Educator How-To: We’re batty for ornithopters

Bats have frightened, awed, and inspired for millennia. Leonardo da Vinci used the bat’s amazing wing structure as inspiration for his version of the ornithopter — a machine which flies using flapping bird-like wings. No one knows for sure if he ever built or tested his invention, but Cardanus, a contemporary of Leonardo wrote that he had tried, “in vain”, to get the orinthopter aloft.

A sketch of Da Vinci’s ornithopter

Here is a version of Leonardo’s creation that you can try your hand at constructing and flying. Our version is technically a glider, but looks much the same as Leonardo’s ornithopter design.

Materials:

  • Cardstock copy of orinthopter template
  • Large plain craft stick
  • Paper clips – large and regular size
  • Craft glue
  • Scissors
  • Scotch Tape ™
  • Markers
  • Thin hemp-type string
  • 18th inch hole-puncher
  • Bat specimen or pictures of bats
  • Picture of Leonardo’s orrnithopter

Building the Ornithopter:

  • Display the picture of Leonardo’s ornithopter and discuss how he came up with the design idea after spending a great deal of time observing birds.
  • Study the bat specimen and/or bat pictures. Compare and contrast the bat wings with the ornithopter wings: Are the wings more bird-like or bat-like?
  • Color a large craft stick using a brown marker.
  • Color the wings and tail on the orinthopter template and carefully cut out the pieces.
  • Give the wings shape by closing the small V-shaped notch on each wing so that both pieces touch and then securing on the underside with transparent tape.
  • Using craft glue, attach the wing and tail pieces to the craft stick as illustrated by the picture below. Allow time for the glue to dry.

Bat Orthinopter 2

  • Next, bend the wings up along the large V in the wing pattern and carefully crease.
  • Use a 1/8th inch hole-puncher to make small holes just to the inside where the wings were taped to give them shape.
  • Use a piece of thin string to create a loop through the holes with a loose knot to secure it in place. This serves to keep the wings from spreading too far and to adjust the wings up when tightened.

Bat Orthinopter 1

  • It’s time to test the ornithopter! Make different sized paper clips available. Use these to properly distribute the weight of the ornithopter for better flight.
  • Spend time re-engineering the after the primary test flight.

Terra Cotta Warriors myths…busted!

Middle Ranking Officer
Creative Commons License photo credit: Richard.Fisher

As you may have noticed from the anticipation, excitement, and general hullabaloo…we recently opened an exhibition chock full of Terra Cotta Warriors. And while museum people tend to find every exhibit that comes through our doors fascinating (part of the reason we take the leap from avid exhibition attendees to employees of said institutions) there are some things – King Tut, T. rex, and the Terra Cotta Warriors among them – that seem simply to have universal appeal.

Other exhibitions do well with particular demographics (history buffs loved Benjamin Franklin, engineers and art lovers packed in to see Leonardo da Vinci, kids couldn’t get enough of the Dino Mummy) but some topics fascinate across the board. Whether from historical importance, sheer size or the stunning nature of a discovery – some artifacts from our collective past stand out, almost demanding that we come and experience them for ourselves.

Due to this, Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperorhas created a lot of conversation – both in our exhibition halls and online – and so we thought we’d address some of the common questions here – and do a little mythbusting of our own.

The Terra Cotta Warriors on display at HMNS are fake. FALSE.

The exhibition contains 17 authentic Terra Cotta figures, including 11 warrior figures – but also court officials, acrobats, musicians, servants and more. Its fascinating to see the incredible detail crafted into each individual warrior – as well as the ways in which various stations in society were represented in clay. The warriors are imposing, the generals are enormous – but the kneeling servant is child-size.

All of the artifacts on display were excavated from the necropolis of Qin Shi Huang, China’s First Emperor. They were brought to Houston as part of an agreement with the Museum of the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shi Huang, Peoples Republic of China.

The exhibition does contain a few replica figures, however these are labeled as such. The replicas were included to represent horses and carriages that have recently been excavated, and are too fragile to travel.

Some confusion may also have arisen due to the existence of the Forbidden Gardens, in Katy. This display recreates the Emperor’s entire necropolis, in one-third size replica figures.

This exhibit has been to Houston before. FALSE…and TRUE.

We’ve heard this several times, but no one seemed to know where the rumor came from. The exhibition itself is newly created and has certainly never been to Houston before it opened here May 22. However, the misconception seems to have arisen from another exhibition that came though Houston, with Terra Cotta Warriors. Thank you to Laurie, one of our intrepid volunteer docents; Donna; one of our fabulous Museum bloggers; and David, a collections registrar from MFAH, for helping us track down the answer!

In 2000, the Museum of Fine Arts hosted The Golden Age of Chinese Archeology; Celebrated Discoveries from the People’s Republic of China, an exhibition of Chinese art that did contain several authentic figures from the terra cotta army. Organized by the National Gallery of Art, the exhibition covered a large span of time – from the prehistoric era to the late 10th century A.D. – and surveyed a broad range of highlights of Chinese archaeology.

Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor, currently on display at HMNS, is a totally new exhibition that contains the most Terra Cotta Warriors and other “Level One” artifacts ever allowed to travel outside of China at once – there are 11 warriors alone, alongside many other kinds of tomb figures, such as acrobats and musicians. It’s also a much more specific look at the time in which the warriors were created – around the end of the 2nd century B.C. – the first time the lands today known as China were unified. A visit to this exhibition is the very best look at these marvels you could possibly get outside of Xi’an, China where the Warriors were discovered.

All of the Terra Cotta Warriors have been found and excavated. FALSE.

aerial-view-terra-cotta-warriorsIt is estimated that 7,000 or more warriors were created to accompany the Emperor to the afterlife – but only 1,000 have been fully excavated. Just recently, two decades after initial excavations ceased, Chinese authorities began new excavations in Xi’an, utilizing new technology that will preserve the warriors’ original colors.

Though excavations continue in the necropolis, the actual tomb of Qin Shi Huang remains intact, due to the high levels of mercury found in the surrounding soil – suggesting that the “rivers of mercury” said to have flowed through the tomb were actually left there and likely stil make the area to toxic to excavate.

Have you heard a Terra Cotta myth that needs debunking? Leave it in the comments and we’ll do our best to get to the bottom of it!

LEGO: The building blocks of science

Our guest blogger today is Ian Wilkinson, one of the museum’s IT geniuses. Besides being a computer guru, he is an avid science fan and a LEGO enthusiast. Put the two together, and… 

As a life-long fan of both Lego bricks and science, I was thrilled when the announcement for the “Brick Science” contest was posted on one of my favorite Lego fan-sites, Reasonably Clever, this August. The contest had four categories: “Good Scientist”, “Evil Scientist”, “Laboratory Diorama”, and “Real Scientist”. The last category had the most interest for me, and I set about creating a list of the scientists I would like to render in Lego bricks.

Just for fun, I put a few figures together to get started; Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, the mad scientist Rotwang from the film Metropolis (for the Mad Scientist category). A glow-in-the-dark piece I had recently acquired inspired me to make a Lego Madame Curie, which led to the addition of her husband Pierre and a radioactive research lab.

As I photographed them in normal light, it occurred to me that some “lights out” photos would also be needed to demonstrate the glow effect. While taking photos in the dark, I remembered that I had a black light and wondered how the parts would look under that. The photo turned out rather fuzzy, but looked keen.

While helping Dr. Bakker with some IT issues at work the next day, I decided it would be extra cool to make a Lego version of him for the contest and maybe get him to endorse it by getting photographed with it. That evening, I put together a Lego vignette of Dr. Bakker using a tiny shovel to dig up some animal bones.

I was a bit concerned that the only Lego animal skeleton in my collection is that of a horse, but Dr. Bakker assured me that he has actually dug up horse bones before, and therefore the model was accurate. After selecting the cowboy hat for his figure to wear (there was a fedora available as well), I got a very nice photo of Dr. Bakker holding up his Lego effigy for the contest.

Because only one entry was allowed per category, I had to submit Dr. Bakker under “Real Scientists”, and the Curies as “Good Scientists.” After that, I had to wait until the end of September to find out the contest results.

Finally, the contest winners were announced last Tuesday. I was a bit disappointed that my Dr. Bakker vignette did not win, until I saw the very amusing depiction of “Theoretical Physicist Moog creating fire in the laboratory.” (To see it, click here and scroll down to “Class Four.”) It’s a good thing I took the black light photos of the Curies, as they seemed to appeal to the judges- “Curies in the Lab” won first place for “Good Scientists,” garnering me a Lego kit featuring Lego Alligators!

All in all, it was a very fun contest. I would have been happy not winning a thing; it’s fun to build Lego scientists, especially when I can get the real scientist in on the game! Special thanks to Dr. Bakker for being a good sport and participating in the contest with me!

Blog Contest: Draw a Dinosaur!

Leonardo da Vinci said: “I don’t understand a thing ‘till I draw it.” When you draw, your finger tips teach your brain what’s important.”

Dr. Bakker paraphrased Leonardo da Vinci in his recent post, Draw Dinos Right, to explain why great  paleontologists tend to be great artists, too. Now that the world premiere of Dinosaur Mummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation is open at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, you can test this hypothesis on another Leonardo – the mummified dinosaur that was found in Malta, MT, with skin and internal organs preserved. And when you do, you can enter to win great paleo prizes – like a signed dinosaur drawing by Dr. Robert T. Bakker himself – as well as a $200 gift certificate to Texas Art Supply, for all your future dino-drawing needs.

The contest is simple: pick a dinosaur and draw it for us. In this video, Dr. Bakker takes you through drawing a T. rex – but your entry can be any dinosaur you like. On Nov. 1, Dr. Bakker will choose one winner for each of two categories – one for scientific accuracy, and another for artistic effect.

So, head on over to the drawing board – you’ve got until Nov. 1 at 5 p.m. to enter.

Entries must be no larger than 11 x 17 inches and they can be turned in to the Museum Services desk at the Museum or scanned and submitted online to blogadmin@hmns.org. Make sure to include your name, phone number and e-mail address with your entry – otherwise, we’ll have no way to contact you if you’ve won. Two identical prizes will be awarded – one to recognize the most scientifically accurate dinosaur drawing and the other to honor the best artisitc effect. Click here for contest rules.

UPDATE: Our winners have been posted! Along with a slideshow of all of the fabulous entries – a huge thank you to all the very talented kids who entered.