What is our place in the Universe?

How can we use space research to improve life on Earth?

With these two guiding questions in mind, the 8th grade scholars at McAuliffe Charter School embarked on a trimester-long expedition, “To Space and Back.”

The kick-off included President Kennedy’s,“We choose to go to the Moon” speech; Galileo’s drawings of the moons of Jupiter; and a mystery text, which was a transcription of the Apollo 8 astronauts seeing Earthrise from the Moon for the first time.297755main_gpn-2001-000009_full_0_0

The expedition began by looking out at the Universe from the perspective of Earth. Our students learned how humanity’s understanding of the organization and mechanics of the solar system have changed over time. In the following weeks, they studied the importance of gravity, the solar system, types of galaxies, the concept of mass vs. weight, tides, seasons and a host of other topics.

Each class Skyped with an expert on the solar system and, later, learned about Christa McAuliffe and why she is such an iconic figure that the school is named in her honor. We watched a total eclipse of the moon and spent time each week looking up at the stars in the night sky.

This was the first 8th grade expedition led by the math & science team. The bulk of the work was done in science classes with math providing support by including space-related problem-solving in class.

Service is a critical component of McAuliffe expeditions and the 2015-2016 effort was no exception. The 8th grade scholars participated in a new simulated mission and planetarium presentation at the Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning at Framingham State University. They were, in effect, beta-testers and provided invaluable feedback to the university about the new programs. Irene Porro, Ph.D. Director, McAuliffe Center thanked the students, writing, “We learned a lot from what the students told us and we will be using this valuable feedback to improve the way we implement our program with many other school groups.

The next phase of the expedition changed the students’ point of view to looking back at McKellar Science Spinoffs CoverEarth from the perspective of space. NASA Spinoffs became the focus, as students teamed up and chose space technologies to study. A spinoff is technology originally developed by or for NASA that has been repurposed for use on Earth. Nearly 30 topics were available for the scholars to research and write about.  Each topic included a math connection to help the students understand how math underpins all the work NASA does.

Each team of students wrote an article about the development of their spinoff and focused on its original use in space and how it has impacted our daily lives here on Earth. The result was three editions of Spinoffs magazine. Each edition represents the work of two science classes. The students learned about their spinoffs, learned how to research and write about their topic, and how the layout and design process works in publishing.

The expedition culminates by marking the 30th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster at the annual Christa McAuliffe Remembrance Event. We celebrate our scholars’ learning about space science and technologies and showcase their high-quality work to an authentic audience at this annual celebration of learning. Keynote speaker, former astronaut Joe Tanner, worked with and helped train Christa McAuliffe.

It has been a long road from expedition kick-off to culminating event. The 2015-2016 Space Expedition has been a challenge for our 8th grade scholars but they have risen to it and have extended their knowledge of math and science. To quote President Kennedy: “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are difficult. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”

We’ve reached the end of another year and it’s time for my annual reading recap, this time for 2015.

I start each year with several goals:

  • I want to read a minimum of 20 books,
  • I want to read at least one classic,
  • I try to reach one book about baseball.

In 2015 I blew away my goals. I read (or listened too (because my commute sentences me to about 3 hours a day getting to and from work)) 34 books in 2015.

My classics included; Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man and To Kill a Mockingbird. I enjoyed each of these and am still 51grMGCKivL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_surprised at how well the works of HG Wells hold up after a hundred years.

I seldom reread books but I revisited Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End this year. Both of the Arthur C. Clarke science fiction classics were great. I wish the reviews of the two Rama follow-ons were not so awful, I will probably never read them. Rendezvous with Rama was such a well executed story, with just the right balance between mystery and science that I hate to shake my feelings about the book with poor sequels.

My baseball books were the biographies of Don Zimmer and Pedro Martinez. They were enjoyable reads. It was gratifying to be allowed a peek behind the curtain to understand what was really going on with these two baseball legends during their careers.

The best books I read in 2015?

I have a tie for runner up – What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions and The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of 611-2Y5bzFL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. These books cover some similar ground. They are interesting and engaging looks at, mostly, chemistry.  They are both fun reads for the nonscientist as well as a science teacher, like me.

Top choice? It has to be The Martian. This book is funny, insightful, dead on with the science of Mars (with two 41-YkFaghDL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_notable exceptions allowed for the sake of a good story). It was wonderful. I have recommended it to everyone I know and have received positive feedback from all who have read it. The movie was excellent and true to the spirit of the book.

Here’s my complete list of the books I read in 2015. I have included links to some of my favorites. I wonder what 2016 holds for me?


What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang 

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew  

Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble  

Physics for Rock Stars: Making the Laws of the Universe Work for You  

A Little History of the World  

Track of the Scorpion  

Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life beyond Our Solar System  

“Aurora: CV-01”: The Frontiers Saga Ep.#1  

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman  

Zim: A Baseball Life  

Jump the Shark: When Good Things Go Bad  

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements  

Rendezvous with Rama 

To Kill a Mockingbird – As it turn out, the book does not end in a fiery plane crash.

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free 

What Einstein Told His Barber: More Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions  

Einstein: His Life and Universe  

Neptune’s Eye – A story set in Woods Hole by a local author. Think Clive Cussler with a local slant.




How to Build a Dinosaur: The New Science of Reverse Evolution  

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness51O7Qa9liKL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

The Martian 

People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges  

The Island of Dr. Moreau 

The Invisible Man  


At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise  

What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology 

The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness  

Childhood’s End  

Who Goes There? – The novella that spawned The Thing, a movie I love.

I’m a Caged man. He’s everywhere and nowhere. He’s wonderful and awful. He’s somewhere, but seemingly invisible. I am a Caged man.

Let me build some background so you’ll understand what I mean when I write “I’m a caged man.”

My family members will attest that I’m a little bit of a prankster. I can’t help it. I get such enjoyment by pulling pranks on the people I love. I know, it’s a funny way to express it, but that’s just me. My youngest has been getting the brunt of my jokes lately. I suspect he’s had enough for a while.kZOMq

Here’s the other bit of background info you need to know; I hate Nick Cage. It’s not personal. It’s not like he’s ever cut me off in traffic on his flaming motorcycle, run me down with a runaway street car or given away any of my secrets. It’s professional. I don’t care for almost all of his work. He’s on top of my list of bad actors who’ve won Oscars.

Nick has made some dreadful movies. He’s taken two of my favorite films and remade them into, well, let’s be honest, absolute pieces of stinkin’ crap.

Now let’s pull these very divergent threads together.

While I was on vacation, my sons printed out 129 pictures of Mr. Cage and hid them in my house. My task is to find them all, and once I do, my boys will take me out for a nice dinner and drinks.

They pasted his picture on every single key on my keyboard, save four – C, A, G, and E.

They pasted his face on every single picture of me in the entire house.

They glued him on my dog.

I have found Nick in my socks, buried in the sugar, taped to the inside of a coffee cup, in drawers, under speakers, in my pants pockets hanging in my closet and scores and scores of other places.

Let me tell you, I’ve had just about enough of Mr. Nicolas Cage.IMG_0441

Really, the freakin’ things are everywhere.

So far, I’ve located about 123 of them so somewhere in my house are six more Cages silently waiting for me to stumble upon them.

Man, I hate Nicholas Cage…more than ever now.

What was it like to go to school 100 years ago? The people of Oklahoma City have a pretty good idea after discovering chalkboards dating from 1917, hidden behind newer chalkboards.

When contractors removed the newer, and as far as anyone knew, the only chalkboards, they were stunned to discover an older chalkboard beneath the newer one.

Here’s the full article with lots of pictures. It is just so cool to see this.13

These boards were drawn on in 1917, 98 years ago.

Probably, everyone who taught from them, drew or wrote on them, learned history, math or music from them, have all passed away.

Formula 409 has new packaging. It’s understandable if you’re thinking, “What the heck is he ranting about now?” Truth be told, this is a bit of a rant.

Formula 409 is our kitchen cleaner of choice. We don’t even glance at the competition as we whisk down the cleaning aisle at Market Basket plucking our trusty 409 off the shelf as we go.

But now, It reminds me of New Coke. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember what an unmitigated disaster that was.

The Formula 409 packaging includes a new kind of squirt mechanism. They pitch it as “Now you can get 100% of the product out of the bottle.” I never felt I had trouble getting all the liquid out of the old packaging, but maybe that’s just me. I suspect this new packaging is cheaper for them to use, so it’s an easy way to increase their profits.

And, I have no problem with that at all. The owner of the 409 brand is The Clorox Company. They are a for-profit enterprise and that’s great.

What’s not great is the new squirt mechanism. It doesn’t work consistently. I mean sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it just hisses air at me.

I’ve developed a fair amount of patience over the years, so I bought four bottles of the stuff in the new packaging over the past couple of months before I went absolutely stark raving mad in frustration.

Note, the crushed and tortured appearance of the bottle in the picture. That is a direct result of me smashing the bottle onto the counter in a vain attempt to get some cleaning solution out of the “new & improved” bottle.IMG_0458

Get 100% out of the bottle? I’d be happy with just getting some out of the stupid bottle.

I actually took the time to write to the fine folks at 409. I’m not sure what I wanted to come out of my complaint but I came away dissatisfied with their response.

They sent me a video.

A freakin’ video about how to use the new squirt bottle.

Look, 409 folks, if you have to retrain me on how to use a squirt bottle….you’ve probably overthought this. You’ve invented the New Coke of the cleaning aisle.

I have to say, the squirt mechanism on your competitor’s bottle might be low-tech and old-fashioned, but it works Fantastik!

This week the Perseid meteor shower peaks and, fingers crossed, conditions will be ideal for viewing. The morning of the 13th should provide the best viewing.9503689466_727f436982_b The Perseids are probably the best known of all meteor showers. They occur in warm, comfortable August, people are more likely to be off from work and/or on vacation so getting up early or staying up late is easier. They have the potential to put on quite a show.

This year, there will be no moon to spoil the darkness of the night sky. So, as long as the weather holds and we get clear skies, we should see a nice display of “shooting stars.”

They are called the Perseid meteor shower because they seem to originate in a constellation called Perseus. Perseus is not the most well known constellation in the sky, but it is right below one that’s easy to find – Cassiopeia – It’s the “W” in the sky and it’s opposite the Big Dipper.

You are going to want to get yourself to a dark location, away from city lights. The darker your sky, the more meteors you will see. Here’s all the equipment you will need: Lawn chair or blanket Bug repellent Yeah, that’s it. No binoculars, no fancy telescope, no sky charts. Just your eyes, darkness, and probably an alarm clock. Sit back in your chair and look up at the sky. Be patient, it takes 10 to 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness.

What you’ll actually be seeing are tiny particles from the comet Swift-Tuttle that last visited the inner part of the solar system in 1992 and won’t be back until 2126. Earth is passing through the debris left in it’s wake and those tiny particles are streaking into the atmosphere at over 100,000mph.

You’ll probably want to get up early to see the best part of the show…sometime between 2am and dawn. At it’s peak, you can expect to see about 50 meteors an hour – about one a minute – but they’re not that regular. You might see three in a span of a minute, then nothing for five minutes. There’s no pattern, no rhyme or reason.

Just look up…and enjoy.

Follow me on twitter @Science_186000

A Pluto Primer


A Pluto Primer

In about 9 days, when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft zips past Pluto, everyone’s going to be a Pluto expert. Everybody’s favorite dwarf planet is going to the top news story for a few days. We’ll learn more about Pluto in the 85 hours around July 14th than we’ve learned in the 85 years since it’s discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930.91786935.0

And, in about two weeks, everyone will be sick to death of Pluto. Well, not everyone, but a lot of people will be Pluto-ed out.

Here’s the basic information you need to know about this little ball of rock at the edge of the solar system.

•  is smaller than Earth’s moon – about two-thirds the size;
•  was named for the ruler of the underworld in Greek mythology;
•  has five of its own moons – Charon, Styx, Nix, Hydra and Kerberos and they are all named after characters of the underworld in Greek and Roman mythology;
•  the Disney dog was named for the planet;
•  is really cold. It’s surface temperature is around minus 380 degrees Fahrenheit.

For a moment, let’s think about what’s about to happen. Scientists began to seriously conceive of a mission to Pluto in the 1980s and, after several false starts – New Horizons actually launched in 2006.

A funny thing happened on the way to the ninth planet. It got downgraded from planet to dwarf planet. The International Astronomical Union (IAU )decided on a definition of “planet” that Pluto did not meet. As a result, it was reclassified as a dwarf planet.

Nonetheless, Pluto was still out there and New Horizons was well on it’s way by the time the IAU voted Pluto out of the planet club.

Fast forward about 10 years, and New Horizons is still out there – speeding along at nine miles per second. Thanks, in part, to a gravity assist by Jupiter, New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched.

The problem with Pluto is that it’s far away. Very far away.

The moon is our nearest neighbor at about 240,000 miles. Suppose you could drive a car to the moon (Let’s ignore all the things that make that impossible and focus on just distance and time) at 65mph. How long would it take?

About 150 days.

That’s five months driving 24 hours a day at 65mph. No stops at the Vince Lombardi Service Area. No visits to the largest ball of twine or the house made entirely of newsprint. So, it’s a haul.

If you could drive to Pluto the same way – 65 miles per hour, 24 hours a day – it would take about 6,500 years.

So, Pluto is really out there. It’s about 30 times as far from the sun as Earth. It’s so far out there that the Hubble Space Telescope can’t get a decent picture of it and that’s the reason we sent New Horizons. Pluto is so far away, the only way to learn about it, was to send a robot.

Pluto isn’t just a dwarf planet, it’s actually a really complicated system of celestial objects. Pluto has five moons. Its largest, Charon, is so large that it doesn’t even orbit Pluto. Charon and Pluto orbit a common center of gravity between the two objects and the other four moons orbit that point as well. nh-7-3-15_color_rotation_movie_nasa-jhuapl-swri

Pluto and Charon are a binary system with the other moons orbiting the two “dwarf planets” in the middle. The two bodies are what’s called tidally locked which means they keep the same face toward each other at all times. If you could stand on Pluto, Charon would seem to forever hover over you. Aren’t you glad you paid attention in geometry, now?

Included with its suite of cameras and scientific instruments are nine very human objects. These include two US flags, a CD-ROM of over 400,000 names of people who wanted to participate in this voyage of discovery and another CD-ROM with pictures of the team that conceived, devised and built the spacecraft.

There is a small piece of Spaceship One – the first privately funded manned spacecraft to fly in space. There are state quarters from Florida (where New Horizons was launched) and Maryland (where the spacecraft was built), there is a 1991 US postage stamp declaring “Pluto: Not Yet Explored,”

Finally, there is a small canister containing some of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh containing the inscription:

“Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s ‘third zone’ Adelle and Muron’s boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh (1906-1997).”


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