About Guest Contributor

From distinguished lecturers to scientific scholars to visiting curators to volunteers to leaders in their respective fields, we often invite guest authors to contribute content to our blog. You'll find a wealth of information written by these fascinating individuals as we seek to expand your level of knowledge with every post.

SHARK!

This post was written by Diana Birney, Supervising Marine Biologist for our upcoming SHARK! exhibit, opening August 29, 2015.

We fear them, we love them, and we are fascinated by them. We have a whole week on television dedicated to them that draws millions of viewers every year. Humans have an amazing obsession with this interesting group of animals, especially considering that we really don’t know that much about them.

It’s clear from the popularity of movies like Jaws and Sharknado that we love to be scared by sharks. While there is a good reason to give sharks their space, they are not the crazed “man-eaters” that Hollywood has often portrayed. In fact, since 1911 there have only been two deaths and less than fifty unprovoked attacks by sharks in Texas.

You’re actually more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to be attacked by a shark.

However, every time you enter a body of water, you should go in with the knowledge that a shark could potentially be there. When it comes down to it, it’s their space — not ours.

That doesn’t mean that you can never go in the water again, it just means be smart about what you do in the ocean…

So go to the beach, bring your sunscreen (and reapply it often!). But also bring your knowledge of what lives in the habitat you are about frolic in. Feel like you don’t know enough? Don’t worry! Here’s a nice set of guidelines for your next trip:

1. Sharks aren’t searching for humans to eat

There is no evidence to suggest that sharks like eating people. In fact, considering the numbers of people that go to the beach and the attack statistics, it would seem that sharks DON’T like eating people. A beach is a potential buffet at certain times of the year, but the sharks don’t seem to take advantage of it (good news for us!).

When people do get bitten, it’s usually one bite and the shark lets go. This is similar to the other night when I had a plate of broccoli I was going to town on and ran into a bite of mushroom (I hate mushrooms). I promptly spit that nasty bite out and went back to my broccoli feast (YUM). Sharks tend to follow schools of fish or, for our larger shark friends, mammals such as seals. Schools tend to frequent coast lines and often when someone is bitten there is a school of fish in the area that the shark was intending to chow down on.

2. Sharks have AMAZING noses

Sharks can sense blood in a ratio of one part per million. They also have sensors on their noses called ampullae of Lorenzini. These are electroreceptors that can sense the electrical field given off by everything swimming around in the ocean — including you and me! If a wounded person or animal enters the water, a shark can be drawn to the blood but also to the electrolytes that pour out of the wound as well.

There is a common idea that punching a shark on the nose will make it less likely to attack you. This stems from the fact that the ampullae are all over the nose and punching the shark might disrupt the electroreceptors. Another reason this (sometimes) works is that most sharks like certain prey items and most of those prey items don’t know how to punch — giving the shark a strong clue that it won’t like eating you. 

However, it’s important to not just go around punching sharks… right under their nose is a huge mouth with lots of teeth, and you may end up just losing an arm instead of scaring the sharks.

3. “There’s a chance I’ll bite if you bother me too long” – sharks

This summer there was a shark bite incident off of the coast of California with a White Shark. A swimmer got too close to a fishing line that caught a shark. The shark had been on the line long enough to be mad at everyone and everything. When the swimmer approached it, unaware it was even there, the shark lashed out. The moral of the story is that sharks, like dogs and cats, have no way to communicate with us that they are uncomfortable or in pain. The only avenue available is their teeth. Many bites are exploratory or just to say “BACK OFF.” 

A good rule of thumb in any environment is that if it has teeth it can/will bite.

4) Stay with your swimming buddy

Having a buddy is essential for beach safety. Rip tides can pull even proficient swimmers down and out into the ocean (and are actually much more likely to happen to you than a shark attack). Sharks, just like other apex predators, e.g., lions, tend to go after prey that is separated from the pack — it makes for an easy dinner.  So if you are swimming alone a shark might think you are a solitary prey item. If you are with someone else, the shark might still think you are prey, but will be less likely to attack a small “pack” rather than a solitary animal.

The buddy system is also beneficial just in case something does happen. Your buddy can get help and report exactly what happened in case you are in shock or missing.

 

5) Daytime is the best playtime

Most sharks hunt at night, dawn and dusk when they can see the best. Fortunately, most people go to the beach during the day. Just be extra careful if you are going out in the evening or at night because the shark can see you better than you can see them, guaranteed. However, if you are in an area frequented by White Sharks remember that they tend to hunt during the day when their traditional prey are more active.

6) Play smart

It’s important to know what signs indicate a higher chance of sharks in the area. Sandbars and the drop offs around sand bars are a common shark hang out. Sharks can swim in extremely shallow water, so don’t let the low water level lull you into a false sense of security.

An easy sign of sharks to watch out for is the presence of other animals. I know it’s hard to stay back when you see a bunch of fish in the water (as a Marine Biologist, I can be guilty of not staying away from schooling fish), but sharks enjoy snacking on large groups of fish. We wouldn’t want you to end up a morsel in the shark’s buffet.

However, we can’t always see schooling fish. Don’t worry too much since there are more obvious signs you can watch out for including: birds, dolphins/porpoises and lots of splashing. Birds will attack schools from the air, so if you see many birds diving in a particular spot, you can safely assume there are fish there and will want to stay away from that location. Same with dolphins and porpoises. They eat a lot of the same foods that sharks eat, so do not assume there are no sharks just because you see dolphins.  Splashing is also a key sign to sharks that prey is in the area since schools of fish tend to ascend and splash around near the surface. So, again, stay away from areas that show signs of splashing, and it’s also a good idea to keep your splashing around to a minimum.

7) Know your local sharks

It’s also good to know your local sharks. The Gulf of Mexico is home to many different species, some sharks you might not see — much less have to worry about. Others, like the Bull shark account for all of the Texas deaths from sharks (don’t be too alarmed, again, there have only been 2 since 1911). We also have thresher (my personal favorite shark), nurse, blacktip, tiger, many different hammerhead species, and many more.

If you followed the news this summer, you might have seen a White Shark named Katherine approaching Texas. Katherine shows us that we can get Great White Sharks in the Gulf. For more information on Katherine and many other tagged sharks you can go to OCEARCH.org. If you are travelling and plan on going to the water, it’s helpful to know what sharks are in the area and how likely your are to see them.

In the long run, it’s important to remember that shark interactions are NOT common, you just want to be prepared and armed with knowledge whenever you hit the beach.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is teaming up with the Texas State Aquarium and OCEARCH to bring more information and awareness of sharks to Houston with our new SHARK! exhibit

Come visit to learn about (and even touch!) these amazing animals starting August 29!

Home Front: Lecture examines Texas history in WWII

By Guest Blogger Mike Vance, Houston Arts and Media

To picture the home front during World War II is to summon memories of drives for war bonds and scrap metal and rationing of sugar, meat and shoes. To be sure, it was a time that included all of those sacrifices and more. It was also, however, the beginning of a shift that would change Texas from rural to urban as half a million Texans moved to cities to fill industrial jobs.

Those industries were thriving from the war effort. Manufacturing in Texas quadrupled during WWII. Pipelines, refineries and petrochemicals blossomed on the upper Gulf Coast, and factories in the Metroplex churned out aircraft. Synthetic rubber was manufactured in the state, wood pulp operations were revived and Liberty ships were born on the Houston Ship Channel.

The state was home to a myriad of military bases. Tens of thousands of Americans were inducted or discharged in Texas. Training took place from one end of the state to the other, especially for the Army Air Corps, be it aviation mechanics in Wichita Falls, pilots in San Antonio or aerial gunners in Harlingen.

Scattered around Texas was the largest number of German prisoner of war camps in the United States. While much of the farm labor pool was away in the service, these captured Germans picked fruit and tended the fields and livestock.

All along the coast were anti-aircraft guns, concrete bunkers and even reconnaissance blimps. German U-boats did indeed ply Gulf waters, looking for Allied shipping.

Yet, the stories of Texas during the War don’t end with the effort to defeat the Axis powers. The early 1940s brought stirrings of social change. Women, still not allowed to serve on a jury, were suddenly doing essential work in factories or petrochemical labs.

Race relations showed signs of change, too. 1944 also saw a landmark Supreme Court case that ended the all-white democratic primaries in the state. When veterans of African or Mexican descent returned to their home state, they were much less inclined to silently accept the second-class status to which they had been relegated prior to the war.

Home Front: Texas in WWII is the fascinating, multi-layered story of soldiers, sailors and civilians selflessly working to fulfill a patriotic duty. It’s also politicians, civil rights, and young love. It is a story 70 years old that resonates loudly with the making of modern Texas.

Historian Mike Vance of Houston Arts and Media will give an overview of Home Front: Texas in WWII at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on August 26 in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre.

Home Front: Texas in WWII
Tuesday, August 26, 6:30 p.m.
Mike Vance, Historian
Tickets $18, HMNS Members $12
Purchase tickets: online by phone 713-639-4629 or at the HMNS Box Office.

Sharing The Love: HMNS Outreach fan mail shows kids and teachers agree, hands-on science is FUNdamental

Editor’s Note: This post was written by HMNS Outreach Presenter Sahil Patel.

Even with a brand new school year just around the corner, students, teachers, and parents alike are still raving about last year’s HMNS Outreach programs. During the 2013-14 school calendar, HMNS Outreach conducted about 500 presentations, helping foster a love of learning and science in thousands of children. But you don’t have to take our word for it; check out these comments, pictures and thank you notes, all from satisfied customers from around the Houston area and beyond!

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The cards, letters, comments, and notes posted below were sent to the Museum following Outreach presentations:


Our ever-popular Outreach programs have gotten some fantastic thank you cards over the years, featuring adorable artwork like the Triceratops below.

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Our programs get kids on the edge of their seats in excitement! It isn’t often real prehistoric fossils come to school…

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“My students thought the fossils were cool. I have one student that is a dinosaur “nut” and he was so excited!” wrote a teacher following a Chevron Earth Science on Wheels program. From dinosaur fossils to shark teeth, this program has something of interest for everybody.

 

…and the requests to return are endless once we leave!

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HMNS Outreach Programs have been fostering a love of science in children for years…

Outreach IMG 04“All of our students, parents, faculty and staff were highly impressed and appreciative to the docents’ time, knowledge and friendliness” wrote a supervisor following a Docents To Go program. Extensively trained Museum volunteers present on any of eight different topics in our lowest-price Outreach program. 


…for kids of all ages and backgrounds from all over Southeast Texas…

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“I enjoyed the fact that our students were able to see and ‘pet’ the insects. Also, the presenter introduced, treated and spoke about the insects like they were her own pets. She has deep passion for her work and it showed!” wrote a teacher about LyondellBasell Bugs On Wheels. Staff from the renowned Cockrell Butterfly Center will present bugs of all kinds, shapes, and sizes in a program sure to please even the entomophobic!

 

…leading to even the most unlikely of friendships!

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It’s great when kids think we’re super smart…

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…because that tells us they learned something.

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While we love hearing that kids enjoyed our programs…

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“The response was very enthusiastic. Numerous parents commented that they appreciated having the opportunity to let their children experience something that was both educational and fun,” a teacher wrote about Discovery Dome. The Museum’s most popular outreach program takes viewers on a voyage to outer space, a trip back in time, and more, with shows appealing for all ages.

 

…we are just as happy to hear that the students enjoyed being taught…

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“I have so many favorites from this presentation! Honestly, I think my teachers and I learned along with the students with this one!” wrote one teacher about our ConocoPhillips Science On Stage show. 2012 Educator of the Year Carolyn Leap leads the way as children and adults alike explore topics in chemistry and physics.

 

…and even happier to hear that it has spawned a love of science and learning!

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“Please have more programs like this one coming to school. It’s always fascinating for children to see live animals and not just pictures!” wrote a parent to a teacher following a TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels program. From salamanders and snakes to alligators and ferrets, kids get an up close and personal encounter with some of the museum’s exotic animals.

 

Inspiring children to consider STEM careers? We love that, too.

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And it’s always nice to know the teachers are pleased with us as well.

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“Love them all…you are a standard every year” another teacher wrote. Over 550 programs have already been booked for 2014, and spaces for 2015 and 2016 are already being filled!

 

The feelings are mutual. Our presenters love teaching and working with kids, and cards like these are why we love our jobs.

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All of the Outreach programs featured above are bookable for visits; we like to say we’re bringing the Museum to you. Bookings are already underway for the 2014-2015 school year, and programs are filling fast, so get in on the action today! For more information, please visit our HMNS Outreach website or send us an email at outreach@hmns.org!

About the author of this post:
Sahil has worked for HMNS in some capacity each summer since 2007 with the Moran Ecoteen Program and Xplorations Summer Camps. He quite literally grew up at the Museum; Sahil and his mom made biweekly trips at lunchtime until he started school at age 5, and he was a regular camper in Xplorations from ages 6-13. In 2014, he was hired full-time as Outreach Presenter, a job where his friends think he spends all day playing with alligators, tarantulas, and dinosaur fossils. He doesn’t like to contradict them.

 

Chemistry Demonstrations: This Eureka Moment is brought to you by HMNS Volunteers

Editor’s note: Today’s post was written by Tom Szlucha, a volunteer docent here at the Museum.

“EUREKA!” In his excitement, Archimedes runs down the street, naked and dripping wet from his bath. In this legend, he makes a discovery as he immerses himself in the bathtub and notices the water rise. 

It is this observation that leads to the solution to a problem that had been bothering him for some time.The king needs to know if the crown recently delivered by the goldsmith is pure gold or some cheap alloy — and Archimedes has found a way to determine what the crown’s made of!

This example of scientific discovery is based on the very simple observation of the water being displaced as a mass is lowered into it. Archimedes is obviously very excited by his discovery (maybe a bit too excited).

The ConocoPhillips “Hands-On” Demonstration Lab in the new Welch Hall of Chemistry stimulates this same sense of scientific discovery in visitors to HMNS (no bathtub for us though). Chemistry docents conduct hands-on experiments in this lab — experiments that teach, inspire and, most of all, are fun.

 

Now, back to Archimedes…According to the legend, he has to determine if the density of the metal in the crown is pure gold or a cheap alloy of gold.

He develops a very simple experiment to see if a density difference exists between the crown and gold. He places the crown on one side of a balance beam. On the opposite side, he places gold until the scale is balanced.

Then, he lowers the apparatus into a tub of water. If the balance tips to one side because the materials exhibit different buoyancy, then there is a difference in density — which would mean that a gold alloy was used to make the crown.

The principles of density and buoyancy involved in the Archimedes experiment are included in many of our chemistry demonstrations. The demonstrations are given by a group of dedicated HMNS chemistry docents. They come from a variety of backgrounds: chemists, engineers, educators, college students, and others. They have the enjoyment of making these fun, simple, and safe demonstrations that teach and instill an interest in physical science. In return, they are rewarded for their time and effort by seeing children smile with excitement as they make their own “Eureka!” discoveries.

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Tom Szlucha using the “pass-through” to set up

The theater area for these demonstrations is new and improved, a literal “step up” from the work cart that used to be parked in the old Chemistry Hall on the first floor. Downstairs, the new theater has a raised stage with large worktables in front and behind the presenter, allowing for multiple experimental setups. There are pass-through cabinets behind the rear table that facilitate the movement of materials from the preparation and a storage room located behind the stage.

Tom Szlucha in the prep room

Tom Szlucha in the prep room

The audience is seated on rows of black, rubber-coated cubes under the illumination of air molecules hanging from the ceiling. These molecules are different colors, proportionally representing the mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, and trace gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The suspended molecules make a perfect transition into experiments associated with gases. The demonstration area is enhanced with a well-tuned wireless sound system, making the presenter easily heard by the seated audience.

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There are a variety of experiments performed here, most using simple household materials. Almost every school kid knows how to make a “volcanic eruption” by mixing baking soda with vinegar. But did you know that this acid/base reaction is endothermic, meaning that it absorbs energy, thus creating a cooling effect? A product of this chemical reaction is carbon dioxide gas. Since carbon dioxide is denser (i.e., heavier) than air, it can be poured to extinguish a flame. This stunt can come off as a magic trick—there is no liquid involved as you pour the invisible gas and extinguish the candle flame. Other practical lessons are taught through simple experiments, answering questions such as why do we wash our hands with soap; how do scientists measure the strength of acids and bases; and what does a baby diaper have in common with Jell-O?

Chemistry docents have plenty of opportunities to interact with the audience by soliciting help with these experiments. Participants learn about material density when they make hard-boiled eggs float on salt water and sink in plain water. They help show that Diet Coke is less dense than regular Coke. But why? The explanation is somewhat shocking. The average twelve-ounce can of sugar-sweetened soda contains about forty grams of refined sugar. That’s about three heaping tablespoons of sugar!

Participants also make a rubber “Superball” out of white glue and a simple ingredient found in the laundry isle of the grocery store. This polymerization process utilizes the boron atom in Twenty Mule Team Borax to cross-link the chains of polymers found in casein-based white glue. This experiment helps to teach visitors about some of the characteristics of polymers.

Chemistry Superball

Audiences entertained at the ConocoPhillips Hands-On Chemistry Demonstration Lab range from large school groups to families and individuals spending the day at the museum. The demonstrator has to be somewhat flexible, modifying their routine for the audience that is present. Having multiple tables with large surfaces allows for a number of different experiments to be set up and ready to go. Some experiments may be more suited to a particular age group, so the presenter can pick and choose, thus customizing each show to the specific audience.

If you are interested in joining in the fun by becoming an HMNS volunteer, please visit the HMNS web site to learn more or fill out the short registration form by clicking here.

The Volunteer Office will invite you to come to the museum for a short “get-acquainted” interview and will provide information about upcoming orientation programs. You don’t need to be an expert already, just interested in science! Our fun and comprehensive program will teach you everything you need to know to feel confident working with visitors and students in the HMNS exhibition halls. You’ll get to meet smart and interesting people, learn about a variety of scientific subjects, and become an integral part of one of the nation’s most-visited museums! We look forward to meeting you soon!