Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Dissolving Styrofoam

We recently received a package in which the contents were packed with dissoluble styrofoam peanuts.  The box stated the styrofoam will dissolve when exposed to water.  We decided to test this claim out.  Here was our starting box.

Please ignore my deck that is in clear need of staining.  :-)  The boxes are clearly full of packing peanuts.  After a few minutes in a light rain the peanuts looked like this.

They haven't fully dissolved since they were only exposed to a light rain for a few minutes, but they have clearly dissolved to some degree.  Cool!  Well, cool until we start thinking about the environmental ramifications of packing peanuts.  Styrofoam is not environmentally friendly.  It fills landfills, takes a very long time to degrade.  Burning or breaking styrofoam can pollute the atmosphere.  

Does the same happen with these dissolving packing peanuts?  Honestly, I don't know.  They'll dissolve in a landfill when exposed to water, but as for any pollutants released in the process, I'm clueless.  I'm going to have to do some research on this one.  It's possible these dissolving packing peanuts are more harmful to the environment than standard packing peanuts that do not dissolve.  Hmm...I see a future post on this...in the future.  :-)

Monday, May 30, 2016

Trip to Disney World

Coming up this summer we're taking the kids to Disney World for the first time.  I went as a kid when I was in elementary school and loved it.  Things have changed quite a bit with dining plans, fast passes, special photo packages, special signing pens, early hours, etc.  I'm excited to go, but my kids are doubly excited to go.

One day while we are out there we are taking a day trip to Cape Canaveral to visit the Kennedy Space Center.  I went there as a kid too and I think I'm even more excited to go as an adult!  Expect at least one post on our visit to the Kennedy Space Center later this summer and possibly several others if we encounter any cool science on our trip.  

Friday, May 27, 2016

This Blog's History: Red Mars Book Review

For This Friday in This Blog's History I point you back to my post reviewing the book Red Mars.  Wow!  An amazing book!  A must read if you are a science fiction fan.  Click the link below for my review.

Red Mars Book Review

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Deep Astronomy YouTube Channel

Looking for a good, science based, YouTube channel?  Then look no further than the Deep Astronomy YouTube channel.

Deep Astronomy YouTube Channel

Deep Astronomy publishes a new video approximately once a week and does an amazing job explaining current events in the science field of astronomy.  You can't go wrong watching these videos.  You will definitely learn something.  I have a Ph.D. in astrophysics and still find myself learning something from these videos.

I encourage you to check out this channel and show it to your kids.  You, and they, will love it!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Exoplanet Numbers Increase Dramatically!

If you haven't heard, NASA has released the verification of 1,284 new exoplanets, adding to the previous total of 1,980 to now give us 3,264 official planets outside of our own Solar System.  Obviously there are many, many more exoplanets in our Galaxy, likely billions, but these are the ones we have officially verified through observations.  Wow!  Over 3,000 exoplanets!!!  Amazing!  For more information on these new planets, you can read the article at the link below.

New Exoplanets

What's even more amazing is how quickly we are discovering these planets.  When I was born, 9 planets were known to exist and all 9 were part of the our own Solar System.  This number remained 9 until the discovery of the very first exoplanet in 1992.  In a short 24 years the numbers have exploded.  Initially the number of known exoplanets increased slowly.  The number of planets in our Solar System dropped to 8 in 2006 when Pluto was officially classified as a dwarf planet.  Then the Kepler telescope launched in 2009 and the number has dramatically increased!

What's even more exciting is several of the new confirmed planets are closer to Earth sized and reside in the habitable zone, a region in space from a star in which liquid water on a planet is possible.  It doesn't mean liquid water exists on the planet, but that it is possible.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Folding Socks

Don't get me wrong.  I love it when my daughters help with basic household chores, including laundry.  They'll help fold the clothes and put them away, usually with assistance from my wife or me.  A few weeks ago we were both busy with other household tasks and asked our daughters to fold and put away the laundry.  They went straight to it and eventually had it complete with no help from us.  The next morning, while getting ready for work, I went to my sock drawer to pull out a pair of socks and noticed that  many socks were missing.  No problem, they just put them in a different drawer that I soon found.  What was interesting, however, is the method by which they folded the socks.

Yes, all socks were folded this way.  LOL!  I'm not sure how you fold your own socks, but my daughters simply stuffed one suck into the end of the other, leaving it as the image above shows.  LOL!  Oh well, can't blame them since they folded the launder with no complaints.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Geeking Out With a Wall Clock

Anyone who's seen my office at work knows I've spent some time geeking it out.  There are several astronomy and Doctor Who posters decorating the walls.  I have a little Doctor Who Tardis hanging from a shelf.  A student designed a Doctor Who Tardis canning jar for me that is sitting on a shelf.  One of my more recent additions is a wall clock, shown below.

My wife got this for me for Valentine's Day this year and I love it!  Do you get the joke?  That's Jupiter on the left, Earth in the middle, and Saturn on the right.  Saturn, which has prominent rings, is watching Earth and Jupiter hula hoop with a 'ring' and says "It' not the same."  LOL!  There is a bit of bad science in this cartoon, however.  Jupiter actually has rings.  They are thin and not nearly as prominent as Saturn's, but they do exist.  Despite this minor bad science, I love this clock!

Friday, May 20, 2016

This Blog's History: Gotham Gets the Math Wrong

I always find it funny when TV shows get basic math wrong.  It's not as if it's hard to double check.  For This Friday in This Blog's History I point you back to my post on the TV show Gotham getting basic fractions wrong.

Gotham Gets the Math Wrong

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Snow Polymer Fun

Messing around with snow polymer is a fun way to pass the time inside on a bad weather day.  If you've played with snow polymer before, I encourage you to purchase a pack and experiment with it.  Here's one of many different snow polymer products you can purchase.

Snow Polymer

A container of snow polymer is filled with small, light weight "beads" or "flakes"  That in itself is not interesting, but when you add water to the polymer, the fun begins!  The beads/flakes begin to expand and do so quickly, reaching sizes that are 10 times or more larger than the original size!  Very cool!

This is the same process by which diapers work.  Diapers are filled with tiny bead-shaped polymers.  When a liquid (urine) is added, the polymers quickly absorb the liquid and grow in size.  The diaper grows in size, but the baby/toddler clothes stay dry!  When my youngest was still wearing diapers we tested this by tearing a diaper apart and testing how much water the polymers held.

How Does a Diaper Work?

If you don't have polymer snow lying around, but do have a diaper, cut it open and experiment.  Do different brand diapers work differently?  Does a diaper absorb all liquids the same or are there differences?  Give your kids some polymer snow and/or a few diapers and let them experiment!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Water in a Glass Experiment

The image below shows a cool trick you can do to impress your family and friends.

How did the water get above the rim of the first class into the second glass sitting on top?  First take an empty glass and pour in water very quickly until it stacks above the rim of the glass.  Very quickly slam a second glass on top to contain the water.  Right?  Right!?!?!  Okay, that's the WRONG way to do this experiment.

To avoid a huge mess, fill a glass of water nearly full.  Fill a second glass of water such that it would fill past the rim of the first glass when poured.  For the second glass, take a note card and place it over the glass.  Tip over the second glass.  If the note card is large enough, no water will spill out.  Carefully place the upside down glass on top of the first glass.  Line up the rim of each glass and slowly pull out the note card, carefully making sure the rims align.  If done properly, no water will spill and there will be enough water to fill above the rim of the first glass up into the second glass.

Very cool!  Give it a try!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Geocaching Fun

I know, I've shared many posts on geocaching, but I have to share again how fun geocaching is for the whole family!  A couple of weeks ago, on the weekend, we had some free time, so the four of us piled in the car and did a couple of hours of geocaching, finding 6 caches in the process.  Here was one of the locations where we found a cache.

Figure it out?  It's a pet cemetery!  Those fire hydrants are grave stones!  This cemetery had several of these, along with more traditional grave stones, but every plot was a pet.  A little creepy, yes, but also kind of cool.  If you've never been geocaching, check out www.geocaching.com and learn more.  It's a blast!  Treasure hunting for kids and adults, minus pirates and constant threat of death.  

Monday, May 16, 2016

Building a Basic Robot

A few months ago, when I was travelling out of town, I picked up a couple of gifts for my kids.  For my nine year old I bought a very simple robotics kit, as shown below.

It's a small robot that when put together, travels along the floor and changes direction when it strikes an object.  When opening the box, here's what the robot looks like prior to construction.

Very cool!  Not complicated, but not too simple such that it wasn't interesting to build.  We were able to get a good look at the motor and how it moves gears to move the robot.  Once put together we turned it on and placed it on the floor and let it do its thing.

You'll notice my kids a couple of times nudging it out of a corner with their feet/hands.  They actually didn't need to do this.  After a moment or two of being stuck, the robot frees itself. 

Is this a *smart* robot?  Not really.  The motor is offset in a sphere, so when the motor is turned on it rotates in the sphere, continually changing the center of mass of the sphere.  This is why the robot changes directions at random and when hitting objects.  So it's not a smart robot, but still fun to play with!

Friday, May 13, 2016

This Blog's History: IncredibleScience YouTube Videos

In case you missed it when I originally posted it, here's the blog link to my discussion on the IncredibleScience YouTube channel.  Great videos from someone passionate about science.

IncredibleScience YouTube Videos

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Zootopia - Movie Review

**Warning:  This post contains a discussion on politics.  Not a deep discussion, but politics are discussed**

A few weeks ago my wife and I took our girls to see Zootopia.  Fantastic movie!  If you haven't seen it or taken your kids, do so.  Disney has made another excellent movie.

The basic premise of the movie is that there are two distinct groups of intelligent beings.  There are the predators and there are the prey.  Kids will love this movie and there's plenty of adult (although not crude) humor.  The movie may seem innocent, but there is a deeper, very important message sent to everyone who watches if one keeps his/her eyes and ears open.  

In the movie there is discrimination by the predators against the prey.  Later in the movie tides turn and there is discrimination by the prey against the predators.  In the end, both groups realize this discrimination takes place and society changes to eliminate discrimination.  Again, an excellent movie that sends the important message that one should not treat others differently for the lone reason that others are different.  This could apply to skin color, economics, religion, ethnicity, etc.  

As the movie ended I looked around and wondered how many of the adults truly saw/listened to the movie and the message it sends.  How many of these adults are turning around and voting for Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, two political presidential candidates who have pushed for many racist and xenophobic policies.  Both have advocated for keeping certain groups of people out of the U.S.  Both have pushed for building a wall along the Mexico border to keep people out.  Earlier in the presidential season there was even a candidate who pushed for building a wall on the border of Canada!  

My political leanings are obviously coming out (I've never tried to hide them and you likely could have guessed prior to this post), but I'd like to see ALL politicians sit down and watch this movie.  Yes, it's a movie and real life is never as simple as a movie, but this movie sends a great message that everyone should hear.  There's no need to treat others differently simply because they look different.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Odds of the Minnesota Twins Going 0-9 to Start the Season

I'm a huge Minnesota Twins fans, so their horrible start to the season was heart-breaking to watch.  They started the season 0-9 (I'm writing this post about a month before posting it, so maybe they lost 10, 11, 12, or more games in a row.  I really hope it stops at 9!!!).  If we assume that both teams in a game have an equal chance of winning, similar to the equal chances of flipping a coin and getting heads or tails, we can determine the odds of a team starting 0-9.

The odds of losing any individual game are 50%.  The odds of losing two games in a row are (50%)*(50%) = 25%.  The odds of losing nine games in a row is 50% times 50% repeated nine times.  This gives odds of 1 in 512.  Wow!  If they lose heir tenth game in a row, the odds become 1 in 1056.  Yikes!  

Before we get too carried away with these numbers, let's me make it clear that the odds of losing a game are NOT 50% as teams have different skill levels based on players, injuries, home/away, day/night, etc.  Really bad teams have a greater than 50% chance of losing a game, and therefore the odds of losing nine in a row wouldn't be nearly as high.  Really good teams have a lesser than 50% of losing a game, and therefore the odds of losing nine in a row would be much higher, although at this point, can one call a team really good if they lose nine in a row?  

The other thing to understand is that, if everything is equal, the odds of any nine game stretch are 1 in 512.  A team could go WLWLLLWWW and the odds are 1 in 512.  A team could go LWLWWLWWW and the odds are also 1 in 512.  Thus the odds of 1 in 512 mean very little in baseball.  In other words, there are 512 nine came W/L combinations.  The odds of every team after nine games having the record (and correct W/L order) they do is 1 in 512.  

What's the point of this post then.  Well, I'm just trying to put some sort of positive spin on the Twins losing their first nine games (and hopefully no more)!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Gotham Gets the Math Wrong

There are many current TV series with a comic book/super hero theme, and I watch most of them.  There's Supergirl, Sleepy Hollow, SHIELD, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, The Green Arrow, etc.  Another of my favorites is Gotham.  While recently watching one of the episodes I noticed a very basic math mistake.  There's a scene in which The Riddler is trying to determine the odds of Detective Gordon finding the Penguin and then the odds of the Penguin telling Detective Gordon the truth.  Here's my paraphrasing of the conversation The Riddler has with himself.

"What are odds Detective Gordon will learn the truth.  Let's say the odds of Gordon finding the Penguin are 80% and the odds of the Penguin telling Gordon the truth are 80%.  That's a 60% chance Gordon will learn the truth.  That's too high for my comfort."

So what's wrong here?  I'll be blunt.  The odds of Gordon learning the truth are NOT 60%.  This is a classic misconception on how statistics work.  If there are two odds, you simply do not subtract the difference from 100% to get the answer.  Think about it this way, the odds of flipping a coin and getting tails is 50%.  What are the odds of flipping a coin twice and getting tails both times?  Not an absolute decrease of 50%.  If that was the case, the odds would be 0% and that is obviously incorrect.  The odds of getting tails twice are 25%.  Let's apply this to the Gotham quote.  

If the odds of each of the two items is 80%, we can find the odds of both items happening by multiplying the percentages.

Correct Odds = (80%)*(80%)
Correct Odds = (0.8)*(0.8)
Correct Odds = 0.64
Correct Odds = 64%

The correct answer is 64%, not 60%.  What's even more wrong with the quote in this episode is that it came from a character who is very smart and stereotyped as the nerd character.  This character would NOT make this simple math mistake.  

Yeah, I'm being picky.  I still love the show, but it sure would be nice if the writers would get the basic math correct!!!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Starting a Fire With a Telescope

Yes, you read the title correctly.  Today I'm going to discuss how you use a telescope to start a fire.  Please, please, please do not do this experiment without supervision and/or don't allow your kids to do this without your supervision.  To start you need a telescope.  I recently took my astronomy class outside during the day to do a bit of solar observing.  We saw a few sunspots on the Sun which was super cool!  Afterwards I spoke a bit about the telescope and then did a simple demonstration showing why the solar filter on the telescope is VERY important.  The solar filter blocks 99+% of the sun's light, allowing one to view sunspots without going blind.

When the filter is removed, however, the telescope mirror collects MUCH more light.  I have an 8 inch diameter telescope where I work and if you hold you hand a few inches away from the eyepiece, the collected light from the Sun will very quickly warm your hand.  If you move your hand closer, it will quickly burn your hand leaving you with the feeling that someone just jabbed a pencil in your hand.  I then took a piece of paper and held it an inch or two from the eyepiece and the concentrated light quickly lit the paper on fire!  Next, I took a second piece of paper and burned a smiley face into it!

Okay, so maybe you have to squint a bit to see the smiley face, but it's there!  We also tested this with the finder scope on the telescope.  The finder scope is simply a smaller telescope.  This one had a diameter of about 1 inch, meaning it collected 64 times less the light of the telescope itself.  We tried burning the paper but with no luck.  You wouldn't want to observe the Sun with the finder scope as it collects enough light to seriously damage your eyes, but it wasn't enough light to burn a piece of paper.  

There you have it.  Solar observing and fires.  I'd call that a successful astronomy class!

Friday, May 6, 2016

This Blog's History: The Water Filter Experiment

In case you missed it, for This Friday in This Blog's History, I point you back to the original post on a science experiment my daughters did at a local science demonstration day in which they made simple water filters to filter dirty water.

The Water Filter Experiment

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Red Mars - Book Review

I'm a big fan of science fiction and am always looking for new books/authors in the genre to read.  I recently came across The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.  The books are titled Red Mars, Blue Mars, and Green Mars.  The first book in the series is Red Mars.  I haven't finished the series yet, but I LOVED Red Mars.  It's considered a hard science fiction book, meaning that it focuses on many of the technical aspects of science fiction.

Without giving the story away, Red Mars begins with a team of people from Earth traveling to Mars to establish a permanent colony.  The book focuses on the travel to Mars and the setting up of the base.  It discusses the construction of the base and exploration of Mars.  What makes it very interesting is the back and forth between the characters.  The author does a wonder job bringing forth the conflicts that arise when people are in small, closed environments for a long period of time.  The book also focuses on the differences in opinion on how to terraform Mars.

On top of all of this the book goes into great detail how personal relationships, both platonic and romantic, affect the working relationship of the whole colony community.  

I'll sum this book up in two words:  Absolutely Fantastic!!!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

TestTube News - YouTube Channel

Although not a dedicated science channel on YouTube, TestTube News is a good channel that produces short, 3 - 5 minute videos, on news items from around the world.  A new video is produced each day and focuses on a single topic.  Recent videos include What are the World's Newest Countries, How Airplanes Changed the Global Economy, and Why is NASA Based in Houston.

A few topic focus on more controversial political topics, but I've found this channel to be relatively unbiased.  They state the facts without stating any emotional opinions.  Check it out as you might learn something interesting.  The video on the newest counties taught me a few things I didn't already know.  

If you're looking for a YouTube channel with short videos that teaches you something new, but are also looking to branch away from pure science topics, than you should definitely check out this channel.  

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Bad Astronomy May Class

Each year I teach a two week May Term class titled "Bad Astronomy" which is based off Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy book and website.  We watch nine movies over the two weeks and I always start with Armageddon which is filled with bad science.  I'm not sure a full 60 seconds goes by at any point in the movie without some bad science.

Each year I try to pick up a couple of new movies to show.  This year's new additions include The Martian, Dune, Europa Report, and Galaxy Quest!  To be clear, The Martian has a lot of good science in it.  The bad science moments are limited, but there are a couple, so it'll be interesting to see if my students spot them.

You can look forward to a blog post on each movie after the two week course ends.  I did this last year and plan on doing it again this year since there are a couple of new movies.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Doodle Dice

Doodle Dice is a cool game for parents and kids that can work to develop critical thinking skills in children.  My 5 year old and I played this the other day when my house was filled with a bunch of 9 year old Girl Scouts.  My older daughter was holding a Girl Scout event at our house.  My 5 year old and I decided we needed a break from the insanity and hid in a bedroom playing board games.  Doodle Dice was one of those games.

The goal of the game is to be the first player to collect one of each of the five colored cards.  To collect a card, you must roll a set of dice that matches the image shown on the card.  Some card colors are easier, others are harder.  The critical thinking comes in when decided which card to go after and which difficulty of card one should go after.  The dice are random, but there is strategy to be used when choosing which cards to go after.  

As we played the game, my 5 year old and I talked about which cards each of us should go after based on the first of three dice rolls per turn.  She won the game fair and square.  I did not let her win!  Trust me, I was trying to win!

We had a great time and I was able to use this as a learning experience without her recognizing it as a learning experience.  To her we were simply having fun and that is when the best learning takes place!