51: More than just a number.

by Kaylee Gund

What’s in a number? They’re symbols we use to quantify the world around us, the basis for astrophysics and time measurement, and among the first things we learn in language.

5: right angle meets curve.

1: straight as a ruler.

Using some mental glue, stick these together and the result is 51, a random number, multiple of seventeen and three, a discrete semi-prime, and the whimsical subject of this blog entry. While probably not in the forefront of your conscious mind, the number 51 has more than a few significant meanings for the Houston Museum of Natural Science, enumerated below (pun intended).

  1. Years

Fifty-one years ago, the original Burke Baker Planetarium was built. The very first venue at the current HMNS, the Planetarium featured cutting-edge projector technology and quite literally made the nation see stars.


The Planetarium closed Dec. 21, 2015 for a complete renovation, but will return better and sharper this March with cutting-edge optics, cloud-enabled digital projection technology, and more seating. Stay tuned to this blog and social media for updates on this exciting project!

  1. Telephone codes

Calling Peru? Dial 51.


Luckily, a visit to South America can be arranged without costly international phone calls. Climb Mayan temple ruins, hear ancient fables come to life, and see one-of-a-kind artifacts in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a world hidden away on the third floor of the Museum.

  1. Electrons

Antimony (Sb): a soft, lustrous metal element, atomic number 51.


Despite being relatively rare on its own, antimony can be found in mineral form with sulfur, a compound called stibnite. A huge sample of stibnite can be found in the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, looking more like a shiny porcupine than anything else, but stibnite was also used by ancient Egyptians. The poisonous qualities of antimony made it useful as a component of ancient eyeliner, as described in the Hall of Ancient Egypt. Painting the eyelids with a mild toxin made bacterial eye infections, a constant threat in the marshes of the Nile, much less likely to occur.

  1. Genetic breakthroughs

In 1952, the double helix structure of DNA was deduced with the help of an x-ray crystallography image called Photo 51.


Often featured in school textbooks, the pivotal Photo 51, to the untrained eye, bears little resemblance to the 3-dimensional twisted ladder models of DNA, but visitors can always measure up against the enormous 3D model of our genetic material in the Welch Hall of Chemistry instead.

  1. Secrets

What happens in Area 51 stays in Area 51… the same could be said for the Museum’s offsite collections storage facility.


Holding millions of artifacts and specimens, the facility is full of treasures never before on display. For those select few who want to delve deeper into the secrets of HMNS, limited behind-the-scenes tours are available – if you dare!


Editor’s Note: Kaylee is the Project Manager/Data Analyst for Business Development and Budget at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

X-treme astronomy: Go behind-the-scenes of The X-Planets on April 18

In this day and age, it seems like everyone is trying to add some excitement to their lives. Now that we no longer have animals trying to hunt us and have enough infrastructure that one bad harvest won’t wipe us out, we’re looking for something to spend our excess energy on. People have taken to jumping off bridges with giant rubber bands, getting charged by bulls and jumping out of the way, or even eating fugu every chance they can.

Some of us less adventurous (and less crazy) folks have other ideas about how to heighten the adrenaline we get out of our hobbies. One of the more superficial ways to do this is to just add the word “extreme” (or, if we are hardcore enough, we might leave out the e and be “x-treme”).  It started out with extreme sports. Then it went to x-treme makeovers and weight loss.  And now, it has passed on to x-treme couponing. I expect x-treme snail fighting will be coming along some time soon.

While we could put the x-treme in front of astronomy to make it even more exciting, astronomy beat us to it with an “X” of its own: Extrasolar planets (called exoplanets or x-planets for short).

X-Planets: Now Playing at the Burke Baker Planetarium

An x-planet is a planet outside our sun system. Once thought to be purely fiction, there are over 860 such identified planets (and by the time you read this, the number will have gone up). The first definitive finding of an x-planet was in April of 1992 in orbit of PSR B1257+12. (Unfortunately there are a lot of stars out there without names and only unwieldy catalog numbers.) The first multiple planetary system was found in 1999, in the Upsilon Andromedae star system — only 44 light years away.

But the search is still on for other habitable planets. Alpha Centauri has a planet the right size, but far too hot. OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb (try pronouncing it, it’s a fun series of sounds) is larger than our planet, but too cold to support life. We have yet to find one that’s just right.  When we do, it will still be a long drive to check and see if we have some neighbors.

Until then, the best way to experience what an “alien world” might be like is the X-Planet show in the HMNS Burke Baker Planetarium. And what better way to experience it than after-hours with the creators of the show, Dr. Carolyn Sumners and Adam Barnes?

Explore exoplanets at the Burke Baker PlanetariumWhat: Behind-the-Scenes Tour of The X-Planets
When: Thursday, April 18 at 6 p.m.
Who: Dr. Carolyn Sumners and Adam Barnes
How Much: $18

Since its launch in 2009, NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Telescope has uncovered 2,740 new extra-solar planets, also known as exoplanets or X-planets. Now scientists are working to identify gases in the exoplanets’ atmospheres that can support life. It is just a matter of time before an “alien Earth ” is found. Join Dr. Carolyn Sumners and Adam Barnes of the Museum’s astronomy department for a behind-the-scenes look at the science behind X-Planets, the making of the film The X-Planets and a viewing of the film in the Burke Baker Planetarium. To purchase tickets and read more about the film, click here.

Looking for Clues to the Origins of the Universe

Ray Jayawardhana combs
Antartica for meteorites
on a snowmobile.
Photos courtesy Ray Jayawardhana

Astrophysicist Ray Jayawardhana will be at the Houston Museum of Natural Science this Thursday, April 7 giving a lively talk on the latest research in extrasolar planets and an update on the search for alien life and planets.

He will also be signing copies of his new book Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System, which offers an insider’s look at the cutting-edge science of today’s planet hunters, the prospects for discovering alien life, and the debate and controversies at the forefront of extrasolar-planet research.

Ray recently returned from the frigid ice of Antarctica where he went to look for meteorites—and he found them.

Meteorite found in Antartica
Photos courtesy Ray Jayawardhana

“Meteorites provide clues, they are leftover debris from our own solar system’s birth. Studying them is complimentary to what I do. But I’m not used to coming so close – within six inches – of the things I study.”
—Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics at University of Toronto.

Click here to hear more about Dr. Jayawardhana’s adventures in Antarctica and what he found in the ice. Make sure to check out his lecture on Strange New Worlds tomorrow night at 6:30 p.m.

Is anyone else out there? [Life in the Universe]

Are we alone in the universe? Is there intelligent life out there?

If you escape from the city lights and stare up at the night sky, you will see hundreds of stars. With a telescope you can see thousands, and with the help of the Hubble and computers we can see millions of stars.

Our sun has eight (nine if you’re sentimental like me) planets circling it. Not every star is going to have planets, but others will have multiple. How many million of unexplored planets are there out in the universe? Also remember that most of the stars we can see are located within our own galaxy, and that there are countless other galaxies with countless other stars and planets.

With so many billions of planets and moons, I personally believe there is at least some form of life out there in the universe. And although these may just be simple life forms, there is also a good chance that there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe.

For those of you who stare up at the night sky and wonder about the universe, we have a new planetarium show just for you, opening today.

Life in the Universe first explores our own solar system and discusses the possibility and likelihood of whether there could be simple life hidden somewhere beneath the surface of a planet or moon. Second, it delves into the galaxy and universe around us, discussing whether or not we might be alone in the universe, and why we haven’t been able to find anyone else so far.

For those of you who are interested in whether or not little green men might soon invade, or just want to learn more about the solar system, the galaxy and the universe that we live in, come on down to the Burke Baker Planetarium and check out Life in the Universe.