Thank an archaeologist for human history on International Archaeology Day!

On Oct. 17, we celebrate International Archaeology Day. Last year, the Houston Museum of Natural Science participated on a large scale for the first time in a long time. This year, we will have our “Second Annual” version of the same. So what is archaeology and who are these characters that practice the art of archaeology anyway?

Ask anyone and they will answer “Indiana Jones!” when asked to name a famous archaeologist. Hollywood and the media in general tend to gravitate to this entertaining, but totally off the mark, representation of what it is to be an archaeologist.


Archaeologists are people who study the past. They do so with one goal in mind: reconstructing what our ancestors were up to. In the end, while we might find broken pottery, stone tools, or more sophisticated or larger artifacts, what really counts is the answer to questions like these: Who made this? Why? How? How long ago was this?

It takes a special person to be an archaeologist. Patience truly is a virtue. Doggedness comes to mind as well. It won’t hurt to be lucky, but having knowledge will guide you to that breakthrough you’ve been looking for. You’ll need willingness to continue learning, going hand-in-hand with the admission that you really don’t know all that much. All of these are good traits to have.

Luck is part of all this, but the insights archaeologists come up with and share with all of us can be a whole lot more interesting and head-scratching than any Indiana Jones movie. In that regard, archaeologists are like time travelers, our contemporaries who bring ancient cultures back to life, sometimes so much so that you can almost feel it and smell it.

Recently, I’ve been reading up on the presence of early humans in what is now called the Amazon rainforest. My perception of the prehistory of this huge area is changing quickly. Yes, there were early settlers in this part of the world. Paleoindians did reach Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and the Guyanas. Our knowledge of these early immigrants in this part of the world is so small compared to what we know of North American Paleoindians. But… all that is changing, thanks to the determined efforts of a handful of archaeologists, the very same people whose work and insights we celebrate on Oct. 17.

Take Dr. Anna Roosevelt, for example. A professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and a curator at the Field Museum in the same city, Dr. Roosevelt has been investigating early human presence in the Amazon for decades now. The information she and her team have uncovered now point to an Amazon region that was very different thousands of years ago — well before the arrival of the Europeans. It was so different that these Amazonian Paleoindians would have a hard time recognizing the current landscape, just as much as we have a hard time coming to grips with the existence of large, densely populated settlements in many portions of the Amazon.

Marajo Island - location (2)

Map of Brazil, with the location of Marajó Island.

To get to this point, Dr. Roosevelt and her colleagues worked for years in the Amazon, in places like Marajó Island as well as rivers further inland. Marajó, an island the size of Switzerland located at the mouth of the Amazon River, yielded evidence of densely-populated settlements, occupied for centuries. This research took years to complete in circumstances where creature comfort was sometimes a distant notion. It took perseverance as well, as the new data and new interpretations ran counter to older, more established explanations of the prehistory of the region. Research in the interior relied on the willingness of non-archaeologists to share news of interesting finds on private properties. Sadly such willingness is not always forthcoming, resulting in the loss of an unknown quantity of materials all over the world.

Building trust among the locals and upholding that reputation is not easy. One has to be determined, focused and dogged in the pursuit of knowledge. Dr. Roosevelt’s team checked off all these boxes, and came up with cool finds, some on land, some underwater.

Diving in the Xingu River, 2001

Archaeologist Dr. Anna Roosevelt diving in the Xingu River, 2001.

On International Archaeology Day, we pay homage to the work done by people like Dr. Roosevelt. Local archaeologists, professional and avocational, physical anthropologists, and artists who work on facial reconstructions will all be at HMNS. Museum docents will share their insights and enthusiasm about archaeology with hands-on experiences, pointing to the various halls in the museum where archaeology is covered. These include the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the section of human evolution in the Morian Hall of Paleontology. The event starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. Dig it!

Come to Energy Day for a fun look into the future (and for funnel cake)!

What do funnel cakes and energy have in common?

That’s not a question most people ask. Thankfully there’s an easy answer and that’s Houston’s Energy Day this Saturday, Oct. 17 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.! Houston’s Energy Day is the largest free family festival focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and they also have funnel cakes for sale! It’s a huge festival down in Sam Houston Park near the Heritage Society Museum.


You can expect lots of awesome booths with fun activates and giveaways, and something fun for everybody. At the Navy booth, you can drive an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) around a swimming pool. You can explore the interior of a NISSAN Leaf electric car. NASA will be on-site for cool giveaways, and both the Houston Rockets and the Houston Astros will have booths, so you can shoot some hoops and play a game of catch (though probably not at the same time).


In addition to all the fun activities, there will be an award ceremony for the winners of several contests that have been going on during the year, such as The Houston Geological Society/Houston Museum of Natural Science/Consumer Energy Alliance Art, Essay & Media Contests. Winning students and teachers will receive scholarship money and a photo holding the big check.

Art Essay and and Media Contest

Live music will play between the award ceremonies. Alongside all the festivities and funnel cakes, our museum will be there, of course! I’ll be playing with a Van de Graaf generator (shocking I know), we’ll have a cast of some dinosaur bones for you to touch, and much, much more.


So sleep in that Saturday and in the late morning, head down to Sam Houston Park for a free, fun-filled festival! See you there!

In the meantime, take a look at the rest of these other images from Energy Day in previous years.



Sports Science: Pitching!

We, as a nation, love applied physics. If anything, that’s all that sports are.

With the Houston Astros on the brink of advancing further in the 2015 Major League Baseball playoffs, take a look at this physics-based pitching preview of tonight’s American League Divisional Series Game 5 matchup between the Astros and the Kansas City Royals.

My baseball coach growing up was my friend’s dad, named Paul Mancillas. He loved to say that hitting was timing and that pitching was about disrupting that timing. He could not have been more correct. Baseball is a sport in which a fraction of a second can mean the difference between hitting a home run and swinging and missing a pitch.

The announced starter for the Astros is Collin McHugh, who was the winning pitcher in 19 games during the regular season as well as in Game 1 of this series in Kansas City. He relies on four types of pitches: a four-seam fastball, a curveball, a cutter, and a changeup.


The grip for a four-seam fastball sets two fingers across the stitching, held horizontally. The grip launches the ball into a backspin, causing greater acceleration through the air. Photo by: Jason Schaefer.

McHugh throws his fastball at approximately 90 miles per hour. This means that the ball will travel the 60 feet, 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate in approximately 458 milliseconds! Astros hitters will have even less time to react; the Royals’ expected starter Johnny Cueto throws his fastball at around 93 mph, so it will reach home plate in about 444 milliseconds!

AdairSwing (1)

An average MLB player can locate the moving baseball in about 140 milliseconds and swing his bat in approximately 150 milliseconds. So subtracting that away from the previous numbers, the batter has about 150 milliseconds to make the decision to swing or not swing at the pitch. Take too long to make the decision, and you swing too late and miss the pitch or foul it away to the opposite side.

But if a pitcher only throws fastballs at the same speed, he becomes too predictable, and a batter can easily time his swing to make good contact. That’s where the other pitches come in.


A wider, more even grip across the stitching makes a changeup move more slowly. Photo by: Jason Schaefer.

A changeup is a pitch that looks like a fastball while moving but arrives at the plate much more slowly. McHugh and Cueto each throw a changeup at around 83 mph, which travels to home plate in approximately 497 milliseconds. A batter expecting a fastball would start his swing 50 milliseconds early and, instead of hitting the ball with the fattest part of the bat, miss the pitch completely.


For a cutter or cut fastball, a slightly off-center grip causes the ball to curve right just before crossing the plate. Photo by: Jason Schaefer.

In addition to changes in speed, some pitchers rely on pitches that move horizontally or vertically. McHugh throws a cutter, or cut fastball, which has the speed of a fastball but moves horizontally right before it reaches home plate. A pitcher would hold the ball similarly to a fastball, but with a slightly off-center grip. Since a batter’s timing won’t be disrupted by a change in speed, this pitch is designed to create weaker contact with the ball. The barrel of the bat would be in one place while the ball would be in another, usually resulting in an easy-to-field ground ball.


A curveball relies on a different grip and throwing technique to achieve changes in both movement and speed. Photo by: Jason Schaefer.

Combine movement with change in speed to get the deadly curveball. A great curveball has what’s called 12-to-6 motion, meaning that it dips straight down as if going from the 12:00 position on a clock to 6:00. This occurs because of the spin of the ball. The rotation of the ball causes the air around it to rotate as well. As the air is ejected on the upper side of the ball, the ball itself moves in the opposite direction, downwards. This is Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion in action!


Proper curveball pitching technique calls for a sideways release of the ball. Photo by: Jason Schaefer.

In addition, many pitchers throw a curveball at least 10 mph slower than their fastball; McHugh actually throws his at around 74 mph, which reaches home plate in about 557 milliseconds, about 100 milliseconds slower than his fastball! The combination of reduced speed and change in direction makes hitting a curveball challenging for batters of all kinds.

The most important feature of the baseball to pitchers are the seams, those red stitches that hold the ball together. The stitches themselves create a disturbance in the air molecules around the ball, resulting in a clean pocket for the baseball to travel through with less resistance. This allows the ball to reach greater speeds.

baseball air turbulence

Want to see if you can hit a major league fastball? All you need is a ruler and a friend! Have your friend hold the ruler in the air, and position your finger and thumb around the 0 centimeter mark. Tell your friend to drop the ruler at some point without telling you when, and try to catch the ruler between your fingers. Note the position of your fingers on the ruler; if you caught the ruler in 11 centimeters or less, you have a reaction time of about 149.8 milliseconds, which would be just fast enough to hit a 90 mph pitch! Now you just have to work on swinging the bat in 150 milliseconds, too, and maybe you could be the next big thing on the 2016 Houston Astros!

Let’s go ‘stros!

Legend of the Peg Elves: Boy Scout Overnights offer a glimpse into museum folklore

The lights in the Morian Hall of Paleontology brighten and illuminate the Tyrannosaurus rex. The immersive soundscape in The Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife comes to life. The periodic table powers on in the Welch Hall of Chemistry. And the peg elves emerge.


When the lights go out in the museum, the exhibits seem to come to life. Legend has it this is when the peg elves emerge. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

That’s right. As the museum gears up for another day of exploring, learning, and excitement, the peg elves at the Houston Museum of Natural Science begin to stir. They have an important job to do. They are the protectors of the pegs.

The Foucault Pendulum is an icon at HMNS, just outside the Wiess Energy Hall. If you’ve ever found yourself walking through the exhibit halls and suddenly heard an uproar of cheering, then you know it happened; the pendulum has finally knocked over one of the wooden pegs. This happens once every 12 to 13 minutes and has captivated museum audiences for decades with its ability to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation. You can hear the disappointment when visitors feel certain the pendulum is going to knock down a peg, but it swings ever so slightly by it. It’s something I remember watching intently as a child. You root for the pendulum to mark the passage of time by knocking down one of those innocent pegs. It’s the spectator sport of HMNS.


The Foucault Pendulum outside the Wiess Energy Hall demonstrates the motion of the Earth as it rotates. It takes about 13 minutes for the pendulum to knock down a single peg, and it changes direction as our planet rotates beneath it. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

The kids who spend the night at the museum often ask us a lot of questions about the inner workings of the museum. Frequently, they want to know “How do you get those dinosaurs in here?”, “Does everything come to life at night?” and “Who sets all the pegs back up?” That’s when we tell them about the magical yet elusive HMNS peg elves.

Scotland has the Loch Ness Monster. The Himalayas have the Yeti. HMNS has peg elves. The peg elves are bearded creatures who inhabit the innermost workings of the museum. They wait in the depths of the museum for the pendulum to swing back and forth knocking each peg down. The sound of the peg clattering on the tile is music to their ears. It calls to them. It’s their mission and purpose to set those pegs back up.

Scanned Document

This composite sketch was created using eyewitness reports of the peg elves over the years. Reports identify the elves as typically wearing Santa hats and sunglasses, having pointy ears and beards, and reaching heights no taller than six inches.

Early in the morning before the first visitor enters the museum, the peg elves get to work. They move quickly and scamper over the walls surrounding the pegs. They place each peg with precision. The young elves observe with watchful eyes as the elders re-position the pegs. The physics of peg positioning is an art, so it’s only after a dutiful mentoring period that the younger elves are permitted to assist with the pegs. Young elves dream of the day they’re able to prop a peg up on their own. It’s a rite of passage in peg elf society.

After all the pegs are in place, the peg elves return quickly and quietly to their museum hideouts. They wait in the wings to hear that collective cheer as the pendulum swings. The peg elves know that it means there will be more work for them in the morning. After all, they are the guardians of the pendulum, the protectors of the pegs.

Peg Elf Footprints

Here you can see where we’ve successfully tracked a group of peg elves. The tiny footprints are evidence of their presence at HMNS.

Interested in sneaking a peak at the HMNS peg elves for yourself? Visit our Overnights page for information on how you can spend a night at the museum and get a glimpse of these mysterious creatures in the morning hours!

If you’re a Cub Scout or Webelos, register for our Scout Overnight on Oct. 9! You’ll get a chance to explore the museum after hours, see a Burke Baker Planetarium show and sleep in one of our renowned exhibit halls! Visit Scout Overnights or email us for more information!