange-brown shade.  Like Sinosauropteryx, the absence of patches of fossilized feathers indicates that Confuciusornis also had its share of white markings.  This method only works with species that have well preserved feathers, although it’s believed that fossilized scales may possess similar clues as to the nature of dinosaur coloration.

Researchers may be able to distinguish between browns, reds, and iridescent colors. Unfortunately, fossilized scales are very rare and none belonging to a species like T. Rex are known to exist.  That said, based on the range of colors that have been established so far, I feel pretty comfortable saying that purple is no longer in the running.

Sorry, Barney.

Mrs. Phibbs Remembers: Living in Upper Boxelder

by Pat Walker, Research Assistant, Fort Collins Local History Archive

The Fort Collins Local History Archive has a large collection of Oral Histories recorded and transcribed in the early 1970s. Mrs. Phibbs Remembers is an ongoing series of excerpts taken from the interview with Alice and Sidney Phibbs, May 22, 1975.

“Now the people that lived in the area at the time on the north side of Red Mountain, Fred Maxwell had a big ranch. And on this side of Red Mountain some people by the name of Viele had a ranch and then on up, the Barbours had a small place and then ours. And then as you went north from our place, three miles and back a little bit towards the east, the Ted Carpenter family that owned the transfer place here. They lived there for a number of years….. When we moved up there, there was a German family by the name of Lindike. Then the Carpenters bought the place from them. They had one daughter, Lindikes did, her name was Ruth and she afterwards married a young man from in there, over around the area of Logan’s store area; his name was Johnny Boyle….

This Grandpa Logan and his wife had the ranch just west of ours…and they had aquired acres and acres and acres of land over on Dale Creek Road and Grandpa moved over there and built a new store, living quarters in the back, and I remember when the store was dedicated. ‘Course big dance, and I had my first silk dress and my first gold locket.” Mrs. Phibbs recalls that her mother made the dress from silk given to her by her aunt for the occasion. “It was pink china silk and another aunt had sent me the locket for Christmas…. [The dress had] a yoke in it and full around there and then it was trimmed around… they were great for usin’ little fancy braids in those days, and the braid had pink and blue and the little gold in it.”

Alice Helene (Kirby) Phibbs, daughter of Katharine Philippi and John E. Kirby,was born on January 6, 1901. She married Sidney Terrance Phibbs in 1947.

Upper Boxelder School on the Maxwell Ranch circa 1913. The people are identified as: (left to right) Clarence, unknown, unknown, Lloyd Kerwood, unknown, unknown, Elroy, unknown. This was the first school Lloyd Kerwood attended.

The Ted Carpenter & Son, Moving & Storage Company, 132 Laporte Avenue, Fort Collins, Colorado circa 1950. Ted and Myrtle Carpenter moved into town from their ranch in Upper Boxelder circa 1919. Ted started his moving company in the mid 1920s.

New museum update

by Jason Wolvington, Associate Director, Discovery Science Center

Welcome to the first installment of an ongoing discussion that’s sure to be exciting: updating all of our dedicated blog readers on the progress of our new Museum!  We’ll use these posts as an opportunity to share behind-the-scenes moments and hot-off-the-press announcements about our new building.  Stick with us – it’ll be fun!

As you know, the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center came from the partnership of two leading Fort Collins institutions. We entered into a public/private partnership to build a new museum, one that combines hands-on science and the culture and history of our region.

Our goal is quickly becoming a reality.  We are knee-deep in our exhibit planning process with Gyroscope, Inc., and have been rigorously working with our recently-selected building Design/Build Team of Hensel Phelps Construction Company and OZ Architecture.

Now to the big news:  we are set to break ground on our brand-spankin’ new facility this coming summer. Yes, you read that right: this summer!  As our plans progress, we’ll be sure to keep you updated on the details.

To find out more, visit our website at  And, of course, stay connected with us through this blog, our main website, or on Facebook.  Simply search for “Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center” and become a fan!

The International Year of Biodiversity

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

The United Nations has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity.

Biological diversity, or biodiversity, is defined as “the variability among living organisms from all sources, including ‘inter alia,’ terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecossytems, and the ecological complexes of which they are part: this includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems.” There are three levels to biodiversity: genetic diversity, species diversity, and ecosystem diversity and together they form the web of life on Earth.

The biodiversity around us helps purify the air and water, provides shelter, food, fuel, and fiber, moderates floods, droughts, and temperature extremes, controls pests and disease, regenerates the soil, generates income from tourism, and so much more. The loss of biodiversity threatens all those things.

As you enjoy 2010, pay attention to the stories of biodiversity around you. What organisms and ecosystems are in your own backyard? In your town? In your state? What stories of biodiversity do you read about in the paper, hear about in the news? And remember to come back and visit our blog, we’ll highlight stories of biodiversity that reach from Fort Collins to across the globe throughout the year.

To get things started, take a look at some of the biodiversity discoveries that have made the news so far this year:

Think you would need to explore an entire continent to find over 30 new vertebrate species? Think again, all you need is the microhabitat of a small mountain in Ecuador. Visit the Daily Mail to learn about the new discoveries, including a gecko so small it can sit on a pencil eraser, a transparent frog, and a snake the sucks snails out of their shells.

Newly discovered gecko

Newly discovered frog

The discovery of the first known breeding ground for one of the world’s rarest birds and the first recording of their song all happened by accident, and with the help of a museum! Visit Discovery News for the story of the Large-billed reed warbler and its breeding ground in Afghanistan.

Large-billed reed warbler

And, finally, lemurs may have colonized Madagascar starting 50-60 million years ago on rafts. This move, along with being awesome, has lead to evolution of 99 lemur species, none of which are found naturally any place else. Science Blogs has the story of how researchers are simulating prehistoric ocean currents to test the theory.

Lemur photographed at the Bronx Zoo

The Fort Collins History Connection is the ALA Digital Library of the Week!

by Lesley Drayton, Curator, Fort Collins Local History Archive

The Fort Collins History Connection website, an online collaboration between the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center and the Poudre River Public Library District, has been selected by the American Libraries Association as the Digital Library of the Week!

Check it out:

Feel free to leave a comment on their site about our site!

Oh, and if you haven’t been on the History Connection site yet, why not check it out today? A plethora of online, searchable resources about Fort Collins awaits you, including resources from the library, museum artifacts, and materials from the Local History Archive. Dig into history with photos, maps, oral histories, local anecdotes, and more!

Liquid assets

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Diamonds, courtesy Creative Commons

Pressure makes diamonds.  Well, to be honest, it has to be the just the right mixture of pressure and heat to create a diamond.  Formed from carbon, diamond is the hardest naturally occurring substance known to man.  Under more extreme conditions that same carbon could become graphite.  So soft it can be used as a lubricant, and perhaps most familiar as the stuff inside of a pencil, graphite takes its names from the Greek phrase meaning “to write.”

Although we often think of it as rare, diamond is actually a relatively common material on our planet; it’s just not always easy to get to.   Diamonds have even been found along the Front Range. The Kelsey Lake Mine, located north of Fort Collins, produced specimens between 14 and 26 carats.  In spite of their impressive finds the mining company eventually went bankrupt; in the end it simply cost too much to excavate and remove the diamonds for the company to turn a profit.  Similarly, there are millions of dollars in gold floating about our oceans, yet it would take many times what that gold is worth for it to be successfully extracted.

All of this raises a question; if the oceans on Earth are teaming with mineral resources, what about those on other planets?  According to a recent article in the scientific journal Nature Physics, Uranus and Neptune could have oceans made not of water, but of liquid diamond.   However, before you start planning a trip to the Neptunian seaside, remember that this idea is still theoretical. The information behind the research hasn’t come from the latest fly-by of a space probe, but instead from a lab right here on Earth.

Neptune, courtesy


Research looking at the melting point of diamond has determined that, under the right circumstances, it acts a lot like water both when melting and freezing.  Solid chunks of diamond will even float in the liquid much like ice floats in water.  Of course, finding the exact temperature that will melt diamond is almost impossible.  This is because it’s not simply a question of adding heat, but adding pressure as well.  How much pressure?  In the most recent experiments, a team of scientists applied pressure along with the intense heat of lasers to a diamond (a tenth of a carat in weight and half a millimeter thick). They reached the diamond melting point at 40 million times the pressure we would experience at sea level here on Earth.  The liquid diamond didn’t begin to return to its solid form until the pressure was reduced to a level roughly measuring11 million times that of sea level.

According to Tom Duffy, a scientist at Princeton University, the idea of liquid diamond oceans on Uranus and Neptune is not a new one, and the current research helps support the idea. The findings may also explain another phenomenon of those distant plants: the strange placement of their magnetic poles. Both Uranus and Neptune have magnetic poles that are roughly 40 to 60 degrees off their geographical north – south axis.  To give you an idea of how far off the mark that is, it would be like finding the Earth’s magnetic North Pole in the middle of Texas.  Scientists think that oceans of liquid diamond may help explain the pole discrepancy and other anomalies that have been observed with both Neptune and Uranus.

Before any kind of conclusion can be drawn there will need to be much more research conducted, including sending more advanced probes to various planets of our solar system.  In the meantime, we can continue to study some of the same types of phenomena right here on Planet Earth.  Isn’t it nice to know that we can reach so far and learn so much without ever having to leave home?

The planets and “The Planets”

by Jeff Bowell, guest blogger

The beginning of 2010 offers anyone interested in astronomy the opportunity to view several members of our Solar System. At those times when, thanks to snow clouds, the night sky can’t be seen, why not experience the Solar System through the most famous musical depiction of the planets: The Planets, by the English composer with the decidedly non-English name of Gustav Holst.

Your first experience with this music will almost certainly be a memorable one (I’ll never forget the first time I heard it) and, of all of Holst’s works, this is the easiest to find. If your local library has anything by Holst in their “classical” CDs section, they’ll have this.  Also, there are many extracts or full-movement performances available on the internet.

The first-time listener to The Planets will find that much of the music, particularly the first and last movements, sound strangely familiar.  There’s a good reason for this. Many contemporary composers, particularly those who compose music for movies, have borrowed freely and lavishly from The Planets!

The movements as presented in the The Planets – Suite for Large Orchestra, are “Mars, the Bringer of War,” “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” “Mercury, the Messenger,” “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” (or Mirth, as it’s sometimes given), “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” “Uranus, the Magician,” and “Neptune, the Mystic.” The planet (or non-planet) Pluto hadn’t yet been discovered in 1914, when Holst began writing the piece. When Pluto was discovered in 1930, Holst chose not to write an eighth movement for The Planets.

The planets we can see this month won’t follow Holst’s performance order. We’ll start with what can be seen just at or after sunset, since things seen then are the earliest to set and vanish, and then work our way eastward, or to the left.

JUPITER is visible this month, and will be for part of February as well. To see Jupiter, first determine where to see the sunset from your location. Go outside maybe half an hour after the sun’s gone down, and face where the sunset was. If you look halfway up the sky and just s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y to the left, you’ll see what looks like a bright, solitary “star.” That “star” is the planet Jupiter, the largest of the planets in our Solar System and the quickest to disappear into the little bit of light still present from the set sun. If you observe Jupiter through a small telescope or binoculars held steadily (using a tripod, or resting your arms on a car roof helps), you might see several tiny star-like points of light lined up on either side of the planet, and if you look again in two or three nights, you’ll see that these lights will have shifted position. The lights are actually several of Jupiter’s moons, named the “Galilean” moons, since the astronomer Galileo was the first to see them and determine what they were.

Holst was inspired by the astrological traditions associated with the various planets as he composed the movements of The Planets. “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” brims with good feeling and merriment, an appropriate portrayal of Jupiter, who was depicted astrologically as rousing and roistering. The contrasting slow section in the middle of the movement has a hymn-like quality to it, and indeed later was used as a hymn in England (rather to Holst’s disapproval), with the words “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”

NEPTUNE is, sadly, never visible to the naked eye and you’ll need a fairly large telescope to see it, but it’s just 2 degrees to the lower right of Jupiter, shifting to the lower left as the month progresses. Even through very powerful telescopes Neptune can be hard to spot, so don’t be disappointed if you can’t see it. Instead, I’ll dare any first-time listener of The Planets to listen to “Neptune, the Mystic,” the movement written about the most mysterious and distant planet known in Holst’s time, in a darkened room. That’s all I’ll say about it, except to invite you to let me know, via the comments section of this post, what you thought if you’re brave enough to try!

URANUS, the farthest planet that can be seen without a telescope, can be found just one constellation to the east (or the left) of Jupiter. It’ll be passing in front of the constellation Pisces, the Fishes, by mid-January. You’ll need a star chart (available at the Museum’s front desk, or check online) to find the “Circlet” portion of faint Pisces, but Uranus will be just below that particular group of stars. If you’ve got 7X50 binoculars, you might be able to see the planet look like a blue-green disc, with the color coming from clouds filled with tiny methane crystals.

“Uranus, the Magician” is one of the funnier moments of The Planets, as the magician of Holst’s imagination is rather something of a bumbler. After a bombastic introduction, the music starts off in a galumphing way. The piece sounds similar to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, the music Disney used for Mickey Mouse and the magic brooms in the film Fantasia. Gustav Holst’s daughter Imogene stated that, to her knowledge, her father never had heard the Dukas work at the time he wrote The Planets, and that might indeed be true, but I’d wager that one piece might well remind you of the other.

MARS is easily seen low in the east after sunset. Distinctly reddish-orange, Mars will be passing in front of the constellation Cancer, the Crab, and will be closest to Earth in its orbit (and therefore, its brightest) on January 29th, the same night that a full moon will appear to be passing the planet. By midnight, Mars will be high in the southern sky, and will have dropped to the westward in the hours before sunrise.

The movement “Mars” opens The Planets, and is remarkable in how brutally repetitive and mechanical-sounding the rhythm that underlies the music is. Holst composed “Mars” just months before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the act that led to World War I – what the British called “The Great War.” The mechanical nature of the piece seems to anticipate the mechanized warfare that would soon begin. This is powerful, frightening music.

We’ll look at Venus, Saturn and Mercury in the next posting. In the meantime, I hope that, along with getting outside and seeing the planets of January for yourselves, you’ll have the opportunity to hear the music Gustav Holst is most remembered for, even though paradoxically, he didn’t at all consider it his best work.

As always, Good seeing (and good listening)!

Even more to explore! The Museum’s on Facebook

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

The Museum got started on Facebook about a month ago, and we’re really enjoying having another new way to share what’s going on — both with our local community, and with people from all over. Museums can project an intimidating image — big stone buildings, hushed galleries, sometimes a bit of that “ivory tower” feeling — but that’s definitely not what we’re all about at the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center. It’s great to have ways to reach outside of our stone building — this blog, our new Facebook page, and Slinky’s Twitter — and get a conversation going with you. As this new year really gets rolling we’re going to have a lot of updates about the new museum too, and we’ll be using the blog, Facebook, and our website to keep you informed. So, if you’ll forgive the shameless plug, go “fan” us on Facebook! And keep the conversation going. We love to hear from you.

January 2010

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 48 other subscribers

Flickr Photos