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.

Ice cream science: Make a cool treat to beat the summer heat

It’s getting to that time of year when it’s so hot and yucky outside that everything cold is better.

It’s also a time for telling kids about how, when you were their age, if you wanted ice cream you had to turn a crank until your arms fell off (presumably while walking uphill to school both ways and fighting off bears…).


Here in the Houston Museum of Natural Science education department, we have tried making ice cream in a variety of ways to see what is easiest for kids, and not all ways are equal. (Pro tip: Those special ice cream-making balls they sell for kids freeze shut, and then kids are sad. Not recommended.) Our favorite way, at the end of this post, is fairly cheap and easy and fun for kids, but before we get to the instructions, let’s talk about some science.

To make ice cream, you will of course need ice. The ice is simply to lower the temperature of the cream to the freezing point, but if you just used ice alone and let it sit, you’d end up with a solid block of cream – more like an ice cube – and it would take longer to freeze. What makes ice cream special is salt and stirring.


Water freezes at 32° F, but sprinkling salt on the ice lowers the freezing/melting point of water. How, you say? In order for liquid water to freeze to solid ice, all of the water molecules have to slow down enough to connect to each other and form solid crystals. When this happens, the water loses kinetic energy due to the decrease in movement of those molecules. Because temperature is a measurement of kinetic energy, this results in a lower temperature.

The presence of salt interferes with this process. The water molecules can’t attract each other as easily because they are also attracted to the sodium and chloride ions from the salt. Mixing the salt, ice, and water together results in a temperature below the freezing point of water, which helps the cream freeze faster. The shaking or stirring helps cool the cream evenly and efficiently. In ice cream, this lower freezing point turns the fats into solids, but the water content to be almost frozen.


What about the milk, then? It is much easier to make ice cream with creamer, heavy whipping cream, or half-and-half than to use skim milk because of the higher fat content in cream. You can make ice cream with skim milk, but it is really, really, really hard to do by hand, AND you have already committed to making ice cream, so I feel like you have acknowledged the inherent risk of fat consumption that comes with making a frozen confectionery delight. Just use the full-fat stuff, and let’s all move on.

What does the fat do, anyway? Primarily the higher fat content allows for a richer, creamier texture and a more delicious flavor in your finished product. The reason for this is that when you are cooling and mixing the cream, you are also introducing air molecules to the liquid. The bits of fat in the cream add a little structure to the ice cream and trap these air molecules in the solution as it forms. This, plus the lower freezing temperature, enables you to be able to scoop the ice cream fairly easily because it allows for there to be a bit of unfrozen water in the ice cream, which stops the ice cream from becoming a solid block of ice.


If you have ever had ice cream that has grown ice crystals and gotten a bit of freezer burn, those ice crystals appeared because the unfrozen water in the ice cream had a chance to migrate a little bit when the ice cream was warmed slightly on the ride home or when it was left on a counter a little too long and then frozen again. There are things called stabilizers added to your ice cream to prevent this from happening. Most ice creams today have one of five stabilizers added to them: carob bean gum* (a type of bean from Africa), carrageenan (a type of algae), guar gum (a type of legume from India), sodium alginate (made from seaweed) or carboxymethyl cellulose (sounds scary but it’s plant-based). Often, if you read the label, you will see more than one of these in your ice cream to keep it smooth and delicious.


* Carob beans, or locust beans, are cool. They are from exotic African trees and each bean is so similar that at one point they were used as a unit of measurement for gold and silver. We still use this measurement today, but the name has changed over time to Karat.

So now that you have had a little lecture about the science of ice cream, let’s get to the delicious lab work.


Activity: ICE CREAM!!!!


Individual serving containers of coffee creamer


Small waterproof container or quality sealable plastic sack big enough for about two or three cups of chipped ice

Salt, any variety

A dish towel to insulate your hands

Optional: Inexhaustible energy of small child-based labor



  1. Find some liquid coffee creamers in individual pots.
  2. Put ice in your water proof container, filling it about a third of the way. Smaller chunks of ice work better because there is more surface area, but any ice will do.
  3. Layer your salt on your ice. Several solid sprinkles will do, but if you are nervous about the quantity, add some extra just in case. It won’t hurt anything.
  4. Put your sealed creamer cup(s) in your container and then put more ice in, filling it about 2/3 of the way.
  5. Layer on more salt.
  6. Finish filling the container with ice.
  7. Start shaking your container. Make sure it is well sealed and that you have a firm grip on it. No one wants to be injured in an ice cream-related accident. There is no way to spin that so it sounds cool. Also, this is an excellent job for kids to help with. Put on a nice, long song or two and let them wiggle till they drop. About ten minutes will do it, but you will know when you are getting close because a frost will form on the outside of your container. If you don’t feel frost forming after a couple of minutes, add more salt. To speed this process up, start with creamer pods that have been stored in the fridge. This way, your creamer will start at about 50° F, and you won’t have to work so hard.
  8. After about 10 minutes of shake, shake, shaking your ice cream, dig your creamer cup out of the ice and wipe it off.
  9. Ta dah! You are done. Unless you want to make this tablespoon of delicious homemade ice cream into a sundae and add chocolate and banana or some jelly for more flavor.


Note: If you are thinking to yourself, “That seems like a lot of work for a tablespoon of ice cream,” well… it is. But it’s also science. So there.

If you get the liquid creamer that comes in a larger container at the grocery store, you can increase the volume of your creamer and make MORE ice cream. If you choose to do this, you will need to find a small waterproof (and I would suggest plastic) container to pour the creamer into and then a slightly larger waterproof container for all the ice and the salt. It’s the same procedure, just with a larger amount of the ingredients!



We can’t ignore the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: World Ocean Day aims to raise concern for plastic pollution

I once heard there is an island of plastic the size of Texas floating in the North Pacific. Turns out this is just a myth.

The truth is much, much worse.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not an island. You can’t stand on it or walk across it. It’s more like a cloud of suspended plastic particles ranging from the size of a person to microscopic. This patch isn’t just the size of Texas. It’s nearly as large as the United States, and it’s one of five oceanic areas with problems just as bad.

They’re called gyres, massive whirlpools that circulate the waters of the north and south Pacific, the north and south Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean, and all five of them are choked with plastic pollution. Scientists estimate there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean, or six times more plastic by dry weight than zooplankton, the most basic and common marine fauna that ultimately feeds the entire oceanic food web.


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches for thousands of miles across the north Pacific.

“Plastics have only been around for 100 years or so, and they’re already a huge problem,” said Shayla Andreas, Houston Zoo staff. “Plastic isn’t bad. It’s not evil. It has allowed for medical advances and other health applications. It’s just being overproduced.”

Think about all the plastic things you put into the trash can after using them only once. Soda straws. Water bottles. Coffee mixers. Grocery bags. Netting. Fishing line. Food wrappers. The purpose of this plastic is to keep your food clean and make access to it more convenient, but the plastic never goes away. It never degrades; it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces until it’s tiny enough for marine life to swallow.


Here’s where the plastic begins to affect not only our oceans, but ourselves. Plastics contain toxic chemicals and have the ability to absorb other compounds, which both leach out of the plastic over time. Fish eat the plastic, as do turtles, birds and whales, and if it doesn’t get caught up in the digestive tract and disrupt the absorption of nutrients, then the chemicals in the plastic inevitably poisons them. Fish and creatures pass the plastics in their guts on to the larger predators, until eventually, you have a whopper mackerel some fisherman pulls out of the ocean for sushi, its belly full of the plastic it has collected from the bellies of other fish, flesh tainted with chemicals that have entered its bloodstream. No one wants to eat that.


Beach cleanup is gyre cleanup, according to Eriksen. Oceanic gyres expel plastics into currents that eventually reach shorelines.

The point is, the plastic that’s meant to protect us could ultimately poison us. The greatest problem, according to Marcus Eriksen, Director of Research for the 5 Gyres research project, are microplastics, specifically microbeads that lately have appeared in cosmetic facial cleansers. These beads, no larger than a fleck of dirt, are used a single time as an exfoliant, then washed down the drain and into the sewers, which in turn enter watersheds that feed into the ocean. 5 Gyres claims this is the most dangerous source of plastic pollution, and Andreas agrees. Because of their minute size, microplastics affect the most marine life. Small fish can ingest the particles as well as some of the largest predators.


Microplastics are the greatest threat to the health of the ocean.

“The smaller the plastics are, the worse the problem is,” Andreas said. “Especially for baleen whales that eat krill. They filter out the water and the krill stays in the baleen, but so does the plastic.”

Cleanup of microplastics appears next to impossible, even for 20-year-old environmentalist Boyan Slat, Dutch inventor of a groundbreaking gyre cleanup array and founder of The Ocean Cleanup. His array involves a passive, angled catch system that floats on the surface of the ocean and uses the motion of gyre currents to funnel plastic into its vertex, where a solar-powered conveyor constantly lifts the pollution out of the water and into a single container.


20-year-old Dutchman Boyan Slat presents his proposal to deploy a giant plastic-catching array in the Pacific Ocean.

The mission of the non-profit is to deploy an enormous 100-kilometer-long array in the north Pacific, which Slat estimates will remove half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 10 years. Slat plans to deploy a smaller pilot array off the coast of Tsushima, an island between Japan and South Korea, in 2016. At 2000 meters in length, it will still be twice as long as the record-holder for the largest floating structure deployed in the ocean in history, the Tokyo Mega-Float, a floating airport.

But Slat’s array provides no solution for microplastics and smaller particles which will elude his array. His invention offers a promising, cost-effective, and feasible beginning to cleaning up the mess, but it won’t solve the problem completely, which Andreas believes starts at the point of sale for every consumer and with responsible manufacturing.

“It comes down to researching the products that you use. You have to care,” Andreas said. “And you have to get them to care about it. Taking initiative, behavioral change, is so easy to do. People have to make a concerted effort not to get them.”


Microbeads used in cosmetic facial cleansers are washed down the drain and enter the ocean via watersheds.

Consumers should consider choosing biodegradable alternatives to products that contain microbeads. Exfoliants should be made from natural materials.

Word is beginning to spread about the direness of the plastic pollution situation. The Houston Museum of Natural Science recently celebrated the United Nations-established World Oceans Day, an event that drew out about 2,000 people. Representative faculty from Rice University and Texas A&M University emphasized the importance of keeping plastic out of the ocean, and guests had an opportunity to estimate the amount of biomass living in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and look inside the stomach of a thresher shark specimen.

Code Pink's Jodie Evans at the Tedx - Great Pacific Garbage Patch Conference

Code Pink’s Jodie Evans at the Tedx – Great Pacific Garbage Patch Conference.

Plastic may make human life more convenient, but single-use plastics have become a problem that can no longer be ignored. The only viable solution may be better choices to prevent plastics from entering the ocean in the first place. Reuse plastic bottles or take your own refillable water container. Choose to bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store. Never toss plastic or any garbage into the environment. And always, always recycle.

Treat yourself (or your teacher) to the science of a mocha mask!

  In honor of teacher appreciation week, we’ve got an educator how-to that will make you feel like a million bucks! It’s a great gift for the teacher in your life as they finish up the school year. If you happen to be a teacher, then treat yourself to a 15-minute facial that can revitalize you for those last few weeks of school!Mask Ingredients

  First, grab a few ingredients from your pantry or your local grocery store. For a quick one-person batch, you will need ground coffee (2.5 teaspoons), cocoa powder (2.5 teaspoons), honey (1 teaspoon) and plain yogurt (4 teaspoons).Once you have all the ingredients, combine the ground coffee, cocoa powder and honey in a small bowl. If you are giving it as a gift, seal it up into a container and make a note to add four teaspoons of yogurt before applying it to the face. Don’t add the yogurt until you are almost ready to use the mask.

  When you’ve got 15 minutes all to yourself, add the yogurt to the bowl of other ingredients. Mix it all together and apply the mask to your face and neck, avoiding the eyes. The mask will take about 15 minutes to harden. Once it is hard, rinse your face. It will leave your skin with a radiant glow, and hopefully, this pampering will leave you with a little extra energy for the month ahead.



It may look a little weird at first…

  Now, let’s talk about some science behind this mocha mask! Your skin is the largest organ in your body, so we need to take care of it. It is made of several layers. The innermost layer is subcutaneous fat which stores your energy and helps control your body temperature. The next layer is the dermis, where you make sweat, create oil, and grow hair. This layer is very helpful because sweat helps cool the skin when it gets too hot, and oil allows our skin to be smooth and waterproof. The outermost layer is the epidermis, the layer we are targeting with the mocha mask! At the bottom, the epidermis creates new skin cells, and throughout the course of a month those skin cells travel to the surface and flake off. The coffee grounds in our mud mask will help get rid of some of our older skin cells. This can prevent clogged pores and harmful bacteria from growing on our skin. With this mask, we say, “Out with the old and in with the new!”

  Now that we’ve cleaned off the old skin cells, we need to make sure we didn’t take out all of the moisture from our skin. With too much washing, our skin loses oil, the natural protection created by the dermis. By adding yogurt to our mask, we are replacing the oil with moisturizers to help protect and hydrate our skin. In addition to yogurt, we added honey to our mask. Although we are using only a small amount of honey in our facial mask, the beneficial properties of honey are of note! For centuries, honey has been used as part of skin care in a number of different cultures. It has been used as an antibacterial and as an anti-inflammatory often to treat wounds. For our purposes, the small percentage of honey works as an antioxidant for our skin that can protect our skin cells from UV damage. It works a little like a natural sunscreen!


…but it’s actually quite refreshing!

  For those of you looking to make multiple batches as gifts, just keep the ratios for the ingredients. Also, hold off on the yogurt for now. You can make a note that tells your favorite teacher to add the yogurt when they are ready to apply the face mask!

Mocha Mask Recipe:

· Ground coffee – 2.5 parts

· Cocoa powder – 2.5 parts

· Honey – 1 part

· Plain yogurt – 4 parts

  To all of the teachers, we’d like to say a special thank you from The Houston Museum of Natural Science. Enjoy your mocha mask, and remember summer is just around the corner!