Archive for June 16th, 2010

Happy Bloomsday!

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Diagram of a Quark

As my fellow literary nerds out there might already know, today is Bloomsday. June 16th is the day that all the events in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses take place, and Bloomsday, named after Ulysses’ main character Leopold Bloom, is a day of celebrating all things Joyce. Common celebrations include readings, enactments, and usually a lot of drinking. Some ambitious participants even attend complete readings of Ulysses, which can take upwards of 36 hours to finish!

Why are we at the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center happy it’s Bloomsday? Well, most people don’t know this, but James Joyce invented the word “quark.” Quark first appeared in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, in the sentence

Three quarks for Muster Mark

Sure he has not got much of a bark

And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

Joyce wasn’t referring to the elementary particles that are the building blocks of the universe – those hasn’t been discovered yet. But when Murray Gell-Mann proposed the model of a quark in 1964, and wanted to name it after the sound a duck makes, he was going to use the spelling “kwork” until he came across Joyce’s alternative. Here’s Gell-Mann’s telling of the naming:

“In 1963, when I assigned the name ‘quark’ to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon, I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been ‘kwork.’ Then, in one of my occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, I came across the word ‘quark’ in the phrase ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark.’ Since ‘quark’ (meaning, for one thing, the cry of the gull) was clearly intended to rhyme with ‘Mark,’ as well as ‘bark’ and other such words, I had to find an excuse to pronounce it as ‘kwork.’ But the book represents the dream of a publican named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Words in the text are typically drawn from several sources at once, like the ‘portmanteau’ words in Through the Looking-Glass. From time to time, phrases occur in the book that are partially determined by calls for drinks at the bar. I argued, therefore, that perhaps one of the multiple sources of the cry ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark’ might be ’Three quarts for Mister Mark,’ in which case the pronunciation ‘kwork’ would not be totally unjustified. In any case, the number three fitted perfectly the way quarks occur in nature.”

I do love it when literature and science fit together. Happy Bloomsday to all – did anyone go out and celebrate?

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Crime Scene Insects mini-camp

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

The "crime scene"! (Trust me, you don't want to see a close-up!)

We’ve introduced a pretty unorthodox summer camp for middle school-aged kids this summer: CSI: Crime Scene Insects. Clearly, awareness of crime scene investigation is on the rise, as evidenced by the popularity of many TV shows (CSI, NCIS, Bones, and many more) with this focus. But beyond entertainment, forensic investigations can create a context for engaging students in science and mathematics (disciplines where many U.S. students lag behind those in other countries). So we’re jumping on the bandwagon (or maybe I should say coroner’s van?) to make science and math interesting, challenging, and fun through forensics.

I had the privilege of meeting Dr. M. Lee Goff in the summer of 2004, when the museum where I worked hosted an exhibit about forensic entomology (loosely translated: the study of insects as they pertain to the law and crime investigation). Dr. Goff is one of the foremost forensic entomologists in the world and is the person on which the Gil Grissom character of CSI is based. Dr. Goff consulted with me on the creation of a forensic entomology program, which I have refined and re-introduced here as a three-day long “mini-camp” for students between 5th and 8th grades.

For the camp, students learn about the various species of arthropods that aid in the recycling of remains back to the environment. The arrival of these species to bodies, human or animal, follows predictable patterns and durations. With consideration to the variables present at each crime scene (temperature, relative humidity, and more), an accurate time frame since the death event can be determined for remains.

CSI mini-camp students use a field guide to identify insects

CSI mini-camp students observe insects under the video microscope

During the camp, the students try to determine the “time since death” for two case studies based on insect specimens we collect from the rats and identify with the aid of a microscope. To create our “crime scene,” we placed humanely euthanized rats (sold at the pet store as reptile food) in cages to prevent larger scavengers from accessing the remains, and allowed the insects and other arthropods do their work. The first fly arrived within 7 minutes of placing the first rat outside.

Yes, it can be “gross” and yes, the smell at the end of the bloat stage can be pretty strong, but the process of decay is fascinating. Our civilized society has made decomposition a taboo subject of conversation, not talked about or even acknowledged. Certainly, very few of us have observed decomposition beyond accidentally coming across a deceased critter while on a hike. Death is a scary and uncomfortable subject, but it is part of life and decomposition is a natural process. Sometimes, a scary subject is more so because we lack knowledge about it, and I think we are helping to lift the veil off this taboo subject. The students in our camp now have more knowledge about this part of the cycle of life and death, and we snuck lessons in science and math, too.

If you are in town and wish to see our “crime scene,” stop by the Museum during our regular business hours! The next session of “Crime Scene Insects” is June 28-30.


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