Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 8/10-8/16

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! 


Last Week of Xplorations Summer Camp
Monday, August 10 – Friday, August, 14
Xplorations Summer Science Adventures are week-long, hands-on science summer camps featuring science activities for children ages 6 – 12. 

Lecture – NASA’s Year Of The Dwarves: Exploration Of Ceres And Pluto By Paul Schenk
Tuesday, August 11
6:30 p.m.
2015 marks the first exploration ever of dwarf planets. The two unprecedented missions-Dawn and New Horizons-will be mapping the icy dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto. Dr. Paul M. Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute will review the missions as they explore the inner and outer solar system, and will share the top questions scientists hope to answer with the data they gather. Dr. Schenk will show spectacular images taken just prior to the lecture as New Horizon reaches Pluto. Dr. Schenk is currently assisting the New Horizons team as plan Pluto encounter observations for July 2015 and was a participant in the Dawn mission to Vesta in 2011. He specializes in impact craters and other features on icy satellites from Jupiter to Neptune, and in 3-D imaging, which he uses to measure topography and create really amazing views.
This lecture is sponsored by the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

Perseid Meteor Shower
George Observatory
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
7:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m.
Join us as we watch the dazzling Perseid Meteor Shower! Beautiful earth-grazing meteors with colorful tails will light up the skies for all to enjoy during this annual summer meteor shower. Visitors should plan to bring a lawn chair, mosquito repellant, snacks and a blanket. No telescope required to enjoy the meteor show!
Admission fee: $7 (please note this does not include park fees)

Take Two: The Princess Bride 
Friday, August 14
7:00 p.m.
While home sick in bed, a young boy’s grandfather reads him a story called The Princess Bride.

Class – Creating Stone Age Tools
Saturday, August 15
9:00 a.m.
Discover how antler, stone and bone can be used to fashion a Paleolithic survival knife through proper percussion and pressure methods. Learn how to make an arrowhead by pressure alone and a simple stone knife using traditional hand tools. Your lithic art is yours to keep for your collection. Paleolithic archaeologist Gus Costa will teach the prehistoric skills needed to master the ancient art of stone tool making.

Mixers & Elixirs
Saturday, August 15
7:00 p.m.
The social set has never looked so smart! Mixers & Elixirs is back and it’s better than ever! We’re celebrating the year’s geekiest holidays with a cool twist, so pop on over to our place to mingle, clink your cocktail glass, and break out your best dance moves. Doors open at 7 p.m. for the live band, dancing, cash bars, and the city’s best food trucks. Hitting this scene is a sure sign of intelligence!
This event is for 21 and up only.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Saturn and Perseid meteors bright in August

Star map Aug

Saturn is now in the south-southwestern sky at dusk. It outshines the stars around it, so it’s also easy to see.

Mars emerges into the morning sky this month. Look for it low in the east at dawn.  Mars remains dimmer then average, though, and won’t rival the brighter stars until next spring.

Venus and Jupiter are in line with the Sun and out of sight this month. Venus emerges into the morning sky fairly quickly, though; try looking for it low in the east at dawn the last week of August.

The Big Dipper is left of the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the southwest at dusk.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its left. Saturn is to the right of the scorpion’s head. The Summer Triangle is almost overhead. The Great Square of Pegasus now rises soon after dusk, indicating that despite this 100 degree heat, autumn is on the way.



Moon Phases in August 2015:

Last Quarter: Aug. 6, 9:03 pm

New: Aug. 14, 9:53 am

First Quarter: Aug. 22, 2:31 pm

Full: Aug. 29, 1:35 pm;

The annual Perseid Meteor Shower peaks every year in mid-August—this year on Aug. 13. Remember that this is a shower, not a storm; you can expect a meteor per minute on average. Also, Earth is actually running into the meteor stream, rather than the meteors running into us. This means that the shower gets better as you get closer to dawn. Our George Observatory will be open late Wednesday night, Aug. 12, until 2 a.m. and Thursday, Aug. 13, for viewing the Perseids. 

For the Planetarium schedule, see

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer.  If you’re there, listen for my announcement. I generally do one such tour on short August evenings.

Clear Skies!


New images from Pluto break our hearts, excite our imaginations

Pluto has a heart. A big, icy heart surrounded by a sea of red. It was more of a fluke of photographic composition, a perfect angle for the shot that astronomers and engineers waited for more than nine years to receive, but nonetheless the image has served to anthropomorphize the dwarf planet enough to make us fall in love with it all over again.


Identified by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 as the ninth planet from the sun, Pluto fell from grace in 2006 when the International Astronomical Union contentiously demoted it to a dwarf planet, but it never fell from our imaginations. Pluto occupies the same region of space as peers of similar or greater size, including the more massive dwarf planet Eris, and now that we see it has a heart, we imagine it breaking.

Pluto is a lonely wanderer, its elliptical flying well above and below the main plane of the solar system and within the orbit of Neptune. Tuesday morning, the historic images from NASA’s New Horizons space probe revealed its pockmarked face, wrinkled with valleys and mountains, and blanketed in sheets of ice, supporting the character we have imagined over the past 85 years. No less an idiosyncratic body than Jupiter, Saturn, or our own life-supporting Earth, Pluto’s face, now lifted out of obfuscation, reminds us of the magic of other worlds and reignites the spark of possibility.


Clyde W. Tombaugh. Wikipedia Commons.

Not only have we become closer to this famous (and infamous) planetoid during the nine-year journey of the New Horizons, we have also succeeded in slinging a piece of engineering three billion miles at speeds greater than 30,000 miles per hour, maintained control through the veil of a four-hour lag time, and captured high-resolution photos. The images of Pluto represent the scientific precision of which we are now capable in 2015. Dr. Carolyn Sumners, Vice President of Astronomy and Physics at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, explains this feat in terms of scale using objects familiar to Houstonians.

“If the sun were the Astrodome, the Earth is a ball the diameter of a tall person in Pasadena, and Pluto is a ball about a foot in diameter out close to Amarillo. We aimed, and we hit it,” she said, adding that space is a very empty place.


HMNS hosted a flyby watch party in the Burke Baker Planetarium Tuesday, with streaming images from NASA.

To further complicate the logistics, engineers had to compensate for the movement of Pluto, looking into the distant future for the point of interception. They also factored in a slingshot around Jupiter, using its intense gravity to accelerate the probe to speeds much faster than it was launched.

“There’s a lot of very complicated, solid geometry and physics that went into the mission. That, to me, is the most impressive,” Sumners said.

Due to the four-hour delay, engineers had to send a command and cross their fingers for eight hours every time a button was pushed. Four hours out, four hours back. They could only trust in their math and hope that the spectrograph and camera were aimed at Pluto at the right time.

“We got our science right,” Sumners said. “That we can do something this technologically advanced that far away is amazing.”

Starry Night Express to Pluto banner

HMNS hosted a Pluto flyby watch party in the Burke Baker Planetarium, with guests including Fox News and KHOU. Beloved astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson made a cameo appearance over the Internet from his seat at the American Museum of Natural History. Visitors watched via live video stream as New Horizons came within 7,767 miles of Pluto at 6:49 a.m. CT. Houston Public Media highlights the significance of the event to our city and to the United States.

As the data from New Horizons continues to stream in over the next few months and areas of Pluto become more visible, scientists will begin the process of identifying and naming features of the planet’s surface. A day after the flyby, with the first close-up images sent by New Horizons, NASA has discovered ice mountains 11,000 feet high, comparable in height to the Rockies, and now we know it snows. Imagine that.

mountains on pluto

Ice mountains on Pluto.

At HMNS, the Planetarium has altered its Starry Night Express programming with a new major focus on incoming images and data from New Horizons. Guests can now get updates on the latest information about our famous dwarf planet during Starry Night Express: To Pluto! Visitors to the museum’s George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park on Saturday nights can see several planets with their own eyes and maybe even Pluto through the Gueymard Research Telescope if the night is perfect.

HMNS will host a lecture by Dr. Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute on the exploration of Ceres and Pluto Tuesday, August 11 at 6:30 p.m. Schenk, who is currently assisting NASA with Pluto research and was a participant in the Dawn mission to Vesta in 2011, will review the unprecedented explorations of the inner and outer solar system and share the top questions scientists hope to answer with the data they gather. Tickets $18, members $12.

HMNS changed the way I think about Earth, time, humanity, and natural history

After 90 days working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, here’s the verdict:

I love it here!

Through research required to compose and edit posts for this blog, I have learned about voracious snails, shark extinction, dinosaur match-ups, efforts to clean up ocean plastic pollution, Houston’s flooding cycle, a mysterious society in south China, and the inspiration for the design of costumes for Star Wars.


Look at the size of that T. rex! My love for the Houston Museum of Natural Science began with an affinity for dinosaurs.

I’ve learned about many, many other things, as well, and I could feasibly list them all here (this is a blog, after all, and electrons aren’t lazy; they’ll happily burden themselves with whatever information you require of them), but the point of this blog is to excite our readers into visiting the museum, not bore them with lists.

Coming to the museum is a grand adventure, and it’s my privilege to be here every day, poking through our collection and peering into the the crevices of history, finding the holes in what humanity knows about itself and speculating about the answer. That’s what science is all about, after all. Learning more about what you already know. Discovering that you’ve got much more left to discover.


As a writer, I identify with the oldest forms of written language, like this tablet of heiroglyphs. You can even find a replica of the Rosetta Stone in our collection!

When I took this job, I was a fan of dinosaurs and Earth science. I could explain the basic process of how a star is born and how the different classes of rock are formed. Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Now, I can tell you which dinosaurs lived in what era and the methods paleontologists use to unearth a fossilized skeleton. I know that a deep-space telescope owes its clarity to a mirror rather than a lens, and I can identify rhodochrosite (a beautiful word as well as a fascinating mineral) in its many forms. And there are quite a few.


Rhodochrosite. My favorite mineral. Look at that deep ruby that appears to glow from within, and it takes many other shapes.

I have pitted the age of the Earth against the age of meteorites that have fallen through its atmosphere and have been humbled. The oldest things in our collection existed before our planet! How incredible to be that close to something that was flying around in space, on its own adventure across the cosmos, while Earth was still a ball of magma congealing in the vacuum of space.

Time is as infinite as the universe, and being in this museum every day reminds me of the utter ephemeralness of human life. It advises not to waste a moment, and to learn from the wisdom of rock about the things we will never touch. Time and space reduce humanity to a tiny thing, but not insignificant. Our species is small and weak, but we are intelligent and industrious. We have learned about things we don’t understand from the things we do. The answers are out there if you know where to look for them.


Everything turns to stone eventually, even this gorgeous fossilized coral.

I was a print journalist for three years, and I am studying to become a professional writer of fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Don’t worry. It’s a low-residency program. I’m not going anywhere.) I am a creator of records of the human experience, according to those two occupations, and in some ways I still feel that as the editor of this blog, but there is a difference.


This epic battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid recalls scenes out of Herman Melville.

Here, rather than individual histories — the story of one person or of a family or of a hero and a villain — I’m recording our collective experience, our history as a significant species that participates, for better or worse, in forming the shape of this world. We were born, we taught ourselves to use tools, we erected great civilizations, we fought against one another, we died, those civilizations fell. We have traced our past through fossils and layers of rock and ice, we have tested the world around us, and we have made up our minds about where we fit into the mix.

We are a fascinating and beautiful people, and through science, we can discover our stories buried in the ground, often just beneath our feet. To me, this is the real mission of our museum. To tell the story of Earth, yes, but to tell it in terms of humanity. In the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, we wonder what makes certain minerals precious to us when they’re all spectacular. In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, we trace the fossil record back in time and wonder how things were and could have been had dinosaurs not gone extinct. In the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we connect with the little lives of insects, compare them to our own, and fall in love with our ecosystem all over again. In the Weiss Energy Hall, we learn how life and death create the fossil fuels that now power our society. We find both ingenuity and folly in the values of old civilizations in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.


These chrysalises, a powerful symbol of personal growth and change, teach a lesson in natural cycles and big beauty in tiny places.

I have often wondered how we justify placing a collection of anthropological and archaeological artifacts under the heading “natural science.” Why don’t we consider our institution more representative of “natural history?” In my first 90 days, I think I’ve found the answer. It’s not just about the story of humanity; it’s about the story of the science we have used to learn what we know.


The Houston Museum of Natural Science, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is truly one of a kind.

Our goal at HMNS is to inform and educate. To challenge your assumptions with evidence and bring the worlds and minds of scientists to students and the general public. It’s a grand endeavor, one that can enrich our society and improve it if we pay attention.

A ticket to the museum isn’t just a tour through marvels, it’s a glance in pieces at the story of becoming human. After 90 days here, by sifting through the past, I feel more involved in the creation of our future than I have ever been.

And that feels pretty great.