Category Archives: Informal Science Education

How the Planets Got Their Names – Stories, Not Science

By Jane Goodwin

There have been some awesome sights in the night sky lately – the triangle of Jupiter, Mars, and Venus, for example, and right now, the brightly shining Saturn.  Every night sky is full of wonders, and every night sky has many stories to tell.

It is impossible to study the heavens with science alone – we need the stories to explain the whys and wherefores of the objects “up there.”

Yes, I said “stories.” Let’s talk about the planets.  We’ll talk about constellations later.

Courtesy NASA.gov – Great interactive resource for learning more about the solar system.

Put yourself in the place of an ancient Roman or Greek, standing outside in every season, gazing up at the night sky, and seeing patterns.  Patterns that stay the same, and patterns of movement and color, as well.

The gods of Olympus ruled, during these times, so these ancient skywatchers and philosophers called these objects in the sky after the gods or goddesses that seemed to resemble them in some way.

Mercury was the messenger of the gods; he was the fastest, moving like lightning with his winged sandals. (FTD florists use his shoes as their symbol, because they deliver quickly!)  There was an object in the night sky that seemed to cover more distance than other moving objects; therefore, it was given the name “Mercury” after the swift-moving messenger of the gods.

Venus was the most beautiful sight in the night sky, so it was only fitting that it carry the name of that most beautiful of goddesses.

Mars, the bright red planet, was named for Mars, the god of war, who is associated with blood. (Mars never won a battle – his sister Artemis, who was skilled at both battle AND strategy, beat him every single time.)

From our small world we have gazed upon the cosmic ocean for thousands of years. Ancient astronomers observed points of light that appeared to move among the stars.

 - SolarSystem.NASA.gov/planets

Jupiter was large and powerful looking in the sky; Jupiter, the king of the gods, was large and powerful, too.

Saturn puzzled the ancients somewhat; sometimes, it seemed large and bright and glowing, and other times it seemed to dim itself.  It was given the name of the king of the Titans – Saturn, father of many of the gods.  Have you ever seen a picture of Father Time?  That’s Saturn – called Cronus in Greece.  Chronological things are time things.  The rings weren’t discovered until a few hundred years ago – and did you know that Galileo’s telescope was less powerful than the little pink plastic binoculars your child got in his kid’s meal?  That means you can see those rings even more clearly than their discoverer could!

Uranus is visible to the naked eye, but it’s so dim and moves so slowly that the ancients never recognized it for what it actually is – a very large planet.  It gets its name from Ouranus, the sky – who was the father of Cronus (Saturn) and the grandfather of Zeus (Jupiter.)  And its correct pronunciation puts the emphasis on the first syllable, so stop your giggling.

Neptune cannot be seen with the naked eye, but with a moderate telescope, it appears as a green dot.  Green, like the sea.  That’s why it was named after the god of the sea, Neptune.  You know, the Little Mermaid’s grandfather?

As for poor Pluto, it was named for the god of the underworld, called Hades in Greek.  (Hades is not a place; he’s a god!)  Dark and cold and sort of cast out from the rest of the planets, Pluto seemed a logical choice.

Pluto lost its planetary status, though, and is now considered a dwarf, or minor planet, along with Ceres and Eris.  The campaign to label Pluto as a planet again is going strong, though.  How many of you think Ceres and Eris should get their status back, as well?  Believe it or not, they were once considered planets, too.

People ask how to easily recognize a planet in the night sky – how can we tell at once the difference between a planet and a star?  That’s an easy one.

Stars shine with their own light, so they twinkle.  “Like a diamond in the sky,” remember?  Planets, however, shine with reflected light, so they do not twinkle.  They just glow.

Mars glows bright red, and Venus glows very, very white, but the other planets just glow.

Oh, and those morning and evening stars we see?  They’re not twinkling, are  they.  Guess what: they’re Venus and/or Mercury, both of which are always fairly low on the horizon because they’re between earth and the sun.

And speaking of earth, have you noticed that “earth” is seldom capitalized?  That’s because “earth” is not our planet’s name; it’s just a nickname.  Our planet’s actual name is every bit as mythological as all the other planets’ names.  Do you know what it is?   Because we’re not telling until you guess.

What Is It Like to Share the Spotlight with Steve Spangler?

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

Earlier this week I had the extreme pleasure of shadowing some students from Rooney Ranch Elementary who came to our office before appearing on the Denver NBC affiliate 4:00 news program. The students’ were chosen to appear for their creative science fair projects and speaking abilities.

The students arrived with their parents at our offices around 3:00p.m. A little less than two hours before air time. Steve chatted with them and got them naturally talking and explaining their experiments. The kids were so excited and wound up, but Steve knew exactly how to get them to focus and share.

Next, they went into our studio at the Spangler Labs and did a little trial run to practice for the real television studio. The kids got a small-scale run through complete with bright lights and a desk. They had an opportunity to really begin to sharpen their chops.

After the kids were all prepped and TV-ready, Steve took a little time to share some of his latest experiments in his playroom. The playroom is the one area in our offices that Steve is allowed to make a mess and not clean it up. This is where he stores all of his toys and science materials and uses the space to practice his demonstrations. The group participated in one of the more memorable (and my least favorite) experiments, the Sissy Machine. The Sissy machine is a vintage telephone with a crank. When the phone is cranked, it generates a low voltage current. Everyone held hands and felt the current move through their bodies. The Sissy Machine is used to demonstrate how electricity travels through the body. Humans are conductors of electricity.

Steve ended the fun by lighting an alcohol rocket and setting fire to the table. A visit to Steve Spangler Science is never without some type of explosion or fire. Science definitely isn’t boring.

We loaded into cars and caravanned down to the news station. We all checked in at the front desk and headed to the studio. The kids got a quick lesson in behind the scenes news production before setting up at the guest desk and preparing for the appearance.

(My favorite part of the photo above is the little sister of one of the kids,
who almost snuck onto live television.)

Finally, their moment in the spotlight arrived. The kids all did a great job. It was fun to watch their parents’ responses to their presentations almost as much fun as it was to watch the kids do their thing. They all proved themselves worthy of the television lights. Watch their appearance on the video below. It’s not easy to go on live television in front of a million viewers and share your work. Congratulations to the kids – Zane, Julia, Dakota and Hunter and a special thank you to Steve Spangler for spotlighting some amazing science fair superstars.

Third Graders' Creativity Shines in Invention Convention

Move over Shark Tank inventors and patent attorneys get ready for some amazing, new kid-invented products. Third graders at Wilder Elementary in Littleton, Colorado joined Steve early one morning to share their inventions and solutions to common everyday problems.

The annual Invention Convention takes the lead over the classic science fair in asking kids to solve problems with their own inventions. Many parents and teachers in elementary schools are organizing “Invention Conventions” in place of the traditional science fairs and kids are responding in record numbers with great ideas. The non-competitive, highly supportive nature of events these inspire kids to identify everyday problems, brainstorm creative ideas, and, ultimately, invent a solution that makes us all say, “I wish I had thought of that!”

Many inventors find things that happen in their daily life that cause them to think of some problem in a new way. The inventor of VELCRO ® thought of his invention while removing burrs from his pet’s fur after walking in the woods. Eli Whitney watched a cat pull feathers through a cage — it was how he thought of the invention now known as the cotton gin. Silly Putty was discovered accidentally when the General Electric Company attempted to find a substitute for rubber during World War II. Over 200 million plastic eggs, containing 3,000 tons of Silly Putty, have been sold since 1949. Good ideas are everywhere and inside of everyone. The Invention Convention brings out the inventor in elementary school kids. No idea is a bad idea.

A patent attorney in the Wilder community shared this important resource for protecting ideas.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office offers a number of resources to help young inventors learn more about protecting their creations. Check out the following website for more kid-friendly information about inventions and patents:

USPTO Kids Pages

Using an April Fool's Prank to Teach the Difference Between Possible and Impossible

This past Monday, we shared our annual April Fools Day science prank video. Many of our customers and fans look forward to our prank each year. This year, we shared step by step instructions on how to build your own lightsaber from the Star Wars movies. The materials list included an empty can, Dilithium Crystal (actually a Ring Pop) and duct tape. We were selling the crystal and an Energy Modulation Circuit (regularly priced $7,597.13 on sale for $11.38).

Here’s the video and instructions. There is also a sneak peek at some genuine Jedi training at the end.

We thought it was pretty obvious that this was a hoax and not really an actual experiment that people would go and try. We should have known better. Here’s an email from a mom that we received this week -

I have a six year old who found your light saber project through our school library.  Of course I wanted to encourage his interest in science so we immediately took the list from your video to the store to buy all of the materials…only to find that the power cell is must be something we have to “special order”.  The fact that you had a fake order form for it on the site only led to the false hope that we could actually buy the darn thing there.

$20 of worthless materials later, my kindergartener is going to be crushed to find out this was all a hoax when I tell him we can’t order the power unit.  I’m not sure what the goal was for this “project”, but I’d say this one certainly didn’t accomplish anything.  We’re very disappointed, and will share that feedback with our elementary school.

We appreciate that this mom took the time to send us this email and explain her frustration. This is not being posted to make fun or poke at her in any way. Most of us have fallen for a practical joke or scam at some point in our lives. We are sharing it as a lesson for all children.

The best part of the experience for all of us at Steve Spangler Science (and probably every teacher in the world) is that this child was naturally inquisitive and excited about science. Many teachers use these prank videos to teach kids to think critically and learn a lesson in probability. Just because something is posted on the internet or shared as an experiment, scientists should not take it as fact. Before performing any experiment, take a step back and look at it.

  • Are the materials easy to acquire?
  • Do they make logical sense in the experiment?
  • Could the video be using trick photography or fancy editing?
  • Is the outcome possible?
The lack of science education and literacy is apparent in our society every day. This mom and her child are just one example. If they had stopped and analyzed the experiment, they would have realized that a lollipop and a soda can had a very probability of becoming an actual lightsaber.

We hope this parent is proud that she has a son who is naturally curious and has a love of science. We hope she isn’t discouraged that she fell for a prank, but instead uses it as a teaching moment for her child as they attempt another experiment.

This is also not the first time we’ve had members of our YouTube audience get frustrated with our April Fools Day pranks. A few years ago, an experiment involving a paper airplane flying between two opposing fans created a stir.

We had so many people who went out and purchased fans and tried and tried to get the experiment to work, that a few days later we posted this reveal video -

Steve Spangler Science isn’t the only one who has taken a hit in the name of science illiteracy. Two Florida DJs were indefinitely suspended this April Fools when they joked that dihydrogen monoxide was in the water supply. If we as a nation were better educated in the sciences, everyone would have immediately known that dihydrogen monoxide is the chemical name for water. The DJs caused a lot of people to panic when they made the announcement that water was in the water.

For a few more fun and harmless science internet hoaxes for April Fools Day, check out The Spangler Effect

New Dinosaur-Themed Hotel Comes to Denver & Featured on The Oatmeal

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

Out of all of the blogs that contain cats, creepily drawn people and a real look at the world we live in, my favorite is The Oatmeal. Matthew Inman, the author and creator of The Oatmeal, shares his unique look at the world, customer service, pets (mostly cats), significant others and anything else that comes across his mind. His cartoons are usually not kid-friendly, but if you can tolerate his creative use of the English language, The Oatmeal is a great way to laugh away a few minutes or hours.

Last year, Inman ran a fundraiser encouraging people to donate in support of a Nikola Tesla Museum. Sponsors who gave over $33,333 would get a blog post on The Oatmeal about their product or business.

Greg and Meredith Tally, the owners of a Best Western outside of Denver, made a $35,000 donation. So Inman followed through with his promise and featured their Best Western on his blog. The Tally’s Best Western isn’t just a regular hotel. They are currently renovating it to be a dinosaur-themed hotel. How cool is that? You can swim in a Cretaceous sea pool, find dinosaurs and exhibits all around the hotel. My favorite is the hand-made ironwork that shows the history of life. Obviously, no stone has been left unturned.

Even though this museum isn’t far from where I live, I want to go stay there. The renovated hotel will open in April 2013.  I am hoping to visit the hotel after it reopens and report back.

The hotel is located close to one of my favorite museums, the Morrison History Museum as well as Dinosaur Ridge, an area in Morrison, Colorado where you can see dinosaur tracks on the side of a mountain. The Morrison History Museum sits in an area where many fossils have been discovered. You can stand in the museum and look out at the hill where the bones were found.

My one disappointment while putting together this post? I found out I missed Inman’s visit to the hotel and Morrison History Museum. If I had only known, I would have followed him around town like a groupie, waving my Bobracha 4 Lyfe bumper sticker and How to Tell If Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You book.

Follow the Best Western of Denver on Facebook for fun and entertaining posts dedicated to dinosaurs.

For all of you science geeks, read The Oatmeal’s post on why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek that ever lived. Learn all about Tesla and his inventions while also discovering if you are truly a geek.