Category Archives: Science

2017 Solar Eclipse: My Perspective in Geneva, Nebraska

On Aug. 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse passed across the continental United States. The last solar eclipse in the U.S. was in 1979 (the year I was born), and the last one that went through the middle of the country was 1918.

It’s not quite a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it’s pretty close. We’ve got a string of upcoming total solar eclipses in the U.S. in 2024 and again in 2045 (and one in 2099 that will go across Minnesota, if you plan to still be around then). You can certainly travel the world to chase down eclipses, but it’s still a pretty rare event.

Monday’s total eclipse lasted a total of two minutes and thirty seconds, so it’s definitely a short-lived moment.

Last summer I read Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass and learned about the wonders of a total solar eclipse. So I planned my summer vacation with the kids around this event, knowing it would be worth the effort.

And it totally was.

This is just before totality. You can’t tell from the picture, but the light is starting to get weird:

2017 Solar Eclipse

This is during totality. The sky looks bright in the background, but it’s twilight. The kids are freaking out. Lexi: “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod!” Milo: “Oh my freakin’ Thor!”


A glimpse of the sun in full eclipse:


This is immediately after totality ended:


Yep, worth it.

Continue reading 2017 Solar Eclipse: My Perspective in Geneva, Nebraska

Teaching Technology

I love coming across examples of awesome, geeky things that do good. Here are two perfect examples:

With an engineering degree from Stanford, Debbie Sterling was tired of the boys’ club in her field. 89% of engineers are men. Debbie realized a lot of it has to do with the toys we grow up with. Toys that teach spatial relationships, geometry and building are largely targeted to boys. When they do target girls, it’s usually just by making everything pink. Debbie did some research and discovered that while boys like to build and gravitate toward the Legos, girls like to read.

So she created a toy that combines reading and building to encourage girls to develop those engineering skills. She came up with GoldieBlox, an innovative toy where girls build while reading along with a story.

She invested her life-savings developing the project and brought it to Kickstarter to find some backers. She found more than 5,000 willing partners and raised more than $285,000. GoldieBlox is going into production with an expected delivery date of April 2013.

While the Kickstarter project is over, you can still pre-order GoldieBlox.

If you’re not convinced, see what 5-year-old Riley has to say about GolideBlox. You may remember Riley as the girl who went on a rant in the toy aisle about all the pink princesses for girls, racking up more than 4 million views.

DJ Focus
Kelvin Doe is a 15-year-old engineering whiz from Sierra Leone. The kid builds his own FM transmitters and power generators out of garbage. Electricity isn’t reliable in Sierra Leone, so Kelvin built his own battery. He broadcasts the news and music as DJ Focus and makes his own mixers with cardboard and spare parts.

Kelvin became the youngest person ever invited to MIT’s Visiting Practitioner’s Program, and had the chance to visit the U.S. and expand his skills. All sorts of opportunities are opening for him now, though this trip was the first time he’d ever been more than 10 miles from home.

Learn more about Kelvin or just watch the video:

African Girls Create a Piss-Powered Generator

Most of us just flush it down the toilet, but a group of four girls in Africa turned urine into electricity. 14-year-olds Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, Faleke Oluwatoyin, and 15-year-old Bello Eniola created the project for the recent Maker Faire Africa in Lagos, Nigeria.

So how’s it work? Basically they use a few different chemical processes to extract and purify the hydrogen from the urine and then use the hydrogen to fuel a standard generator.

One liter of urine equals six hours of power. QED.

Here are some more pics of the project from the Maker Faire Africa blog.

Other cool projects at the Maker Faire Africa? Yes please: How about hydraulic toys created by a 15-year-old?

Chernobyl: Life After Disaster

I’ve always had a slight obsession with the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. I remember in middle school singing my own version of Little Bunny Foo Foo that involved the sudden nuclear accident and a mutated bunny. Of course mutated animals have never been found in the disaster zone, either because such mutations just don’t happen or because such horribly compromised animals didn’t last long and their evidence was never found.

Chernobyl fictions (and nuclear ones in general) persist. Back in 2004 stories of a motorcycle riding girl speeding through the radioactive zones spread across the net (myself included). Chernobyl tour guides accuse the author, Elena Filatova, of fabricating the motorcycle rides. Apparently she went on a regular tour with a motorcycle helmet in hand and posed for pictures. It’s also highly questionable that anyone would risk racing a motorcycle across the broken and poorly maintained asphalt in the exclusion zone.

Anyway, much of my new found interest comes from reading the book Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl by Mary Mycio. It’s an in-depth account of the aftermath of Chernobyl, focusing on the natural impact on plants, animals, waterways and more. Sometimes the scientific details were a little too in-depth.

But I did learn one major thing from the book: Life goes on after a disaster. We find ways to carry on, reasons to continue, in spite of incredible odds.

The primary example is the wildlife that’s now exploding in the 30-mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl. Endangered species are thriving. A nearly extinct species of wild horse now has several herds in the zone. It’s a migratory stopover for birds and creating viable habitat for all kinds of animals: elk, moose, roe deer, wolves, boar, foxes, beaver, horses and more.

Many of them are highly radioactive. Which means hunting and fishing are prohibited. And that’s giving some of these animals a better chance than they’ve had before. Nobody knows the extend of radiation damage on these animals, but in the big picture radiation is far less of a threat than humanity. In the exclusion zone where people are limited and vast stretches of open reserve land are available to the animals, nature is thriving. Despite the risk of radiation.

Perhaps a less encouraging example of life carrying on after a disaster is the fact that the Chernobyl power plant itself didn’t just shut down after the 1986 accident when the fourth reactor exploded. I never knew this, but apparently reactors 1-3 remained in use until they were decommissioned in 2000. Chernobyl was generating a huge chunk of energy for the Soviet Union and they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) afford to shut it down. When faced with getting their energy from fossil fuel sources, the Ukraine government balked and allowed the three remaining reactors to keep on running.

Sometimes our reasons for carrying on in the face of disaster are a little less inspiring.

But life finds a way.

(Photo by VOA Photo / D. Markosian)

Grow More Stuff to Help the Environment

IMG_2330.JPGI’ve got a theory: We should grow more stuff.

The other day I was reading an article from a conservative Republican meteorologist concerned about climate change. His impassioned arguments made me want to do more to be environmentally friendly. I started thinking of things I could do and I was coming up blank. I already do a lot—recycling as much as possible, using re-usable containers and bags, trying to minimize water and electricity use, etc.—and something like getting a more fuel efficient car or furnace isn’t a choice you get to make every day.

But then I started thinking about my yard. I have a pretty low impact yard (i.e., I’m lazy). I don’t use any gas-powered tools or harsh chemicals. So my yard isn’t doing much harm. But is it doing any good?

I started thinking about all the good that plants do. They replenish oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, clean the air, reduce heat in the summer and block wind in the winter, reduce noise, stop erosion and create habitats for wildlife (never mind the less tangible benefits, like the aesthetics and enjoyment we get). So more plants seems like an all around good thing. Grow more plants and you’re doing more good for the environment, theoretically.

I also theorized that the more you grow, the better. The larger the surface area of the leaf the more it can do to clean the air. So a tree is going to have a bigger impact than a patch of grass. A shrubbery might have less impact than a tree, but it’s going to do more than the grass it replaces. And a pot of flowers is doing more than bare concrete. We may be talking about minute amounts, but it’s still something.

So I’ve decided I want to start growing more stuff. Which is kind of funny for anyone who knows me. I have the opposite of a green thumb. Thankfully I’m approaching this with the idea that anything is better than nothing. So even if I plant a few pots and they die off in a month or two, that’s better than nothing. I don’t know if we’ll actually plant a tree (my yard is pretty small), but there are plenty of spaces where a small bush or even a small plant might do more good than some grass (or creeping charlie, as it is). We have plenty of concrete and deck space that we can reclaim with a potted plant, adding more green area and doing more good.

To start this little experiment I got a rain barrel and started a compost bin. I’ve been wanting to do that for a while, but it always seemed silly when we didn’t do any gardening of any kind. Now we’ll have a purpose for the compost and stored rain water, and hopefully that will encourage more planting and green growth.

I don’t know what will come of this little experiment. Maybe it’s silly. Maybe I’ll get bored with it. But I kind of like the idea that my yard could be doing more to help the environment. It’s one thing to minimize impact by recycling or using less. But it’s another thing to be actively improving things.

First Snowless March in 132 Years

Yesterday’s high of 75 nailed it: March 2010 is officially the first Minnesota March in 132 years with no measurable snowfall. It happened in 1878 and 1860, making 2010 only the third year since records were kept that Minnesota has seen a snowless March. Usually March is the second snowiest month of the year with an average of 10 inches in the Twin Cities. March 2010 is also among the top 5 warmest Marches on record.

Make of it what you will, but I think it’s just random and weird and fun.

What’s the Ideal Population of Humanity?

OK, so bizarre ethical/sci-fi/theological question based on yesterday’s post about carrying capacity of a planet: What’s the ideal number of people to have?

From an ethical perspective, the ideal number would seem to be as many as we can reasonably support. Meaning, however many people can live happily on the planet and not over-use our resources. OK, say we hit that ideal number. More people would mean a decreased quality of life for everyone, if not collapse of the planet. So what’s the best solution ethically? Do we try any means necessary to increase that ideal number through technological advancements (taller buildings, more efficient systems, colonizing other planets, etc.) or do we limit population growth to maintain that ideal number?

From a theological perspective, is there some sort of imperative to always have more people? This sort of goes back to God’s command to Noah to multiply and fill the earth, which raises the question, when have we fulfilled this command? Assuming the ethical concerns are met (seems like bad theology to be willing to have more people in poor conditions just so you can evangelize them), does it make sense to go and make disciples by going and making more people? Should the church always be in favor of population growth so that more people can worship God and make him known?

They often say less is more, but is that true for humanity?

I’m just babbling here and throwing out bizarre questions I don’t have the answer to. These are the kinds of things I think about late at night.

Freezing Bubbles in Minnesota

After vaporizing water a week or so back I thought I should try another cold weather science experiment. This time? Freezing bubbles. It was only -7 this morning when I tried it, so not as cold as it could be. But the bubbles still froze.

It’s hard to see from the video, but when my dog Mazie bites the bubble, you can hear a distinctive crunch. Frozen bubbles.

Freezing Bubbles from kevinhendricks on Vimeo.

For best results, blow bubbles upwards so they have more time to freeze. The frozen bubbles are like thin gossamer cellophane and are very fragile, usually shattering on impact, so it’s hard to get a good picture. Plus, floating bubbles aren’t exactly easy to photograph in the first place. Also, the colder, the better. I imagine doing this at night would have been better, both for pictures and faster freezing bubbles.

For really amazing frozen bubble pictures, check out this set of photos (via boing boing).

And yes, Mazie enjoys eating bubbles.

Vaporizing Water in Minnesota

I’ve always heard stories about it being so cold you could throw water into the air and it would vaporize instantly. Since it was 20 degrees below zero in Minnesota today, I thought I’d give it a try:

Vaporizing Water in Minnesota from kevinhendricks on Vimeo.

Most of the water vaporized but some of it crystallized, turning to ice droplets (from the sound of it, I’d guess some of it still hit the ground as liquid). So some of it turned into a cloud that drifted off and some turned to ice that fell in a slow arc to the ground.

To really pull it off, it helps to boil the water and keep it as hot as possible. And, for the record, it didn’t feel that cold outside (granted I wasn’t out for very long). Here’s a better video of this experiment.

11 Years to Walk on the Moon

On October 4, 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, the first man-made object to orbit Earth. Not content with second place, the United States quickly rallied to achieve their own interstellar milestones. On July 29, 1958—50 years ago today—President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law, creating NASA. On July 20, 1969—almost exactly 11 years later—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.

It took a mere 11 years to go from first satellite to the first steps on the moon. That’s incredible progress in an incredibly short time. A little more than a decade and you can walk on the moon. (via