Posts Tagged 'Science'

Groundhog’s Day Revisted

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Well, it’s Groundhog’s Day once again and, according to the news, Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow today, predicting an early spring in this 125th annual celebration of where a rodent stands in relation to the sun.

To celebrate the day, check out our Groundhog’s Day post from last year where we explored the history and science behind the holiday.

Keep warm, everyone – spring’s not here quite yet!


Science at home: Amazing animal headline

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

½ plant, ½ animal critter discovered!

Sounds like a headline from National Enquirer, doesn’t it? It’s actually a post from Scientists have discovered a “sea slug” that can produce chlorophyll. As the slug ages, it also can perform photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy. This requires chloroplasts, which are tiny cell parts that use chlorophyll. While the slug can make its own chlorophyll, apparently it steals chloroplasts from the algae it eats. Once the slug has consumed enough algae (and therefore chloroplasts) in its life, it can begin photosynthesis.

We talk about categorization pretty regularly around here (you got science in my history! You’ve put history in my science! Two great subjects that “taste” great together — name that pop culture reference). It’s fun when new discoveries lead us to rethink our categories. Nothing has changed in the real world — that slug has been there all along — but for us, uncovering these new facts allows us to reevaluate our perceptions, which leads to (hopefully) new understanding and renewed appreciation for the diversity, so much of which is yet unknown, of our universe.

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.

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.

New Museum update: Design/build team chosen

by Beth Higgins, Public Relations/Development Coordinator

The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center is pleased to announce the selection of Hensel Phelps Construction Company with OZ Architecture as the Design/Build Team for the new Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center facility.  Plans for the new facility, located on the corner of Cherry and Mason Streets, include a Digital Dome for presentations, a Learning Lounge, a seamless experience combining science and culture, and plenty of outdoor spaces to take advantage of the prime location along the Poudre River and the bike trail. The project is scheduled to break ground in late 2010.

The selection of the architect has been a long-anticipated milestone in the development of our new facility. In 2002, the Museum and Science Center began conversations about how to better serve the Fort Collins and Northern Colorado community. The Partnership was formed, and in 2005 voters approved Ballot Issue 2A, Building on Basics, providing $6 million in tax revenue to partially fund construction and seven years of operations and maintenance of the new facility. This past summer, the Discovery Science Center relocated to the current Museum building, and science and history exhibits were combined as we began developing content and themes for the new facility. The new Museum will focus on the mission to create meaningful opportunities for people of all ages to learn, reflect and have fun through hands-on and collections-based explorations in science and culture. Visitors to the new Museum will experience hands-on science and culture exhibits; artifact exhibits; narrative experiences; play and discovery opportunities; learning lounge, workshops, and archive experiences; guided nature, cultural, and integrated site tours; Science + Culture Cafes, lectures, workshops; archive & collections training; and visitor-contributed exhibits.

To date, the project has secured over $19 million through grants, donations, community support and corporate support. “We still have a way to go in fund raising,” adds Steve VanderMeer, Board President of the partnership’s Non-Profit Corporation. “Our goal is about $24 million, which we hope to secure by the time we break ground.”  Grants awarded by the Gates Family Foundation, the Downtown Development Authority, and the Boettcher Foundation have made a significant difference in funding and will help the partners reach this goal. “But we are still looking to the community to help us reach the full amount,” notes Mr. VanderMeer. “The support we have received so far is astounding; it is evident how important this project is to the Northern Colorado community.”

We hope to break ground in the second half of 2010, with construction completed in late 2011. The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center plans to hold several public charrettes to collect input about the new facility. For more information about the project or how you can help, please call Annette Geiselman or Cheryl Donaldson at the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, (970) 221-6738.

The Leonid meteor shower

by Jeff Bowell, guest blogger

Weather and other circumstances permitting, people living in the Front Range might see a remarkable sight in the night sky this week.


Leonid Meteor Shower

The Leonid (“LAY-oh-nid”) meteor shower happens each year at about this time in November, but it’s always a toss-up as to how many meteors, or “shooting stars,” will be visible.  Weather, of course, is a factor – if it’s overcast, we’re out of luck.  However, the forecast for Tuesday night, the best time to see the Leonids, is looking good.

Some meteor showers happen at what most people would consider convenient viewing hours.  The Persied shower, for example, can be seen around August 10th – 12th, and provided you’ve wearing mosquito repellant and have a comfortable chair to sit in while viewing the northeast sky, the show – while always unpredictable – can be quite enjoyable…plus, you don’t have to stay up too late if you don’t want to.

The Leonids, on the other hand, aren’t known for convenience.  The shower occurs when the earth passes through the remnants (left-over debris) of the Comet Tempel – Tuttle.  The comet orbits the sun (as the earth does), but with a much differently shaped orbit.  The earth’s orbit around the sun is almost completely circular, while a comet’s orbit usually looks like a very s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d oval.

Leonid 10

Orbit of Comet Tempel-Tuttle

Comets, a.k.a. “Dirty snowballs”, as astronomer Fred Whipple once described them, leave a trail of cometary debris in their wake along their orbit, and the earth passes through this debris trail twice yearly.  There’s a part of the sky where the meteors appear to emerge from – astronomers call this the radiant.  For the Leonids, the radiant is within the constellation Leo, the Lion, an easily recognized constellation, once you get to know it.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that if you want to see the Leonids at their best, you’ve got to be up during the “wee small hours” of the night.  I’ll get back to that later.

For now, it’d be a good idea for potential meteor shower viewers to get familiar with the constellation Leo.  Many people know the Big Dipper, of course, and some recognize Orion in the winter skies over Colorado.  Both are distinctive constellations.  Leo might well be new to most people, but it, too, has properties that make it easily recognized.


Constellation Leo


Constellation Leo

If you do a search online along the lines of “Constellation Leo”, you’ll find several examples (as I just did) of how the constellation appears in the night sky.  The most distinctive part of it is that portion representing the Lion’s head.  This “asterism” (not a constellation in itself) is to the right (west) of the constellation and resembles a “backwards question-mark” or “sickle.”  It’s easy to spot.  Other online sources (check for “Leonid meteor shower”) will give suggestions as for times you can see the shower, but no matter what happens, if you want to see it you’re either going to have to get up early  or stay up late.

As a long-time stargazer, I’ve got myself up in the middle of the night to see the Leonids.  Only once was it a spectacular display.  However, there have been some amazing displays recorded.  One Leonid shower in the early 1800s that was seen from New York State, was described by a viewer this way:

“…The stars fell like snowflakes in a blizzard.”


Leonid Meteor Shower

That’s probably not what’s going to happen this time, but astronomers believe that this year’s Leonids may be better than past ones.  North America isn’t the best location to see the meteors at their anticipated peak performance this year, but if you’re both patient and lucky, you might see some falling stars and the occasional “fireball” every few minutes.

No worries about these meteors destroying the earth, though.  The dusty debris left in Temple-Tuttle’s trail is tiny, fluffy stuff; usually no bigger than a grain of sand.  However, if one of these grains gets pulled into the earth’s atmosphere, its brilliant destruction is what we call a “falling” star or a “shooting” star.  They travel around 45 miles per second (or 60+ kilometres per second, if you prefer), slam into the earth’s atmosphere, and burn up many miles above the earth’s surface.  Some hunks of space rock do reach the earth, usually splashing into the oceans and being lost forever, but the Leonids aren’t robust enough to do this.

If you’re interested in seeing what you can see of this year’s Leonids, here’s what to do.

1.)  Try, if possible, to find a place with dark skies.  If you’re looking at Leo from in or around Ft. Collins, you’ll be looking high up in the southern sky…and that means that the lights from Denver south of town will wash out much of the darkness.  Even so, Leo is easy to spot from Ft. Collins.

2.)  Dress warmly.  Stargazing is the coldest pastime going, even colder than ice fishing.

3.)  Bring a chair, preferably one that reclines.  You won’t need equipment like telescopes, binoculars, or anything of that sort for meteor watching, though equipment like a thermos bottle of coffee or cocoa might be welcome.

4.)  Find Leo, position your chair (as time passes, you might want sometimes to shift your chair’s position as the earth rotates), get comfortable, and pick out a region of the sky just slightly to the back (east) of the aforementioned “Sickle.”

5.)  Enjoy – I hope!

Images: Isle of Sky Astronomy, Night Sky Hunter, European Space Agency, Armagh Observatory, Lowell Observatory

Science at home: DIY terrarium

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

I wish I had a green thumb. I’ve tried to grow many things but, with the exception of a mangy basil plant that’s still hanging in there, all the plants eventually give up and join that great garden in the sky. Secretly, I suspect  this is because all plants hate me and would rather wither than live in my apartment, but I can’t prove it.

However, I think I may have found a plant project that even I can’t screw up: The DIY Terrarium.


What you’ll need:

  • Empty clear jar with a screw-on lid
  • Moss with some extra soil attached
  • Plastic bag
  • Water

What to do:

Head outside and find some moss. Even in this cooler weather there’s still plenty to be found. Grab a handful and put it in the plastic bag.

Take a clean jar (I’m going to use an old pickle jar) and make a little mound of extra soil on the lid.


Place the moss on top of the soil, doming it a bit so it will fit into the jar. Water lightly.


Gently slide the jar down over the lid and screw into place. If the jar has a good seal, the moisture level should stay pretty constant and the moss will keep growing. If the terrarium starts to look a little dry, unscrew the lid a little and run under water for a minute. Display your terrarium where it will get both sun and compliments!


all images courtesy of Design*Sponge

The Science of Collecting Halloween Candy

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation


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.

The Botany of Desire documentary

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation


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!

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

March 2023

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