Louisville Science Center, Part 2

December 4, 2009

Note – if you haven’t read Ticktock’s Part 1 to this, head on over there and read it now.

Beyond KidZone on this day, the rest of the first floor was occupied by a traveling exhibit about the Titanic called Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition.  We declined to go in, though, since we felt the little’uns wouldn’t have gotten much out of it, though the 8-year-old Little Skeptic Girl seemed a little disappointed.

But there was so much more to do…  That first floor is just the tip of the iceberg!

See what I did there?  Titanic…?  Iceberg…??  *sigh*  It was funnier in my head.  Where was I? Let’s see…

Louisville divides its museum into three sections, The World Within Us (our bodies), The World Around Us (nature), and The World We Create (technology).

The World Within Us includes exhibits all about the human body.  Probably the most amazing and eerie display is a collection of eight embryos at various stages of development.  They even warn parents that it might be creepy (my word, not theirs) for kids.  Our kids loved it, though.  It’s amazing to think that we all started out as a seemingly random jumble of matter.  Just outside of that display, they continue the story with newborns, and a display where they have simulated how babies see in the first several months of life.  For the first few months, we’re all just strange blurs with different voices speaking gibberish.

One interactive game allowed everyone to try their hand at driving drunk.  We weren’t all that good driving the simulator while sober, so when they started moving objects around and making the steering wheel less responsive, we didn’t have any hope!

The World Around Us teaches us about nature, and our ecosystem.  Lots of different local animals and bugs are on display, some in display cases, others in simulated habitats.  Some are even “underground” in a little cave that kids (or adults!) crawl through to find them.

In the Cave

An interactive demonstration of the water cycle uses small blue balls to represent water, which “rains” down from above the display, either flowing directly to a river, or flowing underground where the kids can pump it out and into the river.  Then, as water flows downstream, kids can control a dam and a floodwall to protect (or annihilate) the downriver city.  After passing the city, the water is conveyed back up overhead to start the cycle again.

Save the City? Or Flood It?

This section also includes an Egyptian mummy, who sadly has seen better days – in the Ohio River flood of 1937, she wound up floating down Main Street!

The World We Create is a celebration of the technology we employ to improve our world. Buildings, bridges, and other structures are exhibited. Kids can even build their own structures out of foam blocks, and then turn on an earthquake motion (or three) to see what types of buildings can withstand what types of earthquake motions.

The science museum stand-by, the catenary arch, is there in soft blocks for families to build together.  I never get tired of building that arch.  It’s just a great example of physics, that these pieces are held together by nothing more than friction and gravity, and completely support themselves.

Building the Catenary Arch

Kids can also use their own strength to power two pistons of an engine, and see if they can make their engine go faster than their opponent.  A Chemistry Kitchen (only certain times) demonstration allows kids to see some more cool science in action.  There’s even a Gemini trainer here for kids to hop into and pretend to be an astronaut.

Little Skeptic Girl in the Gemini Trainer

Like any good science museum, they’ve got an IMAX theater with shows for all different kinds of visitors.

But sometimes, though, with all the cool hands-on or high-tech exhibits, the most fun is finding yourself inside a bubble.

Little Skeptic Boy in a Bubble

There’s a lot more to see and do at the Louisville Science Center; I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface, but you should go check it out if you’re ever in the area! Any Louisville area folks who would like to join the Science Center with a membership should consider doing a dual membership with the Louisville Zoo.

..Rob T.

Louiville Science Center photo from merfam on Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/merfam/174214284/

Cave, Flood, and Catenary Arch pictures are from http://www.hellolouisville.com/Articles/Attraction/100/Louisville_Science_Center_stop_by_for_some_serious_fun.Cfm


November 20, 2009

When I was a kid, we (like virtually every other English-speaking person) called this…

…a dandelion.  But the thing is, we had a different name for this:

This, dear readers, is a fitterfetter (at least in my family).  It sometimes sounds better if you use the Boston accent I had as a kid (and have apparently lost after 17 years in the midwest), and say “FIT-uh-fet-uh”.

I don’t know where it came from, and I’ve never met anyone else outside of my family familiar with the term.  But I’d like to propose that this become its official name.  It’s fun to say (try it: “FIT-uh-fet-uh”), and it differentiates between the two.

Plus, when you watch Cosmos, you can call it Sagan’s Fitterfetter ship, instead of his Dandelion ship.  It just sounds cooler that way.

U.S.S. Fitterfetter

So I have four questions, basically.

  1. Has anyone else heard it called a “fitterfetter”?
  2. Does anyone else have any “family slang” that no one else seems to have heard of?
  3. What does this have to do with Science-Based Parenting?
  4. Do you think “fitterfetter” is somehow related to “fluffernutter“???

OK, now I’m hungry for a fluffernutter…  Where’s my Marshmallow Fluff???

..Rob T.

Dandelion and Fitterfetter pictures are CC-BY-SA-3.0/UpstateNYer at Wikipedia

“U.S.S. Fitterfetter” image captured from Hulu’s broadcast of Cosmos, episode 6, Travellers’ Tales.

Fluffernutter image from http://www.marshmallowfluff.com/pages/fluffernutter.html

National Geographic’s OUR UNIVERSE

November 10, 2009

There were two things in my young life that got me thoroughly engaged and excited about science and astronomy.  One, Carl Sagan, has been recently celebrated and written up all over the blogosphere by others greater than I – all I can manage is to point there way and say, “Yup…  What they said.”

But in thinking back to watching Cosmos, I was reminded of that other source of excitement: Our Universe, published in 1980 by National Geographic.

Our Universe

Our Universe

I hadn’t seen the book in years, but I dug it out of a bookshelf in the basement to refresh my memory.  It’s a large, square book, perfect for a coffee table. And when I was a kid, this book easily contained the greatest drawings and explanations of the universe than I’d even seen before.

Betelgeuse is Big

Betelgeuse is Big

I would flip back and forth between the pages for the different planets, comparing their sizes, masses, number of moons, ring shapes, and more.  I even liked how the mythology got tied in to the planets as they showed drawings of the gods the planets were named after.



I remember the first time I heard that scientists had discovered more moons around Jupiter.  I went back to Our Universe and just thought about that.  Here’s this great book, only out for a couple years, and it’s already wrong!  I thought that was so awesome.

Jupiter's 14 Moons (as of 1980)

Jupiter's 14 Moons (as of 1980)

There’s some really great science in here, too.  A good graphic of how Mars appears to go retrograde; a picture of Saturn floating in an impossibly large glass of water, while Earth and Mercury sit like pebbles at the bottom; a discussion of how light spectra are used to determine the elemental makeup of a star; a description of how that brand spanking new Space Shuttle thingy will work; and plenty, plenty more.

Saturn Floats

Saturn Floats

Our Universe even got speculative at points, suggesting how life might exist on other worlds in our solar system — not suggesting that such life actually existed, but if you postulate that life does exist there, what would it have to be like to survive in that kind of environment.  I loved those pages.  It fired up my imagination.  And that, dear readers, is part of what kept me interested.

Stovebellies and Fishimanders on Titan

Stovebellies and Fishimanders on Titan

The takeaway from this, for me, is how I plan to get my kids excited about science — just put it in front of them.  I wasn’t beat over the head with Cosmos or this book, they were just there for the taking.  Give kids these kinds of wonderful resources, and they’ll eat up it like candy-coated-candy.  Science isn’t about textbooks, balancing chemical equations, free-body diagrams, cell mitosis, gravitational lensing, carbon-dating, or stuff like that.

Science is about imagination!

Science is about wonderment!

Science is about awesomeness!

It’s about letting your kids help you (not just watch you) put together their Galileoscopes and heading outside to look at the craters in the moon or moons around Jupiter.  You don’t have to tell them to count how many they’ll see — they figure that out on their own!

Little Skeptic Girl and Little Skeptic Boy with their Galileoscopes

Little Skeptic Girl and Little Skeptic Boy with their Galileoscopes

Both Cosmos and Our Universe lit the fire for me.  They taught me a lot, but they also made me excited about learning more.  Let’s be sure we’re doing the same with our kids.

Big Dipper Side View

Big Dipper Side View

..Rob T.

I would flip back and forth between the pages for the different planets, comparing their sizes, masses, number of moons, ring shapes, and more.  I even liked how the mythology got tied in to the planets as they showed drawings of the gods the planets were named after.  I remember the first time they announced more moons around Jupiter, and I went back to Our Universe and just thought about that.  Here’s this great book, only out for a couple years, and it’s already wrong!  I thought that was so awesome.

Telegraph: Comic books are good for children’s learning

November 8, 2009
Avengers #1

Avengers #1

OK, time to dig out my old Marvel comics…

An article published Friday in the UK’s Telegraph cites a University of Illinois study that found that, contrary to conventional wisdom (and prior studies), reading comic books is as good for developing minds as reading other kinds of books.

The gist is that, even though some kids might prefer to just look at the pictures (which has always been the criticism), that’s no different than for conventional picture books.  And when the kids do begin to read the words — or have them read to them — they are engaging in the same synthesis of images and pictures that other picture books require.

So there’s no reason to shield your up-and-coming readers from comics, right?


The article didn’t address another concern (because it wasn’t the point of the article) that many parents might have about comic books, and that is their appropriateness for young children.  Little Skeptic Boy has just recently (thanks to a Taco Bell giveaway) become introduced to comic books.  But we check them out before he gets his hands on them.  He’s six, and there’s a limit to the amount of generally-young-teen-intended material that we’d like him exposed to.

I’ll let pictures to the talking…

The Death of Captain America

The Death of Captain America

Robin Dies

Robin Dies

Ultimate Scarlet Witch

Ultimate Scarlet Witch



Some if it has a little more sex and violence than I’d like.  Nice positive body image by Psylocke up there.  She must have some impressive muscles around her midsection that keep her from snapping at the waist due to her ample top-half…


What’s my point?  Well, I’m not saying that six-year-olds like Little Skeptic Boy should read only Sandra Boynton picture books and Archie comics from the 50′s.  What I am saying is that while this new study means parents don’t need to feel guilty when their kids want to read comics – guilty that it’s not as good as “real” reading – we do – like always – need to be aware of the content.

Just like some PG movies are fine for LSB and his sister, other PG movies will not be appropriate for years.  There’s a spectrum.

So let your kids enjoy the comics – but pick them out yourself.  I’m not going to be buying Watchmen for LSB anytime soon…

The Comedian's last moments alive

NOT The Comedian's last moments alive (thanks, simon!)

A great way to get some that are (somewhat) less violent and sexy is to head to a comic book store and look through the cheap racks for old comic books from the 60′s and 70′s.  You can usually skim through them (these are the cheapies – not Action Comics #1), decide the content is OK, and not break the bank.  Admittedly, though, what you lose in violence and skimpy outfits, you gain in sexism (i.e. The Avengers can’t reach The Wasp to come help stop a supervillain because she was shopping at Macy’s).

..Rob T.

Tip o’ Mystic Mjolnir to Derek Colunado for pointing out the Telegraph article.

Brent Spiner goes Antivax

October 29, 2009

A little kerfuffle erupted on Twitter last night when Brent Spiner (“Data” from Star Trek: The Next Generation) tweeted this…

Check out my new follow. Dr. Jay Gordon. He makes a lot of sense.

In the ensuing conversation, he also made these statements:

it’s worth investigating before letting drug cos. bamboozle us.


Have not advised anyone what to do other than to investigate all available info. If you’d rather just go with the status quo, be my guest.


They have a vaccination for Swine flu. Is there one for pig-headedness?

I was going to write about it this morning, as this is a topic that means something to me (and I even tried replying to @BrentSpiner, but look, I’m just this guy, you know?), but I see that Orac has beaten me to it.  So I suggest people head on over there to see what he has to say.


..Rob T.

Boston’s Museum of Science

October 21, 2009

This summer I had my first chance to take my children (8 and 5, at that time) to Boston’s Museum of Science while we were in Massachusetts visiting my mom. I say “first chance”, but that’s not really true. It’s just that Boston’s Children’s Museum is also great, and that tends to have a smaller window of ages where the kids would want to go.

So bright one morning we rode the commuter rail into Boston, and — ok, we had to go see the ducklings first…

2009_07_29__12_04_54 …but that’s another story.

The Museum of Science has obviously changed a lot, but some of my favorites are still there from when I was a kid.

To me (because I’m such a math geek), my favorite room was always Mathematica.  It’s full of great visuals of various math concepts, like using oddly-shaped wires to make oddly-shaped bubbles; a section about projections, where you see the side view, and it’s gibberish and noise, but look through the one properly aligned lens, and everything looks right; a working quincunx, teaching probability; and the best one – a giant Möbius strip with a little train mounted to it – you push the button and the train drives around one side of the strip, then the other.  It’s just a great way to visualize the Möbius strip.

Museum of Science, Boston



But they also have a large permanent exhibit called Science in the Park, which is highly interactive, and lets the kids use as much kinetic energy as they want, while still learning a thing or two.  There are two swings set up, one with a higher bar (and longer rope) than the other.  Kids are encouraged to try them and discover what’s different.  They can have their fastball measured by a radar gun, they can run races timed by computer, ride on uneven see-saws… Physics in action!

For the fossil fans (and who isn’t?), there’s Cliff, a 65-million-year-old fossil triceratops, discovered in the Dakota Badlands in 2004. Cliff is one of only four nearly complete Triceratops on public display anywhere in the world. A few feet, leg, rib, and vertebral bones were made by model makers to complete the skeleton, but for the most part, he’s all there. There’s something doubly-amazing about looking at actual fossils, not castings of fossils that are somewhere else.


Some other, smaller items that bear mentioning were these:

  • The infrared camera that we could play in front of – and for which the staff was smart enough to give us ice cubes. We’d make one hand nice and cold to see the difference (it would be dark green or even blue), then try to “transfer” the color to the other hand without the ice, just by pressing the two hands together
  • An exhibit where one person picks one of 12 (or 16?) speakers out of which to play a sound, and a second person tries to locate the sound. Totally simple, and totally fun.
  • The 1:400,000,000 scale model of the solar system that starts with a sun that’s 11.5 feet in diameter, and extends miles away from the museum – both the planets’ sizes and distances are all properly to scale. Little Pluto is over 9 miles away and only 1/4 inch in diameter!
  • Part of a traveling exhibit on black holes had a very cool hands-on (and let’s face it, hands-on is key to the museum experience, but cool hands-on is sometimes a difficult target to hit) where there were two black holes to find in this particular area of space. And the way they did it was to have this big black table with two strong magnets beneath it. And you would roll large metal spheres down these different parallel tracks (one at a time), and see how the magnets affected the path of the balls. It was a great example of scientific inference, and it was something my 5-year-old could grasp and figure it out. Balls far away from the black holes would fly on through unhindered. Get a little closer, they get nudged off course a bit. Get too close, and their course completely changes, sometimes sending them 90° or more off-course. The only thing that exhibit was missing was a way to change the locations (and quantity?) of the black holes.
  • All the extras you’d expect in a museum like this – 3D films, laser shows, planetarium… Honestly, way too much to take in for one day

But the absolute highlight of the day, for adults and kids alike, has to be the Lightning show in the Theater of Electricity.  The entire room is dominated by the world’s largest air-insulated Van de Graaff generator capable of producing 2.5 million volts.  The generator was built by Robert J. Van de Graaff in 1933 for studying the atom.  Now they use it for their lightning show, three times daily. With some Tesla coils along for good measure, they put on a great show that thrilled us all, and (of course) teaches you something, too.

Van de Graaff Generator - Boston Museum of Science

(I believe the technicians are both saying, “Neener neener! You can’t hurt me in my Faraday Cage!”)

And afterwards, they even power up a small generator and let those with long hair get all strung out on static electricity…


What’s funny, though, is how some things that were so original and amazing and never-seen-anywhere-else when I was a kid have become commonplace thanks to our digital world. Take this for example.


When I was a kid, this wall-sized satellite photo of the Boston area was SO fun to look at. It had buttons for different places in and around Boston to help you find your bearings, but anyone who’s spent time with any online mapping program will not be impressed. It was nostalgic for me, but not much more.

So, basically, since this part of the museum is available to everyone — when do I get my Van de Graaff generator???

Honestly, I could go on for hours. Everyone had a blast, especially at the lightning show. And that just leaves us with one open question…  Why was this guy (a museum favorite when I was a kid) moved outside?

Tyrannosaurus rex, Museum of Science, Boston

I’ll just have to answer that in another article.

Note: Some photographs in this article are protected under various subsets of the Creative Commons License, specifically:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/skasuga/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
http://www.flickr.com/photos/21218849@N03/ / CC BY 2.0
http://www.flickr.com/photos/21218849@N03/ / CC BY 2.0
http://www.flickr.com/photos/21218849@N03/ / CC BY 2.0
http://www.flickr.com/photos/ttyrtle/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
http://www.flickr.com/photos/barthanlon/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

..Rob T.

Coincidence and the Spray Nozzle

September 18, 2009

Over at the Center for Inquiry blog, Joe Nickell has a post today about some stories he read in the free issue of Angels on Earth magazine.  He quickly spots a more normal (vs. paranormal) interpretation of the events.  Here’s one example:

A Salt Lake City woman sees meaning in a telephone call. On the anniversary of her younger sister’s unexpected death, she is comforted to receive news that she has become a grandmother. Her son reports, “A healthy baby boy.”

Comment: Isn’t this merely a happy coincidence? Doesn’t the fact of her sister’s untimely death make clear that both good and bad luck occur and that sometimes they coincide?

And that’s the thing, isn’t it?  Life operates on a bell curve — on variation.  Sometimes the variation lines up just right, and our wonderful brains decide to connect the dots and see a pattern. And the pattern feels real.  I have a friend whose younger brother — his only sibling — was born ten years to the day after he was born.  It’s an interesting coincidence, but really not that exciting in the big picture of six billion people.  I’m sure they’re not the only ones like that.

In 1996, when I was 25 years old, my father passed away from cancer.  We all knew it was coming, but obviously it’s a tough blow no matter what the circumstances. The day before the funeral, my mother, my brother, and I were getting set to head over to get the gravesite ready — plant some flowers, trim the bushes — so that it would look nice for the service the next day.

As we got set to leave, I realized we didn’t have the spray nozzle for watering the flowers and bushes.  For several minutes, I searched frantically for it, and I searched everywhere. I started to get very upset, because it was really bothering me that this stupid little sprayer was going to completely screw up the funeral because the gravesite would be all wilty (yes, I was getting irrational – cut me some slack!).

And then there it was. In front of my face, sitting on a fencepost, 3 feet from me. I swear I had looked there. Several times. I must have, because I looked everywhere, right?

Then my brain connected some dots for me.

  • My dad just died.
  • We’re setting up for his funeral.
  • We’re all sad.
  • I’m getting more upset by the moment.
  • The spray nozzle appeared out of nowhere.

Suddenly, this idea crystallizes in my mind: Dad’s spirit made the spray nozzle appear there for me. I didn’t consciously make this conclusion – it just came to me out of the depths of my brain.

Now, to be fair to my 1996 self, who wasn’t all the way to being a critical thinker yet, it was obviously an emotional week, but really, that’s an awfully big leap.  There have been plenty of other times when I searched for something missing, only to find it later.  I almost never decided that an angel or ghost put it there for me.  I just missed it.  And that’s the more likely story with the nozzle.  No miraculous intervention – I just missed it.

Your brain makes a connection, and it really makes sense to you. The draw is powerful.

People are naturally uncomfortable with the universe being random – that chance things happen.  They want to assign meaning to random and coincidental events, especially significant ones, and the brain will try do that — but the brain isn’t always right, and we have to guard against it.

…Rob T.

  1. A Salt Lake City woman sees meaning in a telephone call. On the anniversary of her younger sister’s unexpected death, she is comforted to receive news that she has become a grandmother. Her son reports, “A healthy baby boy.”Comment: Isn’t this merely a happy coincidence? Doesn’t the fact of her sister’s untimely death make clear that both good and bad luck occur and that sometimes they coincide?

Neil deGrasse Tyson + UFOs + Argument from Ignorance = AWESOME

September 13, 2009

(Apparently I’m just going to post links to videos from now on…)

Someone asks NDT (NdGT?) whether he “believes” in UFOs or not.

This sets him off on a great monologue about Argument from Ignorance and also how human perception is flawed, which makes eyewitness testimony the worst kind of evidence there is.  Watch and enjoy.

I could listen to him talk for hours.  Days, probably.

..Rob T.

Watch a homeopathic remedy be made

September 13, 2009

Crispian Jago has posted on his blog a 7-minute video where he creates a homeopathic remedy for his own urine.  The starting point is some of his own freshly acquired urine (we assume – he discreetly closes the doors while he gets the sample), and the end result is a “30-C” homeopathic remedy, which he promptly drinks.

If you’d like to see it — and it’s very educational for anyone unclear on exactly what homeopathy is — head over to Crispian’s blog at http://crispian-jago.blogspot.com/2009/09/if-homeopathy-works-ill-drink-my-own.html

To save you some time, though, what he does (and what the homeopaths do) is to dilute the solution 1:100 with each “C”, so by the end of the experiment, the urine-to-water ratio would be:

1 : 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,…

…000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s 10^60 – I had to wrap the line to not mess up the style of the blog.)

To give some perspective to that ridiculously large number, there are roughly 10^50 atoms on (and in) the earth.  So if you drank 10^10 (or 10,000,000,000) Earths of water (not just the water on those 10 billion earths, but convert everything – crust, core, everything – to water and drink it all), you would drink ONLY ONE ATOM of urine*

* – I know, we should be doing one MOLECULE, since there’s no such thing as an “atom” of urine, but that’s not the point…  Even just to get one of the atoms that was in the original urine, you’d need to drink 10-billions earthfulls of water.

Put another way (if all my math is right)…  You’d need a giant ball, roughly 17,000,000 miles in diameter, full of water, for there to be one atom from the original urine.

A 30-C toast to Phil Plait and Skepticality‘s Derek Colanduno for the tip.

..Rob T.

I’m not a skeptical celebrity, how can I be involved?

September 11, 2009

Just posted over at Rational Moms…  I’m not a skeptical celebrity, how can I be involved?

My wife, Laurie T., breaks down six easy ways that regular people can get involved in the skeptical community.

I won’t steal her article’s thunder (i.e. go read it!), but the six main points are these:

  • Attend a local skeptics group
  • Start a new local skeptics group
  • Donate to a national skeptical organization
  • Attend a convention
  • Get to know the skeptic superstars
  • Teach skepticism

These are things that just about anyone can do.

So head on over to Laurie’s article, and see how you can get involved!

..Rob T.


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