Adventures in Science

Archive for the ‘All ages’ Category


Real Life Spaceship Captain

Who is this @Cmdr_Hadfield tweeting from space with such infectious enthusiasm and posting sensational pictures of Earth from orbit? His name is Commander Chris Hadfield. He is a Canadian astronaut who is currently serving as a flight engineer aboard the International Space Station. We were so charmed by his tweets that we searched out this pre-launch interview with him. He is every bit as cool on video and great at describing his mission as an astronaut.

In March, Commander Hadfield will go from flight engineer to commander of the International Space Station’s Mission 35. He will be a real life spaceship captain just as he says in the video.


Awesome Hero–The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

William Kamkwamba, Awesome Hero


William Kamkwamba was born to a farming family in Malawi in Africa in 1987. His home and the homes of his neighbors didn’t have electricity or running water. The family’s crops depended on the amount rainfall that they received because their farm had no irrigation. When he was 14, a horrible drought struck Malawi  and the crops failed. Many Malawians died of starvation. William and his family survived but suffered horrific deprivation. His father was deep in debt from buying food for the family so couldn’t afford tuition. William had to drop out of school.

After surviving the famine, William was inspired by a textbook he borrowed from his local library called Using Energy to build a windmill to make electricity and eventually pump ground water from a well to irrigate the family’s farm. He was determined to give his family a more secure food supply with two maize harvests a year as well as an irrigated garden for a variety of vegetables.

William Kamkwamba slowly built his windmill from salvaged and modified scrap material. He describes how he did it in his autobiography The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. The ingenuity involved in the design and construction of his windmill is astounding. This book is *highly* recommended to all young people over the age of 12. Read it. Listen to it. Do it.

There is also a picture book version of William Kamkwamba’s story for younger children because it is *that* good.


Tardigrades in Spaaaaaaaace


Lily the astrofrog says, “I love water bears. They are the first known animal to survive the vacuum of space in low Earth orbit.”

That great video is by Hank Green and SciShow. Check out their whole YouTube channel. It rocks!

Tardigrades, also known as waterbears or moss piglets and even bug bears, are fascinating little creatures. If you have ever looked at soil under a microscope you might have seen some of these little guys. Under ideal lighting they almost look cute–like micro manatees with eight legs.

Shown: ideal lighting conditions


Under a regular microscope they look like this:

A well-fed water bear.


Tardigrades have evolved to be able to survive in extreme conditions including vacuum, high radiation, and temperatures from near absolute zero up to 151 degrees centigrade. They can also survive almost decade without water. They are truly amazing little creatures.

This is an excellent video introduction to tardigrades that explains what makes them so awesome.

Tardigrades might make a great science fair project. They are easy to find outside and are reported to love to live in moss. Get some moss wet and start scanning some of the water drops on your microscope slide. Notice what happens when the water bears dry out. What happens if you then add water? After doing some more research, test some of the claims made about the extreme survivability of tardigrades. Design an experiment that tests water bears under extreme conditions.

Weird and Wonderful Gyroscopes

Have you ever played with a gyroscope? They’re pretty fascinating little gadgets. Gyroscopes can do things that we don’t see in any other objects. Here’s a video showing some kids doing tricks with their gyroscope. See if you can spot what it is that seems so strange about gyroscopes.

Chillaxed? Me too. Loved that swanky bossa nova music.

What does a gyroscope do that a regular toy top can’t? Did you see the gyroscope defying gravity by floating in mid air horizontally as it spun on a base? That’s what makes a gyroscope so special.  This gravity defying effect is called precession.  Here is a video by YouTuber, adambarito. It is also especially soothing and features some splendid sideburns and snarky ‘tude:

(He’s a growing boy. Very hungry.)

You will see a lot of bicycle wheels during demonstrations of gyroscopic effects. Surprisingly, the gyroscopic effect is not the reason that we are able to stay upright on our bikes when we ride them. Dr. Hugh Hunt has a web page describing his experiment to find out if the gyroscopic effect is responsible for keeping bikes upright. Go check it out.

This positively soporific video introduces you to some of the physics involved in the otherwise unusual behavior of the gyroscope.

As you saw there gyroscopes are often used in aviation for stability.

Helicopters, unlike bicycles, are heavily influenced by the gyroscopic effect. Helicopters have huge gyroscopes in the form of their rotors spinning on them and must account for the gyroscopic effect when maneuvering. Smarter Every Day has this awesome video explaining why navigating helicopters can be so tricky.  As you will see, the gyroscopic effect doesn’t always make intuitive sense.

I’m awake and 90 degrees out of phase now! It was great the way they got their bike wheel up to speed by holding it up to the back wheel of their bike as they cranked the pedal.

Finally, if it is extreme, cutting-edge gyroscoping you crave to get you going and alert, program and sync up your flying gyroscopes like the folks from University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP lab:

Rubik’s Cube


Back in 1981, the big toy of the year was the Rubik’s cube. We –the kids of olden times of yore– went bananas over this thing. We fiddled with them constantly  and everywhere to the dismay of our parents, teachers, and that poor little old lady we accidentally knocked over because we weren’t paying attention to where we were going on the sidewalk. (Sorry again, Mrs. Theibault.)

As you can see from the picture above it was a simple cube made up  of what appeared to be 3x3x3 equal cubes with one cube always hidden in the middle. The exterior surfaces of each of the cubes had colored stickers on them. When the cube was fresh out of the box all of the squares on each side of the whole cube matched with different colors on each facet. The three layers of the cube could be turned independently in all directions. Within a few turns and flips of the cube you were able to mix up the blocks of colors until you had shuffled the colors randomly around the cube. Then it was time to solve the puzzle by twisting the cube until all of the colors matched on all sides.

If you haven’t played with a Rubik’s Cube before, give it a try. Beware! It can be a little addicting. Puzzle it over for a few weeks. Remember that if this toy was actually a 3x3x3 cube of cubes there is another imaginary cube in the center that you can’t see and imagine how that is spinning around in there too.

If you are lucky, one of the pieces will fall off and you will get a glimpse of how the mechanism inside makes it work. You’ll probably want to deconstruct and reconstruct the whole thing. If so, take a look at these amazing mods:


Some people can solve the Rubik’s Cube without cheating. I never solved the Rubik’s Cube analytically. I solved it sort-of-by-accident two or three times. At best, I developed a sense that you had to get one layer solved to improve your chances.

If you have struggled with your Rubik’s Cube for a few weeks and it’s starting to pop its parts, I encourage you to cheat and watch one of the solution videos on YouTube. Why should you cheat? Because knowing how to solve it, helps you understand how to think and plan in 3-D.

Check out RuBot. It was programmed to solve the Rubik’s Cube:

(There is newer version of RuBot with a face and cheesy robot noises, but it creeps me out.)

If you enjoy the original 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube, you will love Jaap’s Puzzle Page. It is a huge site devoted these kinds of spatial puzzle games that will continue to challenge you.

Now, I will blow your mind. A square is a 2-dimensional shape. A cube is a 3-dimensional shape. Imagine, if you can, a cube in four dimensions. This is what is known as a hypercube. Here is a pathetically inadequate two-dimensional animation that gives the impression of what a hypercube is sort of like, but not really:

We have a hard time imagining hypercubes because our brains evolved to live and survive in three dimensions. Fortunately, computers don’t trip over their own brains and can compute geometries in other dimensions for us.

Here is a YouTube video uploaded by drag0nfur of what the programmer calls “A 3D depiction of a 4D rubiks cube being solved by a computer.”

Did you catch the text at the end that said “There are actually 8 3x3x3 cubes, one is hidden in a non-visible dimension. Please don’t ask me why it’s hidden, brains will splode if you do.”

My brain already popped its parts at the mere thought of a Rubik’s Hypercube, but thanks for the warning.

08 May 2001 --- Exploding head --- Image by © John Lund/CORBIS

Cary Huang’s enhanced Scale of the Universe…

Original Scale of the Universe


….is a parody and I was fooled and originally had a serious post on it. I should have known better than to post anything from a 4Chan link.

Cary Huang created an updated version and parody of the interactive “Scale of the Universe” flash animation.

More at

Clean your room the NASA JPL way


Did you see the launch of the Mars Curiosity Rover last week from NASA at Cape Kennedy, Florida? It was awesome!

Curiosity is an exciting and important robot because its job when it gets to Mars in 8 months is to look for life there. Scientists suspect that there is some very primitive form of life on Mars, but we need to send a probe with instruments and detectors built into it to test the martian environment for evidence of life.

Curiosity probably won’t find a baby plant like Wall-E does in the movie. If life is detected it’s more likely to be a type of tiny, microscopic life. That would be great because it would be the first time that people have discovered life anywhere other than Earth.

Here’s a video animation from NASA/JPL that shows us how Curiosity will travel from Earth to Mars and what Curiosity will be doing once it lands.

Yes! It will shoot laser beams at stuff on Mars.

One of the most important things you need to keep in mind if you are building a robot that will probe another planet for life, is that you don’t want to send any Earth life with your robot probe. If your rover arrives on Mars covered in Earth germs your life detectors are going to detect life, but possibly not martian life. Or perhaps the scientists would be scratching their heads when Curiosity discovered that along with unknown alien life, Mars also has athletes’ foot. Awkward…

To send a clean spacecraft to another planet you need to build it in a clean room like this:



The above picture was the Mars Curiosity Rover’s room on Earth at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Your bedroom is a pig sty compared to Mars Curiosity Rover’s room. The interesting thing about this room is that it is cleaner than cleanest place you’ve probably ever been outside of a hospital operating room. Operating rooms and JPL’s clean room are designed to have fewer than 10,000 particles of 0.5 micrometers (microns) or more in diameter in the air. Microscopic life bigger than 0.5 microns are yeast, mold, most bacteria, spores and pollen.

Hey, wait! People are bigger than 0.5 microns! They are covered cooties! How can we prevent the people working in the clean room from contaminating the spacecraft? Here’s how. Before it traveled to Florida in preparation for launch to Mars, you used to be able to watch the clean room engineers and technicians build Curiosity on the internet via a webcam. However, Curiosity is traveling to Mars at the moment so Curiosity Cam is off air. Fortunately, we have a video of JPL clean room technicians in action:

You can’t miss that the technicians are completely covered in white clean room suits. These are also known as bunny suits.

We wish they came with the


The clean room suits including masks, gloves, smocks, pants, and booties are designed to keep human cooties, hair, skin cells, or whatever off the spacecraft. There are many more videos showing the assembly of Curiosity at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory clean room at YouTube. Check them out.

This NASA video from a different project shows how even pieces of paper must be wiped down front and back before they can enter a clean room, or in this case, a clean tent:

Now, think about how you would get your room clean enough to make a robot for space in there.

Don’t forget the bunny suit.