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.

Ever wonder how fireworks… work wonders?

The Fourth of July just isn’t the same without pyrotechnics. And while the inevitable giant fireball from Dad lighting up the grill may be exciting in the moment, I’m actually referring to the giant chemistry demonstration we watch at night.

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Fireworks are basically a bunch of combustion reactions, which are rapid chemical reactions involving oxygen gas (O2) combining with another substance. These combustion reactions are exothermic, which means energy is released during the reaction in the form of heat, light, and sound.

A firecracker explosion is essentially one large combustion reaction involving black powder or gunpowder, which is made up of potassium nitrate (KNO3), charcoal, and sulfur. Potassium nitrate will provide oxygen to the reaction, while charcoal and sulfur will act as fuel. This reaction produces a lot of gas and heat in very little time, and all of that gas produced needs a place to go. When too much of it builds up in an enclosed space and the pressure becomes too great, you get an explosion.

The basic components of a firework are a fuse, tiny explosives called stars, and a burst charge that triggers the explosion. Precise timing is also helpful.

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First, you need an entirely separate explosion to get the firecracker up into the air. Typically to get the whole package airborne, you need what’s called a mortar, a long tube that directs the firecracker onward and upward away from bystanders. This explosion needs to be very controlled so you don’t set off the second firecracker inside, yet strong enough to get the whole package off the ground. A malfunction can have disastrous consequences. You can search for “fireworks fails” on YouTube for some disaster action.

When you light a firework, it’s not just one fuse; it’s two: the fuse that sends the firework up, and a time-delay fuse that is longer and burns more slowly, allowing the firecracker to gain some altitude before the second reaction begins. If the fuse is too short and the firecracker doesn’t fly high enough before exploding, it can get noisy (not to mention dangerous.)

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Once the time-delay fuse expires, the stars begin to explode. A burst charge will explode and expel the stars, spreading them out. The stars themselves may have different chemical components within, but the basic idea is still a combustion reaction. There is some sort of fuel reacting with oxygen and producing a lot of gas and heat.

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All those colors you see come from burning metals, which produce different wavelengths of light when heated. I don’t know how many of you have tried to burn metal before, but I can tell you from experience, it’s not easy.

We model this particular combustion reaction in one of our ConocoPhillips Science On Stage Outreach programs! Since lighting a firecracker in a school is a terrible idea, in Cool Chemistry, we use a fuel and some granular chloride salts in a beaker. When I light the fuel, I am beginning a combustion reaction that releases a lot of heat and will burn the metal salts.

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The red/pink flame is from the metal lithium, sometimes used in batteries. You’ll notice that in this photo, there is a large Nalgene beaker covering the beaker that used to be full of green flames. That Nalgene beaker is airtight and cuts off the flow of air in and out of the beaker. When this happens, no new oxygen is allowed to enter; once the combustion reaction has used all of the oxygen inside the beaker, the flame will be put out.

Our beaker simulation doesn’t produce the loud bang we often associate with fireworks because it is open to the air around it. The boom heard is actually all of the gas building up inside of the firecracker being expelled all at once, moving faster than the speed of sound, just like the pop heard when a balloon bursts.

One prevalent legend says fireworks were invented accidentally by a Chinese cook some 2,000 years ago, and the basic concept has remained the same over the years. If anything, precise timing of explosions in fireworks shows has made the spectacle all the more enjoyable.

So grab some apple pie, pull out a lawn chair, relax and enjoy the world’s most famous combustion reaction, celebrating America’s birthday in style!

Bring the wonders of the Houston Museum of Natural Science straight to you with HMNS Outreach! To book a presentation of Cool Chemistry, email outreach@hmns.org or call (713) 639-4758!

Geology Rocks! How I got involved with Occidental Petroleum

by Tania Campbell

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Here I am hiking the world famous Permian Reef Trail at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park to study carbonate rock outcrops.

I’ve worked as a production geologist for 11 years for Occidental Petroleum, and while that is a long run with one company in the energy industry, it has gone by fast. I remember being introduced to rocks in middle school, but by the time I was in high school, I was more interested in marine biology. I then went on to successfully complete a dual bachelor’s degree in marine science and geology, which laid the foundation for understanding carbonate rocks and basic geologic principles, starting me down my path as a production geologist.

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The Miami Circle, where American Indians carved a circular structural support out of bedrock limestone.

The first community project I got involved in that I attribute as a catalyst to my geology interest was working with an archaeological site called the Miami Circle. Approximately 2,000 years ago, American Indians used the bedrock limestone to carve out a perfect circle to support a structure. As a volunteer I only found a few animal artifacts, but I was most interested in the exposed limestone.

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A sample of core that has been cut and slabbed after it was taken from the subsurface in a well. A geologist will describe the rock types and features observed, and other interpretative data is combined to make geologic models and maps.

There are so many different kinds of specialties in geology that sometimes it can feel overwhelming trying to figure out what you want to do. I kept an open mind and set off to learn more with a master’s degree at a different school. It is highly recommended that geologists have their master’s if they want to work in the petroleum industry. I studied hydrogeology and petroleum geology for my master’s, which has helped me work better with team members from engineering backgrounds and develop further in my core profession of doing reservoir characterization. My role involves describing and modeling the layers of rock in the subsurface to predict the most favorable areas for continued secondary and tertiary hydrocarbon recovery.

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Hiking with other geologists through the canyon cuts to map the rock types and observe vertical stacking of the layers of carbonates and siliciclastics.

I am extremely thankful for my education and the career opportunities that have brought me to a place where I enjoy coming to work. Every day there is a different problem to tackle. Sometimes it requires communicating with engineers and understanding other types of non-geo data, or sometimes I need to go on a field trip to an outcrop or a core lab to visualize what the rocks could look like in the subsurface. Or Maybe that day I make maps of the reservoir. It is forever changing in the geology profession.

About the author: Tania Campbell is a production geologist with Oxy Permian Enhanced Oil Recovery, a global corporation partnered with the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Girls Exploring Math and Science (GEMS) program to help educate girls through hands-on science activities and outreach.

Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 6/29-7/5

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!

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Lecture – Climate And The Demise Of Maya Civilization By Andre Droxler
Monday, June 29
6:30 p.m.
Climate conditions in the Maya’s time can be retrieved from the earth revealing that climate conditions influenced the destiny of the Maya. Geological data from Belize’s Central Shelf Lagoon and Blue Hole, areas proximal to where Maya Civilization thrived and then abruptly collapse are revealing that weather—rainfall fluctuations and frequent tropical cyclones—may have forced the Maya to abandon their sophisticated cities. Dr. André Droxler of the Center for the Study of the Environment and Society at Rice University will explain how Earth science is helping decode the history of the Maya. A special evening screening of Fate of the Maya in the Burke Baker Planetarium at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. is complimentary for lecture ticket holders.

Lecture – The Threat Of Asteroid Impacts By David Kring, Ph. D.
Tuesday, June 30

6:30 p.m.
In 2013 the world was riveted by the impact of an asteroid near the Russian town of Chelyabinsk, where over 1,000 people were injured. It was an eerie reminder of another, bigger, impact event that flattened a forest near the Tunguska River in Siberia on June 30, 1908 – and a modern-day example of the immense dinosaur-killing Chicxulub impact event in the Yucatán. Dr. David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute will describe how these types of impacts events have scarred Earth in the geologic past, the magnitude of their persisting threat today, and the steps we might take to mitigate these types of calamitous events in the future. A special evening screening of Impact in the Burke Baker Planetarium at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. is complimentary for lecture ticket holders to help celebrate Asteroid Day 2015.

Take Two: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
Friday, July 3
7:00 p.m.
After an encounter with a U.F.O., a line worker feels undeniably drawn to an isolated area in the wilderness where something spectacular is about to happen.