About Nicole

Nicole has worked for HMNS in some capacity since 1996, whether part-time, full-time or as a volunteer. She taught for seven years in public school, including four years in Fort Bend and a short stint overseas. While she never taught science, she was always the teacher called when someone needed to remove a swarm of bees, catch a snake in the playground, or get the bat off the ceiling of the cafeteria.

Because That’s How You Get Ants: Flooding Causes Displaced Critters to Run for Shelter, Too

Most of you probably didn’t make it in to work today, and after my short drive to the Houston Museum of Natural Science this morning, I would say that was a good call. There were plenty of cars stalled in intersections, and I watched a sixteen-wheeler make a U-turn on 288 because the water level was too high under an overpass.  

Expensive car repairs aren’t the only reason to stay home during the flash floods we periodically experience. When the water rises, it carries with it everything that is buoyant.  This could be trash that was thrown out a car window, chemicals that spilled from a car during an accident or were poured down the drain, or the critters that live under the soil and in the bushes.

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One of the most awesome and horrifying things you will hopefully never see during a flash flood is a raft of fire ants. These little guys instinctively know how to survive the catastrophic destruction of their home. They are light enough to float individually, but they stick together. This allows the ants at the base to hold up those above the water for a while. The roiling ball of ants turns constantly to allow every member of the ball to get a rest and to get enough oxygen. The ants at the edge are constantly looking for something dry on which they can cling. The instant they find a tree or a street sign, up everyone goes.

This is also horrific because sometimes that thing is you.

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The ants, which are pretty upset at this point, will absolutely swarm you if you touch this little ball of hate. They will get to the highest point they can and then they will latch on.  With their piercing mouth parts. 

So, my friends. While I applaud an interest in the out-of-doors and making new friends, please wait until the city isn’t flooded to engage in both. Because sometimes you pick your friends…

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…and sometimes they pick you!

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Editor’s Note: Learn more about the behavior of ants and other insects at the Brown Hall of Entomology in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. (When the floodwaters recede, of course.)

Doing American History Wrong: How I Won at Independence Hall

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Philadelphia. Everyone else was hot and bothered to see the birthplace of American democracy. I was excited to see the science museums: The Franklin Institute, The Academy of Natural Science, The Mutter and Independence Hall. (You read right on that last one.  Keep going…)

Next month, April 29 to be exact, we are opening a Wunderkabinet – a Cabinet of Curiosities. Our curiosities will be styled after those of Ferrante Imperato, an Italian apothecary who created, arguably, the most famous cabinet of curiosity in the world. But today you’ll be learning about Charles Wilson Peale’s cabinet of curiosities. Because he is super awesome.

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I’m not going to go into his backstory here, because it’s just too long, bizarre, and interesting on its own. I’m not going to talk about how he organized the first U.S. Scientific expedition in 1801 or how he went a-courting at the age of 88 or how they had to shoot the bear because it kept eating the rest of his collection. I will save that for another blog. (Honestly, it will probably be a couple of blog entries because I think Peale is super dreamy). Instead, today we are talking about Peale’s “Repository for Natural Curiosities,” his Philadelphia Museum.

I started my Peale sightings that day in Philadelphia at his grave, and all day long virtually every person I asked was very confused about why I cared about Peale, or they had no clue who he was. Half my morning was spent extolling the virtues of this wonderful American painter, scientist, statesman, entrepreneur and patriot. It was at the point when I had a crossing guard helping me look for a historical marker that I realized I had reached new heights of nerddom. Oh Peale, you make my heart flutter. 

Here’s the short(est possible) version of this tale. In 1786, Peale opened America’s first natural science museum to the public. It was known as the Philadelphia Museum, or colloquially as “Peale’s American Museum,” and was similar to that of Ferrante Imperato, in spirit. Peale was inquisitive himself and eager to instill that quality in others. Peale designed his museum to inspire a curiosity of the natural world and educate patrons about the diversity of life.

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So what does all this have to do with Independence Hall? Peale’s Museum started out as a small collection of portraits that he called “The Gallery of Great Men.” This gallery contained portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and many others, but it grew to include specimens when he had the opportunity to sketch a collection of mammoth bones. The bones drew a crowd and Peale recognized an opportunity when he saw one. He began collecting specimens and added them to his portrait gallery.

Over the years, as he grew out of one space, he’d move to another. This led him to rent spaces in two very prominent buildings in Philadelphia. The first place you might know is a small building next to Independence Hall, where he rented a small gallery. This is the current location of the American Philosophical Society, which Benjamin Franklin founded and of which Peale was a member. The second was the Pennsylvania State House, more commonly known now by its nickname, “Independence Hall.” It was officially named the Philadelphia Museum, but referred to as “Peale’s Museum.”

Peale created the first scientifically-organized museum of natural history in America. Museums didn’t really exist in Peale’s time and those that did weren’t public. Peale’s museum was open to anyone with a sense of wonder and 25 cents. The “Great School of Nature” is what Peale called it. Although you may not know his name, Peale was a peer of America’s greatest men. Franklin regularly corresponded with Peale and donated to Peale the corpse of his French angora cat to be put on display. Washington contributed a pair of golden pheasants. After the Lewis and Clark expedition, President Jefferson, a close friend of Peale’s, arranged for specimens to go to Peale.  

When I arrived at Independence Hall that morning, I was warmly received by Jane, a National Park Ranger, who assured me that I wasn’t doing American history wrong. I was apparently the only person ever to forgo the tour of the room in which the Declaration of Independence was signed in favor of seeing the rooms in which Peale housed his museum. 

Peale’s collection housed both local species, that the entire Peale family collected, as well as exotic items from abroad. Sea captains brought him a llama, an antelope, an ape, and monkeys — all kept outside until they died and were then preserved. The family also had a bald eagle who imprinted on Peale and lived atop Independence Hall.
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One of Peale’s biggest struggles was discovering the secret to preserving these specimens when they died. After much experimentation, he settled on an arsenic solution for the birds and smaller animals and bichloride of mercury for the larger specimens. It worked, but was extremely toxic. Peale believed the purpose of his museum was “to bring into view a world in miniature.” To do this, Peale used his artistic abilities to make the displays visually appealing. It was not just a bird in a case; his displays included painted landscapes with real branches and rocks. Peale’s innovative habitats would become the standard for museum practices in modern museums.  

In 1791, shortly after the death of his first wife, Peale found a new wife in a group who had come to visit the museum and a few weeks later they married. She inherited six boisterous children (by the day’s standard), a menagerie of wild animals and constant visitors to the museum. The kitchen, usually considered the woman’s domain at the time, doubled as a laboratory and taxidermy shop. The Peale family unanimously loved her. 

Peale accepted an offer from American Philosophical Society in 1794 to move the museum and his family into the Philosophical Hall. At this time, he switched his focus more wholly to science over art. Peale was the first to use Linnaean taxonomy in organizing a collection, whereas other Museums just presented a Wunderkabinet — a smattering of specimens. Also in 1794, he had a little boy whom he named Charles Linnaeus. In 1795, another son arrived and it was the members of the Philosophical Society that named him Franklin, by a majority vote, after their founder who died in 1790. 

In 1802, Peale asked Thomas Jefferson to establish a national museum 50 years before the inception of the Smithsonian. Jefferson agreed that this was an excellent idea, but couldn’t agree to give public government funds for the project. So Peale asked the Pennsylvania State Legislature to support his ever-growing collection. They agreed to let him use the upper floors of the main building, the tower and first floor east room in the Pennsylvania State House, now Independence Hall, except on Election Day, when they would need to let people come in to vote. 

When the new and improved museum opened to the public, it contained 4,000 insects, a large mineral collection, a grizzly bear, a buffalo, a hyena, an antelope and a llama. It also contained a lens focused in on the venom groove in a snake’s fangs and artifacts from Native American tribes, Polynesia and the Far East. It also housed machines, antiques, inventions and copies of famous statues. To liven things up, the Peale family also did live snake handling demonstrations and procured an organ for evening recitals.

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Floor plan from Peale’s museum.

The first three people to have a membership to the museum were George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — the acting President, Vice President and Secretary of State for the newly-formed United States of America. In fact, George Washington headed the annual membership drive. 

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Ticket to Peale’s museum.

At the age of 81 and at the request of the museum’s board, Peale painted one of his most well-known pieces of art, “The Artist and his Museum,” which is an amazing peek into the last version of Peale’s American Museum.

During his life, Peale never saw the establishment of a National History Museum and 20 years after his death, his collection was dispersed. Some of the scientific specimens were sold to P. T. Barnum and some were destroyed by a fire. “The Gallery of Great Men” was bought in bulk by the City of Philadelphia and is now on display in the Independence Hall National Historic Park Collection — just as Peale wished.

image6 Author’s Note: A big thank you to Park Ranger Jane who provided me with some pretty useful information and was willing to tolerate my unbridled enthusiasm!

 

Let’s Make an Art Journal

Let's Make an Art Journal

Something I have been thinking about for some time is starting a nature/art/travel journal. This little project has been sitting on the back burner for a while, but recently got moved directly to the front when I got the opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia for work.

I love the combination of compact information and artistic license that this type of journaling affords. I found these examples below during a quick search on Pinterest. There are a million different ways to create these journals but the three examples below most closely align with what I am thinking of creating.

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While I do have some experience with the arts and crafts, I have been hesitant to start this specific project.  Why? Here’s a fun fact:  I am not a very good drawer at drawing.  Seriously.

You know those books about combining circles to create body shapes and then animals? This is pretty much how I feel.

 

 

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You know those people who can draw three wiggly lines on a page and end up with a bird? This is not a skill I have. 

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In the past I have skirted around this issue by taking a picture of the thing I want to draw and then drawing that picture. This seems to work reasonably well for me. I can then focus on two dimensional shapes and the thing isn’t moving. I will also admit that it takes me a looonnnnggg time to fuss with the drawings to make sure they are accurate. Or at least reasonable.

So…limited ability combined with and abundance of enthusiasm…. This is going to be great.

In starting this journal, I had some stipulations for myself. I wanted it spiral bound so that it seemed more like a book when I was finished and, more practically, this gets the cover out of the way without bending the pages. Plus, if I want to rip out a page and send it to my mom or whatever, there’s not a raw jagged edge in the middle of the book like there would be in a bound book. I wanted a book with pages that were thicker than sketch paper and had more tooth than drawing paper because I didn’t want the images to bleed through and I also wanted to add color at some point. So, watercolor paper is what I picked. It is juuuuust thick enough that, if you don’t linger, your sharpie won’t bleed through.

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I also wanted a book with fewer pages than a sketch book. The first sketch books I looked at had 200 pages. This seemed like too much of an emotional commitment for a project that I wasn’t 100% sure about anyway. So off to Texas Art Supply I went, where I found this watercolor book with only 24 pages. Perfect!

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All the options.

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What I ended up with.

Step one in this project was to create a cover page. This was my mental equivalent to getting the first scratch on a new car. I did it while watching a movie and tried not to think too much about it. I just doodled and erased until I ended up with something that I liked. Once I had the letters outlined, I tried to add some details to make it a little more interesting.

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The second step was to set some “rules” for myself. These are the things I want to make sure I incorporate into each page. I decided on the following:

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• A date
• A location
• A picture
• Information about the picture. (This can also include questions to answer later about the subject matter.)

Everything else is subject to negotiation!

So the first entry into my brand new journal was about our adventures to Al uqair. On the second day of our trip our hosts very kindly took us into the desert to see this ancient fort of Islamic origins. The fort, which contained a market, a jail, customs offices, and more, has been there so long and was so continuously occupied, that no one is certain when it was established. Linked by some to Gerrha, and located a short distance from the fertile oasis of al hasa, Al uqair has been a well-established trading post for hundreds of years. Before that, thousands of years ago, and just 300 miles north, the Mesopotamian, Sumerian and Babylonian cultures flourished. More recently, in 1922, it was the site where political leaders met to define the borders between northeastern Saudia Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq and, to meet the needs of the Bedouin tribes, to determine a “neutral zone”.

I made this short .gif with an app on my phone so you can see the process I went through on this the first page of my journal. I kept forgetting to stop and take pictures so it goes pretty fast!

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Perfect Pixelations: Fine art with building blocks

If you’re like me, you’re not a grown-up, despite all indicators to the contrary, and as such, you like playing with toys. I like the challenge of a good puzzle, and I like the sense of completion that finishing it brings.

In preparing for Block Party, I wanted to create a pixelated image and the project turned out to be quite the puzzle. Instructions for this type of image aren’t really available online, but examples are fairly easy to come by. Armed with no actual information but a few ideas, I decided to try my hand at building one of these “paintings.”

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The first challenge is finding a good picture. Unless you have a large and wicked variety of building block colors and sizes, you’ll need something that’s fairly simple, doesn’t have a lot of shading, and is color blocked. If you’re nervous, practice with one of Mondrian’s paintings. This will help you understand the process and can be completed quickly.

Step two is “pixelating” the image. Because not everyone has fancy photo software, we’re going to cheat a little bit. First, find an image that you’d like to pixelate; then insert your image into a word document. You don’t need a particularly large or high quality image, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

Now, click on the picture so the “format picture” menu becomes available at the top of your document. Click “Artistic Effects” on the left side under “Color” and “Corrections.” Then click on the “light box” effect in the bottom left-hand corner. Once your picture has been “pixelated” you can right click the picture and open the “format picture” menu. This should bring up a menu bar on the right hand side of your word document.

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Click on the “Artistic Effects” option and then adjust the grid size until you feel comfortable with the level of “pixelization.”

Having trouble with your image? Let’s explore image quality. If you have a super high-resolution image, here’s what happens.

Original:

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High resolution version (1861 X 2636):

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This one doesn’t look like anything happened because there are so many pixels and they’re all so tiny. Not a good option. Now let’s look at the opposite end.

Here’s a low resolution version (85 X 100):

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This one has way too few pixels and so you can’t really tell what the image is supposed to be.

Somewhere in the middle (380 x 455):

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Not bad!

All of the images above have the light box grid set at 5. The “light box” function has to account for each of the pixels in the image, so the larger the picture, the more detailed and the harder your job will be when you try to reconstruct it.

SO! Now you have an image. Make your image as big as possible in your document and make the margins as small as your printer will allow. Print at least two copies of your image to work with. The pixels should be clear and easy to see when the image is printed out. Here’s what I ended up with:

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Please note:  Depending on your image, you will need an insane number of building blocks in a wide array of colors… Like a lot. I spent a ridiculous amount of time on eBay trying to round out my collection of single-stud yellows, pinks and oranges. I’m just saying.

One thing that might help you if you’re overwhelmed is using a black and white image. I used the image from above and recolored it to grayscale in the “Format Picture” menu under the “Color” option. Now you’ll only need gray, black and white building blocks.

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One last thing before we start constructing — you will need a base plate or base plates. These are cheap and easy to get on eBay, but you need to know how wide and how long to make your image. Count the number of squares going across the top (the width of the image) and the count the number of squares going down (the length). The image above is 29 pixels wide and 37 pixels long. The base plates come in a range of sizes but it’s going to be tricky to cobble the right combination together to make 29 x 37.  Instead I am going to aim for 30 x 40 and just expand the image on the top and the left.

At this point, you’ve got your image, you’ve got your base plates and you have an insane variety of building blocks. So let’s get building!

If your image is the same size or smaller than your base plates, you can skip this next step. If your image requires a couple of base plates to be used together, you may want to glue them to some sort of other surface such as a medium-density fiberboard or MDF, available at home improvement stores. You can also skip this step, but you’ll need to be more cognizant of your building brick placement as these will be the “glue” that holds everything together. You’ll also have a more difficult time transporting an image like this.  When you pick up the complete piece, the smaller base plates may fall off. There were a lot of upside-down cookie sheets involved with getting the completed Marilyn from my house to the Block Party exhibit in the museum.

Now if you’ve ever done a counted cross-stitch pattern, you’ll know how to count to the middle of your image and start radiating out from that center point. Since most of you probably haven’t tried your hand at counted cross-stitch, we are going to use an x,y axis grid instead.

Look at your image and figure out which two touching sides have the least amount going on. In both images, the top left has the least amount going on.

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By that, on Marilyn in particular, I mean that the image can be faked if it has to be extended to fill your base plate or a section can be totally cropped out if it is too big for your base plate.

The corner of the two busiest sides is going to be your 0,0 axis point. In Marilyn’s case, the bottom right corner is going to be the 0,0 axis. From this point, count up 10 pixels and make a horizontal line. Count up another ten pixels and make a second line. Continue this until you run out of image and then repeat vertically.

Mark your base plates every ten studs, so you don’t have to count all the time. You can do it with a permanent marker directly on the surface (it’ll get covered up anyway), or you can use sticky notes on the back of the base plates. Either way, this step will save you time and help keep you straight as you work.

Starting at your 0,0 spot, start working in those 10 x 10 squares you established. You can work in any direction, but if you skip around, make sure you use your markers. “There’s nothing worse than doing a section and realizing you’re off one line and having to move everything,“ says the voice of experience. 

Also, DO NOT WING IT. Someone in the office wanted to wing it using a slightly too large base plate and tried to incorporate the size difference while building. We started over because Marilyn looked like she was both expanding like a balloon and melting at the same time. It was awkward.

One issue I had while building is a lack of certain colors to finish a particular square. See zombie Marilyn below. There just wasn’t enough pink. BUT, because I had already marked my squares, my paper, and my base plates, I was able to just skip those spots without losing my place. In the pictures below you can both see my pencil marks on the printed Marilyn, and you can sort of see where I was folding the paper into the smaller squares so I could concentrate on one small spot.

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Almost done. I had to redo her lips because they looked weird.

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And the final product:

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And with that, I turn it over to you! You can build a prototype or test out your own ideas at Block Party, the perfect place to learn about building processes at HMNS.