Friday, December 28, 2012

A Big Book about Really Small Things

A couple weeks ago I reviewed a book about infinity. This week I focus on something a lot smaller - something we can get our hands on (if we want to).

Micro Mania: A Really Close-Up Look at Bacteria, Bedbugs, & the Zillions of Other Gross Little Creatures That Live In, On & All Around You!
By Jordan D. Brown
80 pages, ages 9 and up
Imagine Publishing, 2011

“Try not to panic,” writes Jordan Brown, “but there are billions of tiny creatures crawling all over your skin.” And that’s just outside your body; trillions more of these itty-bitty things – called microbes – live inside your body.

What does that mean? First: you’re never alone. Second: that bacteria, protozoans, viruses, yeasts and other tiny creatures play a vital role in our environment. They break down dead plants and animals, help bread rise, and gobble oil spills. But they can also cause diseases and some, in particular fleas and bed bugs, can be very itchy.

Micro Mania is a big book about very small things. Brown discusses pet pests, creatures in the kitchen, germy sponges, and even the tiny tardigrades that survived a recent trip into space. He also mentions nano-robots that could, in the future, help repair human cells or explore toxic environments. This book is chock-full of great close-up photos, things to try (such as making a plankton net) and informative sidebars, such as how to avoid lyme-disease causing ticks.

For more science resources check out STEM Friday.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Not the End of the World After All

Sun Dagger, Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon

Today is December 21, Winter Solstice. If you stand atop Fajada Butte in northwest New Mexico at noon and look through the slits created by three slabs of stone, you will see the sun daggers bracket a spiral chiseled into a sandstone cliff.

Winter Solstice may be just another Friday on our calendar, but for many ancient people it marked a beginning – the return of longer days and a “reset” of the agricultural calendar for the year. This year’s Winter Solstice also marks a new beginning to the “long count” Mayan calendar. Kind of like when you hit Dec. 31 and take the old calendar down and hang a new one. Or like moving into the new millennium which, despite the Y2K scares, seemed to transition well enough.

Still, for the past few weeks NASA scientists have been trying to calm fears about the predicted “end of the world” which, according to some folks, should be happening any time now.

“Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years,” says NASA, “and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012.” Asteroids plummeting towards the earth? Nope – though one did pass by pretty close a couple weeks ago.

What about planet alignments? Nope, says NASA. No planetaryalignments scheduled for the next few decades… “and even if these alignments were to occur, their effects on the Earth would be negligible.” Major planetary alignments occurred in 1962, 1982, and 2000, and nothing happened then. No Dark Rift, solar flares, or magnetic field reversals either.

As for the Mayan Calendar… chalk it up to a cosmic confusion between the Aztec and Mayan cultures that lived 500 years apart and far from each other.  Dates on the Maya Calendar combine at least two calendars - one covering 365 days and the other 260 days – and reset every 52 years. It also uses a "long count" system that adds a numeral at the end of a cycle to keep a constant count of years.

For the Maya, today is just another Friday. It just so happens to also be a year when several of their calendars reset.Check out more STEM Friday resources here.

Friday, December 14, 2012

To Infinity ... and Beyond!

Infinity and Me
By Kate Hosford; illus. by Gabi Swiatkowsksa
32 pages, for ages 5-10
Carolrhoda Books (Lerner), 2012

When Uma looks up into the night sky, she is awed by the number of stars. Are there a million? A billion? Or infinity?

What is infinity anyway? That’s what author Kate Hosford explores through Uma’s eyes. Infinity is huge – because no matter how high you count, you can always add one. Uma thinks about writing that really really big number down: “Even if I lived forever, I would never finish.”

Hosford offers a variety of ways to look at infinity: as a family tree; using a cooked spaghetti noodle; as a measure of how much love Uma has for her grandmother. This is the sort of book that would have had my kids cutting strips of paper into ever smaller pieces until they ended up with “an infinity of confetti” – or drawing infinite iterations of a Sierpinski triangle.
So how does a nice country girl end up writing about something as abstract and philosophical as infinity?

Kate: Large numbers are difficult not only for children to conceptualize, but for adults as well. Isn’t this one of the problems with our national debt? We just can’t imagine a number that big (note: $16 trillion and growing) -  if understanding these numbers is difficult, how much harder is it to think about infinity?

Archimedes: But why infinity, as opposed to, say, a billion or a trillion?

Kate: Infinity is a whole different animal – it’s an idea, first and foremost. It can be applied to math, philosophy, science, and religion. It can take the form of a never-ending number, but it can also be used to conceptualize heaven or eternity.

When we attempt to actually think about infinity itself, we cannot do it. The best we can hope for is to imagine what infinity might be like: What would it be like to play a circular piece of music that continued forever?

I also wanted to explore the way that infinity makes us feel. At the end of the day, Uma grapples with this existential question that we all must face; if something can be infinitely large, what does it say about us and our place in the universe?

Archimedes: You must have done some sort of research for your book.

Kate:  The first thing that I did was try to research existing picture books on this topic, and ended up finding almost nothing. After writing a few rough drafts of the story, I began interviewing children. I was completely bowled over by how they defined infinity. For example:

  • Infinity is a made-up number that is supposed to be the last number, but it isn’t really the last number because numbers go on and on.
  • Infinity is when you ask what’s outside of a galaxy, and then outside of that, and on and on.

 I did a good deal of reading on infinity, not only to research the book but also for the curriculum guide. A lot of these things never made it into the book -   things like why we can have infinities of different sizes or why the Hilbert’s Hotel paradox works -  but it became vital to me to understand as much as I could about infinity.  [the Fractal Foundation’s Sierpinski triangle activities did make it into her curriculum.]

From conception to publication, I spent eight years on this book. There were definitely times when my personal definition of infinity was ‘the amount of time it takes to sell a picture book on this topic.’

Archimedes: So where did the red shoes come from?

Kate: I wanted something that would ground the story – a small concern to balance Uma’s larger concern with infinity. Shoes seemed to be the perfect counterpoint. Red is my favorite color, and I have had multiple pairs of red shoes over the years.

Archimedes: Uma cuts a cooked noodle in half and then in half again and again. Have you ever done that?

Kate. Not with a noodle, but I have cut a piece of string into bits.

Kate invites readers who want to share how they imagine infinity to write to her at .  Check out more STEM Friday resources here. Review copy provided by Blue Slip Media.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mars Monday - "Hi Mom!" from Curiosity

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Every now and then the rover, Curiosity sends a postcard home. This one is a rock outcrop called "Link", a feature consistent with sedimentary rock. Is this a link to a watery past on Mars? This photo was taken on Sept. 2, the 27th Sol, or Martian day of Curiosity's mission.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Fish Rescue Coral from Seaweed Attack

Photo Credit: Danielle Dixson

When corals are threatened by toxic seaweed they do what any self-respecting sea creature does: they call for help. Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology have been studying a coral reef in Figi. They discovered that when a toxic green seaweed gets on the corals, the corals send chemical signals to Gobis. The inch-long fish respond by nibbling off the seaweed.

The scientists did a number of experiments. In one they moved filaments of a toxic seaweed onto coral. Within a few minutes, two species of gobies moved in and began trimming off the seaweed.

In corals where gobies lived, the fish mowed off the seaweed and reduced seaweed damage significantly. Corals without gobies were damaged by the seaweed. The scientists analyzed the fish digestive systems and learned that one of the gobi species actually eats the seaweed. The other fish apparently bites it off and leaves it.

For the fish that eat the seaweed, the toxic chemicals may make the fish less attractive to predators. In exchange for cleaning the coral, the fish receive shelter. It’s a win-win situation: the fish protect the coral and in return they get a place to live. 

Check out other science resources at STEM Friday