Looking Back…Christmas Edition

In the past when I have written these “Looking Back” posts, they have always been science-oriented. However, not much science has apparently happened in recorded history on this day, perhaps because so many people take this day off to spend it with their family and loved ones. So I thought I would share a few historical events that occurred on Christmas Day that spread the message of hope and peace (and one science event because I really just can’t resist.)

World Wide Web
Creative Commons License photo credit: Bull3t

On Christmas Day of 1990 (you get your science fact first today) developers executed the first successful trial run of the system that would later become the World Wide Web, including an early web browser, the first web server, and the first web pages, which described the project. The web went public on August 6, 1991 – less than a year later. Less than 20 years later, we have billions of websites on every topic imaginable, and most youths can’t imagine their lives without the internet superhighway.

And now for the history…

On Christmas Day, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the President of the Soviet Union. The very next day Ukraine left the Soviet Union, and the Union “collapsed.” This ended the Cold War that had existed between the US and the Soviet Union since the mid 1940s.

On Christmas Day, 1977, Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin met with Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt, to discuss a peace treaty between their two countries. The two neighboring states had been fighting on and off since the formation of Israel in 1948. On March 26, 1979 the two countries announced a peace treaty that still exists today. The two leaders also received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ninetta mia crepare di maggio ci vuole tanto troppo coraggio
Creative Commons License photo credit: khyes

On Christmas Day, 1914, German and British troops on the Western Front of World War I called a temporary cease-fire. Against the orders of their superiors, all artillery fire stopped along the line. The truce had started in some places the night before, as German troops began decorating their trenches and singing Christmas carols in German. The Scottish troops across the battlefield responded by singing carols in English. Soon, troops began to leave the trenches and to socialize in the area between the two sides, exchanging drinks and cigars. In one area, the troops met outside the trenches and began a game of soccer (it is rumored the Germans won 3-2.) In some places along the lines the fighting resumed the next day, but in others the truce lasted until after the New Year. Although the war saw three more Christmases, no widespread cease-fires were ever called again.

Happy holidays!

HOW TO: pH paper from a Poinsetta

PLEASE NOTE: PARENTAL HELP IS A MUST ON THIS PROJECT

Poinsettia
Creative Commons License photo credit: Southernpixel

Materials:
Parental help
Red petals from a poinsettia plant
Blender
Microwave
Coffee filters
Microwave safe dish
Baking soda mixed with water (test substance)
Vinegar (test substance)
Strainer
Straw or medicine dropper

What to do:

1. Grab your parents to help you.
2. Put the red parts of the poinsettia in a blender with a small amount of water and blend.
3. Transfer this mixture to a microwave safe dish and microwave with water (enough to cover the plant material) for about 1 minute and let steep like tea.
4. Strain the mixture and throw away the plant matter and reserve the liquid.

| Poinsettia  |
Creative Commons License photo credit: arquera

5. Soak several coffee filters in this mixture until they are colored. Allow them to dry.
6. Cut them into strips.
7. Use a medicine dropper or straw to apply different solutions such as vinegar or the baking soda solution to the paper. What happens?
8. What color does it turn when it is exposed to an acid (vinegar)?
9. What color does it turn when it is exposed to a base (baking soda solution)?
10. Can you find other acids or bases in your house?

What’s going on here?
Many different plants have pigments that are very sensitive to changes in acidity. The poinsettia is one example and red cabbage is another. When acids or bases come into contact with the paper dyed with the plant extract, a wonderful color change occurs!

Merry Christmas Butterfly

I thought that for this month I would share with you a very special butterfly called the “Christmas Butterfly.” I have no idea why it is called this; it’s not green or red and it doesn’t sing carols or light up, but it’s beauty does make you smile the way that Christmas does! I actually got a phone call a few years back about why this is called the Christmas butterfly. I had never heard of this festive name, so I searched and searched for an explanation but came up empty.

The scientific name of this butterfly is Papilio demodocus. (You can see a great picture of one here.) The other two common names of this species are the orange dog and citrus swallowtail. This butterfly is native to Africa and is a common pest of citrus trees. We used to receive a similar species of butterfly, Papilio demoleus, from the Philippines, but the USDA has completely taken it off any permit because it is such an awful citrus pest. If that butterfly was to get out of the Butterfly Center it would most likely die, but it could also completely demolish our citrus groves here, so better to be safe than sorry!

The Christmas butterfly is a member of the Swallowtail family, Papilionidae. Caterpillars in this family are super cool because they all have this weird organ behind their head that they use for defense called the osmeterium. This organ protrudes from the back of the caterpillars head when it is threatened to ward predators off. It is forked, sticky, smelly, and reddish-orange in color. The picture below is of a Thoas swallowtail caterpillar, Papilio thoas, taken here inside the Butterfly Center when some caterpillars unexpectedly showed up on one of our plants.

The Christmas butterfly caterpillar starts off brownish black and white in coloration and it very closely resembles bird droppings. As the caterpillar gets larger, it changes to a bright green color. The chrysalis has awesome camouflage. It looks just like a small branch on a tree that a stick was broken off of.

Well, that’s about all I have this time. I hope everyone enjoys the holiday and has a Merry Christmas Butterfly!!!

Bug-crazy? Learn more:
Check out this video to Meet the HMNS Entomologists.
Have you noticed – where have all the bugs gone?
Learn how to pin a butterfly.

On the Twelfth Day of HMNS…Discover The Woodlands Xploration Station

It’s the 12th day of HMNS today – and I hope you’ve enjoyed the series of videos and ideas for fun this holiday season at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. For all the ideas in one place, check out the 12 Days of HMNS web site. Have a lovely holiday!

The Museum District in Hermann Park isn’t the only place you can visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science – we’ve got a satellite educational facility in The Woodlands, too! It’s worth the trip just for the amazing array of dinosaurs you can see there. A cast model of Stan the T. rex guards the entrance (probably the only place you can see a dinosaur in a shopping mall); you can also see one of the world’s largest juvenile Triceratops, Raymond; a fighting Protoceratops and Velociraptor; and a full sized Acrocanthosaurus skull.

In the video below, site manager Nancy WeHunt takes you on a fascinating tour of this unique facility, from the live frogs to exotic insects and much, much more.

The Woodlands Xploration Station is just one of the fun and fascinating options for families, from the Houston Museum of Natural Science. In a take-off of everyone’s favorite holiday classic, The 12 Days of Christmas, we’ve got 12 ideas for fabulous family fun this holiday and we’ll be sharing the possibilities here every day until Christmas Eve. Best of all, most are activities that last past the holiday season – some, year round. You can also check them all out now at the spiffy new 12 Days of HMNS web site.

Visit the 12 Days of HMNS web site to
look behind-the-scenes this holiday;
click each small box to explore different videos.

Check out the first eleven days of HMNS:
On the first day of HMNS, explore The Birth of Christianity.

On the second day of HMNS, shop for Sci-tastic gifts.

On the third day of HMNS, meet Prancer the reindeer.

On the fourth day of HMNS, discover the making of The Star of Bethlehem.

On the fifth day, move it, move it with Madagascar 2 in the Wortham IMAX Theatre.

On the sixth day, hunt dinosaurs with Dr. Bob Bakker.

On the seventh day, look inside the human body in BODY WORLDS 2.

On the eighth day, meet the HMNS Entomologists.

On the ninth day, peer into the Gem Vault.

On the tenth day, explore the cosmos at the George Observatory.

On the eleventh day, go on the Quest for High Bear.