Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 7/6-7/12

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week!

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Behind-the-Scenes Tours
Tuesday, July 7
6:00 p.m.
Enjoy the beauty of one of our special exhibitions while the Museum after hours, while it is closed to the public. On Tuesday, evening, you can tour China’s Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui or Samurai: The Way of the Warrior with a skilled master docent. Click here for more information and tickets.

Special Exhibition: Wide Angle: The World Through My Eyes Now Open
When Sam Gainer’s parents showed him how to use the Brownie Hawkeye camera they took on family vacations back in the 1950s, they did not realize the spark they had ignited. It was the beginning of a life-long passion for both travel and photography that would eventually take Sam to over 146 countries around the world. His tenacity in tracking, chasing and waiting for the perfect shot enables him to capture his subjects at the moment that epitomizes their essence. Whether you’re looking for armchair adventure or you’re planning your own photography life list, Sam Gainer’s magical point of view invites you now to gaze through his lens and see what he has seen. We hope that it may also touch you, inspire you and keep drawing you back for one more look.

*This exhibition is free with the purchase of a permanent exhibit hall ticket.

 

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Ever wonder how fireworks… work wonders?

The Fourth of July just isn’t the same without pyrotechnics. And while the inevitable giant fireball from Dad lighting up the grill may be exciting in the moment, I’m actually referring to the giant chemistry demonstration we watch at night.

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Fireworks are basically a bunch of combustion reactions, which are rapid chemical reactions involving oxygen gas (O2) combining with another substance. These combustion reactions are exothermic, which means energy is released during the reaction in the form of heat, light, and sound.

A firecracker explosion is essentially one large combustion reaction involving black powder or gunpowder, which is made up of potassium nitrate (KNO3), charcoal, and sulfur. Potassium nitrate will provide oxygen to the reaction, while charcoal and sulfur will act as fuel. This reaction produces a lot of gas and heat in very little time, and all of that gas produced needs a place to go. When too much of it builds up in an enclosed space and the pressure becomes too great, you get an explosion.

The basic components of a firework are a fuse, tiny explosives called stars, and a burst charge that triggers the explosion. Precise timing is also helpful.

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First, you need an entirely separate explosion to get the firecracker up into the air. Typically to get the whole package airborne, you need what’s called a mortar, a long tube that directs the firecracker onward and upward away from bystanders. This explosion needs to be very controlled so you don’t set off the second firecracker inside, yet strong enough to get the whole package off the ground. A malfunction can have disastrous consequences. You can search for “fireworks fails” on YouTube for some disaster action.

When you light a firework, it’s not just one fuse; it’s two: the fuse that sends the firework up, and a time-delay fuse that is longer and burns more slowly, allowing the firecracker to gain some altitude before the second reaction begins. If the fuse is too short and the firecracker doesn’t fly high enough before exploding, it can get noisy (not to mention dangerous.)

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Once the time-delay fuse expires, the stars begin to explode. A burst charge will explode and expel the stars, spreading them out. The stars themselves may have different chemical components within, but the basic idea is still a combustion reaction. There is some sort of fuel reacting with oxygen and producing a lot of gas and heat.

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All those colors you see come from burning metals, which produce different wavelengths of light when heated. I don’t know how many of you have tried to burn metal before, but I can tell you from experience, it’s not easy.

We model this particular combustion reaction in one of our ConocoPhillips Science On Stage Outreach programs! Since lighting a firecracker in a school is a terrible idea, in Cool Chemistry, we use a fuel and some granular chloride salts in a beaker. When I light the fuel, I am beginning a combustion reaction that releases a lot of heat and will burn the metal salts.

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The red/pink flame is from the metal lithium, sometimes used in batteries. You’ll notice that in this photo, there is a large Nalgene beaker covering the beaker that used to be full of green flames. That Nalgene beaker is airtight and cuts off the flow of air in and out of the beaker. When this happens, no new oxygen is allowed to enter; once the combustion reaction has used all of the oxygen inside the beaker, the flame will be put out.

Our beaker simulation doesn’t produce the loud bang we often associate with fireworks because it is open to the air around it. The boom heard is actually all of the gas building up inside of the firecracker being expelled all at once, moving faster than the speed of sound, just like the pop heard when a balloon bursts.

One prevalent legend says fireworks were invented accidentally by a Chinese cook some 2,000 years ago, and the basic concept has remained the same over the years. If anything, precise timing of explosions in fireworks shows has made the spectacle all the more enjoyable.

So grab some apple pie, pull out a lawn chair, relax and enjoy the world’s most famous combustion reaction, celebrating America’s birthday in style!

Bring the wonders of the Houston Museum of Natural Science straight to you with HMNS Outreach! To book a presentation of Cool Chemistry, email outreach@hmns.org or call (713) 639-4758!

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Hey, Texas! Get outside and visit your wild neighbors.

Texans! Want to see exotic birds? Look out the window! Want to see 250,000 bats? Just go outside tonight and look up! As a wildlife teacher and outreach presenter for the museum, I’ve had a chance to talk with future generations about the amazing wildlife found in Texas. Usually students think you have to travel to exotic lands to see the really cool animals, and they’re shocked to hear about all of the incredible animals they’ve been living right next to in Texas.

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Texas wildlife artifacts for the mobile classroom. Sahil Patel

That’s why I was excited to see the new HMNS at Sugar Land exhibit Treehouses: Look Who’s Living in the Trees!, because it makes these critters more accessible and feeds a natural curiosity that most children already seem to have about wildlife. After visiting this exhibit, young naturalists may start asking questions like, “Who made those track marks?” and exclaiming things like, “I know what that scat came from!”, which would make any parent’s heart swell with pride. Luckily, Texas is the perfect place to raise a young naturalist.

Look in our trees and under our bridges, and you might have a chance to see the only true flying mammal: bats! (Sorry, “flying” squirrels. Gliding doesn’t count.) Texas has tons of bats. In fact, we have so many that they are often picked up on radar used for weather reports.

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Radar around the Bracken Cave in San Antonio shows a cloud of bats. Every blue dot is one in flight.

Everyone’s heard about the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin and the Bracken Bat Cave in San Antonio, but visit these locations in the winter and you might be disappointed to find they have migrated for the season. Drive just 15 minutes away from the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and you can see bats year round at Waugh Bridge. This bridge has roughly 250,000 Mexican free tailed bats who would love to meet you. Before you go, be sure to get them a Thank You card, because the bats under this one bridge in Houston eat up to 2.5 tons of insects each night!

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This Mexican free-tailed bat might look cute and cuddly, but don’t pick them up like you see in this picture. Being mammals, they can carry rabies. Report any bats that you find on the ground in the day time or behaving strangely. They could be sick.

This is the perfect season to visit Waugh Bridge, as baby Mexican free tail bats test out their flying skills for the first time in early July. Just be sure to watch nearby towers for local birds of prey, such as red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, who are keeping a watchful eye on these bats as a source of food.

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This peregrine falcon can reach speeds of 200 mph diving to catch its prey. This is a preserved specimen that travels to school with our Wildlife on Wheels program. Sahil Patel

In fact, Texas is a huge birding state. Individuals travel from all over the United States just to see the colorful migrants that pass through here, like Cerulean Warblers, Golden-cheeked Warblers, and Vermillion Flycatcher. Our Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife does a really nice job of highlighting some of the phenomenal birds that pay us a visit, for those of us (me) who do not have the patience for actual birding.

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Vermillion Flycatcher

Another adorable, and partially arboreal animal is the North American Porcupine.

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North American Porcupine

Looking for a kiss under the mistletoe this winter? This rodent is happy to oblige. Porcupines have been known to slowly amble up trees in search of mistletoe and pine needles when their preferred shrubbery is coated with snow. However, you may wish to rethink this close encounter, not only because of their dangerous defensive quills, but also because of their orange teeth.

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The orange coloration of the North American porcupine’s incisors is due to the high amount of iron in their enamel.

These teeth are not orange due to poor hygiene, but rather because of iron found in the enamel. This iron oxidizes, forming a rusty color. It’s the same reason your blood is red.

So Texans, get your wildlife education with HMNS and HMNS Sugar Land, then go out and explore! After all, now that you know their home address, it would be rude to ignore your neighbors…

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Geology Rocks! How I got involved with Occidental Petroleum

by Tania Campbell

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Here I am hiking the world famous Permian Reef Trail at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park to study carbonate rock outcrops.

I’ve worked as a production geologist for 11 years for Occidental Petroleum, and while that is a long run with one company in the energy industry, it has gone by fast. I remember being introduced to rocks in middle school, but by the time I was in high school, I was more interested in marine biology. I then went on to successfully complete a dual bachelor’s degree in marine science and geology, which laid the foundation for understanding carbonate rocks and basic geologic principles, starting me down my path as a production geologist.

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The Miami Circle, where American Indians carved a circular structural support out of bedrock limestone.

The first community project I got involved in that I attribute as a catalyst to my geology interest was working with an archaeological site called the Miami Circle. Approximately 2,000 years ago, American Indians used the bedrock limestone to carve out a perfect circle to support a structure. As a volunteer I only found a few animal artifacts, but I was most interested in the exposed limestone.

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A sample of core that has been cut and slabbed after it was taken from the subsurface in a well. A geologist will describe the rock types and features observed, and other interpretative data is combined to make geologic models and maps.

There are so many different kinds of specialties in geology that sometimes it can feel overwhelming trying to figure out what you want to do. I kept an open mind and set off to learn more with a master’s degree at a different school. It is highly recommended that geologists have their master’s if they want to work in the petroleum industry. I studied hydrogeology and petroleum geology for my master’s, which has helped me work better with team members from engineering backgrounds and develop further in my core profession of doing reservoir characterization. My role involves describing and modeling the layers of rock in the subsurface to predict the most favorable areas for continued secondary and tertiary hydrocarbon recovery.

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Hiking with other geologists through the canyon cuts to map the rock types and observe vertical stacking of the layers of carbonates and siliciclastics.

I am extremely thankful for my education and the career opportunities that have brought me to a place where I enjoy coming to work. Every day there is a different problem to tackle. Sometimes it requires communicating with engineers and understanding other types of non-geo data, or sometimes I need to go on a field trip to an outcrop or a core lab to visualize what the rocks could look like in the subsurface. Or Maybe that day I make maps of the reservoir. It is forever changing in the geology profession.

About the author: Tania Campbell is a production geologist with Oxy Permian Enhanced Oil Recovery, a global corporation partnered with the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Girls Exploring Math and Science (GEMS) program to help educate girls through hands-on science activities and outreach.

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