Monday, September 29, 2008

The science behind identifying postal crimes

Recently, my family and I visited the National Postal Museum on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. One exhibit, Postal Inspectors: The Silent Service caught my attention from a science perspective. This federal law enforcement agency monitors the U.S. mail for postal crimes: mail fraud, sending toxins by post, identity theft, mail bombs.

Members of the United States Postal Inspection Service have solved cases by analyzing handwriting, studying fingerprints, conducting chemical analyses, and using good old fashioned detective work. The Forensic Laboratory Services of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service include a Questioned Documents Unit, Fingerprint Unit, Physical Sciences Unit, and Digital Evidence Unit.

Would you like to be a Postal Inspector? Can You Solve the Case?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Website of the Week: Science Buddies

It's that time of the year again ... time to knuckle down and select a topic for your science fair project. Or maybe you already have an idea but you just need some help to put it into practice. Whatever your status, Science Buddies is for you. With over 700 science fair project ideas -- broken down into categories like Chemistry, Microbiology, and Sociology -- you're sure to find a topic to interest you. Following the advice of the Science Fair Project Guide will keep your experiment on track. The Ask An Expert "online bulletin board [is] staffed by volunteer scientists and top high school students" who are ready and willing to help you should you get stuck. And before you cart your project off to the competition, be sure to read Amber Hess' Science Fair Tips for Success on the Science Competitions page.

Good luck, everyone! :)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Can you still see me?

Well, I admit it. I've been playing around with the colors on this blog and I have no idea what I'm doing. If the new colors are driving you crazy, drop me a line to let me know and I'll see what I can do. Thanks!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Where is Mama Joules?

Mama Joules wants to let everyone know she's a bit under the weather right now, so it may be a couple more days till she posts something. (If I get inspired, maybe I'll write a post, but I'm not as good at coming up with things to write about as she is!)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Website of the Week: Down to Earth

Today, when I logged into my E-mail, a news article caught my eye. In case you haven't seen the topic, here's the summary: Contaminated milk, including infant formula, has been found in China. According to CNN, "A third baby has died and at least 6,200 children have fallen ill after drinking formula tainted with the same chemical involved in a massive pet food recall last year, Chinese officials said Wednesday." As best I can tell, the toxic ingredient, melamine, was added intentionally so that, in laboratory tests, the infant formula would appear to be more protein-rich.

I know that I am sometimes naive, but the idea that someone -- anyone! -- would intentionally poison children to boost their company's profit margin astounds and horrifies me. To whom could I vent my frustration?

I dropped a line to Down to Earth, a blog devoted to demystifying the issues surrounding food production. Recent posts have covered controversial topics such as the corn industry's recent advertisements about high fructose corn syrup, the pros and cons of irradiation of food, and the use of synthetic growth hormones in cattle.

I may not agree with everything written at Down to Earth, but I think the authors of this blog really strive to present a balanced view of the issues. (And I had no idea there were so many hot button issues surrounding food production! Wow!) I particularly liked a recent post about the charity Send a Cow and the Weekly Earthlinks, a list of sometimes amusing, sometimes thought-provoking links to current food production topics (I also appreciated the nod to Mama Joules in the Sept. 13th post -- thanks!).

But back to my opening topic, my fervent prayer tonight is that all of the tainted milk is recalled soon and that the death toll stops rising.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mark your calendar for Make Tracks!™ 2008!

Make Tracks!™ Family Trail Weekend!

This year, the National Wildlife Federation is sponsoring the first annual Make Tracks!™ Family Trail Week-end over the Columbus Day holiday -- October 11-13, 2008. Get out of the house with your family, hit a trail, and enjoy nature! There's a link to NatureFind where you can enter your zip code (in the US) and find a trail near you. The NWF also has some nifty ideas for making your time out-of-doors more special.

(My thanks to my friend Kim for letting me know about this event!)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Simple applied science

In our house, we've been dealing with a lot of interesting applied science lately. The most persistent and annoying source of it is the huge population of ants who seem to find a way into something sweet in our cupboard or on our counter pretty much every day. If I understood how thousands of tiny ants with pinpoint-sized brains could work together to act like a thinking being, I'd write a post about it. But I really have no idea.

Instead, I'll tell the story of how we unstuck two drinking glasses. For some reason, we have several different sizes of drinking glasses in our house. The second biggest size glass can fit inside the biggest size glass. However, once together, they tend to get stuck.

Mama Joules was trying to get them apart using water and soap, without success. I got them apart very quickly, with a different trick. I put ice and water in the smaller, inside glass. Most things contract (get smaller) when you make them colder, apparently including glass--the smaller glass came free from the larger one within just a few seconds.

Variations on this trick are pretty common--my grandmother used to use it to open jar lids that were stuck, by getting the lid hot. It's a kind of fun example of science that gets applied in the kitchen all the time.

Awhile back, I left some full soda cans on the porch, in the sun. When I came outside the next day, a couple of them had burst open. What do you think happened?

One interesting note: water expands when it gets hot, and also when it gets cold, but only so far. As the temperature drops, just before it freezes, water begins to expand again, and ice takes up more volume than the same amount of liquid water. Soda cans left out in the freezing cold can also burst!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Website of the Week: EPA Global Warming Kids' Page

Head on over to the EPA Climate Change Kids Site to read about climate change, view Climate Animations, and play a few games (I tried playing Checkers with Ozone the dog and learned that my game is a little rusty! I did better when I tried Hangman and took the climate change quiz).

P.S. Sorry this post is so short -- it's been a long week. Have a great week-end! :)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

It's almost time to have a Green Halloween®!

Corey Colwell-Lipson, founder of Green Halloween®, has started a new blog to help keep us motivated to celebrate our holidays in an eco-friendly way!

Green Halloween® began as a regional movement last year in Seattle and is rapidly spreading across the U.S. As Colwell-Lipson has said, her goal is to get people to "think outside the candy box." The Green Halloween® website provides some great ideas for adding some green to your holiday, such as handing out trinkets like stickers and collectible cards instead of candy. And before you buy that Halloween costume, Green Halloween® suggests that you ask yourself some hard questions: Can this item be used after Halloween? Can it be recycled? Does it contain earth-friendly materials or is it made of synthetics wrapped in yards of plastic?

Colwell-Lipson recently announced the launch of Celebrate Green!, a new book co-written with her mother, designed help us celebrate green year-round. Be sure to stop by the Celebrate Green! blog for even more ideas!

What does "celebrating green" mean to you? The easiest holiday for me to envision "green" is Christmas. I love to find our Christmas boxes and I get so excited as I carefully unwrap the nativity scene from my childhood, complete with the tiny wooden manger and the shepherd with his real metal crook. I even like the plastic reindeer (certainly not originally part of the nativity scene!) that come to inspect the manger. Isn't that what treasured holiday rituals really are -- reuse at its best?

[UPDATE (10/8/08) -- Check out Escape to Books' October 7, 2008 interview with Corey Colwell-Lipson and Lynn Colwell here!]

Monday, September 8, 2008

International photography contest through National Geographic Kids

National Geographic Kids is currently running an international photography contest for kids!

Kids ages 6-14 living in the United States (excluding Puerto Rico) and Canada (excluding Quebec) can enter in three different categories: Animals, Scenery, and People. You could win a camera and an autographed copy of Annie Griffiths Belt's book, A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel: My Journey in Photographs. The contest runs through November 3, 2008. Check out this link for an entry form, contest rules, and other information.

If you live outside of the U.S. and Canada, check out The Worldwide National Geographic Society International Photography Contest for Kids for a listing of regional contests around the globe. (I wish I could enter in the UK -- you could win a safari to Kenya!)

Regional winners are entered into the international contest and "one Grand Prize winner will win a five-day, four-night trip to Washington, D.C., including a special tour of National Geographic headquarters ..." (I still want to go on safari!)

Good luck!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Website of the Week: NOAA's Ocean Service Education

Photo credit: Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps (ret.), NOAA's National Weather Service Collection

The National Ocean Service Education website, designed for students in grades 3-12, contains games, tutorials, activity books, puzzles, and more.

Younger kids will enjoy the mystery games -- like Nautical Charts and Seafloor Mapping, along with fun activities like regional ocean activity books and instructions (in .pdf) for making things like a compass, an origami Earth, and a mobile of ocean animals.

Teens can study tutorials on subjects like corals and tides, try the interactive Ocean Challenge Puzzle, or (these are .pdf files) Build an Underwater Robot and learn how to Follow That Hurricane.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

They're B-A-A-C-K!

Photo credit: Luke,
(Thanks Luke, for reminding me that I'm not alone in my on-going ant battle!)

Well, so much for moving. I had naively hoped that when we moved to our new townhouse, we'd be free of ants. No such luck. I've heard from friends that, in this area of the U.S., ants are very persistent.

But ... I discovered something interesting about the ants at our new home. They seem to be smarter than the ants at our old place. How can I tell? Two things:

At our old house, you could observe a line of ants without disturbing them. They didn't get upset and scurry until I began to vacuum or started using my mint oil spray. Here, the minute I walk in the room, they run for cover (making it very hard to tell how they are getting into the house!)

And here, the ants are sneaky. I found them coming into my kitchen through a power outlet (!) and then they were crawling along a black electrical wire (blending in) to enter house (and the fruit bowl - ick). Here, ants tend to follow hidden paths -- underneath the sink or along the underside of the countertops and dishwasher -- making it hard to track them. At our old place, the ants not only entered the house in the open, if I fought back with spray, they'd re-enter days later at the same place.

So ... are my new ants smarter? I've never thought about ants having varying levels of intelligence before. I doubt that individual ants would show much difference in intelligence (I wonder how you could test that?). But this new colony definitely seems to have evolved a more sophisticated style of suburban survival. Very interesting ...

Monday, September 1, 2008

Happy Labor Day!

To all of you who have outside jobs, work at home, are looking for work, or finally have retired, I salute you! Have a happy Labor Day!

P.S. I'm off to the furniture store to spend. I wonder if that's the right way to celebrate Labor Day?