51: More than just a number.

by Kaylee Gund

What’s in a number? They’re symbols we use to quantify the world around us, the basis for astrophysics and time measurement, and among the first things we learn in language.

5: right angle meets curve.

1: straight as a ruler.

Using some mental glue, stick these together and the result is 51, a random number, multiple of seventeen and three, a discrete semi-prime, and the whimsical subject of this blog entry. While probably not in the forefront of your conscious mind, the number 51 has more than a few significant meanings for the Houston Museum of Natural Science, enumerated below (pun intended).

  1. Years

Fifty-one years ago, the original Burke Baker Planetarium was built. The very first venue at the current HMNS, the Planetarium featured cutting-edge projector technology and quite literally made the nation see stars.

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The Planetarium closed Dec. 21, 2015 for a complete renovation, but will return better and sharper this March with cutting-edge optics, cloud-enabled digital projection technology, and more seating. Stay tuned to this blog and social media for updates on this exciting project!

  1. Telephone codes

Calling Peru? Dial 51.

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Luckily, a visit to South America can be arranged without costly international phone calls. Climb Mayan temple ruins, hear ancient fables come to life, and see one-of-a-kind artifacts in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a world hidden away on the third floor of the Museum.

  1. Electrons

Antimony (Sb): a soft, lustrous metal element, atomic number 51.

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Despite being relatively rare on its own, antimony can be found in mineral form with sulfur, a compound called stibnite. A huge sample of stibnite can be found in the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, looking more like a shiny porcupine than anything else, but stibnite was also used by ancient Egyptians. The poisonous qualities of antimony made it useful as a component of ancient eyeliner, as described in the Hall of Ancient Egypt. Painting the eyelids with a mild toxin made bacterial eye infections, a constant threat in the marshes of the Nile, much less likely to occur.

  1. Genetic breakthroughs

In 1952, the double helix structure of DNA was deduced with the help of an x-ray crystallography image called Photo 51.

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Often featured in school textbooks, the pivotal Photo 51, to the untrained eye, bears little resemblance to the 3-dimensional twisted ladder models of DNA, but visitors can always measure up against the enormous 3D model of our genetic material in the Welch Hall of Chemistry instead.

  1. Secrets

What happens in Area 51 stays in Area 51… the same could be said for the Museum’s offsite collections storage facility.

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Holding millions of artifacts and specimens, the facility is full of treasures never before on display. For those select few who want to delve deeper into the secrets of HMNS, limited behind-the-scenes tours are available – if you dare!

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Editor’s Note: Kaylee is the Project Manager/Data Analyst for Business Development and Budget at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Holiday How-to: Chocolate Leaves

My mom was a chemistry and home-ec teacher, so I grew up in a home where ingredients were carefully measured and food items were attractively arranged. While I got to help out in the kitchen as much as I wanted, I always liked being in the kitchen around the holidays. There were always new tricks or special touches added to dishes and along with these came short science lessons on why we were doing things that particular way.

One of my favorite things to help with in the kitchen were chocolate leaves. When done correctly, these are perfect little molds of the living leaf, just like the perfect molds and casts in the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

A chocolate leaf is made by smearing melted chocolate onto a leaf and putting it into the fridge to harden. Sounds easy, right? It is pretty easy. Read on!

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Activity: Chocolate Leaves

Materials:

Leaves (*See note in step 1.)

Chocolate candy melts

Parchment or wax paper

A cookie sheet or plate for your leaves to rest on as they cool

Procedure:

1. Pick your leaves. I like to use slightly waxy leaves so you don’t have to worry about fuzzy bits in your chocolate. NOTE: Learn about the plant you are picking leaves from before you decide to use them. Many household plants are decorative but poisonous.  Oleander is a great example of a plant that is pretty but poisonous. If you hate botany or don’t know about the Internet, getting pre-packaged basil or mint from the grocery store is a safe way to go. These leaves will be a little less firm, so you will need to be more careful with them.

2. Don’t pick leaves from poisonous plants. Seriously.

3. Wash your leaves with soap and water, rinse them thoroughly and then dry them completely. The chocolate won’t stick to wet leaves, so don’t rush this step. You will only be frustrated.

4. Put wax or parchment paper on a cookie sheet or plate. You want this to be something that will fit in the fridge with no problems.

5. Get out your candy melts. The melts come in a hundred colors. We are using chocolate colored ones in this tutorial. There will be instructions on the package on how to melt the specific brand of melts you purchased. In general, you will put the melts in a microwave safe bowl and microwave them a few seconds at a time stirring as you go. Don’t overheat the melts. They get gross and there is no coming back from that.

6. When you have everything melted and creamy, hold the leaf by its stem. I like pinching it between my thumb and index finger and then using my middle and ring finger to support the leaf. Do what feels comfortable to you.

7. Dip your stirring spoon into the chocolate. Use the BACK of the spoon to spread the chocolate on the leaf. Make sure the chocolate is thick enough that it won’t break when you try to peel it. Place the leaves on the parchment as you work, and don’t let them touch.

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8. The side of the leaf you use is up to you. If you are using mint and you put the chocolate on the back of the leaf, you will have some crazy patterns.  If you want something more subtle, use the front of the leaf. Coat the leaf almost to the edges. If you go too far, you will get ugly edges that are hard to peel. But don’t worry! Those leaves are the best to eat.

9. Put the tray of leaves in the fridge and wait a few minutes.

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10. When the chocolate is set, peel the leave off the chocolate. You should have a perfect little mold of your original leaf. This may take a little practice. Work quickly as you have something designed to melt with heat in your hot little hands.

11. Done! You can store the leaves in the fridge until you are ready to use them. If the leaves got soft when you were working with them, put them back in the fridge to firm them up. Once they are firm, you can toss them in a plastic container.

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Okay! So what’s the science here?

The word “chocolate” comes from the Nahuatl word Xocolatl for “bitter water,” referring to its original incarnation as a hot, spiced beverage in the Mayan and Aztec traditions. Traditionally, chocolate is a mixture of cacao powder, cocoa butter, and a sweetener. To make chocolate palatable and stable, we now mix milk solids, added flavors, modifiers, and preservatives.

Those candy melts? NOT CHOCOLATE! In this example, they are sort of chocolate colored, so they have that going for them, but they also come in a bunch of colors that are not known to nature so… not chocolate. They are mostly made of sugar and vegetable fats – not cocoa butter – and depending on the brand, they may throw in a little wax for better melting. Mmmmm… wax.

The advantage to the melts over the regular chocolate is that they do have the wax and the vegetable oil in them, which makes melting easier since the chocolate doesn’t need to be tempered. It hardens pretty quickly and sticks to whatever you dip in it, so it makes a great coating for cake pops or whatever crazy things show up on Pinterest this month.

Want to get super nerdy about your chocolate?  (I assume you do…) MIT has these tidbits available.

What’s in typical chocolate?

  • 10-20% cacao
  • 8-16% milk solids
  • 32-60% sugar
  • 10-20% cocoa butter
  • 2% theobromine and polyphenols

Cocoa Butter Chemistry

Fats and oils are organic molecules made up of three fatty acids chemically linked by an ester bond to glycerol. Fats are solid at room temperature, while oils are liquid.

Cocoa butter fats are made up predominantly by three major fatty acid molecules: Palmitic Acid, Stearic acid, and Oleic acid.

Oleic acid is unsaturated (has a double bond on its carbon chain), making it kinked and unable to pack well with other molecules. Because of this, a greater portion of oleic acid in the fat results in a lower melting temperature for the cocoa butter.

Chocolate makers can adjust the amounts of each fatty acid to produce a chocolate that melts only in the mouth, giving it a superior quality.

Tempering chocolate

The cocoa butter in chocolate can have several different crystal structures (three-dimensional patterns in which the fat molecules pack). There are six known chocolate crystal forms, or polymorphs. You can obtain each form by varying the fatty acid ratios and the temperature at which the chocolate is tempered (cooled).

Only a few of the polymorphs are considered good for gourmet chocolate because they give the right blend of snap (when you bite into the chocolate) and melting (when it warms up in your mouth). Melting is especially important because it controls how well the chocolate disperses and releases flavor onto your tongue.

Whether you will be constructing culinary masterpieces this fall or sitting back and enjoying the kitchen creations of others, we hope you have a happy holiday with you and yours!  (And when you’ve had a little too much togetherness, we will be open on Friday…)

With Soil, Make Me Wine: The Dirt on Growing Great Grapes

I like wine. And I make my own. Not huge batches, mind you. Just about 30 bottles per month in the winter months. I learned the hard way the chemistry of wine. If you let the wine get too hot while it’s fermenting, it can radically alter the taste.  I let one of my batches get above 95 degrees a few times this summer. I was making a port and the flavor was ruined. The entire batch came out tasting like welches grape juice. Flat, tasteless, 20 percent alcohol-by-volume grape juice. I only inflicted a few bottles on my friends.

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Good wine is a combination of science and art. There is the botany of the grapes. The meteorology of the climate. And the pedology. What’s pedology you ask? It’s the study of soil.  And since it is the International Year of Soils, we are going to get down and dirty with the effect of soil on one of my favorite drinks.

The ground beneath us is incredibly active. There are millions of different types of bacteria, fungi, and arthropods that give dirt everywhere its characteristics. If you’ve been taking the museum’s class on gardening and landscaping, you’ll understand the importance of the health of soil for plants. To briefly sum it up, good soil makes good crops. A shocking concept. But beyond that, what effects can the soil have on wine?

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The effect of soil and climate on wine is called terroir. Wine tasters with a good palates say they can discern the flavor of the soil in the wine. Scientists have begun to examine a comparison of terroir to wines in an attempt to explain this phenomenon but so far have not been able to. That doesn’t mean that the flavor of the soil isn’t in the wine; it just means more scientists will have to drink more good wines. That’s a study I want to be a part of!

Good soils will encourage the vines to produce grapes instead of growing more vine. So the best soils need to provide lots of water at just the right time and then be able to drain it away. And the soil needs to keep the right nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium available to the vine, which can help intensify the flavors in the grape.

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Tasting wine is about more than just “good” or “bad.” With an entire family of varietals out there in the world, it’s about what gives the wine its identity. Fans of wine, like me, like to get closer to the wine and the wine-making process through the quality of its flavor. And, oddly enough, tasting isn’t just about the taste. Wine Folly offers a five-step process to tasting wine, and explains a few things to be aware of. Here’s the basic process outlined in their blog.

  1. Look at the color. This goes deeper than just red and white. Ask yourself how it compares to other reds or whites in color. Gauge whether you can see through it. With practice, you can gauge whether the wine is bold, rich or viscous.
  2. Smell the wine, but swirl it around first to aerate it. Put the wine on the table and move the base in little circles, then shove your nose into the glass and take a big whiff. What do you smell?
  3. Taste the wine. Get enough of the wine to coat your entire tongue and roll it around in your mouth to maximize contact with all your taste buds. Don’t just think about flavor; think about texture and body, how it feels in your mouth. Does it have an alcoholic burn? Do the flavors match the smell?
  4. Decide whether to spit or swallow. You may have to drive later, or you may have 20 wines to taste and want to stay sober enough to think about all of them. If you hate the wine, spit it out. If you don’t want to waste it, swallow it. There’s no right or wrong choice.
  5. Think about the wine and formulate your own conclusions. Wine Folly states, “Wine tasting is a head game. Confidence and bold assertion can often make someone look like a pro.”

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Join us for a Periscope wine tasting with local experts, curators, and myself on Wednesday, November 18 at 3 p.m. You’ll see some live wine tasting where we’ll talk about terroir and suggest some wine pairings for Thanksgiving. And to celebrate the International Year of Soils, join us for a film screening of the Symphony of the Soil at the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre Dec. 1 at 6 p.m.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.