Science Doesn’t Sleep (8.21.08)

LED
What does this sound like?
Creative Commons License photo credit: yuri_koval

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

A new population of a species of rare leopards has been discovered in the forest in Borneo – providing new hope for this endangered species.

By analyzing Oetzi the Iceman’s clothing, scientists have discovered that the famous Neolithic man favored fashions made from sheep and cattle – indicating he was a herdsman. Their technique could have an impact on today’s fashion industry.

Can you hear light? New research thinks you can do anything you put your mind to.

Couldn’t afford a satellite for Christmas last year? Not to worry – they’re getting smaller - and cheaper.

Proof that you never know what you’ll find on eBay: a scientists bought a fossilized bug online and it turned out to be a previously unknown species of aphid.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (8.20.08)

Highway One
Creative Commons License photo credit: billaday

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

With dead zones expanding and a growing continent of plastic – is it too late to save the ocean?

It’s coming! Here’s an update on CERN’s progress as we countdown to the big day (they throw the switch Sept. 10.)

Shipwrecks: not just bad for the boat. New evidence suggests that coral reefs are victims, too.

Shocker: the current mass extinction may not be the only one humans are responsible for.

Japan has mandated that products are printed with information about their carbon footprint. Will people pay attention?

A Chicago man recently passed a tapeworm. A tapeworm that’s taller than he is.

All hail the underdog: the Olympics are full of elite athletes who science says shouldn’t be the best.

A Windy Day

Sphere
Creative Commons License photo credit: allegra_

Houston always has the biggest and best—being the energy capital of the world we have to honor one of the best alternative energies – WIND. The week of June 1 we had the largest Wind Power 2008 Conference and Exhibition in the world at the George R. Brown convention center, sponsored by the American Wind Energy Association or AWEA.

This was a total learning experience for me. Do you know what a nacelle is? Neither did I until I attended the NEED teacher workshop at the conference. NEED is considered the best energy education resource in the world. NEED workshops provide staff development and continuing education for teachers and sometimes even graduate credit. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is always honored to be associated with this exceptional group and is planning many NEED workshops at the HMNS during the next school year.

The NEED Wind Energy workshop was one of the most valuable and fun workshops I have attended.

Flame Shake-up
Creative Commons License photo credit: Joshua Davis (jdavis.info)

Mainly we learned why we should teach about wind energy – it is one of the fastest growing, cheapest, renewable, environmentally friendly, energy sources available. Every state in the U.S. has wind energy sources. The country that uses the most wind energy is Germany; Spain is second and the U.S. is third, which uses about half as much as Germany. Texas produces the most wind energy in the U.S.  The city of Houston starting July 1 will get 1/5 of its energy from wind for the next 5 years. This includes city owned facilities such as airports, police stations, fire stations, and water treatment plants.

Towards the end of the seminar, Ian Baring-Gould,  Senior Mechanical Engineer with the National Wind Technology Center in Golden Colorado told us about the Wind for Schools Program.  Even though the program is not for Texas, we can still use the ideas. Ian was referred to as the “guru of wind energy”, so I filed his name into my brain under “valuable people to know.” He also fell under, “nice people to talk with.” One of the coolest things he said was that they have a wind energy “graveyard” up in Golden where they do research. He said that I can come dig around and see if there is anything I could use to help teach my teachers back in Houston. WOOHOO I am always game for a great garage sale.

Then the teachers created model wind turbines. Our group created the fasted which produced 320 microvolts. That is me looking rather skeptical along with Sharon Fontaine, Science Content Specialist with Houston ISD, building our turbine.

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At the end of the day the teachers got to go into the Exhibition Hall and visit all of the exhibits. I continued to gather information about wind energy and met many fascinating people from all over the world. Most of the displays were rather ordinary but some were quite an experience. You could actually peer into a nacelle and see its inner workings.

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You could get an idea of how huge the blades are by standing next to a cross section of one:

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This company was quite extravagant in its display:

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If you ever have a chance to go to any of these energy conferences – do. Its fun to walk around seeing all the different yet related industries, and you get such a great sense of the global economy.

Dimetrodon sighting

In search of it’s next meal, a very rare young Dimetrodon stumbles upon a group of working paleontologists…surprised, its fin stands straight up in a threat display, and it’s front two killing fangs are poised for action…

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Juuuuuust kidding.
They’re really much bigger than that.

Luckily for our paleontologists, I’m just kidding – this is not a creature you would ever want to run into alive. They were the top predator of their time, about the size of a Bengal tiger when they were full-grown – and just as mean. On the other hand, they lived about 290 million years ago, and show evidence of being early ancestors of mammals – like you and me. So it might have been pretty cool to see one alive – at least for the few seconds you had left.

Led by Dr. Bakker, the paleontology team has been searching for Dimetrodon in North Texas for over two years now – and they’ve made some fascinating finds. For the last week, they’ve been running their annual Paleontology Field School for educators. During this program, science teachers learn to dig for fossils, and then take what they’ve learned about geology, paleontology, biology, anatomy and more back to their students.

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A tiny Dimetrodon vertebrae found at the site the team
is working on in the background.

More than just digging up bones, the team is working to unravel the entire ecosystem of the Permian period, as expressed in the Red Beds of North Texas – the best beds for fossils of this era, in the world. It’s extremely slow work – once a fossil has been found, no matter how tiny (and some are almost ridiculously miniscule), it must be logged, mapped into place (this information is used for futher study, back in the lab), and then removed for preservation.

Significant, larger finds are jacketed first, with plaster, to be excavated further back the museum in Houston or in the Paleo Prep Lab at The Woodlands Xploration Station.

mapping

Carol, a teacher from the Houston area, assists in
mapping a site, using a Sharpie to trace their shape
on a thin sheet of plastic. Later, the maps will be
scanned into the computer for analysis.

Once they are digitized, the maps will help reconstruct the death events that took place – was this fossil a part of one individual – or another entirely? Was this Dimetrodon tooth shed in the act of eating a Xenacanth shark? – which will contribute to a better understanding of how these animals related to one another.

Dimetrodon fang

This is a great find – a huge Dimetrodon fang, one of the largest Dr. Bakker has ever seen. This photo shows what a fossil from this area looks like when you uncover it; now, it must be mapped in place before being removed from the site and packaged up and stabilized for the trip back to Houston.

Excavated

Once it has been excavated, you can see the same fossil fang a bit more clearly. If you look closely, you can see that the serrated edge of the tooth is preserved and still visible – almost 300 million years after this Dimetrodon died.

collared lizard

The wildlife around Seymour is surprising – jackrabbits,
roadrunners (meep, meep!) and much more. This
collared lizard energed from its burrow under a rock to
circle the site, vigorously bobbing it’s head at us (which
is how it says “Back off! This is my turf.”) – which seems
comical until you realize how hard they bite.

They’re still working out at the site; over the weekend, they discovered a new Dimetrodon skull, a fully articulated Diadectes hand (which is rare, because hands and feet are normally the first part of the body to be eaten or wash away) and a Dimetrodon scapula and humerus in perfect condition, and still attached. We hope to have photos for you soon. In the meantime, a new group of teachers joins the team today – who knows what is yet to be discovered?

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The thrill of discovery
comes with a price.