Thursday, March 31, 2016

Curiosity Challenge: The Amazing Adaptations of Plants Through the Years

Plants are an essential part of life on Earth: even if an animal doesn’t eat plants directly, it certainly relies on them in some other way.  For example, a wolf might not eat grass, but it hunts animals that do, takes shelter in the trees of the forest, and breathes the oxygen that plants have released.  How did plants become such a staple of our existence?  The same reason why every living thing is the way it is: they have evolved that way.

Charles Darwin, famous for the theory of evolution.
Via Simple Capacity.
You’ve probably heard of Charles Darwin, a famous scientist.  Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection is what most scientists study to answer questions about how plants and animals have changed over time--and how we can answer your question about the very first plants.  In nature, certain traits make some organisms more successful than others, allowing them be “selected” to pass on those successful traits to their offspring.  For instance, a tree might mutate to grow fruits that look different from those of all of its fellow trees.  Birds might find this new fruit particularly tasty-looking, so they will eat lots of them and spread that mutant tree’s seeds.  Since that mutant tree had lots of offspring, it’s now more likely that its mutation will be passed on and become a common trait of the species.  These changes happen gradually over many generations, but they contribute to the evolution of that species.

Plants descended from germs?!?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Spider Superheroes

Hello CSF fans, followers, and supporters!

As the festival approaches, I was thinking about some of the awesome events we have going on just around the corner! Since this week’s theme is Earth and Nature, I was thinking about the Spider Superheroes event - an awesome, totally free event for Grades 1 to 4 at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History - all about spiders and the amazing things they can do.

Spiders are a special type of animal called an Arachnid that has eight jointed legs and lives mostly on land. They have inhabited Earth, as far as we know, for about 130 million years -- hundreds of millions of years before dinosaurs. They are carnivores, and detect their prey with the small hairs on their legs and body. Their sense of touch is exquisite, and probably the inspiration for Spiderman’s “Spidey Sense”.
Most spiders catch their prey by spinning webs from sticky silk they secrete in glands called spinnerets, on the back of their abdomen. Those that don’t spin webs either hunt for their prey, or wait for prey to pass by them while they are hiding.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Curiosity Challenge: How Do Bones Heal When They Break?

By Paola Salazar

So, how do bones heal when they break? I’m actually super excited you asked! Bone healing is very fascinating stuff.

When you break a bone, as soon as it happens, your body starts working up a storm to fix it. The first in the line of duty is your blood: it begins to cluster around the location of the break and forms a blood clot, where cells called phagocytes then begin cleaning the area of any unwanted bacteria and germs that may have gotten in through the break and injury. This all happens in the first few hours after the injury.
After a few days or 2-3 weeks, a soft callus made by cells known as chondroblasts forms around the site of injury. Towards the end of the 2nd week, a harder callus gets formed by osteoblasts, cells that actually create new bone material.
The last team of bone experts to hit the scene comes in at around the 5th or 6th week. These are the osteoclasts, which are cells that focus on remodeling the bone around the fracture by breaking down excess bone until the site has been weaned back to its original shape. These guys are perfectionists though, and this stage can sometimes take even more than a decade!
An osteoclast working its way across bone! PC:

The timeliness of when your bone heals varies so much because when you get an injury like a bone fracture, how quickly you heal depends on several factors—namely, how old you are and where exactly you broke your bone.
The younger you are, the more quickly your body is able to fix you up. As you get older, it takes longer, because your body is getting slower and slower at producing the materials needed for wound healing, while the osteoclasts (the perfectionists), are sometimes still removing bone.

Where you break your bone also matters because it can influence the type of bone fracture that you have—and obviously, the simpler the break, the faster it heals!

Paola is a Boston-based science journalist with a background in social and life sciences.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Curiosity Challenge: How does a digital camera take and save photos?

“I am curious how pictures are taken and saved.”  --Jameson Gannon, 14

It’s hard to imagine a world without digital cameras.  While some die-hard photographers still insist that old-fashioned chemically-reactive film produces better photographs, it’s hard to argue against digital cameras’ ease of use and convenience.  Turning that gorgeous sunset or that sumptuous-looking meal that your eyes see into a picture file to share with your friends?  It’s a pretty remarkable feat!  It also takes more steps than you’d expect.

Your Selfie is Made of Electrons

To break this process down, let’s think about what makes an “image” to begin with.  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Get Outside with the CSF! Nature Events for All Ages

As the weather gets warmer and the year’s first flowers peep out of the ground, most of us who work and study inside find ourselves increasingly distracted by the sunny precursors to spring we glimpse on the other side of our windows.  Fortunately, the Cambridge Science Festival features several activities to help us get outside, soak up some of those sunbeams, and learn about the natural world that encompasses the Boston area!

Friday, April 15th

Sidewalk Astronomy, 8:00pm - 10:30pm
The natural world can be observed even in the middle of the city… if you know how and where to look. Join the star enthusiasts of Boston Astronomy to take a look at Jupiter, star clusters, and the moon--right in the middle of Harvard Square!
Meet at Deguglielmo Plaza, Harvard Square, in front of 27 Brattle Street, Cambridge
Check for weather cancellations and updates at  Free!

A telescope design from the past, via Boston Astronomy.

Sunday, April 17th

A nature walk like no other!  Susan Goldhor of the Boston Mycology Club will point out what most people overlook: the important network of hidden fungi that keep our soil rich and natural waste decomposed.  
Meet in front of Cambridge Boat Club, 2 Gerrys Landing Road.  Please arrive on time to allow for the short walk to the starting location!
Register in advance at  Ages 10+.  Free!

Monday, April 18th

Mount Auburn is a lovely retreat in springtime!
Via Wikipedia.
Land of the Giants, 10:00am - 11:30am
Mount Auburn Cemetery, in addition to being a lovely locale for a springtime stroll, is home to some of the oldest trees in the neighborhood, including a 200-year old oak!  Measure, compare, and learn about Mount Auburn’s grandest (above-ground) occupants.
Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mount Auburn St, Cambridge.  
Register in advance at  Perfect for ages 6+.  Free!

Wednesday, April 20th

Enjoy the day in Lorenz park, and learn how you can include outdoor exercise in your everyday commute.  Take the place of a generator turbine and earn just how difficult it can be to generate electricity with a ride on a generator bicycle!
Joan Lorenz Park, Outside Cambridge Main Library, 449 Broadway.  Free!

Spend an afternoon on the banks of the Charles with the RoboSail program at Community Boating.  Take the robot-guided boats out for a spin on the water, take a look at the control system, and write some sailing code of your own.
Community Boating Boathouse, 21 David G Mugar Way, Boston.  Free!

Thursday, April 21st

One of the Nigerian Pygmy goat at the Mass
Audubon Habitat in Belmont.  Via Mass Audubon.

Sandy Vorce, Property Manager of the Mass Audubon Habitat, shows off the Habitat’s fleet of environmentally-friendly lawn mowers--and might even invite you to pet them!  That’s right: the lawnmowers at the Habitat are Nigerian dwarf goats, who keep the meadows in check and fit right in at the wildlife sanctuary.
Mass Audubon Habitat Education Center & Wildlife Sanctuary, 10 Juniper Rd, Belmont.
Register in advance at  Ages 8+: children must be accompanied by an adult.  Free!

Friday, April 22nd - EARTH DAY!

The Mount Auburn Cemetery is a protected 175-acre oasis of green nestled between Cambridge and Watertown.  Clare Walker will show you around and point out the various flora and fauna that make Mount Auburn their home, including trees, flowers, chipmunks, hawks, and owls.  Clare had written and illustrated of several books, including Mount Auburn’s Family Nature Guide and Birds and Birding in Mount Auburn-- visit for more information!
Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mount Auburn St, Cambridge

Party for the Planet, 10:00am - 3:00pm
Party with the animals at the Franklin Park Zoo!  Celebrate ways to keep our planet and its animals healthy.
Franklin Park Zoo, 1 Franklin Park Road, Boston
Cost: Adult $19.95; Child $12.95; Under 2 free; Senior (62+) $16.95
Rocks and Minerals Walk, 1:00pm - 2:30pm
Geologists and rock enthusiasts rejoice: Mount Auburn Cemetery overflows with beautiful examples of marble, granite, and beautifully carved sandstone.  Come take a look at the monuments, each a stony work of art, and enjoy an afternoon amongst the greenery of the Cemetery.
Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mount Auburn St, Cambridge
Register in advance at  Ages 6+.  Free!

Saturday, April 23rd

One of the creepy-crawly racing sculptures of the past!
  Via People's Sculpture Racing 
Community Sculpture Race & Exhibition, 11:00am - 2:00pm
The wildest race in Cambridge!  Local artists, teens, and parents have been hard at work building their original art on wheels for the past week--now they’re put to the rest on a half-mile sidewalk loop.  Cheer them on, join the race, or exhibit your sculpture ideas.  See for locations of building workshops and information on how to participate.  Sculpture Race will take place between 11-11:30am.  Spectators should arrive by 10:45am.
Danehy Park, Sherman Street, Cambridge
Participants should register at by April 11.  Free!

Sunday, April 24th:

Cambridge is a hotbed for biological research, and the CSF and the ART+BIO Collaborative are unveiling their newest open-air project: a science mural that expresses the wonders of biology through public art!  The mural is the first project borne of the Collaboration--come and hear what might be next!
Kendall Plaza, in front of Marriott Cambridge, Main Street, Cambridge.  Free!

You’ve had all winter to stay indoors: come on out and join us for some refreshing air and scintillating science!


E. Rosser is a science writer and mechanical engineer currently wrapping up a degree at MIT. Her favorite outdoor activities include hiking, canoeing and kayaking, camping, and sleeping out in the backyard in her hammock. She can't wait for warm weather this spring!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Curiosity Challenge: Hieroglyphs!

By Paola Salazar

Long before we had most of our modern written and spoken languages, humanity’s earliest civilizations began writing in more simple terms—usually, this consisted of shapes and drawings as well as dashes or circles to represent numbers. There are several ancient forms of this, but one of the most renowned is the Egyptian hieroglyph, or mdju netjer, meaning “words of the gods.”

Interestingly enough, while writing is pretty widespread across different cultures and social classes nowadays, hieroglyphs started off 3,300 years ago as a way to keep record of their nobility’s belongings, property, and domains, as well as religious and other important information. Eventually, the language got much more complicated, resulting in more than 700 individual signs!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Curiosity Challenge: How Did Intelligence Evolve Over Time?

By Paola Salazar

How intelligence evolved over time is not a simple question to answer, even with dozens of researchers spending lifetimes looking into it.

Generally, intelligence across species is considered to be a result of how an animal responds and manipulates its environment. Our level of intelligence tends to be attributed to several different theories and has been a process of development for around 10 million years. There’s much debate around the different ideas about how we evolved into intelligent beings, but we’ll do our best to highlight the general idea behind a few of the standing theories!

One theory is that the evolution of our intelligence is a result of our use of communication.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Curiosity Challenge: Astronaut Training & Space

by Ben Tolkin

How can floating underwater mimic the zero gravity condition of outer space? - Samantha Zhang, age 10

Going into space is hard. Really, really hard. Astronauts work with some of the most complicated and expensive technology ever made, in an environment that's both highly dangerous and completely unlike anything they're used to. If you make a mistake on a space station hundreds of miles above the Earth, you might not get a second chance to make things right. Before going into space, you have to make sure you can do every part of your mission perfectly, 100% of the time, and that means practice, practice, practice.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to train for space travel; outer space is (literally!) like nothing on Earth.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Don't Forget to Pre-Register for Science Festival Programs!

We have more than 170 events lined up for April 15 - 24 this year!  Many of these events need notice that you're going to attend.

Take a look at the list below for all the festival programs that require pre-registration, tickets, or request an RSVP.

Don't miss the School Vacation Programs category as well!
(Please note: MIT Museum workshops open registration on March 28.)

Programs with pre-registration or tickets

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Artists, Scientists, and Both: Creative Thinking on BOTH Sides of the Brain

By E. Rosser

“The greatest scientists are artists as well.”  --Albert Einstein, 1923

Science is often thought of as a purely left-brain venture...but who says the creative thinking that leads to great discoveries can’t also produce some great art?  The Cambridge Science Festival aims to show off the “A” part of “STEAM” by urging Festival-goers let their inner DaVinci out at our various art events--from crafting kinetic sculptures to learning about baby birds through drawing.  It turns out that innovation and passion are important ingredients for art as well as science, technology, math, and engineering.

Some of the greatest minds that science has seen have also been known to stretch their artistic muscles.  Here are some famous scientists who have put down the lab notebook and picked up the sketchpad over the years--and artists who have taken up science!

Drawing and Illustrating:

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

TENacious Engineering at the MIT Museum: Collaboration, Learning, and Innovation in Chain Reactions

by Marybeth Martello, Ph.D.
This post is one in a series of posts about the Cambridge Science Festival’s TENacious Engineering Project (see blog entry from February 17, 2016).  To celebrate the Festival’s TENth Anniversary, TEN teams across the state are building TEN chain reaction machines.  These machines are reminiscent of the contraption that kicked off the very first Festival.  On the evening of April 15, at the Big Ideas for Busy People Event, Governor Charlie Baker will open the Festival with a short film that links all of these machines together.  

Why chain reactions, you might ask?  With so many worldly problems begging for our attention, why spend precious time and brain power figuring out ways to make objects (often discarded and unwieldy items) perform tasks for which they were not designed?  The talented team of artists, scientists, and students, who recently constructed a TENacious Engineering chain reaction in the MIT Museum’s lobby, offered some compelling answers to these questions. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Curiosity Challenge: Weather and Animals in Antarctica

"What's the weather like in Antarctica?" -- Aaliyah Bester, 7

"How do animals survive in the Antarctic?" -- Josephine Sawyer, 8
My friend Rachel stands on the bottom of the world
with the Geographic South Pole marker!
Courtesy of Rachel Bowens-Rubin.
The Antarctic is a really “cool” place--both because of how neat it is, and because it’s so cold!  In fact, the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was −89.4 °C (−128.9 °F), at the Vostok Station in Antarctica.  I’ve been hearing a lot about Antarctica lately because my friend Rachel has just returned from a trip to the South Pole, which is right in the middle of the continent.  Rachel is an astrophysicist, which means that she studies the physics of stars and planets by looking at them through a telescope.  She was using a telescope at the South Pole to search for special waves in space that might tell us more about how the universe was formed, as part of the awesome BICEP3 experiment.

Rachel helped build this part of the
BICEP telescope, then fly it to Antarctica.
Notice the heavy cold weather gear she had to wear,
 even while working.  Courtesy of Rachel Bowens-Rubin.
Why did she have to go all the way to the bottom of the globe to use a telescope?  The answer has to do with Antarctica’s crazy weather.  

Choose YOUR Pi Ice Cream on Pi Day!

"Where will we see this festival ice cream anyway?"

Come to Big Ideas for Busy People or the Science Carnival & Robot Zoo to check out this new flavor in person!

See you at the Festival!
April 15 - 24, 2016

Friday, March 4, 2016

Curiosity Challenge: "What is Global Warming?"

“What is Global Warming?”  -- Madi Corvi, Age 12

You’ve asked a very important question, Madi, and one of my favorite topics to talk about!  Lots of scientists have been wondering what has been causing the hottest years on record (most of which have been happening in the past decade), and if humans are part of the cause.  They agree that the earth has been heating up and cooling because of natural reasons (like volcanic eruptions, or changes on the sun) for thousands of years...but the recent temperature increase has been sharper than ever before.  Since that temperature spike has occurred during the time when humans have been on the planet, most scientists agree that humans are probably the cause.  When talking about global warming, it’s important to make it clear whether we’re talking about natural climate cycles or anthropogenic--a word that means “caused by people”--climate change.

There are many, many things that affect how hot our planet it, but one of the biggest and most powerful is radiative forcing.  Our atmosphere is a big, protective bubble made up of many gases, mainly oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor.  That bubble reflects some of the sun’s rays back into space, but also lets some through to warm up earth’s surface.  The earth’s surface also reflects the rays back up to the atmosphere.  Depending on what gases the rays meet in the atmosphere, they will either be trapped here on earth or let back out into space.  You may have heard of the greenhouse effect before--the atmosphere acts like the glass in a greenhouse, trapping the sun’s rays to keep our planet warm.  Rather than just letting rays pass through back out into space, these gases cause radiative forcing: they let in more rays than they let out.

The greenhouse effect and radiative forcing, in general, are good things!  Think of how cold and plantless our planet would be if we had as much of the sun’s energy as the rest of space does.  However, the gases in the atmosphere have been gradually changing.  Namely, lots more carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have been released, most likely from human activity.  These greenhouse gases in particular are very good at increasing radiative forcing, and as they do, they warm up the planet.  
The Greenhouse Effect, with natural and anthropogenic amounts of greenhouse gases.

The atmosphere isn’t the only place where global warming is caused, though.  Like knocking over a chain of dominoes, a hotter globe means that even more greenhouse gases are released than normal, which further increases radiative forcing.  Melting ice caps mean that less of the globe is covered in ice, which means that more of the sun’s energy reaches the ocean.  Oceans are usually able to absorb much of the globe’s carbon dioxide, but they become less able to do so the warmer they get.  What’s more, as the algae and bacteria floating in the ocean and trapped in the ice die and decompose, they release methane, another greenhouse gas that’s even better at radiative forcing than carbon dioxide!  It’s a vicious cycle, one that scientists call a positive feedback loop.  

An example of a climate positive feedback loop.  Via
Some people like to joke about climate change--you’ve probably heard people mention how they’d like it to be summer all year-round, or that a warmer winter means less snow to shovel.  But the planet warming, even by a few degrees, could have serious consequences.  Melting icecaps and ocean water expanding as it warms could cause sea levels to rise, flooding seaside cities and island nations.  Many plants and animals, already stressed because of their shrinking habitats, aren’t used to living on such a hot planet, and might become extinct.  Even humans aren’t used to living in that kind of heat: farming methods rely on our current temperatures, so a hotter globe could mean food shortages, especially in the poorest parts of the world.  Nearly every aspect of life on earth will be affected by the global temperature rising.  If humans continue releasing as many greenhouse gases as they currently do, scientists estimate that the temperature will rise by about 5 degrees Celsius (about 9 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.  This will trigger enough positive feedback loops to turn most of the globe into a desert.
Some effects of a global temperature increase.

From one of my favorite Doctor Suess books, The Lorax. Via
Talking about climate change and its results can be really scary.  Whenever I stop and think about the massive scale of the problem, I feel like there’s nothing that I can do to stop it.  Even if I do things that we’ve always thought of as “good for the planet,” like recycling, driving less, and using less electricity, will it be enough?  Probably not.  Can I single-handedly stop everyone from releasing carbon dioxide, when most of our power system relies on burning coal and oil?  Definitely not.  But the good news is that the most powerful thing to stop global warming is something we can do: we can tell others what we know about the science of climate change.  If enough people care about lowering greenhouse gas emissions and keeping the planet cool, they will make more climate-friendly decisions, and encourage governments and world leaders to do so, as well.   

It will be difficult to change how we live and use the planet, but if enough people care, it’s a change we can make together!

Resources to learn more:

  • Surging Seas, a risk-zone map by Climate Central. See how a rising sea level would affect your neighborhood.
  • Climate Kids by NASA has lots of great articles and games to learn more about climate.
  • Our Time to Lead,'s youth coverage of COP-21, the most recent international climate summit in Copenhagen
  • The EPA offers some suggestions for actions you can take to shrink your carbon footprint.
  • The Greenhouse Gamble, a nifty way to model scientific uncertainty when it comes to complicated issues like climate change, developed by MIT's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.
  • Interested in becoming a climate scientist? Come learn more about science, technology, engineering, arts, and math at the Cambridge Science Festival from April 15-24!

E. Rosser is a science writer and mechanical engineer currently wrapping up a degree at MIT. She thinks climate change is the most pressing--and most exciting--challenge facing the world today, and that we'll solve it only through science education. When Rosser's not blogging or in school, she likes to embark on zany building projects and play with her two pet rats, Ellen and Darwin.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

How big were T. Rex's feet?

In our Curiosity Challenge Series...

How Big TRex Feet.png

How big were T. Rex’s feet?
Question submitted by Aidan Barry, Age 5

Great question, Aidan! While not the biggest carnivorous dinosaur (that distinction belongs to the Spinosaurus), Tyrannosaurus Rex (T. Rex) is arguably the most popular. It is estimated that an adult T. Rex was roughly twelve feet tall - more than double the height of the average American male adult - and weighed about seven tons (about the weight of an African elephant). We often think about - and mock! - the puny size of T. Rex’s arms, but its feet were decidedly more impressive. Foot size can be estimated by looking at a T. Rex skeleton and by measuring T. Rex footprints.

No complete T. Rex skeleton has ever been found (the closest we’ve gotten is Sue, the resident T. Rex at the Fields Museum in Chicago, who is about 90% real bone). STAN, the resident T. Rex at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, is about 65% real bone. Fully extended, STAN’s feet were each about 4 feet long. In other words, STAN’s feet were the same length as an average sleeping seven year old human! Unlike humans, STAN’s heels would not have touched the ground while walking. Interestingly, there are only two known T. Rex footprints. The more recent one was identified in Montana in 2007 and clocked in at 3 feet wide. Like humans, T. Rex foot size likely varied based on factors such as age, which means that there might be as yet undiscovered T. Rex skeletons with even bigger feet than STAN!     

The Friendly Neighborhood T. Rex at the Boston Museum of Science (image courtesy of the author)

For more information on dinosaurs, check out the permanent local exhibits at the Boston Museum of Science and the Harvard Museum of Natural History. And if you’re interested in checking out some actual dinosaur footprints, check out the Dinosaur State Park in neighboring Connecticut!

Saheli Sadanand is a post-doctoral fellow at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard. She’s always loved dinosaurs - her favorite is the Spinosaurus - and still harbors dreams of going on a dino dig someday!