November 29, 2010
This year, 2010, is a big year for science gifts! We’ve searched far and wide for the coolest, brainiest—but also trendiest—toys of the season, to be enjoyed by kids and adults alike. Here’s our wish list for this holiday season:
Mythbusters Kits: Any science enthusiast who also likes television will likely be a huge fan of the Discovery Channel’s hit television series, Mythbusters, in which a team of science-minded handymen and -women, led by hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, test common myths. Now Mythbusters fans can take matters into their own hands with one of several Mythbusters kits. Choose from the “Power of Air Pressure,” “Science of Sports,” “Forces of Flight” or the “Weird World of Water.”
Human Power: The new nPowerPEG transforms kinetic energy into energy you can use to charge your phone or other electronic devices. Put it in your backpack or purse and the PEG will gather energy throughout the day. In a pinch, shaking the device will generate enough power for you to make an emergency phone call.
Space Shuttle Gifts: Next year marks the end of NASA’s space shuttle program (I interviewed curator Valerie Neal of the National Air and Space Museum earlier this month.) The Kennedy Space Center has a host of items that commemorate the shuttles’ milestones of space exploration. My personal favorites are the rhinestone-studded T-shirt and the space shuttle Discovery mission patch.
Star Wars Force Trainer: Star Wars is, without a doubt, one of the geekiest (and greatest!) film series of all time. The movies also engendered a generation of toys, perhaps the most popular being the glowing light saber. The new Star Wars Force Trainer allows Jedis in training to hone their use of the Force using nothing but their minds. The Trainer is a Jedi helmet and an encased ball. Manufacturers claim that the helmet actually senses brain waves and moves the ball accordingly (Editor: we’re a bit skeptical of this claim).
Terrarium: This year, terrariums have made a serious comeback as a cool house decoration. Make one yourself by arranging some dirt and moss in a glass container (read more here), or buy one of Etsy’s super stylish options. Etsy also has some mossy rings for taking the terrarium idea to the streets.
City Lights Globe: For trendy but brainy urbanites, the City Lights Globe simulates how the lights from the world’s cities are perceived from outer space.
Let Your Geek Flag Fly: For nerdy friends with a sense of humor, try a gift that really puts their geek status out in the open. Laser-cut “Geek” or “Nerd” necklaces are available on Etsy, while the irresistible “I Heart Nerds” T-shirt is very indie-chic.
Make Your Own Root Beer/Hot Sauce: Those with a proclivity for both science and cooking might enjoy either a root beer or hot sauce kit. There are many more options for “make your own” food kits, but these stuck out as most original. The hot sauce kit in particular will yield enough sauce to spice up any dish, even your root beer! (Okay, that might not be so tasty, but an experiment nonetheless.)
Science Heroes: While coworkers’ desks might be populated with baseball bobbleheads (Editor: That’s me!), yours could have the “Lil Giants of Science,” a collection of four petite figurines of famous scientists: Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Tesla.
Not Your Average Ant Farm: This glowing blue ant farm was the result of NASA’s 2003 tests to see how animals tunnel in microgravity. The farm’s blue nutrient gel is designed to provide all the food and water ants need for up to a year (most farms last only two to six months). The farm also comes with an “illuminator” that lights up the gel so you can watch the insects hard at work even at night.
October 18, 2010
The Renaissance may be best known for its artworks: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and “David,” and Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and “Vitruvian Man” have without a doubt shaped the course of art history. But a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, “The Body Inside and Out: Anatomical Literature and Art Theory,” reveals that during this formative period in art history, one primary source of inspiration for artists was actually the anatomical sciences.
The relationship between artists and physicians during the Renaissance (roughly 1300 to 1600) was symbiotic. Artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, who were interested in exacting the human form in their art, observed physicians at work to learn the layers of muscle and bone structures that formed certain parts of the body. In turn, physicians contracted artists to draw illustrations for the high volume of texts coming out in the field of anatomy, made possible by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press around 1440. Some artists even forged partnerships with specific physicians (Titian and Andreas Vesalias are perhaps the best-known example), in which the physicians would allow the artists to assist in dissections (highly restricted at the time) in exchange for anatomical drawings and illustrations.
Some of the best artists even conducted their own anatomical studies, making new discoveries and expanding the field. While most artists limited their investigations to the surface of the body and observed live, nude subjects, some went so far as to produce écorchés, corpses in which the artist would peel back successive layers of muscle, tendons and bones, all in order to gain a better idea of how to portray the human body in their art. Da Vinci, it is said, conducted the first correct anatomical study of a human fetus.
The rare artists’ manuals and anatomical texts on display in a petite room in the National Gallery’s West Building depict the proportions of the human form. Some focus on the human face, some (above) depict the musculature of the body. Both the anatomical texts and the art manuals look strikingly similar, a testament to the confluence of art and anatomy during this monumental period in European history.
October 4, 2010
As a young girl, I used to wake up in the middle of the night, frightened by a spider I knew had to be lurking in some dark corner of my room. For arachnophobes such as myself, nothing could be more unsavory than a big spider that blends seamlessly into tree bark. Unless that same spider also spins the largest, strongest webs in the world.
A new species of bark spider in Madagascar—called Darwin’s bark spider (Caerostris Darwini) and discovered in 2009, the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species—has evolved the toughest silk scientists have ever seen, and the spiders use it to spin the biggest webs ever measured. According to the study (pdf), these spiders, whose bodies are up to 1.5 inches in diameter, spin orb-shaped webs suspended on “bridgelines” that can span more than 80 feet. The spiders build webs over lakes, rivers and streams. Several different insects were found wrapped in the spiders’ silk, including mayflies, bees, dragonflies and damselflies.
Scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, as well as universities in Slovenia and Puerto Rico, found these spiders to be the first to ever spin webs over bodies of water this far above sizeable rivers. They believe such a tough feat is possible only because of their incredibly tough silk.
This is one more thing to add to the long list of extraordinary bark spider characteristics. The eleven known species of bark spider (genus Caerostris) look strikingly like tree bark, and are difficult to see. Females, the only ones who spin these gigantic webs, are several times bigger than male spiders and tend to be much more visible than their male counterparts. Scientists believe that the diversity of Caerostris spiders is grossly underestimated. And because males and females look so drastically different, it can be nearly impossible to determine which bark spiders are of the same species. These critters also have notoriously strange mating behaviors, involving male aggression, mate guarding, and some other practices we won’t go into here.
Don’t get me wrong—Madagascar always sounded like a spectacular destination. But if I do go, I’ll be sure to stay away from the water so I don’t get caught in these super strong, gigantic webs.
(Check out Smithsonian Science for a video of a Darwin’s bark spider subduing a dragonfly on her web.)
September 8, 2010
In 2007, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) was preparing to open the interactive Sant Ocean Hall exhibit when its Greening Task Force decided to investigate how the museum could care for the bodies of water closest to home.
Washington, D.C. is flanked by the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, which empty into the Chesapeake Bay. Not all water put down storm drains goes to a water treatment facility; when rainwater on the National Mall exceeds a quarter of an inch, the local facilities reach their capacity and whatever else washes into the storm drains winds up in the Chesapeake, untreated. Oil, plastic and fertilizers are just a few common pollutants funneled into the ocean in this way.
Eric Hollinger, co-chair of the museum’s Greening Task Force, began asking himself: “How can we walk the walk and try to help protect oceans from the potential pollutants we might be generating from our property?” The museum commissioned a water reclamation study by the Smithsonian’s Office of Engineering Design and Construction (OEDC), which made recommendations, estimated to cost around $4.75 million in all, for how NMNH could conserve water and be more ocean friendly. This set off a string of initiatives related to water conservation, some of which will soon be adopted across the entire Smithsonian Institution.
- Storm Drain Decals: The Smithsonian museums attract millions of visitors from far and wide every year, many of whom don’t know what happens to NMNH’s storm water. Hollinger reports that before the opening of the Sant Ocean Hall, “many were using the storm drains as trash cans.” So Hollinger’s team—along with the D.C. Department of the Environment—put decals by all the storm drains on their property, specifically labeling which river or ocean the drain’s contents filtered into. While this may seem too obvious to have an impact, like the light switch decals I wrote about a few weeks back, it has met with public approval and has been adopted across the Smithsonian Institution. It is difficult to measure any difference in storm drain water quality since implementing the decals, but Hollinger says he has not seen much misuse of the labeled storm drains.
- Underground Water Storage Unit: One of the primary recommendations of the water reclamation study was to install an underground water storage tank that could collect rainwater and condensation produced from the heating and cooling systems in the museum. By using stored water for irrigation and air conditioning, the study estimated a savings of 10.7 percent of the potable water used annually by the Natural History Museum. The tank is currently collecting water and will soon be routed into the museum’s irrigation systems.
- Green Roof: The National Zoo has recently built a green roof for their new Elephant Trails exhibit, but NMNH is the first of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall to consider building a vegetated roof atop their stately, century-old building. According to the water reclamation study, the green roof could cover up to 35,600 square feet and reduce runoff by up to 5.2 percent. NMNH is currently awaiting proposals for the roof.
- Interactive “Ocean Portal”: To complement the Sant Ocean Hall, NMNH launched the Ocean Portal, a web interface that allows kids and adults to learn all about the oceans. The Web site features stories on recent oceanographic research, as well as information on how to help preserve the oceans.
NMNH occupies one of the Smithsonian’s oldest buildings. It covers 1.3 million square feet and houses 1200 employees and volunteers, not to mention the continuous stream (and sometimes flood) of visitors to the museum. The museum’s exhibits and research are aimed at connecting museum-goers to both land and sea. Now their water conservation practices reflect that purpose.
August 3, 2010
In 2009, the Smithsonian Institution replaced some 15,000 outdated lighting ballasts (devices that turn on fluorescent lights) in the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History in an effort to improve energy conservation. Of course, all the energy-efficient lighting ballasts in the world won’t make much difference if people keep the lights on all the time.
That’s why Eric Hollinger—an archaeologist with the National Museum of Natural History and co-chair of the museum’s Greening Task Force—devised a simple, low-tech way to remind Smithsonian staffers to flip the switch.
It’s a decal, illustrated in the Smithsonian’s trademark blue and gold, reminding people to turn off the lights when they leave. It’s placed—no surprise—near the light switches in the museum and museum offices. Is it simple? Yes. A bit silly, even? Maybe. But the Smithsonian’s greening experts have high hopes that, used in conjunction with energy-efficient lights, these decals could markedly augment energy savings throughout the institution.
After using 28,072,619 kilowatt hours of electricity at a cost of nearly $3.5 million in 2009, Hollinger’s greening task force began discussions with staff members regarding opportunities for conservation and sustainability within the museum. One recurring topic of conversation was the frequency with which staff members left the lights in their offices and hallways on when, well, nobody was home. “A lot of staff felt that people just weren’t as cognizant of it because they didn’t see the electricity bills. There wasn’t that personal connection to it,” said Hollinger.
Stickers such as those Hollinger has developed were ubiquitous in the museum during the years of the Carter administration, but due to renovations, repairs and repainted walls, they have since disappeared. So, Hollinger decided to start investigating the conservation potential in resurrecting the old stickers.
“People were saying, ‘well, it’s not worth it if I’m only leaving my office for 20 minutes,’” Hollinger said. “They were rationalizing not turning the lights off.” This laid the foundation with two preliminary points of research: first, learning exactly how much energy is spent by turning the museum’s lights on, which requires an initial surge of energy supplied by the ballasts. And second, calculating how much time lights would have to be turned off in order to make up the difference.
Hollinger discovered that thanks to the new energy-efficient lighting ballasts, turning off the lights for 5 minutes or more was more efficient than leaving them on. He also found a Canadian study in which decals similar to those he envisioned had been put up in an office space and had more than paid for themselves in energy savings within less than two months. Hollinger then started looking into the cost-efficiency of printing stickers for the museum. Enlisting the help of Chief of Exhibit Design Michael Lawrence at the National Museum of Natural History to create the design, Hollinger and Lawrence developed a sticker that would cost 12 cents apiece. According to Hollinger’s calculations, if used throughout the entire museum, the $700 investment would pay for itself in as little as two and a half weeks and would result in a 15 to 20 percent decrease in energy used in office spaces. With the endorsement of museum director Christian Samper, the stickers have been purchased and are being mounted.
While there has been a sharp dip in the electric bill since replacing the ballasts, it is difficult to tell how much energy has actually been saved due to the decals rather than the new, energy-efficient ballasts. But Nancy Bechtol, Director of the Office of Facilities Management and Reliability, thinks Hollinger is onto something; she has purchased the decals for the entire Smithsonian Institution. “I asked Eric, ‘Do you mind if we buy 25,000 of these?’” Bechtol recalled. Once the decals are put up throughout the Smithsonian museums and offices (some of which have older, less efficient ballasts), it should be possible to tell whether or not they make a difference.
In 2009, the Smithsonian Institution won a sustainability award from the U.S. General Services Administration for an energy-efficient chiller plant (a large, water-based cooling system) that provides air conditioning at a lower environmental impact (and cost) to the National Museum of American History. Part of a larger effort to increase energy savings throughout the Smithsonian, the project also included a hot water system upgrade and revamp of the chiller plant and ventilation systems at the Natural History Museum, in addition to replacing the lighting ballasts.
But while these large-scale initiatives may contribute substantially to sustainability in the Smithsonian, simple things can contribute to energy conservation—like turning off the lights.