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Science History: Mary Anning


Born on May 21, 1799: Mary Anning, fossil collector who found her first complete skeleton, an ichthyosaur, as a young girl in Lyme Regis. What "type" of fossils did Mary Anning find—and why? In the new "Fantastic Fossilization! Discover the Conditions For Creating the Best Cast Fossils" geology Project Idea, students learn about four types of fossils and get hands-on making cast fossils in different kinds of soil.

Fossils and the possibility of finding something prehistoric encased in soil or rock may excite students of all ages (and from an early age!). Whether your student's interest in fossils and paleontology and archaeology stems from a passion for dinosaurs or as an offshoot of fascination with King Tutankhamun, Mary Anning, as a female fossil hunter, is a great person in science history for students to know about. Introduce students to Mary Anning's story—and the world of fossils and paleontology— with books like these, many of which may be available at your school or local library:

Looking for books for older or adult readers? Consider The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (Macmillan Science) (biography) or Tracy Chevalier's New York Times bestseller, Remarkable Creatures: A Novel (fictionalized account).


Hands-on Fossil Exploration

The new hands-on "Fantastic Fossilization! Discover the Conditions For Creating the Best Cast Fossils" geology project lets students explore "cast" fossils. Cast fossils are one of four types of fossils. As students will discover by doing the science experiment and making their own cast fossils using shells and plaster of Paris, certain types of soil are more suitable for preserving cast fossils than others. In addition to offering an excellent independent science project, this idea can be great for classes or family exploration!

Making Science Connections

Our "today in Science History" posts make students, teachers, and parents aware of important discoveries and scientists in history and help connect science history to hands-on K-12 science exploration that students (and families) can do today. To follow along, join us at Facebook or at Google+. These frequent science history tidbits can be great for class, dinner, or car-ride discussion!

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Born on May 15, 1863: Frank Hornby, an inventor whose "toys" included Meccano, an engineering construction set of nuts, bolts, and strips of sheet metal. Hornby first devised the system for his children. When he moved on to mass produce Meccano, he marketed the product as "Mechanics Made Easy." Meccano sets, introduced for sale in 1902, resemble Erector sets, and today Meccano owns the Erector brand.

Whether beams and bolts or brick-based, toy building systems give kids (and tinkerers of all ages!) the chance to explore engineering, mechanics, and, today, even robotics. In the "Stair Master: Build an All-Terrain Robot" robotics Project Idea, students use LEGO® Mindstorms® to experiment with different kinds of wheel alternatives. Not every wheel suits every need. Identifying the challenge or problem is an important step in the engineering design process!

What does it take to build a successful all-terrain robot? The best way to find out and to test your theory about what will work is to put it to the test!


Making Science Connections

Our "today in Science History" posts make students, teachers, and parents aware of important discoveries and scientists in history and help connect science history to hands-on K-12 science exploration that students (and families) can do today. To follow along, join us at Facebook or at Google+. These frequent science history tidbits can be great for class, dinner, or car-ride discussion!

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A Game of Letters


Born on April 13, 1899: Alfred Mosher Butts, inventor of Scrabble®.

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The history of the Scrabble® game makes for interesting reading. As is the case with many eventual success stories, Scrabble is a game that didn't succeed at first. A chance discovery by the president of Macy's in the 1950s brought the game to the public. Today, millions of households own a copy of Scrabble®, and the game holds an enduring place in the hearts of word aficionados worldwide. The image above shows the results of Butts' letter analysis.
If you play Scrabble®, there are probably a few letters you groan to find in your tile rack. Maybe you find the "V" hard to play, or the "C." But when you look at point values, the "C" is worth only 3, while the "H" (arguably much easier to play) is worth 4. Of course, the three big-ticket letters, X, Q, and Z, are prized possessions in a game and, used wisely, can be combined with spaces that multiply the points of a tile or a word to generate high word scores. Beyond the point values, there is the issue of how many of each letter appears in the tile set. There are, for example, 12 E's in the game, 9 A's, only 8 O's, 2 of popular consonants like M and H, and only 4 S's.

Have you ever wondered how the values and letter quantities were determined? Alfred Mosher Butts, who invented the game in 1938 as Criss-Cross Words, spent a great deal of time analyzing text samples during the development of the tile set. Attempting to pinpoint how common each of the 26 letters in the alphabet is in the English language, Butts manually tracked through the distribution of individual letters in text from sources like the New York Times. Based on his letter-frequency assessment, Butts established the breakdown of letters included in the set of 100 tiles and developed the corresponding point value distribution used in both Scrabble® and an earlier version of the game, Lexiko, both of which used the same point-based tile sets.


Making Connections

Butts' assessment of the English language was driven by his desire to create a challenging word-based game. But similar studies are carried out by scientists and scholars to analyze samples of writing, determine authorship and historical accuracy, and pinpoint other linguistic, lexicographic, and etymological trends. Students curious about lexicography, or even the newer discipline of stylometry, defined as "the science of measuring literary style," can conduct their own analyses of literary samples—either by hand, as Butts did, or using a variety of computer-based tools, programs, and algorithms. The Computer Sleuth: Identification by Text Analysis project from the Computer Science area lets students dive into this word-worthy area of research.





Science Buddies' Computer Science Project Ideas are sponsored by the Symantec Corporation.

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Approaching Solar Max


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The image above shows predicted rise and fall of sunspot activity during a Solar Cycle. Image source: NASA.

Born on January 24, 1882: Harold Delos Babcock, an astronomer who studied sunspot cycles and the sun's magnetic polarity during each approximately 11-year cycle.

That the orientation of the sun's poles changes, routinely, may come as a surprise, but, right now the sun's poles are upside down. The sun looks the same, but every 11 years or so, things flip over again as the Solar Cycle progresses, reaches, and passes its midway point. (The Earth's polarity also changes, but with much less regularity—the last change was more than 750,000 years ago!).

According to NASA, "graphs of sunspot numbers resemble a roller coaster, going up and down with an approximately 11-year period." It is at the high point, the "Solar Maximum," that astronomers have discovered that the magnetic orientation of the sun changes. In February 2001, NASA reported on the "flip" as the Solar Cycle 23 hit Solar Maximum: "The Sun's magnetic north pole, which was in the northern hemisphere just a few months ago, now points south."

While the magnetic flip has come to represent an expected part of each solar cycle and an indication of Solar Maximum during the approximately 11-year cycle, forecasting the "peak" of a solar cycle remains variable. Scientists are sure the reversal will happen, but pinpointing "when" is often only possible as we near the Solar Maximum. A survey of reports over the last several years regarding Solar Cycle 24, our current cycle, shows that NASA made several predictions that indicated a "peak" in 2011 or 2012. Indeed, in an account of the 2001 flip, NASA noted, "The Sun's magnetic poles will remain as they are now, with the north magnetic pole pointing through the Sun's southern hemisphere, until the year 2012 when they will reverse again. This transition happens, as far as we know, at the peak of every 11-year sunspot cycle—like clockwork."

They were close. Revised NASA forecasts now posit a "peak" for Solar Cycle 24 in mid-2013, with an unusually low number of sunspots during the Solar Maximum, the lowest since 1928.


Making Connections

It's not a clock you'll want to base your day-to-day activities upon, but the "clockwork" behavior of the Solar Cycle is interesting to watch and leads to much discussion and prediction from armchair astronomers and observatory-researchers alike. Students, too, can jump in and learn more about sunspots, magnetic fields, and the Solar Cycle. The following Project Ideas give students a chance to use publicly-available, historical data to learn more:


Update! Solar Max Means Amazing Skies

A related effect of the approaching solar maximum is an increase in activity that translates into amazing aural displays. Check these beautiful photos of the northern lights in January. See also, the "Spectacular Northern Lights From Solar Storm Wow Skywatchers" report.

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Field Work: Gorillas, Lions, and More


Our "science history" notes this week at Facebook included mention of both Dian Fossey and Joy Adamson. Both women left behind inspiring legacies and volumes of experience gathered from living with, observing, and interacting with animals.

Born on January 16, 1932: Dian Fossey, a famed zoologist whose study of gorillas in Rwanda, Africa is chronicled in Gorillas in the Mist. The book is her own account of thirteen years spent living in an African rain forest and was also later made into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver.


Students can use the BLAST bioinformatics tool to examine the relationship between humans and our non-human relatives in the Neanderthals, Orangutans, Lemurs, & You—It's a Primate Family Reunion! genomics Project Idea.




Born on January 20, 1910: Joy Adamson, naturalist and author, best known (along with her husband George Adamson) for raising and training Elsa, an orphaned lioness, and eventually successfully releasing her into the wild. After Elsa, Adamson worked with other animals, including a cheetah and a leopard. Adamson chronicled her work in a number of books, beginning with Born Free (also made into a movie).

Teaching the family dog to shake hands or give a high five is (depending on the breed) likely far less dangerous than working with a wild animal, but students can begin to explore the ways in which animal trainers approach the process of teaching animals new skills or tricks by working through the Tricks for Treats: How Long Does It Take to Train Your Pet? project.

Making Connections

For a look at ways to turn a love of animals into a career, explore the following science career profiles: zoologist, animal trainer, park ranger, and veternarian.

For other exciting Project Ideas designed to let students explore science questions related to animals, see projects in Zoology, Biology, and Mammalian Biology.

Interested in reading other firsthand accounts from female scientists, zoologists, naturalists, and conservationists? You might also enjoy learning more about Jane Goodall's legendary work, chronicled in titles that include: Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe, My Life with the Chimpanzees, Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters: The Early Years.



(Science Buddies Project Ideas in Zoology are sponsored by the Medtronic Foundation.)

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Today in Science History: snakes!


Born on December 21, 1883: Laurence Monroe Klauber, a herpetologist who was particularly interested in rattlesnakes. Snakes appear in many different locations, including tucked away inside warm, dark caves. While winter weather may keep you indoors, you can learn more about cave formation and the ecosystems that live within by reading the Speleology: Counting Formations in a Local Cave geology Project Idea (and watching the Dragonfly TV video segment).


(Science Buddies Geology Project Ideas are sponsored by Chevron.)

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Farnsworth invented the TV and landed on a U.S. postal in stamp in 1983. In later years, Farnsworth's widow, Pem, reportedly explained Farnsworth's relationship to the history of TV this way: ''You take Farnsworth's patents out of your TV and you'd have a radio."


Born on August 19, 1906: Philo Farnsworth.


Philo Farnsworth?

A household name? Maybe not.


But if you have a TV in your house, you are using something Farnsworth envisioned as a high school student and spent many years developing. Farnsworth is often referred to as the "inventor" of TV, and his story is fascinating and exciting in terms of what's possible when a young scientist or engineer takes what is available and imagines what may be possible. Farnsworth's early fascination with electricity and his spirit of "what if" is what brought moving images to the screen, but his ideas got their genesis in something much more basic... the lines created when plowing a field.

A biography of Farnsworth posted on the Brigham Young High School website summarizes his vision at age 14 this way: "he dreamed of using a lens to direct light into a glass camera tube, where it could be analyzed in a magnetically deflected beam of electrons, dissected and transmitted one line at a time in a continuous stream." By the age of 21, Farnsworth demonstrated this method of transmission, with a single line, thus creating the first television transmission.

What will you and your students invent, test, question, or discover this year?


Continued Study

Farnsworth's story is one that puts the Engineering Design Process in action. Students with an interest in electronics, engineering, tinkering, and the DIY mentality of inventing, or students who see a problem and have ideas on how something could be developed to solve that problem, can learn more about the steps of the engineering process in the Science Buddies Engineering Design Process guide.

The following books and reference materials may help you learn more about Farnsworth and the development and historical timeline of TV:







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