HMNS@100 – Meet Irene Offeman

 The Downtown Public Library in 1922,
at the time the museum was housed here.

This year, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is one hundred years old. And, it got me to thinking, “What was Houston like when we got started?” Here’s a little taste of history: In 1909, President Taft had a procession down Main Street; W. W. Baldwin started a trolley line to connect Bellaire with Houston; the mayor was H. Baldwin Rice; and the museum was established as the Houston Museum and Scientific Society and was housed in the City of Houston’s public auditorium and at the downtown public library.

Now here we are—in 2009—celebrating a century of science. Through vigorous efforts, HMNS has grown to become one of the highest-attended museums in the United States with millions of people visiting each year from around the globe. And in honor of our 100th year, we thought it would be a great time to introduce you to some of our HMNS legends that have been instrumental in the museum’s growth and have seen the Museum blossom from a new organization welcoming visitors to an assortment of small exhibits, to an expansive multi-story science center.

Today, you’ll meet Irene Offeman. When she looks back during her 26 years of service at the museum, she can talk for hours and still have many more fascinating stories to tell. After leaving her home, I told my colleague Erin that Ms. Offeman is the epitome of what Phil Munsey describes as the meaning of “legacy” in his book, Legacy Now – that life is not just about how you live but what you leave behind.

Ms. Offeman left a concrete thumbprint on this amazing institution, including a detailed plan for a new paleontology hall which we’re in the process of developing today (the reason behind our current capital campaign). Ever since I met her, I have looked forward to sharing her story with you. Take a look at the video and let us know what you think – you can also see more stories at our Centennial web site.

The Science of Food: Emulsions on your Salad!

Emulsion Repulsion: Science on your Salad!

A simple way to explain an emulsion is as a suspension of two liquids within each other that normally would not mix (like oil and water).  Picture a cup with vinegar.  If you pour oil into the vinegar, the oil will float on top of the vinegar because it is less dense.  What happens if you briskly whisk them together?  Well, the liquids start to mix together and tiny droplets of each liquid become suspended within each other.  When they are uniformly dispersed in each other (evenly mixed) then you have an emulsion.

A simple mixture of oil and vinegar will ultimately separate back into vinegar and oil because at a molecular level, there is nothing holding the two kinds of liquids together. This temporary emulsion just happens because of the whisking. To get a permanent emulsion of these two liquids you need a third ingredient to hold the two immiscible (non-mixing) agents together and prevent them from separating.  This ingredient is called an emulsifying agent.  This agent is like a mutual friend who likes both the oil and the vinegar and holds them together.  It creates a weak chemical bond with each liquid and becomes like a bridge between them.  Eggs are a very common emulsifying agent as is mayonnaise and hollandaise sauce.

Now that you understand emulsions, go into your kitchen and make your own!

 Creative Commons License photo credit: LDCross

Measuring cup
Measuring spoons
Vegetable oil
2 Mixing bowls
Whisk or hand egg beater
1 Egg


Part 1
1. First grab an adult to help you.  Also, we will be using a raw egg, so this experiment is not for eating, it’s just for experimenting!
2. In a mixing bowl, place ½ cup of vegetable oil.
3. Add one teaspoon of vinegar and use a spoon to gently mix them together.  Observe what happens.
4. Now, use the whisk or a hand eggbeater to mix the vinegar and oil.  What happens now? 
5. Watch the mixture for a few more minutes.  Observe what happens.  They should begin to separate.  Oil and vinegar do not stay well mixed.

Part 2
1. In a separate bowl, add one teaspoon of vinegar and an egg yolk (you will need to separate it from the egg white first).  Mix these two ingredients together well.
2. Now, add one cup of oil and two teaspoons of vinegar.  Mix the egg mixture together using the whisk or eggbeater.  What happens?  Observe.
3. Discuss your results. 

Emulsions aren’t just an experiment, though – they’re something you can see everyday. In honor of Big Bite Nite tomorrow night, Chef Sandor Edmonson from *17 at the Alden and I whip up a tasty vinaigrette. Click the video below to see the dish in progress as we create great example of an emulsion.

Want to learn how to make more food at home?
Learn the ingredients for ice cream.
Learn how to make your own butter.

Want to see more in the Science of Food video series?
Watch me make ice cream with Quattro’s Executive Pastry Chef Philippe Valladares.
See me make butterwith Adam Puskorius, Executive Chef at Polo’s Signature.

A Nature Walk through Hermann Park

Wax myrtle is a tree that is eaten by the 5 species of exotic walking sticks that we have here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, as well as some of our grasshoppers and other herbivores. Recently, while trying to catch dragonflies (don’t ask), I stumbled upon not one, or two, but tons of these trees in Hermann Park! They were all over the place between the Japanese Gardens and the Houston Zoo. Now, every week I have a nice walk down to that part of Hermann Park to enjoy these trees, and every time I go, it’s a different adventure! 

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
A handsome Wood Duck

Today I thought I would take my camera and document some of the great things I saw: vibrant wildflower plants, amazing wildlife and people enjoying a beautiful day. It’s a really nice way to get out of the office and I always look forward to what I’ll see. I love all kinds of wildlife, not just bugs of course!

Hermann Park is filled with so many different species, especially birds, many of which are ducks. The wood duck is just one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. Their colors are amazing and they have such a distinguished look. These ducks nest in trees near water sources. The ducklings jump out of the nest, falling several feet to the ground without being hurt. Many people consider them the most beautiful water bird, and I can see why. This duck was not shy with the camera!

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Great Blue Heron

Another bird that I am always happy to see is the Great Blue Heron. The first time I saw one of these take flight, I was so impressed. They are huge birds, but are so graceful and delicate. Seeing these majestic birds completely makes me forget that I’m in the middle of the 4th largest city in the United States. There were two of them today, hiding behind tall plants in the water. Luckily one came out of hiding for me! 

My visits have become even more special recently with the beginning of spring. Dragonflies and butterflies have taken to the air. Aquatic insects dart around the surface of the ponds, feeding fish, tadpoles and baby turtles. The babies are my very favorite part of spring! I’ve been lucky enough to encounter several ducklings on my last couple of visits. Their numbers have decreased, but the surviving ducklings are getting bigger and depending less on their mothers. I saw one today swimming by itself looking for food. It’s still pretty fuzzy and cute!

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
A duckling – how precious!
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

I was also able to photograph a dragonfly. If you’ve ever tried, you know it can be very frustrating! They scare so easily and it’s so hard to get up close. The key is definitely patience. Dragonflies are very territorial and will always come back to the same perch or one near it. If you keep at it, you will be able to catch a couple of shots of one.

Once I had gathered enough food for my insects and lollygagged around enough, I started to make my way back to work – but not without seeing the very familiar, adorable face of a squirrel. I’ve always loved squirrels for their cuteness and fun-loving personalities. They definitely have a way of helping me to forget about any stress. You can’t watch them without snickering a little bit. This squirrel seemed a little confused about what I was doing, but he gave me some really great poses.

Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

I really should bring my camera every time, as today was actually kind of a slow day for wildlife. I’ve also seen nutria, red-eared sliders, box turtles, whistling ducks, sea gulls, bull frogs, and tons of insects! Hermann Park really is a gem. It is such a historically significant part of our city and it is filled with so many simple, wonderful things to do. I encourage everyone to get out every once in a while to enjoy nature wherever it may be. You never know what you will see and how it can brighten your day!

Happy nature watching! 

Big Bite Nite Photo Contest: Winners!

We were blown away by the amazingly Big Bites that were submitted to our “Show Us Your Biggest Bite” Photo Contest, in honor of Big Bite Nite this Thursday night – we had vampires, shark attacks, feats of perspective, giant slabs of food and much more. Suffice it to say – hilarity ensued.

Thank you to everyone who entered – and congratulations to winners Alan Steinberg and Lin Lin Shao! The competition was fierce – but they were up to the challenge. You can see their champion Big Bites below, and read their inspiration in taking these great photos, in their own words. You can check out the rest of the entries on the event web site and on Facebook.

Alan Steinberg (Facebook winner)

So this past December I was in Las Vegas and while walking down the strip, what do I see?!? A huge M&M (or is just M?)! While most people just wanted a picture next to it… I knew that the reason it was here on the strip was the satisfy my sweet tooth! How could I resist having my picture taken trying to get it to melt in my mouth rather than my hand?

 Alan Steinberg’s Big Bite

Lin Lin Shao (Big Bite Nite web site winner)

This picture was taken in Dallas Texas outside a McDonald’s shaped as a lifesize happy meal, with huge burgers and fries mounted on the side of the building. I just had to take a picture with it. But anybody who knows me, knows that I dont take boring “stand next to it and smile” poses. You’ll never get anywhere in life that way. I always have to do something different. Thank goodness I did because it has allowed me to achieve greatness after submitting it into the contest. I also learned by watching Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.

 Lin Lin Shao’s Big Bite

Congratulations to our winners – and thank you again to everyone who entered! See you at Big Bite Nite!