Friday, August 29, 2008

Website of the Week: Project Vote Smart

First, let me offer a quick apology to my friends outside of the U.S., since today's post doesn't apply directly to you. But for those of you voting in America's 2008 elections, please check out Project Vote Smart. This non-partisan organization has been around for over eight years, providing U.S. voters with information about their elected officials, including things like biographical data, voting records, endorsements, and interest group ratings. It's a great site to help you narrow down your choices, particularly if you have a specific issue that tends to drive your vote. I, for one, am partial to reviewing a candidate's positions on the environment.

One item I found interesting ... historically, John McCain was a big supporter of Project Vote Smart. I was disappointed to find that he hasn't filled out this election's Political Courage Test ... but, then, Barack Obama hasn't filled it out yet either.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Why ants never get invited to birthday parties ...

Looking at this rather disgusting photograph reminds me of the time we found an ant trail running from my son's window, across the wall, and under his bed. The trail ended at a Tootsie Pop. I carried the offending item to the sink and gently opened the label. I was startled but morbidly fascinated as ants came pouring out. And the Tootsie Pop was half-eaten! I guess everybody likes Tootsie Pops ...

UPDATE (10/24/08): If you are not an ant but you still aren't getting invited to birthday parties, I added a new post just for you: Hugs to the Lonely. :)

Monday, August 25, 2008


BattleBots fans, rejoice! The dueling robot competition show, which last aired on American television in 2002, is due for a comeback. According to this article in Popular Mechanics, this new version of robot wars will focus strictly on the competition between the machines, targeting college students as designers. The televised event will likely air on an ESPN channel in November 2008.

With robot names like Diesector and Nightmare, watching the original BattleBots competitions on the Comedy Central TV series was a hoot. You can check out snips of previous BattleBot competitions on YouTube, like Best of Battlebots or Top 10 Battlebot Moments (the sound quality is poor on this one, but the clips are great -- note the sign-waving fans in the first one!)

Want to build your own competition-ready robot? There are a number of challenges out there just waiting for interested children and young adults! Check out the National Robotics Challenge or the Edventures Robotic Challenge: Grades 3-12 or drop by BEST and Botball® for middle & high school students.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Website of the Week:

Visit ETV's "educational web portal" at You can try out simulations and interactive learning lessons on a number of topics, including science. Check out the Science Activities & Simulations at NASA Online and explore topics like Lightning & Static (my favorite), Lift, and How Sound Travels. Or visit Kids Work! and test drive your new job at the virtual hospital -- a medical lab technician, pharmacist, or a public relations specialist -- as part of Job Play. If that doesn't grab you, drop by The Hobby Shop, where you can look at items like fruit flies under a virtual microscope, run a virtual chemistry experiment, or "throw" water balloons with the catapult (it took me three tries to hit the target!).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mama Joules' (totally biased) Top Five Science Movie List

I promised you a while back that I would come up with a list of my favorite science movies. Let me tell you, it was harder than I expected! There are lots of science *fiction* movies out there – some with very little science – but not too many that are just science based. I tried to make sure that I didn’t just include science fiction on my list. (That said, a few of the movies that I picked are pretty light on science ... but I have my reasons!). See what you think:

1. Star Wars. I was eight years old when the original Star Wars movie came out and it tops my list for two reasons. First, it is one of my favorite movies of all time, regardless of genre. Second, it changed the way I saw the world and my place within it. My favorite scene is where Luke Skywalker is standing on the rocks near his home, watching the two setting suns. As a child, when I saw that scene I literally got chills. It was the first time that a movie transported me out of my universe and into a totally alternate one. Star Wars made me believe that we might not be alone out there. For that, it gets my number one ranking.

2. Apollo 13. Hands down, I think this portrayal of the ill-fated Apollo 13 lunar mission is the best science-based movie out there. The entire movie depicts scientists working together to solve an impossible problem. I love the sense of camaraderie and intense focus as the ground-based crew tries to beat improbable odds to bring the team home. My only nitpick is that the female actors weren’t as strong as their male counterparts. Kudos to Ed Harris for his outstanding portrayal of Gene Kranz.

3. Jurassic Park. Now, I’ve had enough discussions with friends to know that Michael Crichton’s presentation of mathematical concepts doesn’t hold up quite as well as his take on biology. But regardless of the probability of this ever happening, I love the idea of dinosaurs roaming the earth and mingling with people. The whole concept of cloning these extinct monsters and bringing them back to life is just so darn clever … and, as one might imagine, so terribly ill-fated.

4. Back to the Future. Christopher Lloyd's fantastic performance as Doc Brown, the seemingly crazed but truly charming scientist, cements this movie in my top five. I love the scene where he builds a small-scale model of the town and demonstrates to Marty how they can return him home -- only to have the wind-up car simulating the time machine run off the table and set things on fire. Although there is very little actual science presented in this movie, the concept of time travel is a fun one and the special effects and attention to detail make this movie a charmer.

5. Twister. This isn't one of my favorite movies -- I found it a bit too overdrawn and melodramatic -- but it makes my top five science list. As an amateur weather-watcher, I enjoyed watching this movie about tornadoes and the scientists who study them. The portrayal of dedication to one's research -- to the point of breaking up your relationships -- struck a chord with me. And there's always that fun scene with the flying cow!

So ... there's my top five. Which movies did I miss? (Be sure to comment and let me know!)

Note: I haven't seen too many movies in the last ten years (graduate school, kids), so I'm sure I missed a few. I didn't want to include anything I hadn't seen, which is why I didn't include March of the Penguins. And I really wanted to include Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I just couldn't justify the science angle!

Monday, August 18, 2008


Photo credit: Steve Karg,

Why do we dream? This is a fun question to ponder, because no one really knows.

I've heard a number of theories as to why we dream, such as dreams are the mind's way of working out problems or that they are simply part of a random process that allows the brain to rest. Neuroscientist Mark Solms, in Hara Estroff Marano's Psychology Today article Why We Dream postulates a different idea. Solms thinks that dreaming provides a distraction for the brain that allows the body to rest.

I have my own theory. I think that dreaming allows us access to other dreaming people so that we can work together to solve problems. Think about it. How many times do you wake up with a solution to a problem that seems to come from nowhere? Do you ever dream about things that you'd never think about during your waking hours?

Last night, I was scanning an Internet discussion board about a current missing child case. Two women commented that they had had the same dream: the missing little girl was surrounded by women, but ran to them when they knelt down and held out their arms to her. Why were these women independently having the same dream?

I offer these anecdotal (and totally personal and biased) dream experiences for you to ponder:

Recently, I dreamt about a former co-worker that I haven't seen in over 10 years. I doubt I've even thought of him once during that time. Yet, upon waking, I felt as though we had spent time together and reacquainted ourselves.

Another time, I had a falling out with a close friend. We weren't speaking and I found the situation terribly frustrating. I had two dreams around this time where I met my friend in what I can only call dreamspace. Not only were we still friends, we seemed to understand each other's side of the conflict and held no bitter feelings toward each other. Both times, I woke up confused and disoriented. I still wonder if she had the same dream.

And finally, last night I dreamt about another former co-worker, a friend I've simply lost touch with. In my dream, he was having problems with a current co-worker. I woke up listing solutions for his problem in my mind: "Now, what you need to do is get this guy some guidance counseling. You need to build up his self-confidence. It sounds like he's made progress on the job, but you're still so frustrated with him from before that you can't acknowledge it. And why are you still going to bars with him after work? You can't expect ... Wait a minute. What am I doing?"

Why do you think that we dream? Your guess is as good as mine!

Friday, August 15, 2008

I found it myself!

Today, my older son had a chance to visit with a friend that he hasn't seen in a long time. After some initial shyness, the two friends scampered happily through the backyard, playing chase and hide-and-seek. At one point, my husband found them standing stock still near the flower bed, examining something with interest.

"They've found a snail," he reported.

I looked out of the window to find the two deep in study, intently discussing the snail and pointing at its slime trail. It occured to me that if I had simply shown this little animal to them, they wouldn't have found it nearly so interesting.

P.S. Thanks, Mom & Dad. We had a great time!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Mountains and moose

Today, my family went for a picnic near a mountainside lake. On the drive down the canyon, we pulled off of the road several times to read the signs explaining the geology of the area. My older son and I decided to stop at two different rockslides to examine the rocks.

Now, a rockslide may not sound like much fun. But for two amateur geology buffs with over-active imaginations, it was a blast. We took home several finds: a sparkly rock that surely contains gold, a piece of shale with a rust-colored inclusion that just has to be a fossiled tree leaf, and a striated rock that might become a jewel someday.

But my favorite part of the day came as I was driving along the canyon road and saw something out of the corner of my eye. Two moose were frolicking in the grassy wetland area flanking a nearby stream. They almost looked like horses, except that their muzzles were far too large. Unlike most moose I've seen in my life -- slow and lumbering -- these two were clearly rough-housing and playing in the water.

It was an awesome sight. I wish I could have taken a picture, but in a way, I'm glad that I couldn't. The road was winding and narrow at that point, with no place to stop for a photo. And that's probably why the moose were there.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Head on over to the county fair!

I'm traveling with family this week and, unfortunately, we are missing the week-long county fair at home. I enjoy attending the fair each year with my sons. We usually head first to the special barn that houses the baby animals. Often, we get to pet a few. I point out the baby ducklings and geese peeping about, tell my sons to avoid those animals that bite, and finally we stop at the display of honeybees and look for the queen. I remind the boys that bees are in decline and that we shouldn't be afraid of them or squish them.

We then wander among the displays near the barn. I pick up a free car trash bag and fill it with various science-themed items: a baby seeding from a forestry group, some compost from a local compost retailer, a few pencils from the 4-H club.

We stop by the 4-H building next. Along with admiring the food and crafts, we learn about science in its various forms: keeping lifestock, raising plants, growing vegetables, exploring the food chain. Right outside of the 4-H building, we see a gigantic walking "tree", talking to kids and teaching them about conservation.

My younger son favors the rescue vehicles, so we always walk over to learn about "stop, drop, and roll" while playing on the inflatable firetruck and inspecting the real ladder trucks. The craft displays are also favorite of ours, since we often enter items in the fair. My sons are especially fascinated with the Lego® and K-NEX sculpture competitions.

If you haven't stopped by your local county fair lately, you might give it a try. There are a variety of things to see and do and you can pick up some great low to no cost science education materials. Drop by County Fairgrounds, USA! to help plan your next trip!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Website of the Week: 2008 Olympic Games

This week's website is The Official Website of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. I realize that it's not even loosely a science website, but with the Summer Games starting today, it just seems right.

I've been reading online that there have been some calls to boycott the games due to China's history of human rights violations. Personally, I don't think boycotting the games makes much sense. It's one thing to draw attention to the problem, quite another to place the burden of the boycott on innocent bystanders, including those Olympic athletes who have trained their whole lives for this one shot at greatness.

I love the Olympics. I think the spirit and sense of camaraderie is wonderful. It gives me hope that we, as a world, can actually work together to solve our problems, environmental and otherwise.

Update (8/21/08): Check out Grist's list of Green Olympians!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

OT: Are malts regional or am I just old?

Okay, I'll admit it. This isn't a post about science. This is a post about malt powder.

I had a hankering (do people get those any more either?) for a malt the other day. I have fond memories of making malts with my father: three scoops of vanilla ice cream, a few squirts of chocolate syrup, milk, and a couple of spoonfuls of malt powder combined in a blender then poured into a chilled glass. Mmmm.

Anyway, I went to the grocery store ... and then another grocery store ... and there was no malt powder to be found. In fact, no one knew what I was talking about. One clerk even said to me, "I guess I'm too young."

Too young for malts? What's going to happen to future generations if they lose the joys of a good malt?

So, to make this vaguely scientific, I have a couple of questions for you. Have you ever heard of malts? Are you a child, tween, young adult, adult? Where do you live? I'm wondering if malts are a regional taste -- my family originally comes from the Midwestern US -- or if this is (eek!) a generational gap.

Which reminds me ... if you've never had a malt, do yourself a favor. Make a shake and throw in a few spoonfuls of malt powder and see what you think!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Don't forget about the library!

Public libraries can be great places to learn about science. In addition to housing a variety of books, many libraries sponsor free or low-cost activities -- some with science themes -- for the public.

I am fortunate enough to live in an area with a wonderful and easy-to-use public library system. I can request books online from branches all over the county and have them sent to my home library to be picked up at my convenience. (I found this especially helpful when my boys were younger and went through their shrieking phases!)
But, more importantly, I love that our library system sponsors various science-based events and activities. Last month, you could bring in your sick plants to be examined by a master gardener, attend a tween lecture on forensics (really!), see a theater-style performance about a spider, learn about the county fair, talk to zoo keepers and meet some oft-feared animals, and attend live show with performing dogs. All these events were free, but you had to dig a little to find them.

Does your library have a website? Look up the calendar of events - you might be surprised at what you find there. If your library isn't cyber-ready, chat up the librarian and see what events might be coming soon. And don't be shy about visiting neighboring libraries if yours isn't the best -- I regularly frequent four to five within driving distance of where I live.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Website of the Week: World Carrot Museum

Photo credit: Stephen Ausmus, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

It's been a long week here at Mama Joules, so I scoured the web for something truly unique for this week's website. Ta-da! "Discover the power of Carrots" at the World Carrot Museum!

Learn all about the different types and colors of carrots (including white, purple, and black ... who knew?) at The Carrot Today. Try some simple science experiments with carrots. Explore the history of the carrot or plan your next trip to coincide with a carrot festival. And be sure to drop by Mr. Carrot Head to give him a new face!

P.S. In honor of carrots, I also found this great photo of some kids in Japan doing a carrot dance.