Monday, December 31, 2012

Cereal Snob

Okay, I admit it, I'm a cereal snob.  I love cereal.  I eat a bowl of cereal nearly every morning for breakfast, and many nights I have a bowl of cereal as a snack.  My wife leaves me in charge of buying cereal at the store because I'm picky.  I have a list of approved cereals that she uses if she buys cereal, which is very rare.  I only buy cereal when it is on sale, but I rarely buy the store brand cereals.  They simply don't taste as good.  I find it a crime if there are less than 5 boxes of cereal in the house at one time.  I'll buy 10 - 20 boxes of cereal at time when I go cereal shopping.  That's just the way I am.

Above is a picture of the top of our fridge at home.  What you can't see are the cereal boxes hiding behind these, the cereal boxes in the cupboard, and the cereal boxes in the pantry.  In total, at the time of this picture, there were 18 boxes of cereal in the house.  But don't worry, none of it gets wasted.  My daughters love cereal just as much as I do.  I think it annoys my wife because she is not a cereal fan!  My 5 year old will sometimes down 2 full bowls of cereal in the morning before heading off to school!  

So why do I like cereal so much?  I'm not sure, but I think it has something to do with my upbringing as a kid.  Cereal was what I ate most mornings before school.  Not only did I eat cereal every morning, but I also read the back of the cereal boxes every morning.  It didn't matter if I had already read the box the day before, I'd read it again, and again, and again until the box was empty.  Many cereal boxes have games and/or facts written on the back, so they can be a great learning tool.  The great thing about this is that both of my daughters do the same thing every morning.  They each have to have a cereal box in front of them to look at and read!  I love it!  I'm convinced that cereal boxes helped me in my love of reading and I hope they'll do the same thing for my daughters.    

Friday, December 28, 2012

How to Clean a Penny

As part of our trio of science experiments this past week, my daughter and I made a mixture to clean a penny.  This is a fairly common experiment in school science labs, but if you haven't done this before, definitely do it.  It's another easy science experiment that requires few supplies.  First gather a few dirty coins.  I found a quarter and 2 pennies that could use a good cleaning.

Dirty coins.

Now take about a 1/4 cup of vinegar and a teaspoon of salt and mix them together in a small bowl.  I used standard table salt.  Drop the coins in and let them sit for 10 - 20 seconds.  Then take them out of the mixture.  You should notice that they are much cleaner than they were before placing them in the mixture.

In the process of being cleaned.


The pictures do not do this experiment justice.  I think you can tell that the pennies taken out of the mixture are cleaner and shinier, but it was much more apparent to the naked eye.  So what's going on here?  Vinegar is an acid that reacts with the salt to remove copper oxide from the surface of the pennies, making them shinier.  The quarter was thrown in to test if much would happen.  The quarter might have been a bit cleaner, but it was hard to tell.  

This experiment isn't done yet.  There's much more you can do with it as I'll describe in a future post.  

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Potty Training Success...Sort Of

Success!  Well, sort of.  As I mentioned in an earlier potty training post, our 2 year old is beginning the process of potty training.  We're trying several methods and even have the Potty Train book, which I find hilarious.  But in the end, it will be up to our daughter to decide when she's ready to be potty trained.

Chugga chugga poooo-pooooo!  ROFL!

The other night our 2 year old took a step in the right direction.  She went poo-poo on the potty for the first time at home!  We could tell that she was struggling at dinner to do the #2 in her diaper, so we asked her if she needed to go potty.  She immediately shouted back "No!!!" with this ashamed look on her face, telling us that she really means Yes!

My wife took her to the potty while I finished dinner with our 5 year old.  About 10 minutes later I'm cleaning up the kitchen and I go back to check to see if everything is okay.  It is, but the 2 year old is stilling sitting on the potty struggling.  A few minutes later I hear a 'ploop', followed by a shout of "I DID IT!!!"  I couldn't help but laugh at her excitement of going poo-poo in the potty.  

After washing her hands she comes running out of the bathroom to tell me "Daddy, I went poo-poo!"  Then she says "Daddy, come smell it, it stinky!".  I'm very proud of her accomplishment, but there's no way I'm going to go smell it!  I've smelled enough dirty diapers in my life that I don't need to smell a poo in the toilet too!  LOL!  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Facebook Community Page

If you enjoy this blog, you can also get regular updates on the Cool Science Dad community page.  Be sure to "like" it!

Don't Rock the Boat

One of the gifts my 5 year old received for Christmas was the game "Don't Rock the Boat".  In this game you have a pirate-style ship that balances on a stick/pole thingy.  Each player is given a set of pirate penguins.  The goal is to take turns placing a penguin on the ship without the ship tipping off the pole.  If the ship tips enough such that a penguin falls off, the game is over.

Don't Rock the Boat!!!

Much to my pleasure, there's quite a bit of physics and critical thinking involved in this game.  My daughter struggled at first, but she quickly realized that you can't randomly place a penguin on the ship.  If the ship is leaning in one direction, the next penguin must be placed on the other side of the ship to help balance the ship.  This game revolves around center of mass.  If too much mass ends up on one side, the ship will tip over.  The center of mass of the ship needs to stay near the balance point (the pole).  There are a total of 16 penguins to place on the ship.  Our record thus far is 8 penguins, so we still have some work to do!

This is a great game that helps teach physics and develop a child's critical thinking skills.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Floating Paper Clip

Motivated by Science Bob, my daughters and I attempted to make a paper clip float in water.  Sounds easy right?  Wrong.  Drop a paper clip in water and see what happens?  As you can probably guess, it immediately sinks to the bottom.  So how does one get the paper clip to float?  The trick is to avoid breaking the surface tension of the water when you drop in the paper clip.  How do you do that?  You need the following supplies.

Paper clips
Tissue paper

Make sure that you use gift wrapping tissue paper and not an actual tissue.  I started with a tissue for your nose and the experiment was a complete failure!

To start the experiment, fill up a bowl of water.  Then tear off a piece of tissue paper about half the size of your cell phone.  Gently place the paper on the surface of the water.  Then gently place the paper clip on the tissue.  The next step is to use the pencils to gently push/pull the paper out from under the paper clip.  Our video is below.

As you can see from the video, it can be a little tricky.  It took me 3 or 4 tries to get it right in the video.  If done properly the paper clip will float on top of the water.  It's not really floating since the density of the paper clip is greater than that of the water.  What's happening is that the surface tension of the water is not broken.  This can't be done by simply placing the clip in the water but it is possible with the tissue paper.  My daughters had a lot of fun with this did I!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Burned Tongue

Okay, so this little "science experiment" of mine did not involve either of my daughters, but I learned something that I can pass on to them at some point in their future should they do the same "experiment".  So what is this experiment of mine?  Well, it's called the "Burning Your Tongue" experiment.  It sounds painful because it is.  The other day I made a cup of hot chocolate and dumped it in my insulating cup in my office.  I do this about once a week.  When I make hot chocolate I microwave a cup of water until it boils, then dump it in with the hot chocolate mix and stir.  I then seal it up in the insulating cup.  I then let it sit for 15 minutes until the temperature is suitable for drinking.

My insulating cup.

Well, for whatever reason, after about 30 seconds of cooling I decided that the 15 minutes was up and took a big gulp.  OUCH!  I immediately discovered my mistake, but I couldn't spit it out because I was sitting in front of my laptop with no place to spit it.  I couldn't swallow it for fear of burning my throat.  Instead, I just held it in there for a few moments for it to cool before swallowing.  I knew right away I had burned my tongue and confirmed this by looking at my tongue in the mirror.

See those bumps?  Yep, that's my burned tongue.

Yep, that's a picture of my burned tongue!  I did a Google search to see if taste buds are actually destroyed when you drink a hot liquid.  I was pretty sure they weren't but I needed to double check.  The taste buds aren't destroyed, but the cells are damaged.  They repair themselves, but it can take 10 - 14 days to fully repair.  It's almost a week later and my tongue is much better, but I can still feel/taste that it isn't fully prepared.

So I learned something that I can pass down to my daughters.  Burning your tongue on hot liquid sucks, but doesn't permanently damage your tongue.  Not that that will be much consolation to them at time!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The World is Still Here

Today is December 22, 2012.  I woke up this morning realizing that something was wrong.  The world around me still exists!  December 21, 2012 came and went.  No asteroid hit Earth.  The poles did not suddenly shift.  A big solar flare did not wipe out the Earth.  Some unexplained Galactic alignment did not rip apart the Earth.  Call me surprised...NOT!  Of course the world wasn't going to end yesterday, but it sure was funny listening to the people who were convinced that something catastrophic was going to happen.

Take a deep breath and enjoy the rest of 2012!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Potty Training

As parents, my wife and I are entering another exciting journey.  Our two year old is beginning the process of potty training.  We've gone through this journey once before with our 5 year old so we have some experience.  This is a great moment for our two year old, but it's one that I'll be glad when it's done.  I'll be most happy about no longer having to buy diapers.  The money spent monthly on diapers will be a welcome addition to the monthly budget!

Flushing the toilet is cheaper than buying diapers!

I wish I had some science advice to offer parents on potty training.  There are many methods that you can research on the web.  Not one of them worked with our 5 year old.  We tried a number of different methods, but none seemed to push her closer to becoming fully potty trained.  So what did we do to potty train our older daughter?  Nothing.  One day, right after turning 3, she came to us and said "Mommy, Daddy, I don't want to wear diapers anymore."  And that was it.  She never wore a diaper again.  All of that work by Mommy and Daddy and the thing that pushed her away from diapers was her deciding that she was done with diapers.

If I had to guess, our 2 year old will be the same way.  She's quite independent and strong willed.  She has a much stronger personality than our older daughter.  She also has our older daughter to look up to.  She's very much into doing everything that big sister does.  Since big sister doesn't wear diapers, it probably won't be long before she decides to stop wearing diapers.  Again, we as parents can try and try to assist our youngest in potty training, but it's likely that she will make the decision to become potty trained, regardless of what Mommy and Daddy have to say about it.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Astronomy Picture of the Day

If you haven't already checked it out, be sure to visit Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD).  Each day a new astronomy-related picture is posted, along with an explanation.  This site is a great way to introduce yourself and your kids to the different aspects astronomy.  To give you a taste, here's one of the daily pictures from earlier this week.

NGC 922: Collisional Ring Galaxy

For more details, check out the APOD page.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Quality Science TV Shows

Lately I've been searching for a few good science TV shows.  I'm looking for non-fiction, documentary style shows, as opposed to science fiction or fiction movies.  My daughter's favorite is clearly  Mythbusters.  It's one of my favorites too.  If you're a regular reader, you already know that I watch Mythbusters together with my 5 year old daughter.  However, I'm looking for a few other science TV shows that my daughter can watch.  I've DVR'd NOVA for a few years now and really enjoy most episodes.

Many of the NOVA episodes are going to go above the heads of kids, but they are still interesting and my daughter will sit and watch parts of episodes with me.  Unlike Mythbusters, she usually decides to do something else after 20 or 30 minutes.  

I've recently started DVRing The Universe on the History Channel.  I like this show, but it could be much better.  The show does an excellent job interviewing astronomers and making the science very interesting, but their animations and digital effects go overboard and introduce bad science.  For example, the other day I watched an episode on comets.  The astronomers interviewed explained that comets can originate in the Kuiper Belt or the Oort Cloud.  Perfect science on their part.  The producers of the show, however, then proceeded to show regions of space filled with asteroids and comets.  Filled so much that the fake ship they pretended to be in looked like it was going to be constantly bombarded by these objects.  

In a previous post on the asteroid belt I discussed how the asteroid belt, and other regions in space such as the Kuiper Belt and Oort cloud, are not densely packed with comets and asteroids.  There are still millions of miles on average between any two objects.  The animations in this episode of The Universe implied the opposite.  It's too bad The Universe producers feel they need to add these incorrect special effects.  The show is just as good, and actually better, without them.  

If you have any other suggestions for quality science TV shows, let me know!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Plastic Milk Experiment

It's science experiment time!  A week or so ago we had some free time on the weekend to complete 3 science experiments.  The first one I'm sharing is titled "The Plastic Milk Experiment".  Of the 3, this was the one I thought was the coolest!  I learned about this experiment from Science Bob's list of experiments.  As the name suggests, the goal is to turn liquid milk into a "plastic".  It's a very simple experiment that requires the following:

1 cup of milk
4 teaspoons of white vinegar.

That's it!

Supplies for the Plastic Milk Experiment.

Take a cup of milk and pour it into a small bowl.  Heat the milk in a microwave until just before it boils.  Using cold milk will NOT work.  Then pour in the 4 teaspoons of white vinegar.  Gently stir the mixture and you should notice something weird happening.  The "white" part of the milk will start to clump together.


When the clump starts to form, dump the mixture into a strainer.  The solid clump will be left.  Go ahead and touch it and shape it into any shape you wish.  We stuck with a ball shape.

What is this?

After shaping the clump, put it on a plate to harden for a day.

A ball of milk!

Don't worry, it won't stink up the room.  After a day, the clump will harden and you now have "plastic" milk!  It's not really plastic, but resembles plastic.  So what's going on here?  Well, here's what Science Bob has to say about this:

"Plastic? In milk? Well, sort of. You made a substance called CASEIN. It's from the latin word meaning "cheese." CasEin occurs when the protien in the milk meets the acid in the vinegar. The casein in milk does not mix with the acid and so it forms blobs. True plastics, called poymers, are a little different."

This is an awesome experiment that's quick, requires few supplies, is easy to do, and is sure to get a positive reaction from your child.  

Monday, December 17, 2012

New Blog Post Leader

It's official.  A new post has emerged as the leader, by page views, on this blog.  The previous leader was the Why Does Earth Have Seasons post from September 11, 2012.  The new leader is Intelligent Life Outside the Solar System from August 27, 2012.  I'm guessing that the life post has gained views due to the recent announcement from NASA that the Curiosity rover detected organic compounds, the building blocks of life, in the Martian soil.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lincoln Logs

Back in November I posted a few pictures of the Lego towers my daughters and I built.  If your kids get bored with Legos, try Lincoln logs.  My two year old has been into Lincoln logs lately.  We've had a set of Lincoln logs for awhile, but they haven't gotten much use.  Part of the reason for that is their location.  They were stored in a container in a closet and my kids usually go for the toys in their room first.  We recently re-organized the toy room and now the Lincoln logs are in a pull out, open, container on a shelf.  In other words, they are more easily accessible.  My two year old built the following "house" with her Mommy.

Pretty good if you ask me!  The next day my daughter kept asking me for something and I couldn't understand what she was saying.  She was getting quite frustrated at my inability to understand her.  Finally she pointed to the above Lincoln log house and I finally realized that she wanted me to help her build a new Lincoln log house!  This time, however, her definition of help was me handing her pieces while she put them together.  I was not allowed to place any piece!  Here was her creation.

Ok, so not the greatest house in the world, but the point is that she wanted to try it herself.  So remember, when you're playing with your kids, especially while building things, let them be creative and try things on their own.  Doing is the best way to learn!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

My Daughter Watching YouTube Videos

As parents we need to be careful about our kids' online activities.  There's so much they can look up and see/read that is inappropriate for their age.  Yesterday my 5 year old grabs my wife's phone to play a game.  My wife and I were both sitting on the floor putting puzzles together with our 2 year old, so we were sitting right there.  My wife looks over at my 5 year old and says "what are you watching?"  I look over and see that she's found some NASA produced video on YouTube.  Okay, no biggie, although I wonder how she found her way to this video.  Two minutes later we can hear that she's watching a different video.  I look over to see what she's watching and here's the video I saw.

You can check it out for yourself.  There's nothing bad or inappropriate in this video.  In fact, it's very helpful if you ever intend to replace the heater/AC fan blower motor in a 1996 - 2002 Toyota 4Runner.  That's right, my 5 year daughter is watching, and watching very intently, a YouTube video on how to replace a heater/AC fan blower motor in a Toyota 4Runner.  She wanted to watch the whole thing and didn't like it when I told her she needed to be done on the phone.  LOL!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why is it Cold When You Get Out of the Shower?

This is a question my 5 year old wants an answer to.  The other day she gets out of the shower, but refuses to dry herself off because to do so would mean moving the towel she currently has wrapped around her to keep her warm.  I tried telling her that by drying herself off she will feel warmer.  She wasn't buying into the argument, however.

So why is it cold when you get out of the shower?  There are a couple of major reasons:

1.  While in the shower, presumably you have the hot water running.  Energy always transfers from the warmer object to the cooler object.  In this case, the warmer object is the water, and the cooler object is the surrounding air.  Since energy is transferred to the air in the shower, the surrounding air becomes warmer.  Once you walk out of the shower, the new air you've entered is at a lower temperature.  This is especially true if you open the bathroom door.  Energy from the warmer air inside the bathroom transfers to the colder air outside the bathroom and it very quickly feels colder inside the bathroom.

2.  The second reason is evaporation.  Evaporation is a cooling process.  This is one of the reasons we sweat when we're working out.  The beads of sweat evaporate and cool our bodies.  Evaporation is a cooling process because energy is leaving your body and transferring to the air.  After stepping out of the shower, the beads of water that remain begin to evaporate, thus cooling your body.  You can quicken this process by drying your body with a towel.  This acclimates you to the surrounding air temperature more quickly and you feel warmer.

I don't think my daughter believed me when I told her drying off would make her feel warmer more quickly.  She pouted for awhile.  Sorry little one, physics is the law!  :-)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Journaling Your Child's Life

If you're not journaling your child's life, I highly recommend you do so.  Journaling is often looked at as something that Moms do, but it's something that Dads could and should do as well.  Journaling my children daily was brought to my attention a few months before my first daughter was due, and this individual provided me with a journal to get started.  Starting a few days before her birth and continuing every day and continuing through the present, I write a short blurb about my daughters' day.  Some daily entries are very detailed, while others a just a couple of lines that say something along the lines of "we went out to eat, we read books, and we put together puzzles."

Two journals, one for my 5 year old and the other for my 2 year old.

I continued the journaling process with my younger daughter when she was born 2 years ago.  Some evenings I forget and some evenings I don't have the time to journal, but I make up for it the next day by doubling up on entries.  Anytime my daughters and I do a science experiment, it goes in the journal.  Anytime they go to the doctor, it goes in the journal.  Anytime they say something funny or do something crazy, it goes in the journal.  Anytime I measure their height, it goes in the journal.  In fact, I've referenced the journals on height several times.

My plan for these journals is to continue them every day until my daughters move out of the house.  Then at some point (not sure when) I will deliver the journals as a gift to them when they are adults.  

Journaling takes time, although in reality it's just a few minutes each day.  When I read the old entries and bring forth those memories from just a few years ago I know that journaling is well worth it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The End of the World...NOT!

Let me say this as clearly as possible.  THE WORLD WILL NOT END ON DECEMBER 21, 2012!!!  Despite what you may have heard over the last several years, the world will not end in a few days.  The magnetic poles will not switch on December 21.  We will not be struck by a large asteroid/comet on December 21.  Some random alignment of a bunch of stuff will not destroy Earth on December 21.  A solar flare will not wipe us all out on December 21.  Things that might happen to you December 21, 2012.

1.  You might go to work.

2.  You might watch the movie 2012.

3.  You might regret giving away your life savings because you assumed Earth was ending.

4.  You might pay some bills...maybe late because you thought the world was going to end.

5.  You might clean up your dog/cat's barf.

And the list goes on.  If you want some actual scientific evidence against the world ending on December 21, 2012, check out the following websites.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Science Fiction/Fantasy Books II

In an earlier post I included a link to NPR's top 100 science fiction/fantasy books as well as a flow chart on choosing which book to read next.  If you haven't caught on already, I love science fiction/fantasy.  It's a way for me to relax at the end of the day and escape the mundane.  Some people might ask, since you like physics and astronomy, why don't you read more "real science" books?  I suppose I could, but I do real science for a living.  Every day at work (and many days at home in the evenings and weekends) I'm working on real science.  Fiction books are away for me to escape this.  If I didn't have this escape, I'd go insane!

Although I don't have much of a direct decision on the type of books my daughters like, I really hope that at least one of them gets into science fiction & fantasy.  I think it would be cool to have talks about science fiction/fantasy and what we thought of different books we'd both read.  My wife will probably shake her head at this.  After all, she already has one member in the house dragging her out to the movie theater to watch each of the movies in the upcoming Hobbit Trilogy!!!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Science Fiction/Fantasy Books

Are you or your son/daughter interested in reading science fiction and/or fantasy books?  I've been reading fantasy books for about 15 years now and have recently started digging into various science fiction books.  While doing a web search for various science fiction writers, I came across a list of the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books put together by NPR in 2011.  This is a must-bookmark link for any science fiction/fantasy reader.  What I found more interesting, however, is that someone put together a flow chart of all 100 of these books to help assist you in choosing which book to read next.

This is probably a bit too small for you to read, so here's the link to the flow chart of NPR's top 100 scifi/fantasy books.  I found myself wasting quite a bit of time working through the different paths on the chart. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Is Jupiter a Failed Star?

You often hear that Jupiter, the 5th planet from the Sun, is a "failed star".  Why is this?  For starters, stars, like our Sun, are composed of hydrogen and helium gas.  There are trace amounts of other gasses, but hydrogen and helium, especially hydrogen, dominate.  If it is hot enough in the core of the star, fusion of hydrogen to helium takes place and energy is released.  This is the definition of a star.  If fusion doesn't occur, the object never becomes a true star.

Jupiter, a failed star?  Not exactly.

Since Jupiter is composed primarily of hydrogen and helium gas, yet doesn't have a high enough core temperature to fuse hydrogen, it is often called a "failed star".  This is a bit misleading.  A star needs to be larger than 8% the mass of the Sun for fusion to begin.  Jupiter has a mass that is 0.1% that of the Sun's.  In other words, Jupiter needs to be 80 times more massive to be a star.  That's a very large difference.  Jupiter is not even close to being a star.  Referring to it as a "failed star" implies that it has a mass that is somewhat close to the minimum mass needed to be a star.  I could understand calling Jupiter a "failed star" if it only needs 2 times its mass or 5 times its mass, but 80 times its mass?  That's a bit of a stretch.

To conclude, in my book, it's not correct to refer to Jupiter as a "failed star".  Its mass is no where near close enough to make it a star.  It's a planet orbiting our star, the Sun.  Nothing more.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Science at the Playground

On Thanksgiving day, during the afternoon, I took my 5 year old out to a park.  It was a beautiful day out, so while the rest of the family was busy doing other things, we snuck out of the house to enjoy a bit of fresh air.  We went for a walk and checked out a nearby water tower.  My daughter was amazed at how tall it looked from close up.  Then we went to the park.  As usual, she had a blast playing on the playground equipment.  This Cool Science Dad, however, learned that playground equipment is designed for kids, not adults!

How did I learn this exactly?  Well, my daughter wanted me to play follow the leader, with her being the leader.  So I had to follow her and do whatever she did.  This was fine until she wanted to slide down the slides!!!

As you can see from the above pictures, these were not straight slides.  Going down the curly one, I got stuck.  My legs were too long to make the turn.  I had to scoot my way down with my hands.  The other slide, although straight in one direction, has a hump in it.  Not so kind to Daddy's back when he laid down!  

We had a blast on the playground, but the slides were a bit rough!  Or maybe I'm just getting old!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Top Search Keywords

I'm pleased to announce that "toilet paper brands" is no longer the leading search engine keyword that led people to my blog!  It has been replaced with the science related phrase "drake equation".  I feel a bit better now.  :-)  I'm not sure how I felt about people searching for toilet paper finding my blog!!!  I understand why this was the case.  A while back I discussed my use of a cell phone calculator to compare toilet paper prices.  The phrase "toilet paper brands" is apparently leading people to this blog entry.  Of course, now that I've used the words "toilet paper" many times in this post it's only matter of time before "toilet paper brands" regains its #1 spot among keyword searches leading to my blog.  Sigh.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Fun at IKEA

If you've never been to an IKEA, you need to go!  I could spend hours in that place looking for furniture, storage shelves, kitchen supplies, etc.  If you go, be sure to leave the kids with a sitter at home.  Your kids will not be as excited as you and will constantly bug you to leave.  Because of this, whenever my wife and I need to go to IKEA, we leave the kids with a sitter so we can enjoy our time in the store.

The other week we went to IKEA to pick out some furniture for the kids' bedrooms.  Neither of them had a dresser in their room and there wasn't much shelving storage for their toys.  We decided it was time to change that.  The cool thing about IKEA is that most of the furniture fits into the back of an SUV because none of it is fully constructed.  As the purchaser, you get the boxes and have to put the furniture together yourself.

I wrote in an earlier post about the physics of an Allen wrench.  The other neat thing I noticed in the furniture construction instructions was the following picture.

Even my 5 year old was able to understand that two people should work together on this.  Being the Cool Science Dad that I am, I ignored the instructions and did it by myself!  :-)  I had a little help from my 5 year old, but she didn't have the patience to sit and help for an hour, so she quickly left me alone!

Moral of this post?  Go to IKEA, but leave the kids at home!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Mythbusters Gifts

We've already purchased Christmas gifts for our daughters, but I saw this the other day and I think my 5 year old would love it!  She loves watching Mythbusters!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Allen Wrench

You probably never realized this, but there's quite a bit of physics behind the Allen wrench.  The Allen wrench is fresh on my mind because it came up in physics class the other week and I just bought some furniture for my kids' rooms that required extensive use of an Allen wrench.

Allen wrench provided by IKEA.

The Allen wrench shown above, included in my IKEA furniture boxes, is a bit different than a typical Allen wrench.  Typically an Allen wrench looks like the following.

Notice that there is a short end and a long end.  Either end can be stuck into the screw, but one end is more beneficial than the other.  Why?  Well, it takes some amount of torque to screw in a screw.  Torque = Force * Length of lever.  So to apply torque to the screw, you must apply some force to the Allen wrench.  If you stick the short end in the screw and push on the long end, the length of your lever is longer and it doesn't take as much force to turn the screw.  Put the long end in the screw and push on the short end and you'll find it a much harder task.  

You probably already realize that the long end is easier to push from your own life experiences, but there's the physics behind it.  So the next time you're using an Allen wrench, take time to explain to your kids how one works.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Junie B. Jones Books

My 5 year old is very much into the Junie B. Jones books.  Normally I'm not bothered by her reading choices, but the Junie B. Jones books bug me.  There's nothing wrong with the content message the books send to kids.  My problem has to do with grammar.  The book is written from the point of view of a kinder-gardener, and because of this, the grammar is intentionally incorrect.  You can immediately see this in the picture I took of a random page in the book.

I marked a few grammar errors on this single page in a Junie B. Jones book.  

I have 2 problems with this intentionally incorrect grammar.

1.  It's very difficult for me to read with good flow.  My eyes cross words that shouldn't be there or shouldn't be in that form and I have to stop myself and think through the proper grammar.  Granted, this is a split second thought process, but it interrupts the flow of the story when I read it out loud to my daughter.

2.  Should we really introduce incorrect grammar to children who are just learning to read?  Is this reinforcing the incorrect grammar?  Will kids who read this or have it read to them think that the incorrect grammar is really correct?

I still read these books to my daughter, but when I read it out loud, I correct the grammar.  

P.S.  I note that my grammar is not the best, but I never intentionally introduce incorrect grammar in my blog.   If you spot incorrect grammar, I assure you that it's a mistake (or ignorance!) on my part.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Powerball Odds

As my daughters get older, I hope to impart upon them a bit of wisdom regarding simple statistics.  If you live in the United States you are probably well aware that the largest Powerball lottery drawing in history took place last night.

Before the drawing, the lottery reached almost $580 million.  This morning I was checking out various news sources to see if anybody had won.  It turns out there were 2 winning lottery tickets sold.  The odds of winning the biggest prize are 1 in 175 million, so not very good.  Your odds of getting struck by lightning are better than this.  The same article goes on to state, however, that your odds of winning something in the Powerball lottery are "pretty good".  I put "pretty good" in quotes, because those are the exact words the article used.  So the question is, what is "pretty good"?  The odds of winning anything in the Powerball lottery are 1 in 32.  Pretty good?  Hardly.  Granted, 1 in 32 is much better than 1 in 175 million, but let's not kid ourselves.  A 1 in 32 chance is not "pretty good".  Switching over to percentages, a 1 in 32 chance means you have a 3.1% chance of winning something.  

Let me put this in a different perspective.  Let's say you go to the doctor and the doctor tells you that you have a potentially deadly disease (i.e. cancer).  Let's also say the doctor goes on to tell you that you have a 3.1% chance of surviving this disease.  Are you going to be happy with that chance?  I doubt it.  A very optimistic person will say that there's a chance they can survive which is better than no chance, but the average person is going to look at that and realize they are likely to die.  If I'm in that position, I'm going to remain hopeful, but at the same time I'll be getting my affairs in order to make sure my family is prepared in the statistical likelihood that I won't make it. 

To conclude, odds of 1 in 32 are NOT "pretty good".

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Asteroid Belt Misconception

According to science fiction movies (i.e Star Wars) one should never enter an asteroid belt.  Doing so is certain death, unless of course you are the hero of the movie and you miraculous escape by traveling through an asteroid belt.  Movies with these scenes show the hero zig zagging the ship back and forth barely missing asteroid after asteroid.

Unfortunately this is a huge misconception regarding asteroids.  First of all, what is the asteroid belt?  The asteroid belt is one location of asteroids in our Solar System.  Notice I said "one location".  There are other locations of asteroids in the Solar System, most notably in Jupiter's orbit.  The asteroid belt itself is a region of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter that orbit the Sun.  If you look at pictures in textbooks you'll see something like the following.

The Asteroid Belt is marked by the red arrow.

Looking at the picture, it seems as if the entire region between Mars and Jupiter is filled with asteroids.  In fact, the opposite is true.  The distance between two asteroids in the asteroid belt is on average a few million miles.  That's a huge distance!  In fact, you can randomly travel through the asteroid belt for years and your chances of hitting an asteroid are slim to none!

The problem with textbook pictures like this is that the size of a single pixel in the image is many times bigger than the actual asteroid scaled.  If you were to scale the asteroid down to the scale of this image, even the largest asteroid would be invisible!  But invisible pixels don't illustrate the location of asteroids very well, so "tiny" dots are placed on the image.  

To conclude, the asteroid belt, although containing more asteroids than other regions of the Solar System, is still extremely empty.  So have no fear the next time you find yourself traveling to Jupiter!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My Daughter's Doughnut Shop Business

The other day we were all in the car on the way home from Grandma's house when my 5 year old daughter starts talking about the doughnut shop she's apparently going to run when she's older.  Nothing wrong with that, but it appears she needs a few lessons in mathematics and economics.


She started out by telling us that she was going to sell 5 doughnuts for $3.  Not a bad deal!  That's 60 cents a doughnut, a better deal than most bakeries!  Then she proceeded to tell us that she was selling 6 doughnuts for $7.  Uh?  Excuse me?  5 doughnuts for $3, but 6 doughnuts for $7?  That's not a very good deal!  That 6th doughnut cost $4 by itself!!!  Then she finished up by saying that she was selling 7 doughnuts for $10.  So the 7th doughnut was $3.  Considering that the 6th doughnut was $4, getting the 7th for only $3 is a steal!!!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Next Lunar Eclipse

The other week I posted about a total solar eclipse taking place near Australia.  Today I was thinking to myself, "I wonder when the next lunar eclipse observable in the United States is?"  It turns out that the next one is soon, but there's a catch to it.  The next lunar eclipse observable in the United States takes place on November 28, 2012.  Unfortunately this is not a total eclipse.  It's a penumbral eclipse, meaning that Earth's full shadow is not cast onto the Moon.

To better understand what I mean by this, go into a lit room and hold your hand a foot or so above the table.   You should see darker shadows and lighter shadows from your hand cast onto the table.  A penumbral eclipse occurs when the lighter shadow from the Earth strikes the Moon.  Unless you are paying very close attention to the Moon, you probably will not notice any changes.

A lunar eclipse occurs when Earth casts a shadow onto the Moon.

Since this doesn't sound like a very exciting lunar eclipse, when is the next full eclipse?  There's another penumbral eclipse on May 25, 2013 visible in the U.S and another penumbral eclipse on October 18, 2013.  But those won't be very exciting either.  The next full eclipse visible in the U.S. takes place on April 15, 2014.  Total lunar eclipses visible at your location are much more common that total solar eclipses, but it can still be a couple of years between events.

I don't discourage you from taking your kids out to observe the penumbral eclipses.  It's quite possible you'll see something to share with them.  But definitely make plans for the April 15, 2014 eclipse!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Does Toast Always Fall Butter Side Down?

Everyone, and especially those with kids, has probably pondered the following question:  Does toast always fall butter side down?  We've all likely experienced this at some point in our life, and if you have kids, it's quite possible that you experience this every day.  It doesn't have to be buttered toast.  It could be a slice of pizza falling cheese side down, a container of yogurt falling open side down, or even a plate of spaghetti falling spaghetti side down.  It never seems to fail that the wrong side of the "whatever" hits the ground first.

I had my own ideas involving center of mass and rotation and it turns out I was correct, but I did some web research to verify my hypothesis.  It all depends on how the toast drops.  If you're holding the toast horizontal in both hands with the butter side up and release both hands at the same time, the toast will fall butter side up, thus making it still edible (3 second rule...which is not true, but fun to use anyway!).   Toast, however, usually isn't dropped in this way.

Most of the time a piece of toast is dropped one one edge. Think about a piece of toast slipping off the counter/table top.  When the first half of the toast goes over the edge it starts to fall due to the force of gravity.  Since one half of the toast starts to fall before the other, the toast begins to rotate through the air about the toast's center of mass.  Unfortunately for the toast eater, the toast strikes the ground less than 1/2 a second later.  Therefore, the toast doesn't have time to make one complete rotation and land butter side up.  It's still in the first half of its rotation, so it usually lands butter side down.  

One way to avoid your toast landing butter side down is to always face the butter side of the toast downward on your plate.  Thus when it falls off, the butter side is facing up when it hits the ground!  :-)

In the end, you're not full of bad luck.  There's a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation as to why toast always seems to land butter side down.  

Friday, November 23, 2012

Toothpick Bridges

A great activity that you can do with kids of all ages is the toothpick bridge building and breaking.  This is a required project in my high school physics classes, but it's something that you can do with kids of any age.  For a summer camp a couple of years ago I had 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades build toothpick bridges.  If you have younger children you can replace the toothpicks with popsicle sticks.  The goal is to build a bridge that is strong, sturdy, and can hold a great amount of weight.  My high school students have the following restrictions:

1.  You may only use toothpicks and glue (wood glue is fine).

2.  The bridge must span a gap of at least 25 cm.

3.  The bridge must have a mass of no more than 50 grams (in other words, an unlimited number of toothpicks is not allowed).

After the bridges were constructed, students brought them to lab and we tested how much weight each bridge could hold.  A 5 gallon bucket was place on the bridge and the bucket was slowly filled with water until the bridge broke.  Below are a few designs students came up with in my class.

The last picture shows the bucket being supported by the bridge.  This year I was very impressed with my students' bridges.  Last year the best bridge held 40 - 45 pounds of water.  This year one bridge held 50 pounds which was fantastic, but it was outdone by another bridge that held 73 pounds, which is doubly fantastic!!!  I had a great video of the 73 pound bridge break, but unfortunately the file size is much to large to upload here.  You'll just have to use your imagination.  

The bridge break is a great activity that gets students to think outside the box.  It can be done with any age group.  You can stick with the restrictions I used, or make up your own.  The younger the student, the more help they will need, but this is a great way for you to bond with your child.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Frustrating Physics of Christmas Lights

This past weekend I put up the Christmas lights on the outside of my  house.  My girls love seeing the lights on at night and wouldn't let me get by without making sure they were put up.  It might seem a bit early, but I'd rather be on the roof putting up Christmas lights in 50+ degree weather versus 15 degree weather!  The first step in putting up Christmas lights is to test the strings before heading up on the roof.  It takes 6 strings of lights to finish my roof.  I tested all 6 strings from last year and only 5 worked.  A couple didn't light at all, and the others were half lit.  See below.

As you can see exactly one half of the string is lit and the other isn't.  This is the problem with most strings of Christmas lights.  They are constructed on a single (or in this case two) series circuit.  This means that every bulb is attached to the same circuit, and if any bulb goes bad, the entire circuit goes out.  Since I didn't want to deal with these strings I went to the store and bought new ones.  An hour later, the lights were on the house.  

Later in the evening I decided that it would be silly to throw away the bad strings without first seeing if I could fix them.  There are really only two ways to fix these strings.  The first, and easiest method is to check the fuses.  Each string has two fuses, so I replaced the fuses with fuses that I know work.  Unfortunately, this fixed none of the stands, meaning the fuses were all good.  

The second method is to individually test each bulb.  So I took each potential bad bulb and place it in the working strand to see if the working strand still worked.  In 2 of the 5 "broken" stands, I found a bad bulb, replaced it, and the stands worked.  The the other 3 strands, the bulbs all worked, meaning that something else is wrong with the circuit.  Two of these strands are 50% operational, so I can still use them by bunching up the "broken" side.  The 0% operational strand is now serving as a bulb replacement strand.  Since the bulbs work, I can use them to replace bad bulbs in the future.  

I'm glad the lights are up on the house, but checking each bulb was a frustratingly tedious process.  Sometimes physics is annoying!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hand and Foot Painting

If you're looking for an indoor activity to keep you and your kids busy, try hand and/or foot painting.  I credit my wife with this activity since she thought of it and started the activity with our daughters.  Hand painting is a great way for kids to be creative.  Just be careful that their paint coated hands stay away from furniture and other things you wish paint to stay away from.  Here was our kitchen 30 minute later.  Still pretty clean if you ask me!

Hand/foot painting is also a great way to add to a memory or scrap book.  Again, kudos to my wife for thinking of this.  We each made a hand print in a memory/scrap book.  When the kids are much older we'll be able to look back in this book and reminisce about their craziness when they were younger.  :-)

Monday, November 19, 2012

What Direction Does the Sun Rise and Set?

As children, we are all taught that the Sun rising in the East and sets in the West.  Although this is partly true, it's also a misconception.  It's true the the Sun rises SOMEWHERE in the East and sets SOMEWHERE in the West.  Where exactly in the east the Sun rises and in the west the Sun sets depends on the day of the year.  Assuming you are not living above the Arctic Circle or below the Antarctic Circle, there are only two days a year that the Sun rises directly East and sets directly West.  These are the first day of Spring, around March 20/21 and the first day of Fall, around September 20/21.  On every other day of the year, the Sun does NOT rise directly East, and it does NOT set directly West.

Why not?  This is due to Earth's 23.5 degree axis tilt and Earth's revolution about the Sun.  As Earth revolves around the Sun, the position of the Sun at rise and set time changes.  As the days proceed from the first day of Spring to the first day of Summer, the Sun's rise position slowly shifts to the North East.  Note the diagram (for someone standing in Earth's northern hemisphere) below showing Sun rise and set positions at different times of the year.

After June 20/21 (first day of summer) until December 20/21 (first day of winter) the Sun's rise position changes from northeast to east to southeast.  Then the position reverses back from southeast to north east as we go from winter to summer.  The same is true in the West when the Sun sets.

This is a hard misconception to remove from the brains of high school students.  Everyone thinks that the Sun rises in the East, but the key is that it rises SOMEWHERE in the East.  Take a look at the rise position of the Sun at different times of the year.  You've all done this before without realizing it.  Every Spring and Fall we complain about the Sun being in our eyes when we drive to work and/or home from work.  How many of you have been driving to work in the morning near the first day of Spring or Fall and come to a stop at a stoplight but can't see when the light changes because the Sun is right there, blasting into your eyes?  Happens to me every equinox.  But a couple of week's later it's not a problem because the rise position of the Sun has changed.  Show this to your kids sometime, but be careful and explain to them that they shouldn't stare directly at the Sun.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mr. Potato Head Time!

My two year old has become very interested in her and her big sister's Mr. Potato Head collection.  She doesn't call it Mr. Potato Head though.  She calls it playing with the potato!  So yesterday she's playing with "the potato" and finishes making a "potato".  It's at this point that my vision of her growing up to be a doctor, teacher, dentist, brain surgeon, etc., was destroyed?  Why is that, you ask?  See the picture below of her "potato".

Nope, she's going to grow up to be a horror show director/producer, writer, designer, etc.!!!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Awesome Soap Pattern

Many of the small science experiments I've done with my daughters have involved density differences.  These include the Floating EggLava in a CupFireworks in a Jar, and the Homemade Lava Lamp experiment.  The other day we noticed, without officially doing an experiment, another example of density differences in the kitchen.  We recently filled the hand held soap dispenser next to the kitchen sink, but we filled it with a different type of soap.  A few days after filling the dispenser, we noticed the following.

The leftover soap at the bottom slowly, and by slowly I mean over several days, began to rise in snaky paths toward the top.  It's been about a week since I took this picture, and the snaky paths have continued to rise and are now about halfway to the top of the dispenser.  Very cool to look at!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tribute to Elementary School Teachers

I want to take a moment to thank all elementary school teachers that work tirelessly every day to teach our future doctors, dentists, lawyers, architects, scientists, teachers, etc.  As a physics and astronomy teacher of junior and senior high school students I often get asked how I do it?  Teaching isn't for everyone and I'm not sure how I do it.  I just do.  It seems natural to me and I love it!  But I have the same question for elementary school teachers.  How do you do it day in and day out?

Every semester, at least once, I teach a Saturday youth program that centers around astronomy and physics.  This past month I taught a program two Saturdays in a row that focused on spaceflight and rocket building.  The age group was 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders.  The first Saturday I had a smaller group of 8 students.  The second Saturday I had a much larger group of 20, 18 of which were boys!  It was 3 hours of craziness!  Trying to keep 20 students (18 boys) on task was a challenge to say the least.  Most elementary school classrooms have more than 20 students.  My 5 year old daughter has 24 students in her kindergarten class.

To conclude, I enjoy working with younger kids once in a while (as in once or twice a semester), but there's no way I could handle it 5 days a week.  So here's a big shout out to all elementary school teachers in this country.  You're doing a great job, a job that I'm not capable of doing!  Thank you!!!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Leonids Meteor Shower Coming Up

Meteor showers are a great way to introduce kids to astronomy and introduce them to the joys of looking up at the night sky.  A meteor is a tiny piece of debris/dust that travels into Earth's atmosphere.  During this trip it burns up, producing a brief trail of light.  Meteor showers usually occur when Earth passes through an old comet's tail.  Many pieces of debris/dust pass into Earth's atmosphere, producing more meteors than normal.  These can range from 10 - 1000s of meteors seen per hour.  It's very rare to see a meteor shower with more than 100 meteors per hour, but it does happen.

This coming weekend, on the night of November 16, 2012 and the morning of November 17, 2012, are the Leonids.  The Leonids are the result of Earth passing through the tail of comet Tempel Tuttle.  To find the meteors from the Leonids you want to look toward the constellation of Leo.

The Leonids are usually not very impressive, averaging only 10 - 15 meteors per hour, but this is more than a typical night without a shower.  The good thing this weekend is that the Moon will be below the horizon.  Light from the Moon can flood the sky, limiting the number of visible meteors.  The lack of Moon will give a darker sky and a greater opportunity to observe meteors.  

Have fun!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Solar Eclipse on November 13, 2012

To my southern hemisphere friends and readers (if there are any!):  There's a solar eclipse headed your way on November 13, 2012.  For full details, check out NASA's Solar Eclipse page.  A solar eclipse occurs whenever the Moon is positioned directly in front of the Sun.  The Moon blocks light from reaching Earth's surface and casts a shadow on a thin sliver of the Earth.  If you're in the right location at the right time, you might be in the path of totality.  Even if you're nearby the path of totality, you'll still see a partial eclipse.

A solar eclipse in progress.

The path of totality crosses through the northern part of Australia and into the Pacific ocean.  Since it's unlikely that you live on a boat in the right part of the Pacific Ocean, the best bet is to make your way to Northern Australia.  If you're real lucky and live in Northern Australia, don't pass up this rare opportunity.  On average, a total solar eclipse will occur at your location on Earth once every 400 years.  And even then it might be cloudy.  So total solar eclipses really are once in a lifetime opportunities.  Don't pass it up!!!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Toilet Seat Hat

Critical thinking skills are skills that we gain through practice and experience.  In my high school physics and astronomy classes I design activities and tasks that requires the use of critical thinking skills.  At the age of 5, my oldest daughter has quite a bit of experience to gain in this area based on something that happened between her and her 2 year old sister last night.  Our 2 year old is beginning the process of potty training.  She's not very close yet, but if she's anything like her big sister, she'll make the final decision on when she's ready to use the big girl potty.  In the meantime we're working on the process with her.  Just like her big sister she isn't interested in the training potty that sits on the floor.  She wants to use the "big" potty.  The problem with the big potty is that the toilet seat opening is too big for her and she risks falling in.  We pulled out big sister's Elmo/Sesame Street potty ring and use that.

It works pretty when it's used for its intended purpose.  Last night however, the 2 year old decided to use the potty seat for something other than its intended purpose.  She proceeded to put the potty seat over her big sister's head!!!  Big sister was not a fan of this and came running to Mommy and Daddy to tell.  Once we realized what happened, it was one of those "try your best not to laugh out loud moments"!!!  Here are a couple of questions I wanted to ask my oldest.

1.  She's smaller than you, why did you let her put the seat on your head?

2.  You're faster than she is, why did you let her put the seat on your head?

3.  You're stronger than she is, why did you let her put the seat on your head?

4.  Finally, why again did you let her put the seat on your head?

It's moments like these that I wish I could be in the heads of my kids to know exactly what they were thinking!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Science of Daylight Savings

Hopefully everyone reading this turned back their clocks 1 hour this past Sunday morning at 2 AM (except those in Arizona and Hawaii).  If not, you made it to work an hour early.  Congratulations, now you can catch up on all the work you didn't get done last Friday!  :-)  While waiting for the bus with my daughter this past Monday morning, it was a great opportunity to talk to her about daylight savings.  I asked her, "What looks different this morning?"  She noticed immediately that it wasn't so dark outside.  You could see the other houses and trees across the street.  At that point I explained that in November we turn our clocks back 1 hour, and in March we'll turn them ahead one hour.  As a result, in November, it's lighter out in the morning and in the evening it gets darker earlier.

The official dates are the first Sunday in November and the first Sunday in March (2 AM Sunday for both).  Until 2005/2006 the date was earlier in the Fall and later in the Spring.  There are two states that do not follow daylight savings time:  Arizona and Hawaii.  Until 2005, Indiana was part of that group too.  So the big question is this:  Why do we celebrate daylight savings?  

The historical reason is that it saves on energy costs.  A 1970 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that energy costs are cut by 1% by shifting our clocks an hour twice a year.  One percent may not seem like a lot, but it adds up over millions of people.  Recent studies, however, conclude that it is a wash.  Energy may be saved in the winter, but air conditioners run longer in the summer.  Today I'm not sure that there's a strong argument that daylights savings is necessary.  Personally I could care less whether it's continued or discontinued.  But it did offer a good daddy/daughter science moment.