Making Geometric Images with a Smart Phone and a Teleidoscope

In 1817, Scottish inventor and optical scientist Sir David Brewster invented a tube with opposing mirrors running through it and beads of colored glass in one end. He called it the “kaleidoscope,” a word whose Greek roots mean “beautiful shape viewer,” which most of us have peered through and hooted in awe at around kindergarten age. It’s a simple design that capitalizes on a trick of light to incredible effects. Three mirrors arranged in a triangle reflect the light entering one end of the scope down the tube and across to each other. By the time it reaches your eye, it has reflected so many times it creates the effect of a precise geometric pattern that infinitely changes.


Sir David Brewster.

Back in the nineteenth century, when optics were a new thing, this wasn’t just awe-inspiring for children; even adults were impressed. But Sir Brewster neglected to patent his kaleidoscope, and others copied the new technology and began manufacturing it as a child’s toy, likely costing him millions in potential income and in reputation. Good thing he had other inventions to lean on.

Sir Brewster is responsible for inventing the first portable 3D viewing device, which he called the “lenticular stereoscope.” He built the first binocular camera, the lighthouse illuminator, the polyzonal lens, and two types of polarimeters, a scientific instrument used to measure the angle of rotation caused by passing light through an optically active substance. This last device is used in the chemical industry to test the properties of new substances.


John Lyon Burnside, III.

In 1972, the kaleidoscope’s potential was pushed a step further. John Lyon Burnside, III and Harry Hay patented a version of the geometry-creating tube that scrapped the bits of colored glass and replaced it with a spherical lens, allowing the viewer to point the viewing tube at any object in nature to see it reduplicated across the mirrors in the same way. They dubbed it the “teleidoscope.”


At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we sell both kaleidoscopes and teleidoscopes in the Museum Store. As a lover of photography, nature and geometric patterns, I experimented with this teleidoscope and my iPhone and captured some amazing images in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, and other locations around the museum. Some things work better than others, but for the most part, everything looks incredible through one of these bad boys.

Here’s how you do it, in photo steps. (You can get this awesome notebook at the Museum Store, as well.)


Grab a cool thing to take a photo of (or just go outside), and bring your teleidoscope and your smart phone or digital camera.


Hold the viewing end of the teleidoscope against the lens of your smart phone or digital camera. Make sure it’s tight and that there’s no light leaking around the edges. It takes some practice, but you’ll learn quickly.


Align your shot and snap it when you see a pattern you like. The edges will appear darker than the center. This is yet another property of light as it bounces around inside the scope.

And here are some of the images I made, cropped down to a square, eliminating the dark edges. What do you think?


Roof of the Cockrell Butterfly Center.


Mandrake the Corpse Flower.




Green fluorite and white barite.


Pink phalaenopsis orchid.


Orchid mantis.


Owl butterfly.


Rice paper butterfly.


Sandstone concretion.


Spondylus shell.




Giant squid model.




Zebra longwing butterfly.

Everything looks better through a teleidoscope! So buy one or make your own, and post your images on our social media. Your images look even better with Instagram filters! Don’t forget to tag us with #hmns and @hmns. We’d love to see what you come up with.


Earlier photo through Instagram’s Juno filter, with a few other adjustments I’ll keep secret. 😉

A Story of Workday Blues, or, How HMNS After Dark Improves Your Week

Monday inches along like a tectonic plate, and you feel the weight of the week on your shoulders. Mildred made the coffee wrong, but your boss doesn’t like waste, so you had to suffer through two mugs of the bitter swill because no one else would drink it and you’re the only one in the office with a caffeine addiction this strong. You hear Andrew yell at the copier again, and you wonder whether life wouldn’t be more exciting if we were raptors.


What you wish the office looked like.

You remember it’s been nearly a year since you’ve been to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The last time you were there, you learned raptors weren’t at all like the ones in Jurassic Park; those CGI characters were closer in size to Deinonychus. Velociraptors were only as large as a cat, and you remember wishing the little guys were still around so you could have one as a pet, then wondering what you might feed it — cats, maybe? ALF ate cats.


What you see when you imagine raptors eating cats.

Dude! You think. I’d totally rather be looking at dinosaurs than the walls of this cubicle right now. And the more you think about it, the stronger your urge to feed your scientific curiosity with a visit to HMNS.

By the time you’re about to punch out, you’ve already decided to venture to the museum to improve your mood. It’ll be a great way to unwind a little before heading home to walk the dog for your significant other. The dog can wait another hour or so; you need some time to yourself. This day has been awful. You send one last email, and with a huff, you swing your bag over your shoulder and you march out the door, your good-byes disingenuous.


The walk to your car.

It’s raining again, but with dinosaurs on the brain, it’s an acceptable discomfort. In fifteen minutes, you’ll be standing below a magnificent 40-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex. You round the corner onto Hermann Park Drive. Your heart thumps, faster, faster as the concrete building looms above you. The butterflies in your stomach remind you of the explosion of color at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, and the thought of color reminds you of the sparkling Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, and then, finally, you’re at the parking garage!


What you wish you could un-see.

Which is closed. It’s 5:25, and the museum has been shut down for the day. Worst Monday ever.

You get back home, walk the dog, take a shower with the water as hot as you can stand it, then go online to check the museum’s hours, dreading that you’ll have to wait it out until the weekend. But, lo and behold! They’re offering a new service — something called HMNS After Dark.

“You asked, and we answered,” you read. “For everyone who has wished for access to the museum in the cool evenings after work, here’s your chance… HMNS will stay open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 25!”

Holy cow! That’s this week! Bless my lucky stars!


What you wish you could always see.

You rub your eyes and double-check to make sure. But this ain’t no fiction, buster. This is the real thing! Everything’s awesome, and everything’s open. Looks like you won’t have to wait until the weekend after all.

That very night, you make plans with your significant other to come out to HMNS After Dark. Tuesday and Wednesday speed along after that.

My Little Stinky: Corpse Flower Cousin on Display at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Meet Lois’s baby cousin, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius. It may not be as large or as smelly as the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) that bloomed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in 2010, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome! It’s blooming in the Cockrell Butterfly Center right now, and by the end of the weekend, it should be fully open and ready for a big debut.

Amorphophallus paeoniifolius

A. paeoniifolius bloom beginning to open. Photo by Soni Holladay.

Lois and this flower, also known as the elephant foot yam, are both Aroids, being of the Amorphophallus genus, characterized by the spathe and spadix floral structure and sharing the same distinct life cycle. The plant consists of an underground storage organ called a tuber, which differ in size and shape between plants and species.

A. paeoniifolius 2

As the bloom began to open, we placed it in the CBC for our guests to observe. Photo by Soni Holladay.

When the conditions are right, A. paeoniifolius (pronounced pay-owe-knee-foe-lee-us) sends a single leaf out of the center of the tuber, which looks a lot like a small tree. The leaves typically have a tall, sometimes spotted or bumpy petiole resembling a tree trunk that branches out at the top to form leaflets. A paeoniifolius gets its name from the look of its leaflets, which recall the foliage of a peony plant. This leaf stage can last for several months — maybe up to a year — after which the leaf slowly starts to break down. It turns yellow, then brown, and eventually it falls over.


The spathe will continue to open through the weekend, giving the bloom the look of a skirt around the central spadix. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

The tuber then stays dormant for between three and nine months. If the tuber is developed enough to support an inflorescence, or flower growth, it will bloom. The blooms of an Amorphophallus are spectacular at any size, though not as stinky. Size doesn’t matter as far as stench goes. We sometimes have smaller species blooming in our greenhouses that can make your nosehairs curl.


This close, the bloom smells faintly sour, like dumpster garbage. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

As the plant continues to bloom, the spathe will widen and “collapse” open, giving it the look of a skirt around the spadix. Right now, it looks more like a collar. Come visit the CBC this weekend to have a look (and a smell) at this fascinating plant, on display right next to its larger cousin, currently in the “tree-like” stage of its life cycle.


A. titanum. Photo by Chris Arreaga.

Editor’s Note: The A. paeoniifolius flower enjoyed a long weekend at HMNS, then moved on to the next stage in its life cycle. Look for updates on this flower, the corpse flower and other Amorphophallus species on this blog and in social media.

Because That’s How You Get Ants: Flooding Causes Displaced Critters to Run for Shelter, Too

Most of you probably didn’t make it in to work today, and after my short drive to the Houston Museum of Natural Science this morning, I would say that was a good call. There were plenty of cars stalled in intersections, and I watched a sixteen-wheeler make a U-turn on 288 because the water level was too high under an overpass.  

Expensive car repairs aren’t the only reason to stay home during the flash floods we periodically experience. When the water rises, it carries with it everything that is buoyant.  This could be trash that was thrown out a car window, chemicals that spilled from a car during an accident or were poured down the drain, or the critters that live under the soil and in the bushes.


One of the most awesome and horrifying things you will hopefully never see during a flash flood is a raft of fire ants. These little guys instinctively know how to survive the catastrophic destruction of their home. They are light enough to float individually, but they stick together. This allows the ants at the base to hold up those above the water for a while. The roiling ball of ants turns constantly to allow every member of the ball to get a rest and to get enough oxygen. The ants at the edge are constantly looking for something dry on which they can cling. The instant they find a tree or a street sign, up everyone goes.

This is also horrific because sometimes that thing is you.


The ants, which are pretty upset at this point, will absolutely swarm you if you touch this little ball of hate. They will get to the highest point they can and then they will latch on.  With their piercing mouth parts. 

So, my friends. While I applaud an interest in the out-of-doors and making new friends, please wait until the city isn’t flooded to engage in both. Because sometimes you pick your friends…


…and sometimes they pick you!


Editor’s Note: Learn more about the behavior of ants and other insects at the Brown Hall of Entomology in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. (When the floodwaters recede, of course.)