Category Archives: Interesting Science

London’s Natural History Museum

Diplodocus in the Central Hall in the Natural History Museum of London

Our family just returned from a trip to the UK, which included five days in London. Despite the snow and ice, we had a wonderful time exploring the city.  Lots of long walks, great meals (yes, you can find good and reasonably priced food in London!), and fabulous museums. Because they are publicly funded, many of the museums in the city are free – the Tate, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert and the Natural History Museum. Home to a vast life and earth science collection, the Natural History Museum, which opened its doors in 1881, has an impressive history that includes original notebooks, journals, manuscripts and specimen collections from notable scientific figures –  including Charles Darwin.

The Cocoon

In addition to its magnificent collections of fossils, dinosaur bones, taxidermied creatures, this venerable institution has a fabulous new wing called the Darwin Centre.  I was very taken with the design of the Centre and its state-of-the art use of technology.  The Centre is housed within a giant, eight-story cocoon.  You begin your visit with a ride on a glass elevator to the 7th floor and work your way down a guided ramp.  As you walk through the cocoon, you encounter displays of specimens, interactive exhibits, plant and insect collections, interspersed with video projections on the cocoon walls which explain and guide you through.  Periodically, you come upon a window that allows you to peer into a working laboratory within the center of the cocoon.  Literally, a window on the hidden world of scientific research, revealing the scientists at work.  At different times, various scientists are there to answer your questions or explain the work that’s going on in the lab.

I was particularly taken with the climate change wall and the  table-top animated touch screen exhibits which invite you to use your hands to drag images, make selections, move items around as you explore the given concept. There was a particularly effective one on DNA testing and a delightful exploration of miscroscopy where you work to identify a mystery specimen.

When you visit the cocoon you have the option to extend and enrich your experience by way of a program they call NaturePlus.

NaturePlus Station

As you enter the cocoon, you pick up a free NaturePlus Card, with a unique bar code and number.  At most of the exhibit stations, you can scan your card and collect highlights (particular images, favorite activities, or memorable facts) for later consumption. Back at home, you register on the Natural History Museum’s web site, create your own personalized web page with your NaturePlus Card number and all of your selected museum content becomes available to you.  Such a clever way to deal with the problem of “information overload” we encounter at most museums – saving (and personalizing!) stuff for later.



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The Gulf Oil Spill On Your Desktop

Like most of us, I’ve been watching the latest developments from the Gulf of Mexico with growing alarm.  Like a blight, like a creature bent on destruction, the black slick is growing, moving ever closer to the fragile Gulf coast, threatening every living creature in its path.  The thing about oil spills (and bacteria, and galaxies, and mitochondria, and black holes) is that their scale is just too difficult to visualize. Our failure to really grasp the enormity, the complexity of the thing means that we fail to grasp its impact.

But with this oil spill we have a few, new visualization tools.  And they’re not just in the hands of the experts – they are on our own computers and cell phones.  Just this week, video was released of the actual source of the Gulf oil – spewing out of a broken well, nearly a mile below the ocean’s surface.  Let me say that again.  Video from a mile underwater.  Whoa.  Representative Edward Markey (Chair of the Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming) has posted a live feed of the spill (spill cam) on his web site. In addition to that we have amazing photographs, artfully portraying the scope and scale of the disaster.  NASA satellite images, readily downloadable with a click give you a clear view of the spill – and you can watch it play out over time.  Google Earth has now made NASA’s MODIS imagery available as a downloadable overlay for Google Earth. But to really give you a personal sense of scale – use Google Earth’s “Places of Interest” layer to look at the spill in situ, as it changes over time, and then place it over your own region of the globe.  And here’s a nice one – “ifitwasmyhome“, where you can instantly overlay the spill on a map anywhere.  See how far the slick stretches over landmarks that you know.


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Now that’s taking extinction seriously!

Mole cricket tattoo

Most of us worry about the growing list of endangered species, many of us donate time or money to groups who work to protect them, but how many of us have taken steps to promote the cause by tattooing images of extinct organisms on our bodies?  I mean, really.  I ask you?

Well, 100 dedicated folks in Great Britain have.  That’s how seriously they’re taking it.  It started with a group called ExtInk and a November, 2009 exhibit of drawings, illustrating 100 of the most endangered species in the British Isles. Creatures like the water vole, the tundra swan, and narrow-leaved hellaborine.  It concluded with the live tattooing of the drawings on 100 willing volunteers. Apparently, you had to apply for the priveledge of having one of these tatoos (would love to read a few of those letters!).  Here’s the full list of all the participants, along with which tatoo they received.

I love the idea of these 100 people, walking around as bold biodiversity ambassadors.  Can’t you imagine the conversation?  “What’s that on your arm?”  …”Oh, that?  Well, that’s a red-backed shrike.  Let me tell you about it…”

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Visualizing a Tonne of Change

What Does a Ton of CO2 Look Like?

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the average person living in an industrialized country emits 12 metric-tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.  For Americans, it’s 23 tonnes.

Recognizing how abstract big numbers like that can be for most people, a group called Millennium ART (in conjunction with the United Nations Department of Public Information) created a clever art installation to demonstrate.  They’ve constructed a HUGE cube that sits on a barge on St. Jorgen’s Lake (just outside Copenhagen, Denmark – where the UN Climate Change Conference – COP15 – took place in December, 2009) that approximates the space occupied by one tonne of carbon dioxide gas.

But that’s not all.  The cube is constructed from shipping containers, with plasma media screens on all the faces.  Millennium ART rigged the cube so that media can be displayed on the visible faces via a live portal, making it a giant multimedia installation.  Over the course of a day, a series of images and statistics (all related to the topic of climate change) display on the faces of the cube.  Here is a short video showing the way the cube was constructed and here is a seven-minute video of the cube, displaying it’s content, as people walk by.

Measured at standard atmospheric pressure, one metric-tonne of carbon dioxide takes up a cube the size of a 3-story building (8.2 meters x 8.2 meters x 8.2 meters) – the size of this demonstration cube.

What a great idea, eh?  Not only is one metric tonne difficult to visualize, but since no one can actually see CO2, this is a double-bind visualization problem.  It’s also wonderful to think of a group of scientists, architects, designers, and media technologists working together to meaningfully interpret this environmental problem for people.  Powerful message.

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Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Not only is it Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday this week, but 2009 also marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.  So it seems this is a fitting week to cull through some of the most useful and interesting online resources relating to Charles Darwin, the Voyage of the Beagle, and his grand work of synthesis.  I hope that others will post their favorites resources so that we can add to the list.  I’ve gathered the sites described in this post as a collection of links on Diigo with the hash mark “darwin”.

We have to start our tour with the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin exhibit.  Niles Eldredge, the exhibit’s curator, has assembled an amazing collection of Darwin’s original manuscripts, specimens, mementos, along with animals, artifacts, and videos to deliver fascinating insight into the man himself as well as the political and historical context in which he lived.  The Darwin exhibit is right now on its way to the U.K. in honor of the birthday celebration. The exhibit’s website is laden with useful teaching resources and intriguing photographs.  Well worth a visit.

The New York Times published a number of interesting articles this week.  Notable among them, Carl Zimmer’s piece on visualizing the tree of life (be sure to take a look at the tree of life graphic from David Hillis’s lab which can be downloaded).  There is also an electronic copy of the Origin with selections highlighted and personally annotated by prominent scientists on that same site.  You can find the complete papers and manuscripts of Charles Darwin on the University of Cambridge’s site – some 20,000 items and nearly 90,000 electronic images.

Here’s the link to the official Darwin Day celebration which includes some good podcasts and interviews.  There are 627 events scheduled in 42 countries for Darwin Day – February 12th – and you can find one in your area on this searchable map.  Here’s a site where people can post their own Happy Birthday message to Charles Darwin and place their marker, along with 100’s of others, on a dynamic map.

For the philatelist in you, the British Royal Mail is issuing ten new Darwin postage stamps to celebrate his life and work.

There are a number of interesting online resources to deepen your understanding of Darwin’s 1831 voyage on H.M.S. Beagle.  You could start, of course, with Google Earth and trace the voyage from Plymouth, across the Atlantic, round Cape Horn, up the west coast of South America, stop in to visit the Galapagos, continue onto Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, the Mauritius, round the Cape of Good Hope, stop into the Cape Verde Islands, and head back up to his native England.  It’s really fun to figure out the route on your own, but if you’d prefer to sit back and watch, a few clever people have created KMZ (zipped Keyhole Markup Language) files that serve as an overlay in Google Earth.  Google Earth processes KMZ files in much the same way that web browsers process HTML files.  You just download this KMZ file and, with Google Earth open in the background, open ithe downloaded file to see a pre-programmed tour of the Voyage.  You can stop where ever you’d like, zoom in for a closer look, and read the accompanying annotations.

For a different approach to the Voyage, here’s an interactive map activity, designed for high school students. that will take you through the major sites visited by Darwin and describe what interested him there.

If you’re a student of connectivism, you might find the February 2009 issue of Smithsonian magazine interesting.  The issue is devoted to the connections between Darwin and Lincoln  – two great men who share much more than the same birthday.

Yet another important connection – that between Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin – is presented succinctly in a multimedia presentation on the national public radio site.  Also on that site, you’ll find a Morning Edition article and podcast by Joe Palca, featuring the evolutionary biologist Sean Carroll, who is in the UK for birthday festivities.

You can explore Darwin’s study on the English Heritage website dedicated to his long-time home, Down House, which is now an historic site.  You’ll discover some Quicktime VR footage of his study that gives you the feeling of being there.

Charlie Rose once did a fabulous interview with E.O. WIlson and James Watson about the life and work of Charles Darwin, which can still be seen here (on YouTube).  And while you’re on YouTube, take a look at this 6-minute movie on the life of Charles Darwin.

Richard Dawkins “Legacy” recently won the 2009 prize for Best Documentary by the British Broadcast awards.  The program will soon be released on DVD but you can see it in its five segments on this site.

And for a little humor, you might want to check out Richard Milner’s video.  Milner is a singing Darwinian scholar.  He looks for song cues in Darwin’s work and turns them into musical theater.  “There are fossils in the ground, prot-o-ZOA in the sea, all these unrelated facts made a monkey out of me!”  Or continuing in the humorous vein, one of my favorite Simpson’s episode is the Evolution of Homer Simpson (I know, I know…)

But I have to end this ode to Darwin with a note of the humility and unrelenting questioning for which he was known by including this essay by Carl Safina, entitled “Darwin Must Die So that Evolution May Live”.  Safina warns about the cult of Darwinism and the error of equating evolution with one man, one book, one theory.  Good to keep in mind.

And so I conclude with this, my favorite quote from Charles Darwin,

“It is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance.”

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Umapper is a web-based map authoring application. You can create flash-based interactive maps and display them on your blog or social network site.  It’s easy to use, with step-by-step instructions (pictured here). I created one showing the location of various key scientific discoveries in Europe.  Very cool.

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Personal Genomics

Personal Genomics

I’ve been reading more about some of these web-based personal genomics
services. Firms like 23andMe and Navigenics that are offering personal genome services. Using their home testing kit, you send in a salvia sample and get back “the secrets of your own DNA”.

For $999.00, 23andMe (which, by the way, is funded by Google and
Genentech) promises to provide information in your personalized “Gene
Journal” on a long list of diseases/conditions such as lupus, MS,
obesity, cancer, diabetes, chrohn’s disease, macular degeneration, and
earwax type (!).

They offer a suite of “ancestry tools” on their web site that “let you
find out where and how your ancestors lived”. Apparently, you can
compare your genome to thousands of others around the world and find
out which people are more similar to you. They also lay claim to
“helping you discover how your genes may affect such things as your
athletic ability.”

Navigenics takes a slightly different approach (and charges more),
giving you only some of the genetic information (that which they
determine to be “medically relevant”) and then they set you up with a
paid membership arrangement where they continue to test your genome
against new research and offer you future opportunities to meet with
their genetic counselors to interpret it.

To my ear, it sounds like these services are playing into some pretty
grave misconceptions about genetics and inheritance. There are so
many factors involved between a print out of your genomic data and the
onset of disease – couldn’t this sort of testing lead to black and
white thinking about our health? And I wonder if the FDA or an
appropriate federal regulating body is examining these firms and what
they’re promising? I’m curious to hear what you all think about these
companies and the products they are selling? Do your students ask you
about this?

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