Archive for the ‘Sizzling Science’ Category

Happy July 4th!

04 Jul

It’s America’s birthday and I’m celebrating. What I write today will be… anything I want–gibberish, a short story, guest articles on crazy topics. I have no idea. My son’s in Kuwait protecting America’s distant shores. My daughter’s in San Diego preparing her LPD for some future battle. I’m here, thanking both of them and every other service member who accepted the calling to protect our nation’s freedoms.

God be with all of you.

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Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

05 Jun

A Short History of Nearly EverythingA Short History of Nearly Everything

by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So often scientific books lose us lay people with their PhD language. Not Bill Bryson. Using his infamous skill as a story-teller, he approaches the history of science with the same non-threatening approach John McPhee applied to the geology of America. Technicalities are dispensed with broad, non-pedagogic strokes while the surrounding humanity draws the reader into the intellectual excitement that is science. Readers can’t fail but want to read more.

Here are some of the topics he covers: Read the rest of this entry »


Happy Memorial Day

27 May

I’m out back, by the grilling, turning hamburgers, corn, and whatever else can be grilled. Can you smell it? Yum!

I’m taking the day to honor our soldiers. Without their sacrifice, where would we be? Read the rest of this entry »


Great Quotes About the Evolution of Man

26 May
credit: San Diego Museum of Man

Lucy: Her Story of Survival

I’m writing a novel about paleo-historic man. As such, I’ve spent an inordinately long period of time researching early man. Here are some of the best quotes I’ve run across on the

evolution of our species:

  • Future changes of any note will be in our minds, and what we do with them. –Phillip Tobias
  • “But I’m not dancing alone,” he said. “I am dancing with the forest, dancing with the moon.” Then, with the utmost unconcern, he ignored me and continued his dance of love and life. The Forest People: A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo — Colin Turnbull
  • Impossible is relative –Dr. Michio Kaku
  • Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. –Charles Darwin
  • When primeval man first used flint stones for any purpose, he would have accidentally splintered them, and would then have used the sharp fragments. From this step it would be a small one to break the flints on purpose and not a very wide step to fashion them rudely. –Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
  • Fossils are like truth. They are not where you look for them, but where you find them. –GHR Von Koenigswald
  • I learnt from Flo how to be mother. Flo was patient, tolerant. She was supportive. She was always there. She was playful. She enjoyed having her babies, as good mothers do. –Jane Goodall, referring to a mother chimp she’d studied for years.
  • Chimps are unbelievably like us – in biological, non-verbal ways. They can be loving and compassionate and yet they have a dark side… 98 per cent of our DNA is the same. The difference is that we have developed language – we can teach about things that aren’t there, plan for the future, discuss, share ideas… –Jane Goodall
  • (Man’s) greatness does not consist in being different from the animals that share the earth with him, but in being…conscious of things of which his environment has no inkling. –GHR Von Koenigswald
  • A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. – Greek Proverb
  • Words require little energy to produce; they are ‘cheap tokens’ and can be used with little or no risk or cost to deceive, just as easily as to inform. Body language is much more reliable for most animal purposes. — Derek Bickerton
  • Read the rest of this entry »

Metamaterials and an invisibility cloak

19 May

Sounds like a Klingon cloaking device if you’re a Star Trek buff. What used to be the staple of science fiction is now almost reality thanks to ‘metamaterials’ and their ability to guide electromagnetic waves around an object and emerge on the other side as if they had passed through nothing but air. the result: They eliminate all reflection and shadows, thus rendering an object invisible. Early this year, Duke University made one that measures 20 inches by four inches and is less than an inch thick. Its 10,000 pieces are made of the same fiberglass material used in circuit boards. It uses algorithms to determine the shape and placement of each piece in the cloak.

I’ve been researching metamaterials for a book I’m writing. I like including weird science in my plots. I’d show you a picture of something shrouded in an invisibility cloak, but, well, if you’re a James Bond fan, remember his invisible car? Like that.

Here’s an amazing article from the BBC, gives you a sense of what it would be. This British art student painted her car to match the surroundings, invisiblesimulating invisibility. Kinda. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s amazing.



Extinctions are Part of Life

19 Apr

I read this article about the Eastern Cougar, now declared extinct, with sadness. It’s part of being human that we want to protect those in need, those weaker than us. The fact that we hunted this animal to extinction almost 300 years ago–as we did the American buffalo–doesn’t make it any more palatable.

The truth is, this happens all the time. Species are only viable when they can survive and thrive in their environ. When they no longer can, they die. The lifespan of the average species is only about 2 million years. Man tweaked that model by changing his environment, emigrating until we reached every corner of the world. Few species do that. Notably, insects do this with impunity, evolving a new species that fits the changed environment.

Most extinct species, we don’t notice. They were here and then gone and we move on. Some (buffalo, gorillas, apes), we try to stop the inevitable. The most notable to me are the Great Apes. They have been hunted and stalked until they now only survive in limited portions of the the planet, in limited numbers. They are as close to human as we can get without the technologic advances that allowed man to survive against greater odds. Tools, problem-solving skills, specialization. Yes, primates accomplish those traits thought to be unique to man and are evolving to do them better, but will they make it before they, too, become extinct.

Here’s the story on the Eastern Cougar. It’s sad, so don’t read it before you’re making an upbeat presentation.

An eastern cougar pouncing.
By Robert Savannah

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has officially declared the eastern cougar extinct, 79 years after the last one was reported in the wild in the United States.

The eastern cougar is a subspecies of the cougar, which includes the Florida panther and the western cougar. There are multiple subspecies, though exactly how many is debated among biologists. All are called by several names depending on the area, including puma, panther, mountain lion, catamount, cougar and painter.

The eastern cougar’s historic range extended from Maine south to Georgia, west into eastern Missouri and eastern Illinois, and north to Michigan and Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick, Canada.

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Book Review: The Forest People

24 Mar

The Forest People (Touchstone Book)The Forest People

by Colin Turnbull

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished a wonderful book, Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People. Turnbull lived ‘a while’ (pygmies don’t measure time with a watch or a calendar) with African pygmies to understand their life, culture, and beliefs. As he relays events of his visit, he doesn’t lecture, or present the material as an ethnography. It’s more like a biography of a tribe. As such, I get to wander through their lives, see what they do, how they do it, what’s important to them, without any judgment or conclusions other than my own. Read the rest of this entry »


Should You Worry About Asteroids?

07 Mar

During Lyta’s time (the Plio-Pleistocene, around 1.8 mya), Nature was more violent than today. Africa’s volcanics were more common and more violent. Mt. Ngorongoro was still alive and belching smoke, as were its many neighbors, possibly due to the growing Great African Rift (the same one we predict will eventually tear the continent in two). Thanks to the triptych of faults (East Africa sits at a rare intersection of three tectonic plates), Earthquakes shook her terrain. The land was cooling, shedding the rainforests her ancestors enjoyed and adopting the grassy savannas still prevalent today.

And, unfortunately for Lyta, an asteroid hit Earth at the same moment a monstrous volcano erupted. Modern

Is this the asteroid that will hit earth?

Is this the asteroid that will hit earth?

scientists agree there is no imminent threat of Earth being bombarded by an asteroid like the one they suspect killed the dinosaurs 65 mya. They also agree we will eventually be hit. The average: about every 100,000 years, we get a bad one. Scientists also agree we have no reliable method of stopping them. Lasers. Nuclear weapons. Nudging them out of the way. They all have their problems.

Lyta lived 1.8 mya. It was her bad luck it was during that once-in-a-hundred thousand years year, and more bad luck–during a volcanic eruption. This confluence of bad luck challenged her nascient human problem-solving skills: She was separated from her infant son, her mate and on the run from that vicious future human, Homo erectus. You can see why I kept Otto focused on her life. Did mankind have the skills as the earliest of the Homo species to solve this sort of multi-problem?

As background for you, I copied this from NASA, to give you an idea how seriously we take potential asteroid impacts:

Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs) are space rocks larger than approximately 100m that can come closer to Earth than 0.05 AU. None of the known PHAs is on a collision course with our planet, although astronomers are finding new ones all the time.
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Secret Codes and Music

02 Mar
Morse Code dashes and dots

Morse Code dashes and dots

It combines music and Morse Code. Sounds geeky, but it wasn’t started by my son Sean. Sean plays base, obsessively. He is almost never with his six-foot friend and when he can’t carry it, he practices by using his arm or chest as a fingerboard.

Sean and I are both very private. I don’t have a lot of friends because I’m too busy working and trying to make the financial ends of life meet. Sean doesn’t like most people. He’s pretty smart and most people don’t understand his interests, so maybe that’s why.

The result is we have developed codes for private communication. Written ones use palindromes and mathematical equations. Visual ones–when we’re in a group and need to say something to just each other–usually revolve around music. Why? Because no one would suspect it. It’s what Sean always does and they always figure, like mother like son. If he pads out music, his mom must too.

We didn’t think this up. Some famous musicians used music to send messages to their in crowd.John Lennon for example. It ‘s rumored he hid his initials in Strawberry Fields Forever. Look at programmers. They always hide Easter Eggs (hidden games, etc.) in their programming for just those in-the-know to find.

What is musical Morse Code? It goes like this: An eighth note is a dot and a quarter note a dash with an eighth rest between each letter. When Sean fingers his string bass (using his chest as the finger board), I watch the taps and breaks and I can always get his message.

Next time you see someone tapping out a tune silently on their arm or chest, watch more closely.

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. She is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, presentation reviewer for CSTA, Cisco guest blogger, a monthly contributor to TeachHUB, columnist for, featured blogger for Technology in Education, and IMS tech expert. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.


The Uncontrollable AI

17 Feb

Otto is not listening–again. The first time this happened was with Lucy.

Now, he has found a beautiful female Homo erectus. She’s a warrior, strong powerful. She lives in Africa so wears no animal skin clothing to protect her from the cold. Here are pictures of Lucy, her clan, her habitat:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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