Explore Movie Monsters this Summer with All-New Special FX Camp

When I was a kid, I lived a couple of years in Singapore. There, at the time, the media was somewhat censored, so your TV viewing options on a Saturday afternoon were limited. Consequently, I have seen the 1981 film Clash of the Titans approximately 60 times. It was on the approved media list, apparently.


This cinematic masterpiece was produced by Ray Harryhausen, who was known for his special effects techniques well before CGI. What made his techniques fun was the use of stop-motion animation. This made things that would not have otherwise been possible suddenly within the realm of possibility and gave inspiration to some of today’s most famous directors such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.



For those of you born more recently, Monsters, Inc. threw back to the original Harryhausen. Think you can remember the reference? Here’s a photo of Harryhausen while you think about it…


Time’s up! “Harryhausen’s” was the name of the restaurant that Mike and Cecelia were canoodling in before Scully and an uninvited Boo interrupted their dinner. Did you get it right?



This summer, we will be introducing a new generation to the wonders of monster movie magic with a new camp called Monster Movie Maker. Campers will spend part of the day discovering the myths surrounding some of our favorite monsters and doing a little myth-busting with some science experiments; they will also learn the art of stop-motion animation as they create some monster movies of their own. Here are two non-monster related stop motion videos I made for practice.

Finally, they will spend the last part of the day learning some tips and techniques for monster transformation. Check out HMNS’s very own Kelsey, who was transformed from a regular gal to a sassy vampire. As the week progresses, so will the transformations. By the end of the week, campers will be working on applying prosthetics as part of their makeup magic.


Got a camper between ages 10 and 12, doesn’t have a latex allergy, and wants to come create with us? Click here and sign up for camp! There are only a handful of spots left!

Are you a grown-up who is too old for camp, but still wants to come play monster? Check back here in October. We will be posting some tutorials for some of the simpler monsters make-overs.

Already a monster but want to up your game? We will be offering some Monster Make-Over Classes for some of the more complex monsters this fall. Look for the September-October Museum News, the blog in September or the e-blasts in October for more information.

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.


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!


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!


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?



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.


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!


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!


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.


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.


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!


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


See the constellations like the Greeks imagined them!


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!


Activity: Chocolate Leaves


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


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.


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.


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.


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…)