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Museum of Science, Boston August 25, 2009

Posted by flashbuzzer in Science.
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I recently visited the Museum of Science in Boston. The museum features a variety of exhibits that present the marvels and wonders of science to the general public.

Here are ten nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. Cormorants and seagulls are often at odds as they carve out a shared existence along the New England coast. In fact, seagulls enjoy swooping down upon a mother cormorant’s nest and stealing her eggs for food.

2. Beavers are capable of altering an entire ecosystem via their diligent dam-building endeavors. They also possess wide, flat tails that can be used to alert other beavers of impending danger; a “sentinel” beaver accomplishes this by slapping its tail against the water.

3. Deciduous forests can be found throughout Massachusetts, which helps to explain the local sentiment of “you can experience all four seasons here.” In contrast, conifers are more prevalent in New Hampshire and Vermont, which happen to lie in a tundra zone.

4. Our understanding of black holes is enhanced via data collection across a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum. The Chandra X-Ray Observatory searches for the tell-tale X-rays that are emitted by black holes. Also, the Hubble Space Telescope scans the visible portion of the spectrum, hunting for stars in the vicinity of a black hole. In addition, the Spitzer Space Telescope scans the infrared portion of the spectrum, enabling it to observe regions of star formation in the clouds of gas and dust that typically surround black holes. Combining images from all three sources provides a comprehensive picture of a black hole and its environs.

5. Contrary to popular belief, black holes do not serve as powerful vacuums, sucking up and destroying all of the matter within an arbitrary radius. The “critical” distance for vacuum-like behavior is actually the Schwarzschild radius which, in some sense, can be thought of as the “diameter” of a black hole.

6. One statement of Minkowski’s Theorem is as follows: “consider an infinite two-dimensional lattice where adjacent points are separated by a unit distance. Also, consider a convex region that is centered at one of these lattice points. If this convex region has area greater than 4, it contains at least three of the lattice points.” This is a neat example of a simple, yet elegant mathematical truism.

7. The Galton machine is a fascinating mathematical device. In this contraption, a collection of balls is released into a set of wells; using a clever arrangement of pins between the ball release point and the wells, the flight of the balls can be altered to allow the distribution of balls in the wells to follow the well-known normal distribution. The Galton machine highlights the importance of Gaussianity in all sorts of natural phenomena.

8. Dean Kamen, who is perhaps best known for inventing the Segway scooter, has designed a new device that should be a boon to developing nations. Known as the Slingshot, it purifies water via a cycle of steam formation and condensation. It also generates power via an ingenious device known as a Stirling engine.

9. Cladistics is a powerful method that has been used by scientists to map the evolution of various traits in dinosaurs. In particular, we now know that birds can be classified as dinosaurs, while pterosaurs are technically not dinosaurs; they lack the distinctive hole in their hip sockets that is present in all dinosaurs.

10. Nanotechnology relies on many fascinating natural phenomena for invaluable design insights. For example, cabbage leaves are quite remarkable in terms of their water-resistant and self-cleaning properties. A close examination of their surfaces reveals a network of raised bumps which inhibits water collection. As water drops onto this network of bumps, it rolls off, taking dirt particles with it.

The museum provides a welcome diversion for families who may be looking for ways to keep their children from succumbing to boredom during the long summer months. Exhibits such as the Cahners ComputerPlace challenge students with various hands-on puzzles such as the Tower of Hanoi problem. Visitors will have the treat of observing numerous children experiencing the joys of science and expressing genuine intellectual curiosity.

In terms of drawbacks, the museum is so expansive that it is difficult, if not impossible, to thoroughly browse all of its exhibits in a single day. Proper advance planning is necessary in order to get the most out of a single-day trip. Also, if you visit the museum by taking the T to the Science Park stop, you may be stuck on the wrong side of the Charles River Dam Bridge and have to wait for the bridge to lower before being able to approach the museum.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum and I learned a lot, though I would like to return at some point to browse the exhibits that I missed.

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