Archive for October, 2010

Halloween Candy Strategy

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Last year we helped prepare you for Halloween by scientifically showing that a pillowcase is the optimal collection vessel for maximum candy acquiring. This year? It’s all about developing a candy-specific strategy.

Hershey’s conducted a national survey to find out of correlations could be drawn between the types of houses people visit during Halloween, and the types of candy they get. The results? Visit a house with black shutters and you’re 77% more likely to get a Kit Kat. Stop by a ranch house, and those odds drop to 32%. If a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup is more your style, you’ll want to be sure to visit two-story houses; they’re 26% more likely to have that candy than the ranch house that will probably give you the Kit Kat will. And finally, if all you want is a chocolate bar, try houses with brown doors. Whether or not people are matching their candy to their doors is still unknown, but it is known that you’re 32% more likely to get a Hershey’s bar than if you go to a house with a non-brown door.

Now, this study only look at Hershey’s brand candies, so the data is incomplete. What we need is a big-scale, repeatable experiment that compares multiple candy and housing variables. Its a big (and yummy) job, but someone has to do it. Now, who’s with me?!

Building “Curiosity”

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Just in time for Halloween you can watch a team of folks dressed in Bunny Suits surrounding a Martian Explorer.

Okay, that may not be exactly what you were expecting.  The “bunny suits” in question are actually clean suits to keep Earthly contaminants from hitch-hiking to Mars.  The explorer is a robotic probe being prepared for a flight to the red planet sometime late next year, with an expected arrival date in August of 2012.  You can see all of the work being done at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory via a live video feed from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, PDT, Monday through Friday.

The rover, named appropriately enough, Curiosity,* can be seen being assembled by the team of technicians sporting the fashion forward, white lab wear designed to supplement the “Clean Room” environment.  The ensemble that constitutes the bunny suit includes a protective smock, hood, booties, and gloves.  If you’ve seen the “Television Room” scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, you may have a pretty good idea of what to expect.  While the crew uniforms may leave a bit to be desired, the Curiosity Rover is equipped with the latest in planetary exploration gear for its trip to another planet, including a geology lab, multiple cameras, a rock-vaporizing laser, and rocker-bogie suspension.

And while most of us can only dream about making the trip to another planet, all of us have the opportunity to send our names. By visiting the Mars Science Laboratory,  you can register to have your name placed on a microchip that will be sent to Mars aboard the Curiosity Rover.

For more information on the Mars Rover project, go directly to the mission’s homepage.

*The rover’s original name was “Mars Science Laboratory.” Catchy, wasn’t it? NASA held a contest to re-name the rover, and 12 year old Carla Ma’s entry of “Curiosity” won!

Science Wednesday: How Glow Sticks Work

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Glow Sticks

For the past few years, every Halloween I hear a rumor that you can mix hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and Mountain Dew together to make the soda glow in the dark like a glow stick. There’s only one problem: it doesn’t work.

The videos circulating the internet showing you how it’s done are fakes, and even though Mountain Dew is already a rather disturbing glow-y green color the beverage won’t be a substitute for glow sticks any time soon.

So if Mountain Dew isn’t the secret ingredient, what does make glow sticks glow without a bulb or a battery? It’s actually pretty simple: chemiluminescence.

Chemiluminescence is a chemical reaction that makes light. There are many ways to make light, but they all involve atoms releasing photons, or particles of light, after being excited by an outside of energy. In the case of glow sticks, the source of energy comes from chemistry.

Here’s how it works. There are two chemical compounds in a glow stick: hydrogen peroxide and a phenyl oxalate ester mixed with a fluorescent dye. When the two compounds are combined in a basic solution, the atoms making up each compound rearrange themselves to form new compounds. The atoms are excited when they mix together, and those atom’s electrons temporarily rise to higher energy levels. When the electrons return to their lower levels, they release energy in the form of light.

So how does the reaction happen?

Each glow stick is composed of four parts:

  • The glow stick
  • A solution of phenyl oxalate ester and a fluorescent dye inside the glow stick
  • A thin glass tube inside the glow stick
  • A solution of hydrogen peroxide inside the thin glass tube

Glow stick diagram

It’s the combination of the phenyl oxalate ester and the hydrogen peroxide that makes a glow stick glow. Snapping a glow stick breaks the thin glass tube that holds the hydrogen peroxide and lets the solutions mix.

Glow stick chemistry

Here’s the chemical reaction broken down:

  • First, the hydrogen peroxide oxidizes the phenyl oxalate ester, creating the chemical phenol and unstable peroxyacid ester
  • The unstable peroxyacid ester decomposes, creating more phenol and a cyclic peroxy compound
  • The cyclic peroxy compound also decomposes, forming carbon dioxide
  • The decompositions release energy into the fluorescent dye
  • That energy causes the electrons of the fluorescent dye atoms to rise to higher energy levels and then fall back down to their original state, releasing energy in the form of light as they go

Here’s a video showing the chemistry behind the glow. If you feel like trying this yourself, be sure you have the supervision of someone who knows what they’re doing and always wear safety gear.

The result is a bright, chemiluminescent glow that’s the perfect accessory to any Halloween costume.

The Vertebrate Family Tree Gains a Slimy New Branch

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation


The animals of the world are broadly classified into two groups: invertebrates (those without backbones) and vertebrates (those with backbones). Since Darwin (and others, we can’t forget Wallace) posited the theory of evolution, scientists have been looking for the organism(s) that link those two groups together. Which organisms are the transitional species that bridge the gap between being backboned and not, and show how you get from a complex invertebrate like a tunicate to a simple vertebrate like a lamprey?



For the past thirty years, the hagfish was considered the best living answer to that question. However, recent genetic studies have moved the hagfish’s place on the evolutionary tree.

First things first: what’s a hagfish? Imagine a long, eel-like (though not an eel), marine-dwelling, self-knotting, slime-producing animal that has a skull, but no spinal column. Picturing it?

Back in the days when scientists organized the animals of the world by comparing their physical characteristics, hagfish resembled, and were therefore lumped in with, lampreys. Lampreys are about as low on the vertebrate branch of the tree of life as you could go, so hagfish were plopped on the bottom with them. In the 1970s, genetic analyses found significant differences between the two organisms, and hagfish were moved even further down the evolutionary ranks and presented as a possible “missing link” between the invertebrates and vertebrates. However, new genetic tests have changed that organization again.

Scientists have been looking at microRNA, small, non-coding RNA pieces that regulate whether genes are turned on or off. It turns out microRNA is even more reliable at demonstrating relationships between organisms than genes are, and the microRNA of hagfish and lampreys are showing that the two groups are closely related. Hagfish may be primitive vertebrates, but they’re definitely vertebrates.

And, because it is almost Halloween, I can’t end this post without talking bout the hagfish’s most famous attribute: it’s slime.

Hagfish are able to produce copious amounts of a slimy mucus, which scientists believe is used to help the organisms deter and escape predation. When attacked, hagfish secret skeins of wound-up protein fibers that are finer than spider silk.  When the skeins come in contact with water, they unravel and trap the water within them to form a big, dense, slippery mass of goo. In just a few minutes, an adult hagfish can produce enough slime to completely convert a 5 gallon bucket of water into slime. Now that’s a party trick. And when it’s time to get the slime off, the hagfish simply ties itself into a knot that works its way down the organisms body, pushing the slime off.

The Ig Nobel Prizes

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

This year, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their experiments with graphene, a two-dimensional, one atom-thick sheet of carbon. Winning the Nobel Prize is arguably the greatest honor for any scientist, but this isn’t the first time Geim has received a Nobel…of sorts. Back in 2000, Geim was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Physics – for levitating a frog with magnets.

The Ig Nobel Prize, awarded for “research that makes people LAUGH, and then makes them THINK,” isn’t intended to make fun of scientific research, but a lot of the studies are pretty chuckle-inducing at first. Take Geim’s levitating frog, for example. While at first there seems to be no point to the experiment, other than to produce a “hover-frog,” Geim’s research demonstrated a phenomenon called diamagnetism. Objects that are diamagnetic get pushed away by magnetic fields. Water is diamagnetic, and frogs are mostly water. Therefore, surround a frog with a magnetic field and the force of the diamagnetic opposition can levitate a frog.

This year’s winners of the Ig Nobel Prize have been released and, as always, you’ll laugh, and then you’ll think. Here’s a sampling of the research that beat out the competition this year:

Engineering: Collect whale mucus using a helicopter

Medicine: Treating asthma symptoms with roller coaster rides

Physics: Preventing slipping on ice by putting socks over your shoes

Transportation Planning: Using slime mold to plan railroad track routes (hey, we suggested that would be a good idea months ago!)

Peace:  Swearing to relieve pain

Visit Improbable Research to learn more about this year’s Ig Nobel winners, and winners of years’ past. And you never know, a winner of this year’s Ig Nobel Prize may go on to win the Nobel Prize in the future. Or, vice versa.

Science at Home: Playing Video Games and Advancing Science

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know that playing video games can help improve your brain. But did you know that playing video games can also help improve science?

There’s a growing trend of turning real scientific problems into video games and having people, rather than computers, work to solve them. Why use people? Well, it turns out that there are many things that the human brain can do better than a computer (especially if that human brain has been improved by playing video games – it’s a win-win circle).

Here are some new ways to have fun and help science, and all you need is a computer.

Good at solving visual puzzels? Try Foldit, a game that challenges you to find new ways to fold proteins.


Protein Folding


Proteins, composed of long chains of joined-together amino acids, exist in each of the trillions of cells in your body and are the chief  workers within those cells. Without proteins, you can’t live. For as fantastic as proteins are, they have one big problem: they’re small. So small, in fact, that scientists can’t see their shapes. And when it comes to proteins, shape is very important. Why? Proteins fold. Protein folding is the physical process in which polypeptides, or chains of amino acids, fold into specific three-dimensional structures. The shape of a protein determines its function, and the better scientists can understand a protein’s shape, the better they can understand what a protein does.

Foldit takes those amino acid chains and turns them into a sort of scientific Tetris. Small proteins can have hundreds of amino acids, large proteins often have thousands. By following the biological rules of protein folding (e.g. hydrophobic amino acids need to be on the inside of the protein), the goal is to find the protein’s most stable state – the shape it would fold into in real life. Find the lowest state, get the most points.

The researchers behind Foldit keep track of every solution every player finds. Because there are so many ways that even a small protein can fold itself, figuring out which way is the best way is a continuous problem in biology. Right now, the goal of the game is to show that human protein folders can be more effective than computers at predicting protein structures. If this turns out to be true, the folding strategies used by people will be programed into computer software, and players may someday be asked to work on proteins that do not have known structures and even design new proteins.

Watch Foldit in action!

Want to work on a slightly bigger scale than proteins? Check out Zooniverse. Zooniverse is the largest internet Citizen Science project, and it asks members to help NASA, museums and universities around the world explore the universe. That sounds like a big project (and it is!), but the more people who participate, the more the world learns about everything happening out in space.


Andromeda Island Universe


How can you participate in Zooniverse? Well, take your pick! Want to explore photographs of the moon, looking for craters, boulders and even the occasional piece of space hardware left behind by moon landings? Or, maybe you’d be more interested in monitoring images of the sun looking for solar flares? How about the chance to be the first person to see evidence of a supernova? There are over 300,000 people participating in the six Zooniverse projects, and they can always use a couple more.

The two great thing about all these video games? First: You get to decide when to play, what to play, and how long to play. You’re a researcher on your own terms. Second? Scientists really do use the data you create. So go forth, play games, and help advance science!

P.S. There’s a third great thing about the games: they’re really fun. I can’t stop playing Moon Zoo.

Month at the Museum (of Science and Industry)

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

When I was a girl, one of my favorite books was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. In the book, Claudia Kincaid and her little brother Jamie decide to leave home and, searching for adventure, run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The plot develops as Claudia and Jamie work to solve a mystery around a statue of a marble angel, which may or may not be a Michelangelo original. While I’m not going to tell you how the story ends, I will tell you that since first reading the book I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in a museum. I’m pretty sure the exhibits don’t come to life at night (at least they haven’t on the nights that I work late…yet…)

Well, she probably won’t get to solve any Renaissance art mysteries, but Kate McGroarty is about to start living in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry for one month. Kate won the museum’s Month at the Museum contest, beating out over 1,500 other applicants for the chance to, in the words of the contest application,

live and breathe science 24/7 for 30 days…this person’s mission will be to experience all the fun and education that fits in this historic 14-acre building, living here and reporting [their] experience to the outside world.

Kate discovering she's the contest winner

Here’s Kate’s entry video

From October 20th through November 18th, you can follow Kate’s adventures in the Museum of Science and Industry through the project’s website, Facebook, and Twitter.

If you had the chance to live in a museum, which one would you chose? I think my choice would be a tie between the Te Papa Tongarewa (the Museum of New Zealand) and the Natural History Museum in London.

October 2010

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