Saturday, April 30, 2011

Horseshoe Crab - What I Learned Teaching with the Program Sea-to-See at FSU

This blog is about my favorite animal--an animal that almost predates the dinosaurs in origin and looks like it could easily be something from a alien exoplanet.  Below are the notes of what I teach at FSU's Sea-to-See program about this very special creature.  The Sea-to-See program travels to local elementary schools and provides an interactive learning experience for kids aimed at raising awareness of both the scientific method, local habitats in our area and the organisms that dwell therein.  The horseshoe crab very easily turned into my favorite to present--for a number of reasons--many of which you'll find out about below.  A fair amount of the material below was from my own personal curiosity being piqued and doing some personal research and the rest is from a few brilliant coworkers such as Beth Kostka and Heather Sneed. 

Try and imagine you're a kid with your chest pressed up against the side of a 100 gallon touch tank rapt in curiosity.  (The below is kind of a script.  I also could never cover all of the below at once.  I pick and choose as I see fit based on time/class ability.  I also use the masculine singular pronoun since I worked with mostly male crabs.)

This is me!

After inviting the children to gather around the touch tank, I explain that I want to borrow everyone's eyes for just a second and that I promise to give them back (to make sure they're paying attention).  I bend down to their level and then go on to say that there are two rules at the tank, "First rule: One person can talk at a time.  That way each of us can hear what another has to say.  That makes sense, right?  Second:  One animal at a time, that way we cover more.  Put up your thumbs if you think those rules are awesome!!"  The children are eager to play with the animals, so they readily comply.   Then I say that I need their help to pull the tarp cover off of the tank on the count of three.  Stretching out the count a little builds anticipation.  Once they're able to see in the tank I usually let out a seed "Wow!!!" almost like a laugh track is used to get other people to laugh.  haha.  I then explain that I want to talk about the horseshoe crab--the biggest, baddest, scariest crab in the whole tank--the star of the show!!!

Limulus polyphemus

"Does anyone know his name?"  A lot of kids will say 'stingray'.  I lovingly say that makes sense because he looks like one, but this is actually a horseshoe crab and that if you use your imagination a little bit his shell is kind of shaped like a horseshoe crab.  "He's my favorite because he's a 'living fossil'.  That means that he looks just like his great, great, great, great, great...grand parents from 200 million years ago!  That's almost before the dinosaurs first walked the Earth!!!"  I then say that I want to talk about his top side, then his underside and then that we'll have a time for touching and holding.

The Stinger 

"First, I want to talk about this tail.  What do you think it's for?  Many people when they look at this tail think that it's for stinging and some people even say that if you touch it that your hand is going to swell up and fall off!    Does anyone want to reach out and have their hand swell up and fall off."   (Some will say, "That's ridiculous!" and reach out to touch the tip of the tail.  Then the other kids will follow suit.  Some classes will become really worried and quite literally jump back from the tank.  During those times I'll have to touch the tip and explain that I was just being silly and that the rumors people tell aren't true.)

Once they know it isn't a stinger I can then ask, "What's it for then?  If it isn't stinging, why does the horseshoe crab have it?  What's its purpose?"  Kids may guess for protection, steering, to look scary, maybe to look like a stingray (mimicry), etc.  Next I ask if anyone wants to know a secret.  Kids seem to love secrets for some reason.  haha.  After that I say that I'm going to flip him over and that I want them to figure out what the secret use of that tail is.    Crab will most likely have trouble flipping over in tank due to plexiglass bottom and shallow water.  I say that he needs some cheering on.  I then start a chant of, "Horseshoe crab, horseshoe crab, horseshoe crab..."  I give him a boost to help him a long a little by lifting the tail and explain that if he wasn't in this tank he'd already be right side up.   "So, what's he use that tail for?  What would  happen if that tail broke off and he got flipped over?"  The answer, of course, is that it's essential to flip over from his back. 

The Creeper Watching Eyes

  "Reach out and touch the top of the crab.  How does it feel?  Give it a light tap to feel how strong it is.  Now, can anyone find his eyes?  How many eyes do you think he has?"  Kids will guess low numbers like 2, 3, 4, etc.  As they go up in numbers I'll say enthusiastically, "Getting warmer!!!  Getting warmer!!!  Warmer!!!"  This back and forth antiphonal response will elevate in speed and volume until I finally break in and say, "Would you believe if I said that he has two...thousand eyes!!!"  Kids often let out a gasp of disbelief.  "Take a close look!  Each one of those eyes has almost one thousand eyes packed into it."  I ask the kids if they've ever walked by a painting and felt like the painting was watching them no matter where they were standing.  Guess what?  He has eyes like that!!!"    An appearance of a black ocular dot will appear to follow the observer.  "Why? Why do we only have two eyes that see really, really well and he has 2,000 eyes that don't see as well?"  Kids will speculate that maybe it is to see in multiple directions simultaneously.  I say that maybe we can test that!

"We should first test on ourselves.  Let's test our field of vision, that's the range that we can see in."  Next I ask the kids to pick out a point across the room to look at.  I tell them to fix and lock their heads and eyes on that object.  (Kids will want to cheat and move their eyes.)  I then ask them to take their hands and put them in front of of their body like they're going to give someone a big hug.  Then to take their hands and spread them eagle until they can't see their hands any more.  That is their field of vision.  Mine is about 170 degrees.  Review how many degrees a half circle is.  Then I excitedly say that we can test the field of vision of the horseshoe crab.  I then pick a volunteer across from me.  They will then need to pick one of the large eyes on top to experiment with.  I then say that if you can see the crab's eye that he can see you.  Does that make sense?  I then say that I'm going to rotate the top of the crab and that they should let me know when they start to see the eye and when they stop seeing the eye.  Having completed that I gesture with my hand and review for everyone what the volunteer stated as when they started and when they stopped seeing the eye.  Ask for an estimation of how many degrees (reviewing that a full circle is 360, half circle is 180, etc.)  Then figure out the total of both eyes combined, explaining that there will be overlap in fields of vision between the two eyes.  The crab can see in a full circle!!!  I then use examples from the kids attire:  "He can see your cool baseball cap.  He can see your purple sweater over there!  He can see your red quicksilver shirt right here!  He can see all of us at once!!  Imagine what that would feel like to see all around you at once!!!"

A Horseshoe Crab's Calendar and Watch

Inevitably, one of kids will point out the two dots on his carapace that looks like a nose.  I then ask, "Well, if that was his nose, would it be a hole or a dot?"  Kids may flounder in answering, but eventually one will realize that it would need to be holes to be a nose since air or water must circulate through it.  I then ask for them to look very closely to see which it is.  I then explain that it's another set of eyes that specialize in UV light, an invisible light to humans, and that they use that to tell what phase of the moon it is (or time of day) to synchronize their reproduction (said euphemistically, usually).

The Underbelly of the Great Beast

"Who's feeling brave today?!?!  I mean really, really, really, super, duper brave!!!    I'm going to ask you to do something really, really scary.  Like so scary that I don't think ____ grade could do it." Pick one grade below whatever the kids are.  "Here's what I'm going to ask you to do.  I'm going to flip this crab over and he has one dozen scary claws.  How many is a dozen?    If you're feeling brave, and not everyone has to do this, I want you to stick your hand in that mess of claws!!!"    The group dynamics of this are fascinating.  If the ice isn't broken by one of the kids (preferably a girl so the boys have to defend their masculinity) then I may have to demonstrate and explain that his pinchers aren't for defense like a blue crabs/stone crabs.  They're just for picking stuff up and for walking with.  Other times one of the 'cool' kids will do it and subsequently every single kid will want to.

The Mustache of the Great Beast

"Here's what I want you to do.  I'm going to flip him over again and I want you to touch his back again and while you're touching it I want you to think about this--he can't feel that.  He may not be able to feel that, but he does have a way of feeling.  What could it be?  Can anyone help me solve this mystery?  Alright, everyone stick out your arm.  Now, take your hand and very lightly touch your arm.  I know that you've done that before, but this time I want you to think about it like a scientist would.  What method does your body use to feel?  We see by our eyes letting in light and our brain interprets that light as sight, vision.  We feel by pressure.  When we touch our arm we feel an ever so slight, teeny-weeny, microscopic dent or indentation on our arm.  Does that make sense?  We feel by our soft skin being pushed on, but the crab doesn't have soft skin.  How does it feel then?  Stick your arm out again.   This time don't touch your arm, but just barely tickle the hairs on your arm.  That's how the horseshoe crab feels!  Let's flip him over again and you point out every where that he has a bunch of hairs.  Those are places that he really wants to feel!"  (Kids point out mouth area and hind quarters.)  "So, why do you think that he wants to feel so well right around here?"  (Waves finger around mouth. Kids make guesses.)  "Why does a cat or a dog have whiskers?  Well, where's his mouth?  How might a scientist make sure that's his mouth?"  It surprises me that this can be a tough question.  One right answer is to put some food there and see if it gets eaten.

Death by Funky Chicken

"The other weird thing about the horseshoe crabs mouth is that his teeth are attached to his legs!!  Who wants to be a horseshoe crab with me for a minute?"  Kids raise hands.  "We're going to do something silly.   So, how do you eat if your teeth are attached to your legs?  You do the funky chicken!!"  Kids have fun acting this out.

Half Billion Year Old Habits Die Hard

"The ancestors of the horseshoe crabs, the eurypterids, started laying eggs on the beach almost 500 million years ago.  Why?"  Wait for people to think about it.  If I'm presenting to adults I'll see if they know what was happening at the time period and whether or not the dinosaurs had arrived on the scene.  "Because there was literally nothing on the land at that time--no plants, no animals and certainly no predators.  The land was the perfect safe haven for their offspring and now they've continued that tradition for half of a billion years.  Now, more recently, it's a very important part of the diet of many migratory birds (like the endangered Red Knot that flies from Canada down to the tip of S. America yearly--9,300 miles)."

Blue Blood

"Horseshoe crabs have blue blood.  Does anyone know why our blood is red?  Iron!  Well, they have blue blood because they use copper instead of iron to carry oxygen around in their blood!"

Limulus Amoebocyte Lysate

"Who has gotten an immunization or flue shot recently?  Did you know that those shots get tested with a compound from horseshoe crabs?!  It's true!  Because the environment the horseshoe crabs live in isn't exactly the cleanest--it can have billions of bacteria per gram of mud--they have very special adaptations to deal with the bacteria.  One of which is that their blood has a compound, Limulus amoebocyte lysate, that coagulates in the presence of gram-negative bacteria (the kind we need to worry about the most for infections).  The government requires that medical companies test their shots with this compound and if they put into the sample and it coagulates they know the batch is contaminated and they know to throw it out.  Your life could have been saved by a horseshoe crab and you didn't eve know it!!"

Male 'boxing glove' claw used to hold on to female's carapace.

Boys vs. Girls

(Hold up crab.)  "Is this a boy horseshoe crab or a girl?"  (Kids will never not answer.  Funny to think about how ingrained gender is into our psyches, even at a young age.  Flip crab over after taking vote.)  "Here's how we tell: the males crabs have a 'boxing glove' pincher that they use to hold onto the backs of of the females (right next to the base of the tail).  Females have all the same kind of claws."

Snow Shoes

"What do you think these weird flower feet are for?"  Pause for guesses.  Allow the kids to speculate.  "Pushing on soft mud.  There is also a tiny claw on that leg that is specific for cleaning the gills.  His underside is kind of a Swiss army knife of tools!"

All Booked Up

Point out book gills.   "Why do you think they're called book gills?"  Wait for guesses.  "Because the individual flaps look like the pages of a book!"

Fed Up

(This is acted out dramatically.)  "Here's how the horseshoe crab eats.  He takes his big head and then rams it into the mud.  Then he takes all those pinchers and starts ramming them into the mud to find anything he can get--worms, clams, crustaceans, etc. and then pulverizes them with his leg-teeth."

O-So Hungry

"What's the longest you've gone without eating?"  Kids may say a day or most of a day.  "Guess how long a horseshoe crab can go without  eating?  Some sources say up to a year!"


"This tiny, insignificant little flap has a very important use.  It has over 1 million chemical sensors and can be used to detect carbon dioxide so as to let the crab know when he ought to move out of stagnant water."  (Flabellum means tiny fan in Latin and in Roman Catholicism it is the name of the tiny fan used to shew flies away from the Sacraments.)

Spines - Why Science Is Still Cool

"What do you think these move-able spines are for?"  Pause for kids to process out loud.  "Maybe you're right!  I have been told that scientists aren't sure the exact function of them.  I love that fact.  Do you know why?  I love it that there is still so much to learn!  I love that maybe you can grow up, become a scientist and help to solve some of these mysteries!!"

  Pictures from here, here, hereherehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Works sighted [sic]:

Monday, April 25, 2011

How You See - Light Interacting with Matter

"There's this tremendous mess of waves all over in space, which is the light bouncing around the room and going from one thing to the other.  And it's all really there!  But you gotta stop and think about it--about the complexity to really get the pleasure."  --Richard Feynman 

I love to hear Feynman talk about the intellectual pleasure that contemplating reality can bring.  He actually has a book by the title of "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out".  With that taste and thirst for the pleasure of the true and real let's delve into what the light you're reading this blog is all about.  :)

First, we have to understand something about atoms to understand something about light.  (Before I proceed know that I am very open to being corrected!  I am not an expert on quantum electrodynamics.  I'm just someone who's curious and likes to share!  I could be wrong about this stuff and want you to let me know!)  As you know, electrons orbit around the nucleus of an atom within shells, they're 'quantized'.  Why?  Why not just any where they want to be?  (We could also ask why they don't just crash into the nucleus!)  Well, at least in analogy, because the areas in between the shells cause some what of an interference pattern that pushes the electrons back into these pockets of copacetic vibrations of waves.  It's a lot like harmonics on a guitar.

The dots you're seeing are points at which you can put your finger while it is vibrating and cause all other frequencies of vibrations to be canceled thus only leaving that pitch.  

Notice the nodes:

It's these shells that are vitally important to understanding how light interacts with matter and makes seeing possible.

How is light made?  One way is that energetic atoms slam into each other so hard that the electrons bounce around between shells (making a quantum leap) and this jostling emits energy in the form of photons.  How?  Well, when electrons go down an electron shell that lost energy just can't disappear so it gets emitted as a photon.  The bigger the drop the more energetic the photon.

So, how is it that we see things?  Meaning, how is it that light is reflected?  What happens when light hits material?

  • Reflection:  
    • Chew on this.  When you're outside during the day the light that you're seeing with traveled 93 million miles from a seething cauldron of energy created by atoms fusing.  The photon strikes an atom causing an electron to jump up a shell (multiple shells more likely) then that electron nearly instantly descends back down to ground state emitting another photon of equal or lesser value energy.  This is flawed way of thinking about it, but in my mind I almost see atoms breathing in photons (puffing up as its electrons rotate further out) and then breathing them out.
    • Metallic Substances:  Metals are special for a number of reasons; one of which is that they share electrons.  This being the case they easily jump up a shell when a photon hits them and then they are also easily able to drop back down.  Metal is shiny because those electrons just bounce right off that sea of electrons that are shared by the atoms. 
    • Florescence/Phosphorescence: A photon hits, pops an electron up a shell by exciting it, it then descends, but not as much as it was elevated and emits a lower energy wave (like neat neon glowing colors under a black light[which is UV]).  
Neat black light tattoos.

  • Absorption
    • Color: How do we explain things having different colors?  Mostly from absorption.  Say for example white light hits a green object.  It's green because all the other spectra are absorbed (yellow, red, blue, purple, etc) and only green light is reflected.  So, what happens to the other spectra?  If my understanding is correct it's this: a photon hits an object, an electron becomes excited and pops up a shell.  Instead of falling down and reflecting the same wave length light it slowly comes down slowly, intermediate shell by intermediate shell.  This very well may emit something of lesser energy like infrared that then warms up the material.  (Some of this is educated speculation since there's such a dearth of easily accessible in depth explanations out there.  Please help.)

    • Solar power - Photon hits a metal, an electron pops up to an elevated state and is then transfered as a current.

  • How does light go through material?  The photon hits an electron but does not have enough energy to get the electron up to another shell and therefore the photon keeps on moving in the same direction.  We still know that the photon is interacting with the electron, though, since the speed of light is slowed down through material (the speed of light is only constant in a vacuum).   Normally light travels at something like 671,000,000 miles per hour, but scientists have gotten light to go as slow as 38 miles per hour going through extremely cold super-atomic clouds.

  • Sun screen:  Is a great example of partial absorbance.  Visible light isn't high enough energy to get the electron to jump to the next shell (so it appears clear), but UV light is and is therefore absorbed!

  • Polarization: It's these interactions that can affect the orientation of the oscillation of the photons and cause them to get directed into one direction or spin.

  • Water color filtration:  Why is it that red light doesn't travel very far in water?   Why is water blue?  I still need clarification on this, but we're basically talking about specific partial absorbance.  If my understanding of light attenuation through water is correct, the photon isn't just interacting with the electron as a independent agent, but as a molecule.  Molecules have a natural vibrational frequency that light can harmonize with.  Something like this perhaps: a photon hits an electron, that photon causes the electron that is held in place by electro-static forces to vibrate the entire molecule.  The likelihood of the photon to strike the electron/molecule at the right place to resonate is what causes the partial absorbance.  This website explains the possible vibrations pretty well.

Please correct me where I am wrong!

Images from here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Works sighted [sic]:

How to Love the Truth

  • Seek It 
    • Be curious 
      • Indulge your curiosity 
      • Be around curious people 
      • Google your questions 
      • Read 
      • Go the library 
      • Ask experts/friends 
    • Trust 
      • Senses - They are good enough to drive with. 
      • Mind - It is good enough to get man to the moon. 
      • Experts - They're scared enough of losing their job that they relatively have their shtuff together. 
    • Doubt 
      • Authority - Beware of hegemony, self promotion and parasitic self replicating memes. 
      • Tradition - Question the status quo.  Those that don't learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.
      • Self - There are many, many, many things that you are wrong about. Don't add to that list by being wrong about being wrong 
  • Defend It 
    • Argue with people--civilly. Truth is discovered communally. A community of people exchanging ideas like a super network of neurons firing back and forth to each other. The world community is one big brain (and the internet is the synapses:)). We're smarter together. 
  • Proclaim It 
    • Start conversations: Bring up important subjects. Go beyond small talk. Talk big. 
    • Preserve truth in writing: Make it so you and others can come back to that thought after it's faded or been forgotten.  Why aren't you blogging?  Srsly.

    Sunday, April 10, 2011

    Consciousness Raising Events

    Good science education is providing experiences or information that raises people’s consciousness of the universe around them. It expands minds. Opens doors of understanding. Removes the scales from our eyes.

    That got me thinking.

    What are events in my life that didn't change the world around me, but did change the world within me--my perception of reality?

    At this point, I should be clear in what I mean by ‘consciousness raising’. I don’t mean a synonym for enlightenment. I don’t mean anything like Gnosticism or Buddhism.

    I think the distinction between learning and realizing is a helpful one. ‘Learning’, as I’m defining it, is the accumulation of dispassionate information--largely irrelevant factoids. ‘Realizing’, however, isn’t the addition of a new bit of information so much as it is that fact being real, personal, vivid, 3-D, palpable, first person, high def--experienced rather than just known about.

    In no particular order here’s a list of thing that raised my consciousness (often much later looking back on them). I really, really, really want to hear yours. Please comment. Please message. I am fascinated by this topic (for the time being, hehe).


    • My appendix rupturing: It was there I accepted I shared a common ancestor with the great apes. This has changed much of how I see myself, psychology, my body, religion and who I am. 
    • Puberty: Feels weird to talk about it, but going through puberty was eye opening. I realized then what so many jokes, songs, movies, novels and TV shows were talking about. My body and my understanding of relationships forever changed.. 
    • Running marathons: This has shown me a number of things. It’s shown me how much eating right, resting, and exercise really does affect one’s body, health, mind and mood. I had known that, but with running I could feel it. What I did directly affected what I’d do on the track. Also, exercises has given me so, so much more energy and elevated my baseline mood. Didn’t know there was such a connection with what you do and how you’ll feel. 
    • Morphine Hallucinations: So, after coming out of appendix surgery I was on some pretty trippy stuff (I was really bad off. I have a six inch scar and was in the hospital for 8 days). It’s kind of a stretch to say that hallucinating raised my consciousness, but it does help me understand why people do drugs. I saw: a room filled with cotton candy, a bowling ball, cat/dog headed people, and I got trapped in a mushroom castle. Crazy. 
    • Had a seizure: Just one. I was watching Batman the cartoon as a kid and then suddenly my muscles seized up and I tried to call out, but my parents say that I was just moaning and sticking out my tongue. Haha. That experience helps me relate to people with brain conditions. So weird it happened just once. 
    • Teaching: I can think of a couple of times that I was so keyed up from teaching afterwards that I had trouble sleeping. Those events helped solidify what I want to do with my life. 
    • Kids: There was a time when my employer asked me to do as a volunteer what I used to be paid to do. Accepting the offer even though I felt insulted made me realize how much I really do love working with kids. 
    • Worship: I was radically affected by an experience of feeling what I perceived to be the presence of God. I truly felt at the time that I had my consciousness raised to a spiritual realm. 
    • China: Like no other place I’ve been to, China rocked my world. Everything is different there--toilets, door nobs, locks, side walks, curbs, tonal language (their entire language is one syllable words pronounced in strange ways--up, down, diphthong, flat inflections), pictorial written language (where you have to know ten thousand characters just to be able to read the news paper), they form questions by adding a tag word of ‘ma’ instead of bringing the tone up at the end like we do, the communist government, electronics, drastically different religion, vegetables, smells (When we walk into a store we’re used to smelling synthetic lavender or synthetic vanilla etc. but they have totally different flowers and fruits there so nothing seems normal. You walk into a store and it smells like a synthetic lychee fruit or some asian flower your nose has never experienced. Very weird.) and people just act, think, are motivated differently. The kicker is China is almost a quarter of the world’s population. Also, it was a big deal to me to experience that those 1.4 billion people don’t share my religion. I had known that, but seeing it was different. 
    • Language: Language is shaped by reality, but language also shapes our reality. You’ve heard of these examples--some cultures only have four numbers (one, two, three and many), some cultures only have two words for colors (hot colors and cold colors), and some cultures have something like 40 different words for the different types of snow (based on texture, appearance, temperature, etc.). Those are simple examples, but it can get much more complicated when languages have limited tenses, gendered nouns, verbs that describe whether the event happened once, repeatedly or a process over time. There are tribal languages that don’t have different tenses. That has to affect how they think of reality. Taking a Spanish and Greek opened my eyes to their world and by seeing theirs I saw my own. Words create worlds. 
    • Love: Loving another changes you. You want to be a better person. 
    • Mexico: I went to Reynosa, Mexico in high school to build homes. It was the whole, “I went there to change their lives, but they ended up changing mine,” experience. I had never seen that level of abject poverty before. The family that we built a house for lived in what couldn’t even be described as a shack. It was a accumulation of boards, scrap metal, sacks and tarps. It was dirt floor. They had no electricity. If they wanted water they had to walk 2 miles to a nasty river--the Rio Bravo. They used an out house. They couldn’t even afford the nominal fee the government charged to get a birth certificate so that their child could go to school (he was around ten and had never gone to school). Seeing that affected me. Made me realize that every American is rich. I was rich. Ever since then I have a personal conviction to never complain about things like gas prices or to take for granted the food, water, and electricity that I enjoy every waking moment of my day. 
    • Volunteering at Give Kids the World and going to a special needs foster home: I was probably around ten or twelve when a home school group my family was a part of went on a field trip to a special needs foster home. That was the first time I was around children my age with severe mental handicaps and severe disabilities. We were getting a tour of the facility and I remember the care taker taking us to one room where a young man spent the entire day moaning and screaming. Another room where a girl was nearly brain dead and who had no eyes. If there was any doubt as to whether she had eyes or not the care taker cleared that up by gently cradling her head and lifting one of her eye lids with her thumb. You could see the capillary filled back of her eye socket. That image was burned in my mind as a kid. It definitely affected me and until this day I remember it vividly. Subsequent volunteering at places like Give Kids the World, which give a magical vacation experience to families with children with terminal illnesses, cemented into my consciousness both the beauty of the people that give their lives in the service of loved ones and the level of suffering so many in the world experience. I’ve got it good. Really good. 
    • Tallahassee: This isn’t as big as many of the others, but still worth mentioning I think. It’s been great to move to Tallahassee, figure some things out about myself and see that I can support myself and make a great life on my own. That’s felt great. 
    Nature of the Universe

    • Microscope: Seeing an amoeba for the first time collected from the scum pond water near my house was a transcendent moment for me as a kid. There’s a whole invisible world that is all around us. All the time. Right now. Look around. They’re there!! hehe 
    • Plane: I hope you can remember looking out the window of a plane for the first time. You realize how very, very, very, very, very small you are. And how the world is big than you can imagine. Yet also very small, too... 
    • Boat: It’s powerful to go so far on a boat you can’t see the shore any more and then realize that most of the world--70-75%ish--is exactly like that. Dirt and land are the minority exception. 
    • Snorkeling: When I can’t sleep and my mind is whizzing with thoughts I’ll often transport myself to my happy place--snorkeling off of Fort Lauderdale. There’s a whole new world down there and seeing it first hand has affected how I understand the Earth. 
    • Telescope: I was greatly affected by seeing the moons and bands of Jupiter and Saturn’s rings. Eye opening. Also, solar flares in a solar telescope. There’s just something about seeing it live and without a whole bunch of computers and processors; just seeing it with lenses and mirrors. 
    • Limestone quarry: I’ve been lucky enough to go to two limestone quarries. One in Aurora, NC and one near Arcadia, FL. It’s amazing to think about what is below our feet--billions of years of history, countless remains that whisper secrets of the past. It’s one thing to read that in a book; another thing to see the layers before your very eyes. 
    • Dissecting: Ya, it’s smelly and gross, but I unconsciously x-ray under my skin when I look at my body or have an ache or ailment. I owe that largely to dissecting as a kid with my mother’s biology class. 
    • Microbiology lab: I recently swabbed my own skin and then inoculated a petri dish with the critters that were growing on me. Wow. Just to see the different colors and growth patterns of the stuff on you is freaky. Really freaky. But also really neat. We’re never alone!

      Sunday, April 3, 2011

      What is Fire?

      Fire is a chemical reaction.  Fire is quantum mechanics.  Fire is awesome.  As a very lay scientist I'm going to do my best to describe what is happening in this reaction.

      Starting ingredients for fire:  fuel, oxidizer (like oxygen), and heat.

      First we need to heat the ingredients to a sufficient energy to start the cascade--think spark, etc.

      This heat is used to break the bonds of molecules.  With gasoline or wood the large hydrocarbon molecules are broken up into their subsequent parts.
      Counter to what you might think it takes energy to break bonds.  Making bonds produces energy.  This is where things get exciting.  The gas produced by the chemical reaction then reacts with an oxidizer (like oxygen) to produce new bonds.  The act of producing these new bonds creates an enormous amount of heat.

      This heat does several things.  First, it perpetuates the reaction.  The heat causes more bonds to be broken, which causes more bonds to be made (since there is more raw material then), which causes more bonds to be broken, to be made, to be broken...

      Heat has another by product, though--molecules collide more often and with greater energy.  Since atoms aren't just balls of stuff, they also have charges (like the negative charge for electrons and positive for protons) they don't just hit with each other--they react with each other.

      I'll fully admit this analogy may be incorrect since I found pitifully little on it online, but I almost understand these interactions to be like sloshing.  One atom/molecule bombards another atom/molecule causing their negative charges to repel each other.  At some point these interactions cause an electron to jump up an orbital.  In my mind I think of it as being on the opposite side of the atom as the bumping of negative on negative happened (This may be completely wrong and probably is. hehe).  This excitation of electrons to an outer orbital is  only temporary and the electron eventually relaxes back into its ground state and as it does something mysterious happens--a photon is thrown off with a certain amount of energy/frequency (based on how high it fell from and what kind of orbital it was/is in).  That's how light is produced in fire.  And, no, this makes no sense whatsoever.  We don't know why going down an orbital produces a photon.  It just does, okay!

      If you think about it, fire producing light isn't as weird as you initially think...Or, actually it is just as weird as it ever was, but it's much more common than we generally appreciate.  Take for example--infrared.   As you well know from spy shows we are constantly emitting infrared electro-magnetic radiation.  Let me remind you what that means: we're emitting photons of energy just below the visible spectrum all the time--and so is just about everything else above absolute zero.  Ever have someone say you look like there's a glow about you?  That you look radiant?  You are!  Literally!  Heat up something and the photons emitted start to have more and more energy until they finally start to reach an energy level that we can see in the visible spectrum.  Fire produces light for the same exact reason that incandescent light bulbs do, lava, heated metal, your toaster/oven does--heat (the bombardment of atoms and the subsequent excitation of electrons and then relaxation which produces a photon).  The heated substance, however, in this case is soot and gas.

      You're like Dr. Manhattan, but redder--infraredder.

      In summary:

      The making of bonds produces heat.

      The heat produces light by atoms colliding causing electrons to become excited and then return to a ground state emitting a photon.

      Other neatness:  

      The first fossil record of forest fires is from 420 million years ago towards the end of the Silurian period.  The things that were missing prior to that were plants on land (470 mya) and then for oxygen levels to be above 13%.

      Fire goes up because the heated gas is less dense than the surrounding air.  What would happen to a candle flame if there was little to no gravity??

      Pictures from here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

      Works Sighted [sic]: