While I was wrapping: Christmas science

December 25, 2009

Ohh, here’s fun:  Photographing fractals using Christmas ornaments, at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories:

Fractals photographed in three Christmas tree ornaments, Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories

"Construct complex fractals out of light using a few shiny Christmas tree ornaments. Who says the holidays aren't exciting?"

All you need is a camera and some imagination — oh, and some Christmas ornaments. In this case, four silver ornaments ($5 at Target, the guy says), a piece of Scotch tape, and the colored lights.  The photo above comes from four ornaments, stacked.  Go see how he does it (lots of photos), and check out his Flickr stream.

While your kids ponder the pretty lights and stars on the Christmas tree, why not add a little science in?  According to Carlos Hotta, at  Brazillion Thoughts, “The Universe in a Christmas Tree”:

How about looking at the Christmas tree through the light of this knowledge? Here is some food for thought:

  • We know more planets beyond the solar system than there are Christmas balls on your tree. The current count is at 358 exoplanets, and growing;
  • If the planet was [shrunk] to the size of a Christmas ball, it would be the smoothest ball of the tree. The Mount Everest (8 km) or the Marianas Trenchr (11km) are small imperfections relative to the planet’s 12,000 km diameter. It’s an imperfection of less than 0,01%;
  • “Earth is not spherical, it’s an oblate spheroid”, some Grinch may say. Indeed, our planet wider in the equator, but even this deviation from a perfect sphere is of less than 0,04%;
  • If an 8 centimeters Christmas ball represented Earth and the nearest ball represented the nearest known exoplanet – Epsilon Eridani b, 10.5 light-years away – then the distance between them should be around 630,000 km. Almost twice the actual distance from Earth to the Moon. Epsilon Eridani b is quite far from here
  • Now, if the star at the top of the tree represented our Sun, 1,392,000 km in diameter, and the star at the top of your neighbor’s tree – say, 50 meters away – represented the nerest star system, Alpha Centauri at 4 light-years of distance; then the size of our Sun-star to be on the same scale it would have to be 0,74 micrometers large. From 1,4 million kilometers to more than 100 times smaller than the width of a hair, that’s how small the star should be for it to be in the same scale as the distance between it and the neighbor’s Christmas star.

There’s more — plus the original at 100 Nexos (in Portuguese).

Yo! History and geography teachers: Free state maps!

August 23, 2008

In the summer of my 8th year, after my uncle, Roland Christian*, sent me his collection of “official” state maps from his latest cross-country drive, several of us kids tried to collect maps of all 50 states. Considering we were in Burley, Idaho, it’s amazing that we could accumulate 36 different states, just by our badgering local gasoline stations for the free ones. We got on our bicycles and visited the stations, one after the other.

Free educational materials: A memory from a distant past.

I haven’t seen a free map from a gas station in years, maybe two decades. My love of geography, my love of chasing odd city names, strange routes, great sights, and history, was spurred by that map collection, I’m sure.

Today, though oil companies have gotten out of the tourism and driving promotion business, state tourism offices, or state road departments typically issue free maps. How to find them all?

To the rescue comes Less Than a Shoestring, with a list of the places to ask in each state, to get a free road map of the state. These maps are great helps for students doing a “project” on a different state. For the history class on your own state, if your school offers such a course, I think such maps are indispensable.

We teach Texas state history and geography in 7th grade. When I taught that course, one of the best classroom aids I had was a collection of the official map of Texas — a year old, but I got a couple dozen copies from the state’s tourism promotion group. They were anxious to get rid of the old maps, and I was very happy to have them.

Here’s something curious: The site, Less Than a Shoestring,  doesn’t list a place to get a map from the District of Columbia — Washington, D.C. You’d think that a town that depends so much on tourism would have an office to promote tourism that would pass out maps to make tourists’ trips easier. Is this just an indication of the great dysfunction of the D.C. government, or did we miss finding the site? Let me know in comments.

Tip of the old scrub brush to the Business Blog @ Capital Active.


* Uncle Roland was a minister for the 7th-Day Adventists, and he traveled to preach around the country. Stuck in a small Idaho town for my first nine years, I thought Roland was a great world traveler. He always stopped to spend a night when he was within a state or two — he was a minister trying to travel on a shoestring, after all — and with his wonderful, deep, preacher’s voice, he had wonderful stories to tell. I miss him still, more than two decades after his death. Which of your nieces and nephews can you influence as Roland did?

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