Tag Archives: science

Getting your kids into Astronomy on a budget

Every modern parent today wants what’s best for their kids.

The best clothes, the best cars to drive them to school in, and, speaking of which, the best education.

But let’s face it, with the condition of public schools in this country today, that education is gonna need a home team advantage.

By which I mean, we need to get our kids excited about school.

In particular, the Sciences.

Because not enough kids are into the Sciences these days, which means if your kids pursue it now, they’ll be running things tomorrow, when you need a rich and powerful child who can afford to put you in a nice rest home instead of one of those scary, bed-sore ridden ones.

This looks like another case of backyard Astronomy to the rescue!

Except good backyard Astronomy, like good schools, costs money.

And time. But I’m more worried about the money right now.

What about the parents on a budget?

The parents who can’t afford the high-end, trendy Armani or Coach telescope?

The parents who have the money, but are too cheap to spend it, even on an entry-level Meade or Celestron telescope?

Well, I found a solution. Here’s what you need:

  • 1 (Brawny-brand) paper towel roll
  • 1 pencil
  • 1 computer with monitor
  • 1 internet connection
  • 1 image viewing program
  • 1 extension cord (optional)

Here’s how it works:

1) Take an empty (Brawny) paper towel roll. (It is recommended, but not absolutely required, that there be no paper towels on the roll). This is your optical tube.

2) Stab a pencil through the middle of the roll.

3) Stick the extruding end of the pencil into the ground in your backyard. Make sure one end of the (Brawny) paper towel roll is pointed up towards the sky. This is your tripod.

4) Stick one end of the extension cord into the lower end of the (Brawny) paper towel roll. Run the other end to your computer, shoving it into a port or something to make it look like it’s connected to the computer.
(Now I said the extension cord was optional, but seriously, if you’re too cheap to buy a real telescope, do you really think your kids will believe you ‘opted’ for a wireless (Brawny) paper towel roll? Yeah, me neither.)

5) Go onto the internet and download a bunch of pictures from outer space. You know, planets and stars and black holes and stuff.

6) Make a big production of showing your kids the ‘new’, ‘computer-controlled’ ‘telescope’.

7) Gather them around the computer and start paging through the space pictures you downloaded, ooh-ing and ahh-ing with each one. Click on arrow keys a bunch of times in-between pictures, to ‘drive’ the ‘telescope’ to the next ‘celestial object’.

8) Have a few facts for each picture handy so you can lecture the kiddos on what they’re supposed to be learning from the Sciences.

Here’s a screenshot of my approach in action. The window on the left is my ‘live’ ‘telescope’ ‘feed’.

So far, they're still more bad than good.

When the kiddos see this one, I tell ’em, “That’s Santa’s orbital observation station, where he watches you 24/7 to make sure you’re being good. So be good for goodness sake!”

Now your kids think they’re doing real Astronomy, and it looks so good (assuming you downloaded nice pictures) they’ll actually get excited about it. Trust me, this approach looks way better than using a real telescope in your backyard.

As an added advantage, this is the sort of astronomy you can do during the day! If your kids are smart enough to question this, tell them it’s a radio telescope, or an electron telescope. They’ll be so awe-struck about the impending Science that they’ll buy it.

If you really want to get them jazzed, get all fancy and neatly print ‘TELESCOPE’ or ‘AWESOME TELESCOPE’ on the (Brawny) paper towel roll before you start. Heck, if you’re artistically inclined, add some flames or starbursts or something sciency along the side.

Even if you can't afford toilet paper, you probably know someone who can

Can’t afford paper towels? What about toilet paper? Just remember to remove all traces of the original purpose.

It’ll totally psych your kids.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Geez, that’s brilliant, Ian, your are a certified uber-genius, but what happens when my kids get a little older and try this out for themselves? Won’t they be bitterly disappointed, and maybe even a tiny bit mad at me when they stab a paper towel roll on a pencil and it doesn’t work as a telescope?”

Relax, it’s covered, if you used a Brawny paper towel roll. Take a moment to inspect their rig, and then nod knowingly and say, “Ah, I see the problem. You used a cheap store-brand paper towel. Their tubes aren’t designed to be used as telescopes. Not like Brawny-brand paper towels. It’s a classic amateur blunder. Don’t feel too stupid, everyone who’s dumb makes this mistake.”

I guarantee, they will feel so lame that they won’t try again for weeks, which gives you time to come up with some sort of fancy lens system you can cram into a paper towel tube.

You’re welcome, future Astronomers and Scientists of America.

You’re welcome.

One could argue I pulled this one out of my arse.

You wouldn’t believe the amazing images this telescope captures.

And now, a word from our sponsor: me! I may not be available as I pretend to operate a telescope, but my books are under no such disadvantage.

The Santa Claus Gang:

The Santa Claus Gang: A Marlowe and the Spacewoman short story

Marlowe and the Spacewoman:

Marlowe and the Spacewoman

Kleencut (FREE, and totally appropriate for demon-spawn toddlers!):

So bad it won a Voidy for the next THREE consecutive years (would have been FOUR, but 2012 was a leap year)

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Posted by on 10 August 2013 in Astronomy!, Parenting, Science!


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The unheralded performance art of Niels Bohr, the Man Who Would Be A Physicist

I’ve come across a certain misconception so often in my reading of Physics and General Science textbooks, that I feel the need to point out the truth.

Yes, I read science textbooks for pleasure. You should try it. They can be quite exciting. Though the mysteries aren’t terribly engaging – they tend to spell everything out, including the solution, right away. And some of the problem sets are blatant red herrings.

Neils Bohr, the Marcel Marceau of performance art, and possible future Doctor Who

Niels Bohr, world’s greatest performance artist. His one man show, Atom and Eve, is wildly credited as the inspiration for Cats.

That misconception? That distortion of truth? That lie portrayed as alternate reality?

Niels Bohr, despite his Nobel Prize, was not a groundbreaking physicist, nor was he the “Uncle of the Atomic Bomb.”

Now if someone told me Niels Bohr spent his free time investigating murders in Copenhagen, I could believe that.

Or if he was a leading member of the Danish underground, who spent his free time investigating the war crimes of the Nazis during the occupation, I could believe that.

Hell, if you combined the two, I’d believe that as well.

And if those activities formed the focus for a series of mystery novels, I’d totally read them.

But a physicist? Who made meaningful contributions to the understanding of the atom?


The truth is that Niels Bohr was a performance artist.

A Danish performance artist.

A damned good Danish performance artist.

His most famous piece was a years-in-the-making performance purporting to plumb the depths of the then greatly misunderstood atom.

Titled simply “The Bohr model” (or, in some smug circles, the “The Rutherford-Bohr model”), it was Niels’ way of protesting against the dangers of the complicated system of alliances in Europe and the risk of all-out war.

In a letter to his wife, Margrethe Nørlund, Niels explained the themes and hidden meanings behind his so-called model of the atom:

The 'n' stands for 'neutrality'.

The model that caused all the trouble. Not as sticky as the plum pudding model of J. J. Thomson, but still more sticky wicket than mere tacky wicket.

The nucleus represents the nation-state, a single country, any country. The positive charge of the nucleus: the fact that it is alone is a good, a positive development. The negatively saturated electron shell beyond the happy nucleus represents the draining, subtractive threat of complicated, binding alliances, circling around the carefree nation like an unseen shark, ready to neutralize a country’s sovereignty and drag it into war. The emitted photon is a metaphor for the weapons of warfare, the fiery horror of Man’s inhumanity to Man.

I am fine. How are the children doing? I miss you all terribly. The cafeteria food here is horrible. Please send sausages. And chalk. There is a terrible shortage of chalk, and I can’t get work done without it.

Also, I need lotion. The chalk really dries out my skin.

I am amazed, to this day, that most high school science classes, and far too many college physics classes, continue to propagate the foolish notion that Niels Bohr was a serious and influential physicist.

I blame Texas’ influence on textbooks. There are, inexplicably, a large number of Bohr fans on the Texas Board of Education. Whether or not they know the truth of his livelihood is open to debate, but it is unassailable fact that they consider his contribution as a physicist to be more beneficial to his reputation than his contribution as a performance artist.

This is not to say he wasn’t influential in the world of physics. Paradoxically, and much to his own personal amusement, he was.


Because people, not realizing he was a performance artist, took him seriously.

They weren’t alone. He took himself seriously too.

Or, more accurately, he took his art seriously.

He took it so seriously he actually studied Physics in college and grad school, despite how repugnant and confusing he found the material.

He later said that the birth of quantum physics was a Godsend, because no one understood it and therefore they didn’t recognize his hopeless meanderings within the subject.

The only thing that preserved his undue reputation as a physicist, and society as a whole, is that somehow, against the odds given his liberal arts leanings, he managed to stumble on a model that not only conveyed his message, but was reasonably close to the truth.

Close enough that other, real scientists, were able to build on and refine and correct it.

But I’ve always wondered: would we have had an atomic bomb sooner if Bohr hadn’t clouded the science back in the early 1900s? Would the Nazis have gotten the bomb first?

Maybe his protest piece saved us all from nuclear fire.

Or, even worse, having to speak German.

In that light, maybe the Texas Board of Education got it right after all.

And now, a word from our sponsor: me!
My books are available!

Marlowe and the Spacewoman:

Marlowe and the Spacewoman

Kleencut (FREE!):

So bad it won a Voidy for the next THREE consecutive years (would have been FOUR, but 2012 was a leap year)

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Posted by on 15 August 2012 in Science!


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The Geeks Won’t Inherit The Earth – We Need To Effin’ Take It!

In addition to author, engineer, and mercury-poisoned madman, I also identify as a nerd.

In my role as a science-oriented geek, I worry. We’re not churning out enough trekkies (or, as we refer to them in our household, ‘trekkers’) to reach the critical mass required to takeover the world by 2039.

I’m not just alarmed about this because of my mild OCD. Falling behind schedule on the takeover has a domino effect on everything that follows. And let’s be honest: who among us can wait more than seventeen years for reality television programs that humiliate jocks?

That’s right, jocks, come 2039, the toilet will be on the other head. I’m gonna nominate you for the first episode, Buford Donatello. Star quarterback or not, nobody who snatches Ian M. Dudley from his Science Exploration Club meeting in order to administer a swirly in the library commode can expect to go more than fifty years without payback.

I had just been elected club president, damn you! I was in the middle of my inauguration speech! And it would have been quite the stirring speech if I hadn’t been carried off, screaming like a toddler with his junk caught in a vise.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and the toilet water on this show will be very cold indeed.

But I digress.

We need more nerds. The sooner, the better.

But how, you ask, can we ensure a plentiful supply of this essential resource?

Smart parents.

Yes, we need to encourage smart men and smart women to reproduce.

With each other, preferably. Statistically speaking, mating with dumb people will dilute the nerd pool.

But like computer code, geekdom isn’t just inherited. Well, OK, like non-object-oriented computer code, it isn’t just inherited.

It’s also a learned behavior.

Not Nature versus Nurture, but Nature and Nurture.

We have to ramp up the little Einstein production and then we need to –gulp- raise them.

How can we do this?

It’s simple. I give you Nerd’s Law:

Raise thy nerdly offspring as you would raise thyself.

Homey is gonna go all 'roll a crit' on your jock ass!

This geek powerhouse-in-the-making rolled 16 for cuteness.

Or in other words, the sooner you introduce them to D&D, the better.

More specifically, keep your children out of the sun, encourage them to study hard in school, discourage them from participating in sports (head injuries!), and most importantly, teach them to use science to defeat bullies.

Nay! Not just defeat the bullies! Teach them to use dark, diabolical science to inspire absolute, bowel-voiding terror of all Nerdkind.

For, to paraphrase Machiavelli, it is better to be feared than to get your head dunked in a toilet.

And now, a word from our sponsor: me!
My books are available!

Marlowe and the Spacewoman:

Marlowe and the Spacewoman

Kleencut (FREE!):

So bad it won a Voidy for the next THREE consecutive years (would have been FOUR, but 2012 was a leap year)

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Posted by on 26 June 2012 in Life


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