The Adventures of Archie the Wandering T. rex: France

by Karen Whitley

Hey there, devoted fans! Archie checking in. I can’t wait to tell you about my last adventure abroad.

After packing up from my last adventure to jolly ol’ England, I said “Cheers!” to the United Kingdom and boarded the Eurostar to France! Parlez-vous français anyone? Yeah, me neither, unfortunately. The Chunnel was great, zooming along an underground tunnel at 160 kph (that’s about 100 mph for us Americans) while changing countries, languages, currency, and even time! But the absolute best part was the jelly they served with breakfast! Oops, I mean the preserves. Don’t worry, I took a photo of the jar so we could all benefit! *Cough* I may have taken the rest of the jar with me. A dinosaur has to eat, after all.

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So after a scrumptious meal and a quick changeover in Lille, Nord-Pas-de-Calais we arrived at Disneyland Paris where we would be staying for our whole trip. Interesting note, all of the Disney hotels have American names. What can I say? It’s a small world. The parks were a lot of fun and we learned to get around the language barrier. They were amazing at accommodating people and dinosaurs from all over the world. Of course we managed to ask for the most important thing, une glace. At least that’s how the locals say cremèe glacée: ice cream!

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Despite how awesome the parks were, you can’t go all the way to France without checking out Paris proper. I was lucky to be with some veteran travelers who knew the ins and outs, so we took the metro to the Trocadéro stop to begin our new site-seeing adventure!

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Grr, argh!

After lunch under the Eiffel Tower (and let me tell you, you haven’t had a hot dog until you’ve had one in France. It was in a baguette!), we took a boat down the Seine to our final Paris destination. Can you guess?

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Notre Dame Cathedral was beyond spectacular, but I can’t tell you how excited I was to discover what was on top. Only 387 steps up (ok, I totally piggybacked that climb) I discovered what looked like some long lost cousins on my mother’s side. Oh boy, I really felt a connection here! I almost didn’t want to leave, but I had a new adventure just around the corner.

After my amazing summer trip, I headed back home to the Houston Museum of Natural Science just in time to join an Adult Education program that had us going to Germany to visit amazing museums and even some dig sites. Sprechen Sie deutsch? Yeah, that’s another no for me too. Anyway, the Bavarian countryside was absolutely beautiful and we enjoyed amazing weather throughout! We were even there for Oktoberfest. Prosit! The best part, and to me even better than beer, is staying at Schloss Eggersberg. My German may not be great, but one word I do know is schloss, or castle! My room was in the top corner of the castle in what would be considered a servants’ room. A grown man could spread his arms and touch both sides of the room! Looks like being 8.5 inches tall is paying off for once.

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With the program, one of the amazing sites we visited was Solnhofen, home of what they call a Lagerstatte, a site filled with wonderfully preserved fossils. They have found over 500 species in this one site, but the coolest thing (at least what I think) is that this is where the Archaeopteryx was first discovered, the earliest bird known to fossil record!

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We also visited the Messel Pit Fossil Site. Man, I had some fun here. This place is rich in fossils, including being where the much debated Ida was discovered about 30 years ago. Whether or not Ida is the missing link, Messel has provided the world with tens of thousands of amazing fossils. And an awesome replica of a Masillamys, which patrons are probably not encouraged to ride. But I did anyway. Woohoo, ride ‘em cowboy!

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After a week of enjoying the German countryside and exploring and learning about different fossil sites, it was back to HMNS again to prepare for my next trip. I can’t wait to tell you about my next adventure!

You can find Archie and the whole Adopt-a-Dino family in the HMNS Museum Store. Drop by and take one home!

Editor’s Note: Karen is the Assistant Birthday Party Manager for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Now Open: The Burke Baker Planetarium, Best in the World

It only takes a few seconds of a stellar light show in this newly-renovated facility to recognize why the Houston Museum of Natural Science is calling the Burke Baker Planetarium “the best and brightest in the world.” The clarity, the detail, the movement, the science, the imagery, all come together to create one of the most spectacular visions of the night sky you’ve ever seen, inside or outside the city. Part teaching tool, part adventure, a show at the planetarium is nothing short of magic.

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A seat in the Burke Baker Planetarium is like a seat on the edge of space.

The power of the visual feast is due to the combined renovations of the theater and the projection system. With the specialized dome in place, the Digistar 5 laser projection system now has a surface on which to display its full potential. Ten Sony projectors that shoot across the dome at different angles combine to create one giant 360-degree image with more than 50 million unique pixels, or twice the size of the largest movie theaters. Laser projection means bright, vibrant color, and a frame rate of 60 frames per second means this system displays close to what the eye sees in reality looking up at the night sky. The only thing is that this picture is clearer.

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This projection might as well be a photograph of deep space from the Hubble Telescope!

Take a look at some of the shots of the theater we took during today’s grand opening demonstration for a sneak peek, but don’t hesitate to come out and see for yourself. It’s the closest you can come to flying in space without actually suiting up!

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That’s not hyperspace; that’s the dome theater!

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See the constellations like the Greeks imagined them!

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NASA Astronaut Mario Runco introduced the Burke Baker Planetarium during our grand opening event Friday. Runco did physics research on the International Space Station using toys in space. Only the Burke Baker Planetarium has views of space like Runco has seen.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the renovated Friedkin Theater. Take a look at this time-lapse video that shows how much work we put into installing the dome!

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…)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!