Monday, March 31, 2014

Building a Simple Race Track

You and/or your kids bored?  Looking for a fun activity that can be done both inside and outside the house?  Build a race track with a ramp using Hot Wheels cars.

Below is a picture of a simple race car track my 3 year old had a blast playing with at a local family fun event.

The cool thing about a race car ramp/track is that you can through some simple physics into it and experiment with different ramp heights, angles, and loop sizes.  For example, the first loop that was set up didn't work very well.  The cars weren't making it around the loop.  The curvature of the loop was too tight and the car was getting stuck.  A simple adjustment and we had an awesome loop that worked!  You can also test various cars to see which have more friction in the wheels.  Got a car that doesn't make it to the loop, but others do?  Friction is the culprit!  

My 3 year old had a blast with this activity and didn't want to leave!  

Friday, March 28, 2014

This Blog's History: Dirty Money

I first posted on this just a couple of weeks ago, but it's worthwhile pointing it out again.  Always, ALWAYS wash your hands after handling money.  The germs (including fecal matter) that are found on nearly every monetary bill in circulation in the U.S. amazes me!

Washing Your Hands After Handling Money

Take my advice.  Wash your hands!!!  Don't lick money!!!  :-)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Electrostatics in Action

Do you have a balloon?  Do you have a blanket?  No blanket?  Do you have hair on your head?  If so, you have everything you need for a cool science experiment to do with your kids.  Recently my two daughters each brought home a balloon from a birthday party they attended.  The next morning my oldest was able to stick the balloon to the wall and was very curious by this.  She started asking questions and it turned into a great opportunity to explain the basics of electricity to them.  We started by rubbing a balloon on one of their heads and sticking the balloon to the wall.

Why does the balloon stick to the wall?  Well, the balloon picks up free electrons stripped from your hair (a blanket can work too).  The electrons create a net negative charge on the balloon that attracts to positive charges on the wall.  The electrostatic force holding the balloon to the wall is greater than the downward gravitational force and the balloon sticks.  Slowly, electrons will leak from the balloon and there won't be enough to hold the balloon to the wall and it will fall to the floor.

We also messed around by holding the balloon above my daughters' hair and watching strands of hair reach up toward the balloon.  It led to a lot of laughs and much giggling!  A great way to start a weekend morning!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

April 2014 Lunar Eclipse

Never seen a lunar eclipse in person?  How about your kids?  If not, there's a great opportunity coming up in a couple of weeks.  On the morning of April 15, 2014, there is a total lunar eclipse observable to the entire United States (as well as Canada and Mexico and the western third of South America).

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth is positioned directly between the Sun and the Moon, casting a shadow on the Moon's surface.  Remember, eclipses are the only time when the Earth or Moon cast shadows on the other.  Regular lunar phases are NOT the result of shadows.

The April 15 eclipse begins at about 2 AM EDT.  This is when the Earth's shadow just starts to creep across the surface of the Moon.  Totality begins at about 3 AM EDT and ends at about 4:30 AM EDT.  The Earth's shadow  moves off the Moon at approximately 5:30 AM EDT.

April 15 is a Tuesday, which is unfortunately a school night for my kids.  However, I'm seriously considering waking them up and showing them the eclipse for a few minutes.  It's a great opportunity for them to experience astronomy in action and lunar eclipses are not something you see every day.  I think that by talking up the eclipse a few days before, they'll both be excited.  Although it's a school night, they'll only be up for a few minutes, and it's a parent/children moment that they'll never forget!

Assuming it's clear, we'll head out a few minutes before totality begins.  That way we can observe the change from partial eclipse to total eclipse.  Crossing my fingers that it will be clear out!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What is Theory?

What is a theory?  Most people are clueless when it comes to the definition of theory.  A theory is not a random guess.  If, before meeting you, I were to say you're a jerk, that's not a theory.  If anything, it's a hypothesis, but even a hypothesis is an educated guess based on prior information.  Since I have no information on you, given that I just met you, my stating that you're a jerk is simply a guess and nothing more.  Again, a theory is NOT a guess.  A scientific theory is:

"A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on knowledge that has been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experimentation."

It's very important to teach your kids the difference between a scientific theory and a guess.  Again, don't let your kids grow up science illiterate.  The misconception of a theory usually comes into play on more "controversial" issues such as evolution and big bang theory.  Yes, they are theories, but they are scientific theories.  Neither is a guess.  Evolution and big bang are theories developed and based on an unbelievably large amount of scientific data/evidence.  

Claiming that creationism is just as valid as evolution and big bang because they are all theories, is just plain false.  Creationism is not a scientific theory.  It's not based on evidence (unless you want to include the Bible as evidence, at which point we have a completely different topic to discuss!).  Evolution and Big Bang Theory are.  

Here's something else to chew on.  If Evolution and Big Bang Theory are just theories and shouldn't be trusted, what's that say about the Theory of Gravity?  Do we no longer trust/believe in gravity?  

This post isn't intended to argue evolution vs. creationism.  That debate was settled by science long ago.  The point of this post is to look at the misconception that most people have with a scientific theory.  A scientific theory is NOT a guess.  It's based on data/evidence that has been analyzed in many different ways.  Teach your kids science literacy by teaching them the correct definition of "theory".

Monday, March 24, 2014

Are GMOs Harmful?

Over the last couple of years you've likely heard a lot about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Most of what you've heard has probably centered around GMO foods being harmful to your body.  There's been a push by some lawmakers (usually democrats) in some states to require manufacturer's to label all foods that use GMOs.  Other manufacturer's advertise that their foods are non-GMOs.  So here's the real question.  Are GMOs harmful to your health?

This is where we need to look into the science.  Recent news gives the impression that GMOs are new, but this is not true.  Humans have been producing GMOs for thousands of years.  In addition, there are no studies with clear results suggesting eating GMO foods is harmful to your body.  Again, there is no evidence that eating GMO foods is bad.

Are there possible ill effects from GMOs?  Yes...if farmers continue the same strain of GMO crops year after year, these crops may produce insects or diseases that are resistance to current herbicides and pesticides.  This could result on crop/food shortages across the globe, but this is a completely different issue from the health of GMO foods.

So we hear a lot about GMOs, but in terms of their effect on people's health, there are no studies that support any sort of negative link.

Friday, March 21, 2014

This Blog's History: The Blown Out Egg

This Friday in This Blog's History I bring to you the Blown Out Egg experiment.  It's a fun little activity to do with your kids to show them how to get the yolk out of an egg without cracking the shell!  Cool!

The Blown Out Egg

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Cosmos - The Asteroid Belt

If you haven't already, get out and watch Cosmos, starring Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Watch it with your kids!!!  An absolutely amazing documentary on science/astronomy.  Thus far 2 of the 13 episodes have aired.

There's one science item I must point out as "wrong" in the first episode.  As Tyson's ship travels outward in the Solar System, it passes through the asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter.  The animation gives the false impression that asteroids are very close to each other in space.  In fact, asteroids are millions of miles apart from each other.

I understand the producers were trying to show that there are more asteroids in this region than others in space, but it's simply too hard to illustrate this without giving a false impression of closeness.

I'm certainly not holding this against the show.  Cosmos is simply amazing, so watch it!  I'm just being nit-picky...because I can!  Having a Ph.D. in astrophysics gives me that freedom!  LOL!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

1 in 4 Americans Think Sun Moves Around Earth

Sometimes it amazes me how science illiterate Americans have become.  A survey of 2,200 people in the U.S. showed that 25% of respondents thought that the Sun moves around the Earth, as opposed to the heliocentric, and correct, explanation of the Earth moving around the Sun.  Seriously?  Seriously????  I know you can never get 100% of people to know the science, but something as basic as the Earth moving around the Sun should receive a higher than 75% correct rate.  Sigh.  I know I shouldn't be surprised.  After all, there's a Flat Earth Society that still believes in a flat Earth.

Don't let your kids be science illiterate.  Provide them with science learning opportunities.  Talk to them about their science classes.  Find science experiments to do as a family.  Expose them to science and your kids will grow up with a high level of science literacy.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Cosmos With Neil deGrasse Tyson

If you haven't yet, you MUST watch Cosmos, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.  It's a 13 episode science/astronomy documentary on Fox.  The second episode aired this last Sunday, 3/16.


I'm not sure how often it will re-broadcast on Fox, but I heard it's showing on the National Geographic Channel.  It's also on Hulu Plus if you are a subscriber, which is how I watch it.

The original Cosmos series aired in 1980, hosted by the legendary Carl Sagan.  Carl Sagan greatly contributed to the exploration of space by working with many missions/studies in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s.  He passed away in 1996.  What made Sagan great, however, was his ability to deliver detailed information to the general public (non-scientists), in a very clear and exciting way.   I've never watched the original Cosmos series, but have read several of Sagan's books.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is from the same mold as Sagan.  He does an absolutely amazing job delivering information in an exciting, clearly understandable way.  As host of the new Cosmos series, he has done an excellent job!  I've only watched the first episode at this point, but I was absolutely mesmerized!  I watched it with both of my daughters.  My 7 year old was amazed.  My 3 year old didn't want to watch it, but as soon as it turned on, she was quiet and focused on the TV.  She was mesmerized too!

I highly recommend you watch Cosmos and definitely watch it with your kids!  It's a great family learning experience.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Escape Plan - Bad Science

I recently watched the movie Escape Plan, starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  A lot of violence, so definitely not a kid movie.  In the movie, the character played by Stallone is trying to figure out his location.  He uses a sextant to determine his location.  A few scenes later they figure out their latitude on Earth, but not whether they are in the northern hemisphere or southern hemisphere.  Stallone says that since the toilet flushes in a certain direction, they must be in the northern hemisphere.!  Dead wrong!

There's a big misconception that toilets flush in one direction in the northern hemisphere and a different direction in the southern hemisphere.  The misconception describes the Coriolis Effect as the cause.  The Coriolis Effect is a real thing and determines which direction storm systems rotate, but it doesn't work on small scales...such as a toilet.  Toilets flush in a certain direction based on toilet design.  In other words, toilets can flush counter clockwise AND clockwise in the northern hemisphere.  The same is true for the southern hemisphere.

Escape Plan was a decent movie if you're looking for some hard core action with no romance, but in terms of science, nope.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

This Blog's History: Take Your Kids Geocaching

This Friday in This Blog's History I remind you of the fun kid-friendly activity of geocaching.  Spring is almost here and with spring comes great geocaching weather!  Both of my daughters are excited for me to take them geocaching again.  How can I resist?

Geocaching With Your Kids

Thursday, March 13, 2014

More Science Experiments Developed By My 6 Year Old

My 6 year old continues to amaze me with new science experiments she develops on her own.  Just the other weekend morning she comes into bed with my wife and I, shows us a big smile and says "I have two science experiments to do!"  Naturally we ask what they are and this is what she has to say.

1.  Mix orange juice and water and see what happens.
2.  Mix orange juice and chocolate milk and see what happens.

Granted, these aren't the most interesting science experiments in the world, but they are ones she developed herself.  We didn't do the science experiments on that day due to other things we had going on, but they are on the list.  Even though it seems silly, she wants to discover what happens, and letting her do that is extremely important in the development of a young scientist.  At one time or another we were all scientists.  There's no need for me to squash the science excitement she has just because I think the experiment is silly.  Sometimes the silliest experiments turn out very cool.  Case in point, here's the link to the snow/milk experiment my daughter developed.  It seemed silly at first, but the results were very cool!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Stuff to Blow Your Mind Podcast

I recently posted a list of a few new science podcasts that I listen to on a regular basis.  The first episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind was absolutely awesome!  The topic was slug sex.  Yes, you read that right, slug sex.  I learned so much about slugs having sex that I never knew about before.  For example, did you know that...

1.  Slugs have both male and female reproductive organs.
2.  The male and female sex organs, as well as the slug anus, are on the slug head!  The slug is linked to the snail in evolutionary history, so the slug must excrete material out its head!
3.  If the slug penis to body ratio held true for humans, the male penis would be as large as an 8 year old's entire arm!
4.  After engaging in sex, a slug will often bite off and eat the other slug's penis.  Sometimes a slug will bite off and eat its own penis!

Knowledge is power!  Who knows, maybe this info will somehow come in handy when I have the sex talk with my daughters.  :-)  Regardless, it was a very interesting podcast and I can't wait for the next one to come out.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Science Podcasts Updates

I've posted previously on my podcast obsession.  I listen to several political and several science podcasts.  I'm constantly tinkering with my podcast list, searching for the very best science podcasts.  I've discovered a few new ones that I really like, given below.  I find podcasts a great way to gain knowledge on science outside my own fields of physics and astronomy.

The Naked Scientists
Inquiring Minds
Science in Action
Science Magazine Podcast
Science Times
Stuff to Blow Your Mind
Stuff You Should Know
The Story Collider
This Week in Science

And the best part is that they are all free!  They're a great way to gain science knowledge and impress your kids, as well as introduce them to science!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Freezing a Banana

The other day I discovered a simple science experiment that I need to show my daughters.  While traveling to visit family, I bought a few snacks from the store and put them in the front seat of the car.  When I arrived at my destination, I left the snacks in the car because I was leaving again the next day.  I didn't want to bring the snacks in the house with no intention of eating them that night and carry them back out to the car the next morning.  So I left everything in the car.  Aside from one item, everything I left in the car was unaffected by the sub-zero temperatures we were experiencing at the time.  The banana I left in the car, however, was very affected!

So what happens to a banana when it freezes?  When it freezes it becomes cold and hard, just like most objects when frozen.  However, when the banana thaws, it doesn't thaw back into a standard banana.  What's left is a big mushy mess!  So much for that banana!

I haven't shown this to my girls yet, but I'm going to set it up as a simple science experiment and ask them to make predictions on a frozen banana.  Then we'll put it in the freezer and wait until the next day and check it out after it thaws.  It doesn't seem like a complicated experiment, and it's not, but it's the discovery of something new that makes this science.  Plus it thaws differently from most objects when they thaw.  Knowing my daughters, they'll find the thawed banana quite interesting.  What will be hard is getting them to try the mushy banana!

Friday, March 7, 2014

This Blog's History: Secret Messages

This Friday in This Blog's History I bring back to you a simple experiment of writing secret messages.  It's the basic lemon juice on paper experiment.  The lemon juice dries nearly invisible, but when the paper is heated the lemon juice markings are brought out.  For full details read the original post here:

Writing Secret Messages

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Making Crayon Shapes

Here's another great activity you can do with your kids to occupy some time on a raining/snowy day.  This one comes from the Cool Science Mom who looked up the procedure and walked our daughters through it. My girls have a ton of crayons, many of which are small and not used anymore.  Instead of tossing them, we melted them down and made crayons shapes out of them.  It's a very simple procedure.  Simply remove all paper from the crayon, break the crayon into very small pieces.  Place the pieces in a mold of some type.  Be creative and mix colors.  Then put the mold in the oven for a few minutes until the crayon melts into a liquid.  Once melted, take the mold out and let it cool.  Use a toothpick to slightly mix the colors into cool swirls.  Now you have shaped crayons that are a cool mix of colors!  Here are my girls' masterpieces.

My daughters included them as a small gift in each of the Valentine Day cards they sent to friends and family.  

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Learning About Friction

A couple of weeks ago I had the "opportunity" to teach my 6 year old about friction through a real world hands on example.  Why is 'opportunity' in quotes?  Well, you're about to find out.  I took my daughter to soccer practice at an indoor facility.  The parking lot is down a steep hill.  I didn't think anything about the steepness of the hill as I descended in the car.  There was a bit of ice and snow on the road, but it didn't appear to be too much.

After soccer practice we headed back outside and discovered that it had snowed very lightly while we were inside.  Given the outside air temperatures, the snow and melted and slightly frozen on road, provided a much lower surface friction between the road and car tires.  I could tell it was slippery when we walked down to the car.  The parking lot has a back exit, but it is also up a hill and curved, so there was no chance getting up that hill in my small sedan.  The only option was to exit out the same driveway I entered in.  The first attempt got me halfway up the hill before my tires started to spin.  I backed up and got a moving start and almost made it up the hill, but just as I was near the top, another car pulled in and I had to hit the brakes.  Big mistake.  Once I tried to move, the tires just spun.  Had to back all the way back down and get another running start.  This time no car appeared, but even with the running start my tires were spinning near the top.  I was seriously afraid we weren't going to make it.  We made it, but just barely!

Now I'll admit that my tires are a bit worn and I really need new ones.  That combined with the steepness of the hill and the perfect air temperatures made it such that we almost had to call my wife to come get us!  The whole time my 6 year old is in the back thinking the whole thing was funny!  Little brat!  LOL!  Here I am all nervous and sweating trying to figure out how to get out of this parking lot and she's in the back smiling and laughing.  Sheesh!  :-)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Wash Your Hands After Handling Money

As parents we should always make sure our kids are washing their hands before eating and using the bathroom.  Good hygiene is a key factor in leading a healthy life.  What we don't always tell our kids is that it's important to wash their hands anytime they handle money.  Several studies show some amazing facts when it comes to money and what's on the money.  Here are a few results from money studies.

1.  A majority of U.S. bills tested positive for cocaine.
2.  94% of U.S. bills tested positive for staphylococcus (including fecal matter).
3.  Many U.S. bills have more germs than a typical U.S. toilet.  
4.  U.S. bills have been shown to transport the live flu virus 17 days after initial contact.  

If you're not willing to lick the toilet, you shouldn't be willing to eat after handling money.  Teach this to your kids and help them develop good hygiene.  

Monday, March 3, 2014

Are Multivitamins Effective?

There have been quite a few articles and discussions in the news over the last few months on the topic of multivitamins.  Are multivitamins effective?  Do they really improve your health?  Are they worth the cost?  These are all important questions that should be addressed.  If consumers are paying for multivitamins, shouldn't they then provide some meaningful result in one's health?  If not, they are nothing more than a placebo.

Several recent studies show that multivitamins are NOT providing the intended effect on one's health.  That's not to say that multivitamins don't provide any benefit.  If you're body is low on something, a vitamin can be useful.  However, multivitamins are not a substitute for poor eating habits.  For the typical person, eating the correct foods is all you need.  Multivitamins aren't necessary.  In fact, if you body is getting the nutrients it needs, the extra provided by multivitamins does nothing.  Your body can't absorb these extra nutrients and they simply pass through your body as waste.  I don't know about you, but I don't need to pay more just to poop something out.  :-)

Here are a couple of resources to dig deeper into the multivitamin research.

Are multivitamins a waste of money? Editorial in medical journal says yes
What Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Can and Can’t Do
Multivitamin researchers say "case is closed" after studies find no health benefits

For myself, I'd rather eat a well-balanced diet and avoid the cost of multivitamins.  Same thing for my kids.  I'd much rather focus on getting them to eat a well-balanced diet than spend money on gummy style multivitamins.

The bottom line is that multivitamins can be helpful, but if you are using them to replace a good diet so you can eat Cheetos and chocolate cake all day long, they're not helping.  :-)