Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Giant frog fossil found in Madagascar

Earlier this year, Brian Handwerk of National Geographic News reported on a “Giant ‘Frog From Hell’ Fossil Found in Madagascar.” According to this report, scientists have been unearthing a giant frog fossil for the last ten years and have finally put the pieces together. When alive, they think that this 70 million year old specimen was over a foot high and weighed ten pounds.

Think about that for a minute. What if this frog were alive today? Imagine the croak from a ten-pound frog! Picture a gigantic frog romping through your flower garden. The scientists studying super frog think that it was aggressive and would pretty much attack anything that came near it. Yikes!

So far, giant “frog from hell” is the only known one of its kind. But that the neat thing about science ... you never know what might be unearthed next!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Down for the count

In case you were wondering ... I'm currently down for the count with strep throat. I hope to be back to posting by Wednesday.

Take care & stay well!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

NOAA Photo Library

I was floating around the Internet yesterday and found a wonderful cache of photographs currently held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These pictures, which are now part of the public domain, can be found at NOAA Photo Library. According to the website, you are allowed to use these pictures, as long as you give credit back to NOAA or their affiliates. (Check About the Images for more information.)

So, what sort of pictures do they have? How about these?

A Coral Reef in the Florida Keys
Photo credit: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

A Snowflake Photograph taken by Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley
Photo credit: NOAA

An Intense Cloud to Ground Lightning Strike
Photo credit: NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day!

(Can you tell that I'm enjoying my new copy of Adobe® Photoshop®?)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Keep your mind open

When I was shopping over the week-end, I did a double-take when I handed the clerk a $5 bill. The new U.S. $5 bills have a large purple number five in one corner, which startled me when I saw it. I thought it looked like play money.

I commented on this to the cashier. "Do you think it could be counterfeit?"

The clerk looked at me in surprise. "No. We've been seeing these for weeks."

That made me wonder. Had I been seeing them for weeks, too? Maybe I'd been using these bills for a while and just hadn't noticed.

How often do we grow complacent with our surroundings? Part of being a scientist includes really seeing the world.

Take a moment today to really examine something in your daily life. It could be the telephone, a dog toy, the house key, your hairbrush. How would you describe the item to someone who'd never encountered it before? Is it soft, prickly, fuzzy, squishy? Does it make noise? Is it colorful or bland? Can you eat or chew it? Does it smell?

Observing your surroundings -- and acknowledging your biases -- is crucial. You can't experiment with your world if you aren't paying attention to it.

One of my favorite quotes sums this up nicely:

"Eyes that look are common. Eyes that see are rare." J. Oswald Sanders

Friday, April 18, 2008

Website of the Week: Cassini Scientist for a Day

I read a cool post this week by Alan Boyle in his Cosmic Log entitled "Hey Kids! Join a Space Mission". It turns out that NASA is currently sponsoring a contest -- Cassini Scientist for a Day -- for kids in the United States in grades 5-12. Thanks for the heads-up, Alan!

On June 10, 2008, the contest winner(s) will get to control where the cameras are pointed for nearly an hour aboard the Cassini spacecraft, which is nearing Saturn. NASA scientists have already chosen the best three images to photograph: Rhea or Enceladus, both icy moons of Saturn, or Saturn's rings. Check out the Targets Overview to watch video clips about each choice.

Contest entrants have to write a convincing essay in 500 words or less about which of the three is best and why this choice will advance science. You can enter alone or in a group of up to four students (from grades 5-6, 7-8, or 9-12), but please note that the entries must be submitted by a teacher. The deadline for entry is noon Pacific time on May 8, 2008. If you have any questions, write to scientistforaday [at] jpl [dot] nasa [dot] gov.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bubbles on the wind

Today, when I was blowing bubbles at the park with my youngest, I started thinking about the wind. My first stream of bubbles floated away to my right. Next, the bubbles drifted to my left. Finally, I had bubbles right where I wanted them, in front of my youngest. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the direction of the wind. I thought about how a meteorologist might describe the breeze: light and variable.

Blowing bubbles is a wonderful way to introduce the concept of wind direction. Draw a simple compass on a piece of paper using arrows to show north, south, east and west. Place this at your feet. Make sure that both you and the compass are pointing north and blow some bubbles. You or your child can keep a running tally of which direction the bubbles are drifting. If they always float toward the north, for example, you know that the wind is coming from the south.

(My thanks to my oldest for patiently blowing bubbles for me to photograph. Snips of my half of our dialogue: "Wait, wait, they're not blowing the right way. Stand over here." "No, let's try over there, that background is all wrong." "Oh, no! Can you do that again? I missed the shot.")

Monday, April 14, 2008

Drought for thought

Photo credit: Jon Sullivan

When I was in graduate school, we spent some time discussing natural disasters and their impacts on humanity. I was surprised to learn that drought was considered to be a significant natural disaster. In the United States, yearly drought-related costs are higher (on average) than flood and hurricane-incurred costs combined. (source: Drought for Kids: Comparison of Droughts, Hurricanes and Floods by the National Drought Mitigation Center of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

What is drought? Simply put, a drought occurs when there is a substantial lack of rainfall in a given area, enough to negatively impact people, plants, and animals.

The definition of drought, however, is unique to a given location. What would be considered a drought in the wetlands of southern Florida, for example, would be considered an abundance of rainfall in the United States’ desert southwest.

There are a couple of factors that make coping with drought challenging. For one, by the time that you realize you are in drought, it’s already begun. Pinpointing when a drought first starts is nearly impossible, although groups like the United States Geological Survey do an admirable job of searching for signs of trouble. (Among other things, the USGS monitors the flow of water in streams and rivers. Low flow signals a possible drought-related problem.)

Once you realize that you are in a drought, no one can say how long it will last. Rainfall models can only tell you so much. For city planners and others who regulate water flow, it can be difficult to decide when and how to moderate water intake. Imposing water restrictions, ironically, can make a drought situation worse if panic ensues and people begin to hoard water. UNL’s National Drought Mitigation Center describes the challenge of managing drought as "The Hydro-Illogical Cycle".

In the United States, the U.S. Drought Monitor keeps track of drought conditions. One place to check on world-wide drought situations is NASA’s Earth Observatory Natural Hazards: Crops & Drought.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Website of the Week: 2008 National Cherry Blossom Festival

This is the last week-end of the 2008 National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC. According to the website:

“The plantings of the cherry blossom trees originated as a gift in 1912 from the people of Japan to the United States as gesture of friendship and goodwill. Since then, the number of trees has expanded to approximately 3,750 trees of 16 varieties on National Park Service land.”

The first time I heard about the cherry blossoms, I wondered what all of the fuss was about. I mean, they’re just trees, right? And trees produce flowers in the spring. So what?

Well, last year I was fortunate enough to visit the Tidal Basin when the trees were in full bloom. They looked magical. I remember thinking that they seemed like fairy trees. It was a truly ethereal experience.

If you are able to visit this year, you might consider submitting your photographs to the 2008 NCBF Photo Contest, sponsored by And if you can’t visit, be sure to check out the Cherry Blossom Web Cam.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The opposite of maybe

Yesterday, as I drove my six-year-old son home from school, he asked me a question.

"What's the opposite of maybe?"

I thought hard for a minute and answered, "I don't think 'maybe' has an opposite. It's kind of half-way between 'yes' and 'no'."

"I think the opposite of maybe is 'maybe not'," he replied.

Maybe my son is smarter than I am ...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Mammalthon 2 is coming April 19!

Over at The Daily Mammal, Jennifer Rae Atkins is gearing up for April 19th when she’ll hold her second “mammalthon,” where she stays up for 24 hours straight drawing pictures of mammals for charity. You can request a mammal on her website for $35 and you get to see your drawing on her page and keep the picture afterward ($50 if you want the picture sent matted and ready to frame). Proceeds from Mammalthon 2 will be donated to The Wildlife Center, a wildlife rehabilitation facility in northern New Mexico.

Funny, the first thing that I thought of when I read about this event was that I would like a picture of a goldfish or a turtle or maybe a bird. But none of those animals are mammals. In short, mammals are like us: warm-blooded, hairy, and milk-producing. Most mammals give birth to live offspring, although Australia’s monotremes (the platypus and echidna) are notable and fascinating exceptions.

Need some help with your mammal request? Check out the San Diego Zoo’s Animal Bytes: Mammals for inspiration.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The center of the pie

One of my favorite authors is Madeleine L’Engle. I was about 10 when I first read A Wrinkle in Time and Meet the Austins. Finding L’Engle’s work was like finding a piece of myself that I didn’t know was missing, a coming home to self. I love the way that she deftly wove art with science, science with Christianity, in her stories. Her characters seem so real to me that, at times, I have had difficulty putting down her books.

Why the fascination? L’Engle’s world is populated with poet/scientists and artist/researchers. I love that her characters stretch across genres. Her work reminds me that I don’t have to give up writing poetry to be a science writer, or forgo my love of art in favor of research. It’s okay to do it all, to be interested in more than one thing at a time.

But school doesn’t tend support this idea, especially in higher education. What’s the first big choice you make in college? Declaring a major. There’s an undercurrent of thought that once you’ve chosen your major, you have to give up on everything else to focus on your goal. How unfortunate is that?

Far too often, I think, we tend to separate ourselves from science as if it were an abstract set of concepts unrelated to our daily lives. Popular culture tends to foster this misperception. How often do we appreciate the work of, say, Leonardo DiVinci* for both his scientific AND artistic contributions? Usually, he is lumped into one group or the other, depending upon the interests of the reviewer. (* Kudos to the Museum of Science for recognizing that DiVinci was all that and more!)

The popular 80’s board game, Trivial Pursuit, always bothered me for the same reason. You would get a slice of “pie” for your game piece if you correctly answered questions in one of six different categories, which included Arts & Literature and Science & Nature. It occurred to me that it would make more sense if we all try to live in the center of the pie, where all of the pieces interconnect.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Website of the Week: KIDZONE

The St. Louis Public Library has put together a wonderful and comprehensive set of links for kids as part of their online science lab, KIDZONE. There are over 100 links on this page, connecting you to everything from the Periodic Table of Comic Books to The yuckiest site on the internet. Let me know which links you like best!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Thanks for Voting!

On behalf of the Mama Joules blog, I'd like to thank those of you who voted in the poll. I've taken out my own vote (hey, I had to vote to get the poll started!) and I'm looking at the results from the ten of you who were kind enough to share your thoughts with me.

In order of priority, here's the breakdown for what you like about the blog:

Science activities & crafts / science education (5 votes each)
Mama Joules' musings / how things work (4 votes each)
Science & the arts (3 votes)
Current science news / book & movie reviews / All of the above (2 votes each)
Website of the week (1 vote)

Now, two things really surprised me about this poll. For one, I've been really focused on finding websites of the week. I guess it's not really that important. I think I'll keep that feature for now, but modify those posts to expand on why I like the website or talk about what's neat about the topic.

Which leads me to point number two: at least four of you out there actually like reading my rambling thoughts on science and life. Cool! Check out yesterday's post and have an ice cream on me. *grin*

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Just for Fun: Ice Cream!

Well, I've been trying to think of a way to tie this into a science lesson and I haven't come up with one yet. But I don't care! I read about these events online and I couldn't wait to share them with you.

Mark your calendars!

April 29, 2008: Free Ice Cream at Ben & Jerry's!

According to numerous internet sources, Tuesday, April 29, 2008 is the 30th annual Free Cone Day at Ben & Jerry’s ice cream stores. Check out their Fun Stuff page for E-cards, online games, paper crafts, and my personal favorite, the Flavor Graveyard.

April 30, 2008: 31 Cent Scoop Night at Baskin-Robbins!

Come to any Baskin-Robbins ice cream store on April 30th from 5-10 pm for 31¢ scoop night. Check out the Baskin-Robbins Store Locator to find the store nearest to you.