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!

Here’s to the docents who dress! Costumes give volunteers an added educational edge

Editor’s note: Today’s post was written by Monica L. McHam, a volunteer docent here at the Museum.

“Wow, I didn’t recognize you with clothes on!”

I stopped short and spun around to see my friend and fellow docent, Carl Driever, standing there with an impish grin plastered across his face. Carl continued, “I only meant that I’m used to seeing you in costume, rather than in regular clothes.” With that, Carl whistled his way down the hall.

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Costumed docent Monica McHam welcomes Museum patrons to Magna Carta.

I thought about that conversation later and realized I do spend a lot of my time at HMNS in costume. Although costuming is not required (or even typical) for docents at our Museum, there is a group of docents that regularly dress for special exhibits such as Civil War, Titanic, and currently, Magna Carta.

Making a costume can take a lot of energy and a lot of time — and it can be pricey. On the other hand, the cost of buying an outfit could equal the GDP of a small developing country! So docents who dress tend to be handy — and have sewing skills. Depending on the time of the year and the exhibit in question, wearing a costume can leave you unbearably hot or miserably cold. Add in make-up, corsets, heels, and wigs, and I wondered, “Why do we dress?” I decided to find out by talking to some of my friends who also “dress for success.”

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Costumed Magna Carta docent Gillian Callen.

 

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Costumed Magna Carta docent Eileen Hatcher.

 

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Costumed Magna Carta docents Nancy Fischer and Kris Mills

I asked docent Kris Mills about dressing, and she had some very insightful comments.

She emphatically agreed that most costumes are hot; in fact, that is what she likes least about dressing. So, what does she like about dressing?

“I think it makes us approachable. We are less ‘teacherish,’ and perhaps less intimidating.” Then she confided that children “terrify” her (because she’s a bit shy)! And a costume is like a mask. “It helps get their attention and sometimes even their interest, but anonymously! Then we can have some fun.”

Nancy Fischer is a docent currently dressing in Magna Carta as the wife of a wealthy merchant. Like Kris, Nancy says dressing is a starting point for conversation. “Sometimes I’ll explain what character I am and then talk about the sumptuary laws and complain that I can’t wear certain colors or materials.” Nancy notes that this conversation often leads to a discussion of medieval life.

During tours of the Hall of Ancient Egypt, I am occasionally asked why I am wearing a shift when the women in the carvings are often bare “up there.” Like Kris and Nancy, I find this is a great introduction to a discussion of Egyptian art and the clothing of everyday Egyptians. I will admit, though, that the first time I was asked this question, by a third-grade boy, I wasn’t nearly as sanguine!

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Monica McHam “dressed for success” in the Hall of Ancient Egypt — without being “bare up there!”.

So we dress to inspire our patrons, with an added benefit of occasionally convincing other docents to jump on the bandwagon. Take Eileen Hatcher as an example: she decided to dress when she saw other docents “dedicated to costuming” and recognized that it was a fun and interesting way to interact with the public. She currently dresses as a poor peasant in Magna Carta — but elicits rich responses from Museum patrons!

Although docents who dress enjoy it and believe their efforts are worthwhile, occasionally patrons react in unexpected ways.

Kris relates the following story. “The first time I was in Titanic, I had laced myself too tightly into the corset and could not sit down the entire morning. Since I was representing the only woman who climbed out of a lifeboat back onto the Titanic, one kid said, ‘Well, you were pretty stupid, weren’t you?’

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First-class passengers for Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition in 2012. Museum docent Pat Hazlett.

 

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First-class passenger for Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition in 2012. Museum docent Kris Mills.

In addition to dealing with corsets, sometimes there is a “wardrobe malfunction” (albeit not of the Janet Jackson variety). Nancy says that the most embarrassing moment was when her headscarf slipped off in the middle of a Magna Carta tour. Knowing Nancy, I have a wonderful image of her holding her scarf with one hand, wrapping the other end of the scarf around her head with her other hand, and continuing her discussion of the relative merits of the English long bow versus the crossbow — without skipping a beat!

Docent Kathryn Fairbanks is often seen in Magna Carta near the Crusader knight, who sports a chain maille hauberk. Kathryn demonstrates the fine art of making chain maille to Museum patrons. While she does so, she dresses in a long black dress and swirling cape.

She says, “While wearing a costume is definitely one of my favorite parts of volunteering, it does have its drawbacks. One of my main problems is getting all the long, swirly cloak/dress/sleeves caught in the wheels of my rolling kit. It’s a minor problem to fix, but annoying when I have to stop every few minutes to retrieve my hemline.”

Like many other docents who dress, I find dressing fun — and I take every opportunity to do so. In recent years, my costumes have included a scribe’s wife for the Hall of Ancient Egypt, a coal stoker for Titanic, and an archaeologist for Lascaux Caves. Kris has dressed as a Civil War-era farm woman, a Renaissance noblewoman, and a first-class matron for Titanic, just to name a few. For Civil War, docent Pat Hazlett dressed as a genteel lady in purple satin with her grandmother’s cameo. For Titanic, Pat morphed into a first-class passenger who could have been the model for a fashion plate from a 1912 Ladies’ Home Journal. (Trivia alert: Ladies’ Home Journal was the first million-circulation magazine in America.)  

Discovering the Civil War with, from left to right, Monica McHam, museum staffer Rich Hutting, Kris Mills, and Pat Hazlett.

Discovering the Civil War. L to R: Monica McHam, Museum staffer Rich Hutting, Kris Mills, and Pat Hazlett.

Docents who dress agree that dressing helps them bring the exhibit to life and provides patrons with a more meaningful exhibition experience. But dressing is not just about patron interaction. Occasionally, there are personal experiences that can leave a talkative docent, well, speechless.

For example, if you dress as a gorgeous boyar noblewoman while driving to the Museum, you can expect to receive many strange looks from fellow Houston drivers. If driving while dressed as a gorgeous boyar noblewoman is not your cuppa tea, like Kris, that means you have to schlep the costume to the Museum, find a colleague to help you get into the many layers of satin and lace, tie all the ties, ensure the pearls hang just so, find someone to help you take it all off, and then, finally, schlep it all back home again.

Oh yes — somewhere in the midst of all the wardrobe details, you manage to give a tour in costume!

If, on the other hand, you are comfortable driving while dressed, you might get more than just looks. One night, driving home from an evening tour and still dressed as a Renaissance nun, I stopped at a fast food drive-through for late-night fortification. The cashier asked me, in all seriousness, to bless her! Now that was a big gulp! I simply told her that I was certain she was already blessed, took my drink, and hightailed it to the safety of my home.

Monica McHam as a Florentine Renaissance nun for Gems of the Medici—the costume that elicited the strange reaction at the local drive-through!

Monica McHam as a Florentine Renaissance nun for Gems of the Medici — the costume that elicited the strange reaction at the local drive-through.

Everyone at our Museum appreciates the many contributions of our more than 300 active docents. Our docents enhance the experience of Museum patrons by enhancing their fun, enriching their educational understanding, and providing a multifaceted appreciation of our permanent and special exhibits.

However, there is a special group of docents that go just one step further to enliven the experience of Museum patrons: docents who dress! Be sure to look for costumed docents on your next Museum visit — and be sure to offer them thanks for their creative efforts above and beyond the call of duty.

                               

Doing better: We heard you out, now we’ll fill you in

Hall_of_Ancient_EgyptRecently, we were featured in a Houston Press article, “10 Things the Houston Museum of Natural Science Could Do Better.” While we welcome both positive and negative feedback from our guests — from pithy tweets to local press — we now realize that we’ve been a bit remiss in filling you in on our master plan. So we thought we’d take this opportunity to share our plans with you. It may help clear up a few concerns and put some happenings here at the Museum into a “big picture” context.

You may have heard of (or visited!) the new Morian Hall of Paleontology. Or perhaps you’ve wandered the cavernous galleries inside our new Hall of Ancient Egypt. You may not realize it, but you’re visiting brand new permanent exhibition halls located in the new Dan L Duncan Family Wing that opened last summer. This expansion more than doubled the size of the Museum’s public exhibition space.

Now that the new wing is open, we are focusing the majority of our energy and resources into completely renovating and upgrading the preexisting, older permanent exhibition halls and displays.

In fact, we’ll be unveiling our newly revamped Welch Chemistry Hall in the fall of 2013. In 2014 and 2015, our Evelyn and Herbert Frensley Hall of African Wildlife and Graham Family Presentation of Ecology and Conservation Biomes and Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife will follow. Our vision is to enlarge, renovate, remodel, and refresh every permanent exhibit hall in the Museum within the next five to seven years.

We hope this explains why some seemingly small changes — while definitely important! — have taken a bit of a backseat to these gigantic renovations. As an institution, we are dedicating investments in time, energy and money to maintaining the Houston Museum of Natural Science as a world class collection of artifacts and exhibitions. Doing so will enrich the lives of our current patrons as well as future generations of nature and science lovers.

Of course, we know you’ve got questions for us. And as your hometown museum, we have answers for you. You’re always invited to send your suggestions, ideas, hopes, and dreams to us. We’re listening. Feel free to send an email to webeditor at hmns dot org if you’ve got something on your mind. We can’t guarantee immediate action on the particular request, but we can guarantee a real, live human being will respond.

Thank you so much for being the most important part of our community. We look forward to being your source for the latest and greatest in the scientific world for years to come!

X-treme astronomy: Go behind-the-scenes of The X-Planets on April 18

In this day and age, it seems like everyone is trying to add some excitement to their lives. Now that we no longer have animals trying to hunt us and have enough infrastructure that one bad harvest won’t wipe us out, we’re looking for something to spend our excess energy on. People have taken to jumping off bridges with giant rubber bands, getting charged by bulls and jumping out of the way, or even eating fugu every chance they can.

Some of us less adventurous (and less crazy) folks have other ideas about how to heighten the adrenaline we get out of our hobbies. One of the more superficial ways to do this is to just add the word “extreme” (or, if we are hardcore enough, we might leave out the e and be “x-treme”).  It started out with extreme sports. Then it went to x-treme makeovers and weight loss.  And now, it has passed on to x-treme couponing. I expect x-treme snail fighting will be coming along some time soon.

While we could put the x-treme in front of astronomy to make it even more exciting, astronomy beat us to it with an “X” of its own: Extrasolar planets (called exoplanets or x-planets for short).

X-Planets: Now Playing at the Burke Baker Planetarium

An x-planet is a planet outside our sun system. Once thought to be purely fiction, there are over 860 such identified planets (and by the time you read this, the number will have gone up). The first definitive finding of an x-planet was in April of 1992 in orbit of PSR B1257+12. (Unfortunately there are a lot of stars out there without names and only unwieldy catalog numbers.) The first multiple planetary system was found in 1999, in the Upsilon Andromedae star system — only 44 light years away.

But the search is still on for other habitable planets. Alpha Centauri has a planet the right size, but far too hot. OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb (try pronouncing it, it’s a fun series of sounds) is larger than our planet, but too cold to support life. We have yet to find one that’s just right.  When we do, it will still be a long drive to check and see if we have some neighbors.

Until then, the best way to experience what an “alien world” might be like is the X-Planet show in the HMNS Burke Baker Planetarium. And what better way to experience it than after-hours with the creators of the show, Dr. Carolyn Sumners and Adam Barnes?

Explore exoplanets at the Burke Baker PlanetariumWhat: Behind-the-Scenes Tour of The X-Planets
When: Thursday, April 18 at 6 p.m.
Who: Dr. Carolyn Sumners and Adam Barnes
How Much: $18

Since its launch in 2009, NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Telescope has uncovered 2,740 new extra-solar planets, also known as exoplanets or X-planets. Now scientists are working to identify gases in the exoplanets’ atmospheres that can support life. It is just a matter of time before an “alien Earth ” is found. Join Dr. Carolyn Sumners and Adam Barnes of the Museum’s astronomy department for a behind-the-scenes look at the science behind X-Planets, the making of the film The X-Planets and a viewing of the film in the Burke Baker Planetarium. To purchase tickets and read more about the film, click here.