Every year my family doesIMG_1845 a trip together. We’ve done cruises, car trips, and resort vacations. This year we did a quick and intense trip to London and Rome. What a fantastic trip! The things we saw, the places we went, the people we met – it truly was an adventure.

This was not the ideal way to do this trip but it is how it worked out. We had agreed as a family to go to London for vacation. We booked it, pooled our money, and paid for it in January. Then we found out how inexpensive it is to fly around within Europe and added a two-day jaunt to Rome in the middle of our London week.

So we did London – Rome – London. Crazy. We might have to work on our trip-planning skills for future adventures.

Saturday/Sunday

Our flight left Boston at 9:20 p.m. Saturday and arrived at Gatwick airport outside London at 10:10 a.m. Sunday. We had a delay getting out of Logan airport because the airline had loaded the wrong luggage on board.

I had ordered a car and the driver was waiting for us at the exit despite our late arrival. He was holding a piece of cardboard with “McKellar” on it. This was a first for us – one of many firsts on this trip.

We arrived at our temporary home, the Dolphin House Hotel in the Pimlico section of London, at around noon. Since our rooms were not ready, we left our bags and took the underground to Leicester Square to pick up our London Passes.

The London Pass is a must-have for tourists. It allows for skip-the-line entry into many of the city’s most popular attractions. We had also ordered prepaid subway passes called Oyster cards. The London Pass also includes a hop-on, hop-off bus tour that is fully narrated. It’s not inexpensive but it is a great value and huge time-saver.

We picked up our bus tour at Trafalgar Square and made our way around the city. The commentary was really interesting.

About an hour into the tour, we were all getting hungry so we hopped off near the Tower of London and popped into a pub called the Hung, Drawn and Quartered Pub. Lunch was wonderful as were the pints we enjoyed.

We hopped back on the bus and made our way to the other side of the city, getting off at Hyde Park. This particular bus did not stop at Harrods, so we wandered around for quite awhile looking for it before we found it.

Sadly, we had just 40 minutes until closing time. My eldest son, Mark, wanted a watch so he and my wife, Laura, went in search of the “watch department” (no such thing) while my youngest child, David, and I hunted for a restroom.

It’s a miracle we ever found each other again in that monstrosity of a store. When we found them, Mark was looking at a watch with a price tag of 30,000 pounds. He did not buy it.

At this point, we were exhausted. We had been up all night – with maybe a brief nap on the plane. We grabbed a cab and headed for the London Eye. We knew if we went back to the hotel, we would crash and never leave again. IMG_1893

The Eye is an enormous ferris wheel standing almost 500 feet tall. Instead of seats, it has glass-enclosed rooms that carry you around the wheel. The views  are stunning. It is diagonally across the river from the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. It takes about 30 minutes to circle the wheel.

After the Eye it was time to head back to the hotel to check in, unpack and take a nap. We stayed in and ate at the hotel restaurant. It was an awful meal and ridiculously expensive – a place best avoided in the future.

Monday (Laura’s Birthday)

Because of the way we set up the trip, we only had two full days in London – Monday and Thursday. Monday was Tower of London and  Westminster Abbey day. We used our Oyster cards and took the underground to Tower Hill station right across the street from the Tower. We skipped the line with our passes and joined a tour lead by a Yeoman Warder or Beefeater.

He was great. He told wonderfully horrid tales of torture and executions. What a brutal place this once was. The White Castle was built in 1066 AD (and we think we have antiques in Boston!)

The weather felt like it was about to rain but it never did; in fact, it never rained the entire time we were there.

After the tour, we saw the Crown Jewels. They are so spectacular they don’t even look real. There is one diamond that is 3,106 carats! At the end of the tour is Queen Elizabeth II’s crown. They show a little video of her coronation and then, just around the corner is the actual crown.

While Laura was looking around in a gift shop, I noticed a carving on the rock wall. I could not read a lot of it, but the date stood out clearly – 1606. The shopkeeper explained that during their imprisonment, men would often carve final messages on the walls of their cells. She said, “look about, they are all over.”

As we wandered through the castle, we saw many other carvings.

By the time we were ready to leave it was too late to visit Westminster Abbey. We found another pub, ordered some pints and strategized about how to reconfigure our itinerary.  We’d made it 24 hours before having to make major changes to our plan – typical. We opted to swap the Churchill War Rooms and Westminster Abbey, so we headed off on the subway to the Westminster underground station.

One of our friends had told us that the first time she came up the stairs from the subway, trumpets from heaven ought to have been playing. She’s right. The view of Westminster Castle (the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben) as you emerge from the underground is awe-inspiring. About two blocks from there  are the Churchill War Rooms.

During the fall of 1940, the British government hastily reinforced a basement and subbasement in a government building to be used as a safe headquarters for the prime minister and his cabinet. After the war, they were left virtually untouched until the 1990’s. At that point, they were opened up to the public. Windows were cut into walls so you could see the rooms without entering them. It’s a fascinating look at how Churchill lived and governed during the war.

Later we took a cab to the hotel so we could shower and relax before dinner. Before leaving for dinner the boys gave Laura her birthday gift – a date on the town with me! It included dinner and theatre tickets for later in the week.

That night, we went to Piccadilly Circus and looked around for a restaurant. More Pub grub – as it turned out, we wandered into the the most American pub in London. During football season, they show American NFL and college football on the TVs. Fish and chips and a few more pints later, we decided to call it a night. We couldn’t stay out too late because on Tuesday we were flying to Rome.

Tuesday

Our Tuesday started right after our Monday ended. Our car picked us up at 3 a.m. for our early flight to Rome. Ugh

More firsts: From the plane I saw France, the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea.

It was noticeably warmer and greener in Italy than England. We found a private cab from the airport to the Hotel Solis. On the way we passed many ruins including an huge aqueduct. Traffic was ridiculous. The rules of the road must be optional.

Our hotel was a 10-minute walk to the Colosseum. The whole place was like out of a movie. There were outdoor cafes across the street. An accordion player was serenading the diners. At the hotel we were greeted by a little man who did everything at 100 mph. He ran up the stairs to show us our rooms, down the stairs to answer the phone, up the stairs to bring us our luggage, and answered all of our questions fast, fast, fast.

We had lunch across the street and then poked around for a bit before our tour of the Colosseum and the Forum. IMG_2046

I could write pages and pages about our tour. It was spectacular. Our guide, Nicolas, was fantastic. He was so knowledgeable and enthusiastic. We all learned so much about Rome and the history of the empire, city and the Colosseum. First off that’s not even its name! It’s a nickname that we all use. The actual name is Flavian  Amphitheater. Only about a third of the original structure remains. It was built a thousand years before the Tower of London in the year 80 AD. Yes, 80 AD.

The tour was three hours and was very strenuous. We hiked all over and around the Colosseum and then went to the forum. The Roman Forum was the heart of the Roman Empire. There is a particular structure from which the distance to things were once measured. Ancient Rome was the first city on Earth to have one million inhabitants. After the empire collapsed, Rome emptied. In just a  handful of generations, the population dropped to 20,000 and they were living in poverty.

For a thousand years, the Colosseum was used as a quarry. It was looted for its marble, metal, artwork and architectural columns. It wasn’t until the 1700’s that the pope ordered it preserved.

The last part of the tour is climbing Palatine Hill. The view from the top is magnificent. Our guide pointed out all seven hills of Rome to end his commentary. I think it was the highlight of the trip.

After a much-needed nap and shower, we went to dinner. I had seen a nice write-up about a local restaurant that was in our area but not a touristy type of place. As it turned out, Taverna dei Quaranta was a nice, authentic neighborhood restaurant. The meal was incredible!

Wednesday

We checked out of our hotel and asked Mr. Speedy to hang on to our bags. We toured the Vatican Museums this morning. The first hour was really interesting. The middle 90 minutes was just too overwhelming to process. So many sculptures, tapestries, and paintings. The place  was wall-to-wall people (and this was on a “light” day crowd-wise). Finally, we could not take it anymore. We opted out of the final 30 minutes of the tour and headed straight to the Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel was stunning. To see the work of Michelangelo with our own eyes was surreal. Again, it was ridiculously crowded and the guards kept yelling at people to be silent (yes, ironic huh?).  After our obligatory visit to the gift shop, we headed back to a busy shopping district near the hotel. Mark was looking for a suit or shoes so that’s what we shopped for – after a nice pizza lunch, of course.

Then it was off to the airport and back to London.

Thursday

Technically our Wednesday did not end until we arrived at our hotel about 2 a.m. on Thursday. We were out on the streets heading to  Buckingham Palace by 9:30 a.m.

The changing of the guard is one of those must-do things in London and it definitely didn’t disappoint.

The bands played Happy Birthday for the Queen’s 90th Birthday and, surprisingly, Copacabana.  After the changing, we walked through St. James Park and had sandwiches in the park.

After lunch, we stopped at the horse guard, shopped for gifts and  souvenirs, and had another pint or two. We took a cab back to the hotel to rest and clean up – this was theatre night for Laura and I. David and Mark had plans of their own — visiting several pubs and having a few more pints.

We chose to see Sunset Boulevard – an opera based on the 1950 movie of the same name. Glenn Close was starring and I loved the movie. As it turned out, Glenn Close was ill and her understudy took over. I have never heard of her but she is a long-time west-end theater star. The crowd went crazy when they announced her.

The play/opera was great. It was done by Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Phantom of the Opera). The music was wonderful and these actors can SING! At the end, there were five or six curtain calls. At one point the conductor came down from his platform to join the actors and it was Andrew Lloyd Webber himself. He’d been conducting all night and we didn’t know.

After the show, we walked around the block and found a nice restaurant for a late dinner.

Friday

I got up early and took the underground to Piccadilly Circus and walked over to the hotel I stayed at with Mom and Dad in 1974. I found it pretty easily and took a few pictures. The front desk is still located exactly where I remembered it being.

This was Westminster Abbey day (remember, we swapped around the  Churchill War Rooms for Westminster on Monday). The boys opted for more sleep (I think I heard them come in at 1:45 a.m.) so Laura and I took the tube to Westminster.

The history and beauty of this place is magnificent. I had been once before but was still blown away by the place. I was awestruck to stand before the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton.

This was the highlight of the trip for Laura, barely edging out the Colosseum.

After checking out of the hotel we had a crappy snack at the crappy hotel restaurant and headed off to the airport.

As I write this, we’re approaching the coast of Newfoundland. It’s been quite a week. It was a go-go-go vacation, not the restful kind of vacation we usually go for.

We planned very carefully but still had too much stuff on our itinerary.

We had planed but were unable to visit the British Museum and the British Library (handwritten Beatles lyrics, notebooks of Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci, and the Magna Carta).

But that just leaves more cool stuff to do next time….


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?

Curious

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.

 

Pedro 

Gateway 

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  

Frankenstein  

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




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