Enter the “Take a Ride on the Wild Side!” Sweepstakes

Houston is no stranger to severe weather.

Thunderstorm in Northern Oklahoma

Within the past few months we’ve experienced both a drought and flooding.  Hurricanes and ice storms have shut the city down for days. Most residents have a story about witnessing extreme weather conditions, from hurricanes to tornadoes, but never quite like this…

Tornado Alley 3D opens March 9 in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre!

Ride along with filmmaker Sean Casey of the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series and researchers of VORTEX 2 as they bravely capture dramatic and destructive tornado footage in this fascinating film.

Casey uses a fleet of customized vehicles that can withstand the most threatening weather  - allowing them to go right to the heart of a tornado and even document the birth of a tornado with a 70mm camera.

Tornado Intercept Vehicle

On March 12, you can meet Casey and his Tornado Intercept Vehicle!

From 9:30 – 11 am, the TIV will be parked at the front entrance of the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Casey will be available to meet visitors.  While you’re here, check out Tornado Alley 3D  – showing at 11:40 am, 12:30, 3, and 3:50 pm – Casey will  introduce each film.

Want To Ride in the TIV?

Enter to win a ride with Casey in the Tornado Intercept Vehicle at approximately 4 pm on March 12!

To enter, tell us about your strangest weather experience, your favorite episode of Storm Chasers, or your thoughts on Houston’s weather – just leave a comment on this post between February 23 and March 8!

The winner will be selected randomly and contacted on March 9, 2012.  For official contest rules, please click here.

The winner will be contacted by email – so don’t forget to leave that information in the comment entry field – don’t worry, your email will be kept confidential.

“And how would you like that cooked?” [The Ancient History of Cooking]

If we take a look at the current lineup of possible human ancestors and distant relatives, one can pick out several lines of change. Compare some of the earliest hominids, like Ardipithecus ramidus with a modern human and the differences are obvious. Living about 4.4 million years ago, Ardipithecus was a tall, tree-climbing and bipedal fellow. They were omnivores, eating a mix of plants, meat and fruit.

Modern humans are omnivores as well, although there are many people choosing to eat only vegetable matter. Some early human relatives, such as Neanderthals may have been top-level carnivores. Anthropologists and especially paleoanthropologists, have studied diet among early humans for a long time. Two events had a major impact on human diet: the mastery of fire and the development of agriculture and animal husbandry. Of these two milestones, mastery of fire came well before agriculture. While some argue that early hominids mastered fire in Africa as early as 1.5 million years ago, others place it at perhaps 400,000 to 500, 000 years ago. With a range like this, it should be obvious that it remains hard to pinpoint when exactly this happened, especially when one relies on archaeological evidence. One might wonder: “what other evidence is there then?” Read on and find out.

The advent of agriculture and animal husbandry is a much more recent phenomenon, and therefore relatively more easy to date. Experiments involving plants may have been underway some 12,500 years ago. Cattle was domesticated in Egypt by 9000 BC.

Traditionally, the mastery of fire was seen as a catalyst for a series of evolutionary changes in early humans. With fire, it was argued, one could not only stay warm, keep predators at bay, even engage in art in the back of dark caves, but also cook one’s food. The latter then permitted rapid brain growth and before one knows it, we are off to the races, with rapid changes in technology leading to humans becoming more and more in charge of their environment.

Recently, new voices have been heard in this debate. In studies followed around the world, Dr. Richard Wrangham argues that cooking started at 1.9 million years ago, much earlier than traditionally assumed. With cooked food, we could chew and eat our food in an hour, instead of the six hours chimps need to chew theirs. With cooked food, we no longer needed a large gut, and with a reduction in size of our intestinal track, there was a reduction in energy spent on maintaining our gut. These savings could then go toward fueling our brain growth. The appearance of Homo erectus, the first hominid species with our body form, and the appearance of mastering fire drove human evolution to where we are today, according to Dr. Wrangham. In Dr. Wrangham’s words: “Cooking was not invented by humans; it was invented by pre-humans and it made us human.”

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Dr. Richard Wrangham will speak at HMNS on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

According to Dr. Wrangham, mastering fire and getting used to cooking food led to further changes in social behavior among early humans. To see what these are, join us for Dr. Wrangham’s lecture at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, sponsored by The Leakey Foundation on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 6:30 p.m.

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
“Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human”
Richard Wrangham, Ph.D., Harvard University
Tuesday, February 28, 6:30 p.m.
Sponsored by The Leakey Foundation
Click here to purchase tickets.

Ever since Darwin and “The Descent of Man,” the existence of humans has been attributed to our intelligence and adaptability. Renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham presents a startling alternative: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking. In a groundbreaking theory of our origins, Dr. Wrangham will show that the shift from raw to cooked foods was the key factor in human evolution.

When our ancestors adapted to using fire, humanity began.

Once our hominid ancestors began cooking their food, the human digestive tract shrank and the brain grew. Time once spent chewing tough raw food could be sued instead to hunt and to tend camp. Cooking became the basis for pair bonding and marriage, created the household, and even led to a sexual division of labor.

Tracing the contemporary implications of our ancestors’ diets, Dr. Wrangham sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today. A path-breaking new theory of human evolution, Dr. Wrangham will fascinate anyone interested in our ancient origins or in our modern eating habits.

Dr. Richard Wrangham is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University. He is co-director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, the long-term study of chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda. His research culminates in the study of human evolution in which he draws conclusions based on the behavioural ecology of apes. As a graduate student, Dr. Wrangham studied under Robert Hinde and Jane Goodall. He also helped the late Dian Fossey establish her eponymous Gorilla Fund to protect and research the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda.

 

Come Party at the Museum with Party Smarty!

Today’s post is by Alex Pivateau, the Museum’s Birthday Party Manager!

Does your child love to stroll amongst jaw-droppingly gigantic dinosaurs?

Does he or she enjoy exploring outer space in our Planetarium?

Party Smarty

Or perhaps he or she loves to watch butterflies excitedly flap their beautiful wings in the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

If your child loves coming to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, allow us to host their birthday party here for an engaging party they won’t forget!

Party Smarty at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is our birthday party program that hosts fun and educational birthday parties. Children learn about natural history and the world around us in an entertaining and visually stimulating way.

In our 90-minute party format, your child chooses a specific theme, and we focus his or her party around that theme. 20-30 minutes are for welcoming guests, while kids do crafts and activities. 30 minutes are allotted for either a tour of the dinosaur hall, entry to the Butterfly Center, or a movie in the Planetarium. Then we come back to the party room to eat cake and sing Happy Birthday!

Party Smarty Gift Bags

Each HMNS birthday party comes with a decorated party room (with special focus on the theme of the party), 6 6-ft tables, table covers, chairs, two parking passes to our garage, and a party coordinator who is in charge of supervising crafts, leading the tour, cutting/passing out cake, and transporting items to and from your car. Balloons, silverware, invitations and thank you cards are available for an extra fee.

We also have add-on presenters to help enhance the party to be even more fun and memorable! We have balloon artists, face painters, magicians, exotic animal presenters, and chemistry demonstrators who can come in to the party to create an extra fun time.

Party Smarty Presenter

We host parties both at our main location downtown and our branch in Sugar Land.

Please call 713-639-4646 or e-mail us at birthdays@hmns.org for more information about our birthday party program—Party Smarty!

Every Grain of Sand: Shale gas and Hydraulic Fracturing

We all hear about shale gas being the next big thing in energy, but what is it?  The quick retort is that it’s gas in shale, but what does that mean? The gas is a natural gas so it is a series of hydrogen and carbon linked in gaseous forms.  This includes gases like methane and ethane, but what about the shale?

Shale Rock

Shale is a type of rock with a low permeability mix of mud, clay, and other minerals such as quartz.

If natural gas hits a shale layer as it migrates to the surface, it can become trapped in the shale.  A shale play is an area where shale gas is being produced or where companies are looking for shale gas.

The shale plays are located through out North America.  The Marcellus play covers 600 miles throughout the Appalachian Basin.  It ranges from New York, through West Virginia, and down to Tennessee and could contain 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (about the energy equivalent of 83 billion barrels of oil).  The Barnett shale formation is in north central Texas.  It spans from Montague to Hamilton and Jones to Dallas Counties, with one of the major concentrations located in Tarrant County. The Barnett may hold 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Shale gas is considered an unconventional resource which means that to extract the gas there needs to be more done than simply putting in a vertical well.  To get the best bang for the buck, you need to drill through the shale formation horizontally and then add force and pressure to break up the shale.

Shale gas is a great example of how new technology and a new way of looking at old things can bring about great change.

Shale gas wells have been in production since the 1820’s, but because it was too expensive to remove the gas from the shale, we let it lie.  Because of the properties of shale, production of shale gas wells remained extremely low up to the begging of the 21st Century.  By then technology and economics had caught up with the resource.

Natural gas is mainly used to create electricity and heat. In colder climes, the use of natural gas to create heat varies inversely with the outside temperature (as it gets colder more gas is used to make the inside of my house warmer). The natural gas used in power generation has consistently gone up every year.

US Natural Gas Total Consumption

Natural gas also burns much cleaner than coal.  From 2000 to 2009, gas from shale went from 1% of the total gas production in the United States to 14%.  That’s a huge jump in just a few years.

In 2005 the United States imported 15% of the natural gas it consumed.

It had been predicted that by 2030 we would increase imports to 20%, but because we knew where to find the shale gas, the necessary technology matured, and the economics came into line, by 2030 we should be importing only 1% of the natural gas we use.  In fact there is enough gas in all the different plays to last us 150 years at 2009 consumption rates.

With any new technology there are always concerns that it could negatively affect the environment.  The largest concerns come from the way the shale formation is broken up in the well.  Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking (not be confused with other types of frack, is a process that uses a solution almost entirely of water which applies pressure to the rock and causes it to break.   If you have paid any attention to the news, you’ve probably heard of some controversy over fracking.  There are concerns that fracturing the shale formations is allowing the groundwater to become contaminated.  Some water wells and groundwater that are near shale gas wells have become contaminated with gas and other chemicals that are used in the shale gas well.

This, however, seems to come from improper well completion, spills on the surface, and evaporation of hydraulic fracture fluid that was open to the environment. None of this contamination comes from the fracking. Shale gas occurs well below ground water and aquifers.  An aquifer may run down as much as 600 ft or more, but the shale gas is another mile or more below that.  However the EPA is currently conducting tests on different wells, both gas and water, to see what is really going on. Their report is scheduled to be out at the end of the year.

Another concern is the amount of water it takes to frack a well. It can take up to 5 million gallons of water to finish one well.  If the well has poor access to local water, then the water will have to be trucked in from elsewhere.

Should we allow the fields of this resource to lay fallow?

Should we rush in and irresponsibly develop the resource?  The answer to both is “no”.  It is an energy source that we will need to maintain and improve our lives, but we should be mindful and develop it responsibly.  As we harvest the plays, we must make sure that we are not creating even more problems down the road.  Shale gas will play an important role in our energy, environmental and political future.