Thursday, March 3, 2011

First Science Quiz Bowl - Follow-Up

As some of you will no doubt know, we tried something new last Monday. With help from River's Bend Restaurant and Bar (in the old Parkville Power Plant), that night was the innaugural Science Quiz Bowl.

Some forty people turned out (not bad for Parkville on a Monday night) to answer questions in twelve different categories of science knowledge. Teams were composed of families, students, interested adults, and even the Parkville Chamber of Commerce (which managed a respectable third place)! The winning team, from Park Hill South high school, scored their game-winning finish by knowing (surely not guessing) that one of the elements responsible for the green of an emerald is chromium (the other, according to Mindat, is vanadium, which some of you will know is responsible for the blue-green color of the mineral cavansite). We apologize to everyone who guessed "copper" - actually, it was more of a trick question than originally anticipated.

We'd like to thank everyone who came out, and we hope that everyone had a great time, and possibly even learned something. Watch our Facebook and Twitter feeds for more information for the next time!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thoughts on Darwin Day, 2011

Every year on this date, many scientifically-minded people enthusiastically celebrate the life and work of at least one world-famous scientist, namely Charles Robert Darwin, born 12 February 1809.

If they are also rather historically-minded, they will probably also cite the seemingly remarkable coincidental nearness of the birth of the sixteenth U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln (indeed, an entire book, Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages compares their two lives at some length). Mineralogists and geologists will doubtless also wish to include American mineralogist, geologist, zoologist, and author of the landmark System of Mineralogy, James Dwight Dana into their commemorations on this day, although he was born four years later, in 1813.

These celebrations are, in and of themselves, a good thing. They encourage scientific and historical literacy. They raise awareness of important figures in history (and, like him or not, few people knowledgably contest Darwin's contributions to the history of science). They open up a world of opportunities for discussion.

This year, however, things have gone a step further. As reported, particularly in a number of secular and humanist sources, Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) put forward a bill calling on the U.S. Congress to officially recognize February 12 as Darwin Day. This notion, to some scientific rationalists, might give pause. here is Representative Stark's quote on the matter:

"Darwin's birthday is a good time for us to reflect on the important role of science in our society,” Stark said. “It is also a time to redouble our efforts to ensure that children are being taught scientific facts, not religious dogma, and to fight back against those who seek to undermine the science of climate change for political ends."

The only qualm that I have with that statement is the choice of the day. Ensuring that children - and adults - are taught fact rather than dogma is imperative. Honesty and truth in assessing the real dangers of climate change are vital. But bearing in mind the current Republican majority, and their apparent aversion to science and apple jingoism, does approaching a group who often have a knee-jerk hostility to the name "Darwin" and suggesting that it might be good to have an official Darwin Day seem like a good idea? Did we mention that he was British? So, really, is this the best use of our time and resources?

Don't misunderstand me: I enjoy and wholeheartedly support the panoply of unofficial, ad hoc, and totally off-the-cuff Darwin Day activities that are on offer these days. Seemingly in the past decade or so these events have sprouted like fungi in a fairy ring, and it has been a great thing to see. But should Darwin's birthday be the focal point of pro-science, pro-reason public displays? Should we, in fact, put Darwin's birthday specifically up on a pedestal?

Currently, America has no official National Science Day, or Week (at least, not one that I can find). Some other countries, like India, do, which resulted in some confusion when the Beagle's first Science Quiz Bowl was being planned (it's on 28 February, more information here). The National Science Foundation does sponsor other events, and there are many unofficial and regional or local science fairs, science Olympiads, and quiz bowls, but there apparently hasn't been a proper National Science Week in America since 1999. So does that make Darwin Day the best de facto substitute?

On the one hand, it's an appealing notion: to take part in an international celebration of science, on the same day, all around the world. And, again, don't misunderstand: I know, without any shred of doubt, that the facts of the natural world and the applied weight of multiple areas of science as we now understand them unequivocally demonstrate the veracity of evolutionary theory, and that Darwin and Wallace were the first to fully see the first glimmers of that truth. I also know that a single pre-Cambrian rabbit (to paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane) would undermine it at a stroke, and that such a find would present fascinating new challenges, but I honestly don't have any reason to suspect that it will ever happen.

But I wonder what Darwin, that quintessential exemplar of the retiring and private man, would have thought of being the focus of so much admiration, celebration, and the like. I suspect that he might have been amused, but that, more likely, he would have been mortified. And I suspect that he might have had some of the same objections that I have to celebrating his birth in this way: it smacks a bit of deification. It seems to elevate a single man above the accumulated knowledge of the field that he revolutionized. does that mean that it's a bad idea? Again, I wonder, and this is all little more than conjecture. Fodder for discussion. Food for thought.

Could we better celebrate science as a whole on another day? Pi Day (14 March), maybe? Moon Landing Day (20 July)? DNA Day (based on the publication date of Watson & Crick's paper, 23 April)? There are many possibilities, and I sometimes wonder if the best answer isn't to simply make every day a day to celebrate science. Or perhaps better still: when we don't use some aspect of science and the resulting technology in our daily lives, those can be the days when we can also take time off from our recognition of the fundamental importance of science, and discovery, and free enquiry unfettered by political whims and denialism, in all of our lives.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Resurrection of the Blog

It's been too long since there has been a posting on the Beagle's science blog. Apart from the fact that we've done many, many regular updates on the Beagle's Facebook group, and on our Twitter feed, there's no real excuse for this other than lack of time, maybe even a touch of laziness. So let's try again... hi! Welcome to the H.M.S. Beagle Science Blog.

At the moment, we're in the midst of a nasty cold and snow snap in the American Midwest, in what has been called one of the biggest and most widespread snow storms to hit the United States since the 1950s. In case you were wondering, for the Kansas City metro area, temperatures of minus six degrees Fahrenheit (-21 deg. C) are not considered normal. Not to put too fine a point on it, it has been an interesting few days.

As life returns to normal, we can return our focus to the news: big news, especially, from the beyond our world, out into space. The Kepler mission has come in with big results, including yesterday's announcement of multiple candidate Earth-like planets, and the announcement of a six-planet system, for now known as Kepler-11 ( Science Daily link | BBC News ). Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy is decidedly enthusiastic as well, and he's not alone.

So... a lot going on. Watch the blog for longer articles, more commentary, and keep up with us elsewhere too. Website updates, new and exciting things, and lots of really weird, wild stuff is all in store. Stay tuned!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Praise for the Beagle from a Customer

Carol & I received a letter (yes, that's right, a letter...the hand-written the mail!) from a mom. She was thanking us for our efforts with the First Lego League robotics team we fielded this year: The Crash Test Smarties. Anyway, in her letter she closed with this, "In pursuit of the truth in Science and Mathematics, you two are paving the way for a better and more enlightened future for our kids."

We sincerely hope that all of our customers feel this way. This makes all the hard work worth while.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Pure Silver, Anyone?

I'm mulling over the possibility of offering an intense workshop to teach DIY silver recovery, reclaimation and refining. I have a technique that I have used, and taught to others, that allows one to relatively easily recover and reclaim silver from coins, jewelry, silver plate, etc. and to refine it into a state of up to .999 purity. This three-nine purity is the same as what one gets when purchaining silver bullion whether in the form of 1,000-oz ingots or 1 oz. bars and rounds (coins). If there is enough interest I will set up dates that will work for everyone.
Please tell us at the Beagle if you're interested.

And, BTW, we will be offereing a limited supply of pure silver bars and rounds at the Beagle.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Updates All Over...

There are many, many things going on at the Beagle right now, and I thought that I'd take a minute here to lay out a few of them for you, faithful reader:

New look website: the H.M.S. Beagle website has been updated to make it easier to navigate and use. If you have questions, comments, or problems, let me know via email - I've got a second generation of improvements planned, but this framework had to go in place first.

Social Networking: we've expanded our presence on Facebook and Twitter. The Twitter updates also fold neatly back into both the main website and this blog (they're over there on the right). Follow us on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, and keep up with all of the latest happenings at the Beagle. And make certain that you let us know if you became a fan, read the blog, or saw the main website after clicking through our advertisement on Facebook - it'll help us to keep track of how effective those adverts are!

Workshops, Workshops, Workshops: under the Events / Activities tab on the website, you'll find all of the things that we're doing, including the Events Calendar, with all sorts of useful information; updates on our Astronomy-related activities, including Star Parties, Telescope Basics Workshops, and Star-Hopping Workshops; additionally, we have Workshops in Chemistry, Electronics, Robotics, Rocks & Minerals, and Rocketry planned for the summer, take a look at those listings as well!

Fossil Digs: we're very, very excited about our upcoming Fossil Digs, including our First Trilobite Jam in Delta, Utah this July, and our usual Science Club fossil digs in June. Make sure that you plan to attend, and let us know via email if you have questions!

Special Events: right now, we're delighted to be planning a party on a Sunday, 11 April 2010 for Yuri's Night, and international celebration of manned spaceflight (sadly, I'll be out of town for this, but I'm hoping we'll get to swing by the one in San Francisco). The Beagle's Yuri's Night fun will include a showing of "October Skies", free rocket launches (bring your rocket!) in association with the Kansas City Rocketry Association (KCAR), and an evening of star-gazing with Leif! All of this fun is free for the whole family (weather permitting, of course); check out our Special Events Page for more information.

So that's what we've been doing, instead of writing blog entries... There's a great deal going on at the Beagle, and we hope that you'll stop in, sign up, and support us in continuing to provide great science-based activities in the Kansas City area!

Monday, March 15, 2010

MSNBC: UFOs over Cleveland?

Typical of the ignorant mis-comprehension of the mundane workings of the natural world, the mainstream media (MSNBC specifically) turn to a pseudo-scientific hack to explain something that he doesn't understand and therefore implies that it must be something "other-worldly."

And my response sent to "Contact": "I just saw a report from MSNBC about "UFOs" over Cleveland. The "expert" you had on to talk about the lights doesn't know anything about the night sky. What you could have done was had someone on who knows something about lights in the sky. An astronomer, even an amateur astronomer, could have told you that this light is the planet Venus, which is in the western sky right now for a couple of hours after sunset. When it gets close to the horizon it appears to flicker and change colors when its light refracts as it passes through Earth's atmosphere. The next time you want to "get to the bottom" of a mystery maybe you could consult a scientist instead of a crank."

Just a hint to UFO hunters: if an object appears in the sky at the same time every night, travels across the sky at the same rate as the stars around it, and sets in the west, it just might be an astronomical object.