A Mammoth Find


DSC01928We are back from nine days traveling in the “wild west”. During this vacation my daughter was able to become a junior paleontologist at a mammoth dig, a junior ranger at Mount Rushmore, go “spelunking” at Wind Cave and learn about the geologic origins of the Black Hills of South Dakota, hear the legends and stories of the Native Americans through their dance and music, and hear the legends and stories of the pioneers of the western U.S. through their stories and dramas.

Our first stop was the amazing Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota. This site was discovered during the early phases of construction of a housing development in 1974 by one of the bulldozer operators who was clearing the land. Fortunately, he was an amateur paleontologist, and when his bulldozer turned up a mammoth tooth, he stopped everything and reported the finding. The developer and the surrounding community realized what they had and preserved the site for research and education. They bring in visiting scientists from around the world to work at the site, and from the work of these scientists we have learned much about the animal life that flourished in the area we now know as South Dakota 26,000 years ago. Continue reading “A Mammoth Find”

The Art of Asking Questions

Playing with plasma and spectral glasses. Physics is fun!
Playing with plasma and spectral glasses. Physics is fun!

My daughter and I attended Jim Lenz’s Science Show at the public library. Mr. Lenz grabbed the children’s attention, allowed them to participate, laugh, shout out answers and get excited about what they were seeing.

And he asked them if they knew what science was.

None of them had a nice, short definition for science, and he defined science for them as “the art of asking questions.” As a scientist, I have been chewing on that definition for a little while. It’s a good definition, because that is what scientists do: we ask questions. But not just any questions. When a scientist wonders about something, the questions eventually get asked in a way that a prediction can be made (a hypothesis), and the hypothesis can be tested in a controlled manner. Asking the right question is, indeed, an art.

But even more important than asking the right question, is having a mind that is open and observant to the world around it. Many people have said that the greatest scientific discoveries are not marked by the exclamation “Eureka!” but rather by the puzzled expression, “Hmm, that’s funny…I wonder why…”

And that is, I think, the crux of science: the WHY. Scientists, like children, see something that just doesn’t quite make sense to them, and they ask “why?” Continue reading “The Art of Asking Questions”


IMG_0205Spring has sprung and with it so have the bubble wands. My daughter even put a jar of bubble juice and some bubble wands in her bike basket and toured around the neighborhood sharing her love of bubbles with her friends. Bubbles are indeed magical, and since the earliest age she has enjoyed chasing bubbles around the yard, catching them in the bathtub, and making giant bubbles using a homemade wand and homebrew bubble juice. And I have enjoyed having an excuse to play with bubbles myself.

At the Discovery Center in Rockford, our favorite exhibits are the giant bubble and the bubble window.

When you stop and think about it, bubbles are fascinating. Why do they form perfect spheres and not cubes or some other shape? How do they form the fascinating multicolored films that you see? Why can you only “catch” bubbles when your hands are wet and soapy?

It turns out there is a lot of science in those shimmering orbs that we chase around our yards on summer evenings. Continue reading “Bubble-logy”

For the Girl with Rocks in Her Head

Finds for two rock hounds.
Finds for two rock hounds.
When I was a little girl, my big brother gave me a beautiful book about rocks, minerals and gemstones. He inscribed the inside of the book: “For the girl with rocks in her head.”

At that time I had a large rock collection. When I was growing up, we lived along a dirt road. The road cut on each side was deep, and almost anywhere you looked along the road you could find outcroppings of quartz or rose quartz. I was constantly bringing home new rocks—beautiful ones, shiny ones, rocks that had neat shapes. I even had my own rock tumbler, which leaked out all over the living room carpet and generated an interesting response from my mom to my “scientific” pursuits.

Apparently the apple has not fallen far from the tree.

Our daughter has been captivated by a particular issue of National Geographic Kids magazine that featured gemstones. This has led to her adding a rock collection to her collection of precious pinecones. We have read the gemstone article in that magazine repeatedly.

For one of our day trips during Spring Break, we decided to explore Cave of the Mounds National Landmark. We took the tour through the cave and received many cave kisses along the way (water drips on our head from above)—we saw fossils, interesting cave formations, and underground rivers and ponds. Then we bought a bag of sand and stones and rinsed it in the sluice to see what gems we could recover. We found amethyst, pyrite, quartz, rose quartz and many other delights. After that we learned how to use a ratchet and cracked open a geode to reveal the crystals inside. We hiked the trails and saw some of the first flowers of spring, talked to one of the gardeners, and in general had an amazing time exploring and discovering all about the world around us.

I was reminded of a trip with my parents to a cave in Tennessee that had an underground lake—I have a vague recollection of lights on the lake and a boat trip on the underground lake.

The staff at Cave of the Mounds was terrific, spending time with the guests, doing a great job answering questions and helping people explore and learn. We have an amazing treasure in our backyard, and I highly recommend visiting.

Even on Easter my daughter was collecting pinecones and looking at rocks while on her Easter egg hunt—I think it’s wonderful that the natural world holds this kind of pull over candy for her.

I’m so glad that she has rocks in her head.

© 2014 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

Science is the SPICE of Life

cabbage_exp_c“So this is a solution of calcium ions. Has anyone ever heard of calcium before?”

The children nodded their heads and let out a few tentative “yeses”.

“You have. Good. Where do we get calcium?”

“Cows!” my daughter shouted out. Continue reading “Science is the SPICE of Life”

24 Miles Above the Earth

Orange and Blue layers of Earth’s atmosphere,picture taken from ISS. Picture from NASA.
On Sunday, October 14, 2012, my husband, my daughter and I gathered in our living room, tuned into the high-definition Discovery Channel on TV, and watched the Red Bull Stratos skydiver, Felix Baumgartner, jump out of a tiny little capsule 128,097 feet up in the Earth’s atmosphere and free-fall/parachute down to earth.

Actually, for the part of the ascent that we watched on the television, from about 90,000 feet to 128,000 feet, our daughter was asking, repeatedly, when we were going to play or turn on cartoons. She wasn’t following the altitude, temperature, and pressure figures, and she didn’t catch the urgency in Baumgartner’s voice when he was depressurizing the capsule but the door wasn’t opening as quickly as he thought it should. Nor did she understand the amazing history being made as the prior record holder for highest-altitude sky-dive, retired USAF Colonel Joe Kittinger, read the egress checklist to Baumgartner.

But, when the door of the capsule opened, she started paying attention. When the command came to undo the seat belt and stand up, she jumped into her Daddy’s lap, burying her head in his chest, as if watching the scary part of a movie. When Baumgartner stood and looked down and his TV audience shared his view of Earth, we all gasped. I confess it was dizzying. I could not have let go and let myself fall.

There was worry as he was spinning and tumbling. To what kind of G-forces was his body being subjected? Would he come out of that part of the fall conscious? Continue reading “24 Miles Above the Earth”

Back then, I was going to be an astrophysicist.

Hubble telescope image. Courtesy NASA.gov
RIP Neil Armstrong

My memories of the Apollo missions are hazy shadows of conversations of my parents and static-filled pictures on a black-and-white tube TV. One stands out though.

I was very young. We were walking through a Sears and Roebuck. All the TVs were tuned into a moon landing–not sure if it was THE landing or not, but it must have been something important because all of the shoppers were stopping in their tracks to watch and see what was going on. Dad and Bo were there. If it was the 1969 landing, I was three years old.

Then several years later, I remember all the really cool photos of galaxies and nebulae and exploding stars that our school library had–they were tucked away in a file cabinet– NASA made them available to educators, unfortunately, the educators rarely used them. I had access to them because I was a library aide. I would talk the librarian into letting me have the duplicates, and I would bring them home and plaster the walls of my bedroom with NASA photos. I would stare up at the universe and dream about the future.

Back then, I was going to be an astrophysicist.