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.

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!

Draw Dinos Right!

Someone asked me: What are you?  Science Guy or Artist?

Both.

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.

Cleaning Bones & Feeling Dinosaur Muscles

Most fossil-cleaners are good artists.  As they chip away the rock, their finger tips record each bump and hole, every place that’s smooth, every place that’s rough. Expert fossil-cleaners dream about the fossil – they see it rotating, turning every which way.

Let’s say we have an ankylosaur skeleton, fresh from the field. We clean off the rock slowly. Every time we have a square inch clean, we paint thin glue on it (so it doesn’t crack and fall apart). As we do, we make sketches of the bone. That helps plan the complete cleaning. It’s X-ray vision, sort of.  As we sketch the bone we can draw in the parts of the specimen that are still buried in the rock.

For instance: let’s say we have the upper left arm (humerus). And we have the elbow end cleaned, but the shoulder end is still in the rock. A sketch will help us imagine where the bone is and how to chip the rock off so we don’t break anything accidentally.

Putting Muscles and Ligaments Back On

Fossils from a Dimetrodon hip bone.

Texture of fossil bone is important:

Rough spots full of squiggly ridges are where tough ligaments and tendons attached to the bone.

Smooth spots are where soft muscle attached.

Bones with big pits are armor plate – in life the pits were filled with a thick layer of finger-nail like skin.

At the Zoo with Brachylophosaurus

Now let’s shift to Leonardo, the Brachylophosaurus,  the dino-mummy now visiting the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I wanted some drawings of the critter, and to prepare I spent a lot of time watching live animals.

I sketch live critters in the zoo all the time.  And I make diagrams of the heads, bodies and legs of skeletons from species that are still alive today. I can’t imagine a live Brachylophosaurus  or any other dinosaur without studying rhinos and elephants,  ostriches and cassowaries, giant tortoises and water buffalo.

Tweensy Gator Hands

Most plant-eating dinos have hands like the one in the little vegetarian dinosaur Hypsilophodon.  There were five fingers in this animal and most other herbivores. Carnivores sometimes have  three, as in Velociraptor,  or two as in T. rex  and all members of the rex family.  In all dinos, meat-eater and plant-eater,  only the inner three fingers had claws. In herbivores the claws are blunt and hoof-like. Carnivores tend to have sharp-tipped claws. In all dinos, the outer two fingers had no claws at all.

The five fingers/three claws is standard equipment for most ancestors of dinos too.

Gator
Creative Commons License photo credit: James Jordan

Who has this  five/three  hand in a zoo today?  Only in one clan – gators and crocs. Lizards and turtles have claws on all five fingers.  Crocs & gators have three claws, five fingers, no claw on outer two. Watch out when you draw dino hands – a lot of books make the mistake of giving a dino  four or five claws. Even the movie “Jurassic Park” makes that error with the Triceratops. Don’t YOU do it! Remember: five fingers but only three claws in most plant-eating dinosaurs.




No Bowling for Duck-Bills

Duck-bill dinos have a puzzling variation on the basic veggie-saur hand. The outer two fingers are fine – no claw or hoof. But there are only four fingers in total. Which is missing? The thumb. Duck-bills are the only dinos without any thumb. That’s strange because the thumb is usually one of the strongest fingers in all other dinosaurs. Even T. rex  has a thumb. There’s a predatory dino with just one finger – Mononychus – and that single finger is, you guessed it, the thumb.

One result of being thumb-less is that when you’re choosing a bowling team, you don’t want a duck-bill. They can’t hold the ball. Continue reading

Science Doesn’t Sleep (5.14.08)

 

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Marching into Houston…in 2009.
Creative Commons License photo credit: mandiberg

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

It sounds psychedelic – but it’s probably even cooler-looking than that. Scientists have discovered that shrimp can see “a world invisible to all other animals.”

The world’s smallest helicopter – it literally looks like a set of propellers you attach to your head, or like a beanie that actually flies - is heading to Italy, to take flight from the place where da Vinci originally conceived of a vertical flight machine.

And, in other da Vinci news – builders in Abu Dhabi are working on the da Vinci Tower, a 68-story building with independently rotating floors. The shape of the building itself will be in constant flux. Check out the video here.

Divers in France’s Rhone River have found the oldest-known bust of Caesar - and they’re wondering, why did it get thrown there?

Well, I’m not very good at either, but a new study of mice indicates that eating less is better than moving more.

We didn’t mean to make you sad, BayouDawn – but we can’t get the Terra Cotta Warriors here until next year. To cheer us all up, though, BD does have a list of great exhibits you can see now in Houston.