KIDS ASK! How Are Seashells Made?

Beautiful, colorful seashells can be found all over the world! But… who’s making them, and why?
© Vyacheslav Argenberg / http://www.vascoplanet.com/, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Here at HTHT, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist. 

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

HOW ARE SEASHELLS MADE?

They can be spiky, and sharp like a knife!  They can shine in every color of the rainbow!  Some are so big you could hide in them.  Some are so tiny you need a microscope to see them.  Lots of them are older than the dinosaurs.  You can even play them like a trumpet.  And, mermaids love them!  Get your flip flops and a towel, science friends, this week we’re going to the beach to check out SEASHELLS!

The sharp, super-spiky Venus Comb shell.
Didier Descouens, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Think you could hide in this Giant Clam shell?
Alicia Fagerving, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Even if you have never been up close to the ocean before, you’ve probably seen some seashells in movies or art.  Maybe you’ve put one up to your ear and heard the wild ocean waves calling to you (it’s actually the shape of the shell amplifying the sound of your own heartbeat, which is also pretty cool).  Because seashells are so beautiful and there are so many incredible kinds to see, it’s easy to admire the shell, but forget about the awesome animals that make them: an ancient, diverse, worldwide group of animals with the excellent name of MOLLUSKS.  Isn’t that a great word?  It’s fun to say and the animals in what scientists officially call the Phylum Mollusca are even more awesome than their name. 

This cutie pie is a Giant African Land Snail, and a member of Phylum Mollusca!
Sonel.SA, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mollusks are a HUGE group that includes squid, octopus, snails, clams, and even slugs.  There may be as many as 200,000 different species of mollusks, while there are only 6,500 species of mammals.  They are one of the most successful types of animals in the ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE WORLD.  Look up!  Mollusks in the trees.  Look down!  Mollusks all the way to the deepest part of the sea.  Look back in time, before there were even dinosaurs.  Who was there?  That’s right, MOLLUSKS!  The only place you will never find one is flying in the air. 

How deep do mollusks go? Introducing the Magnapinna Squid, found at 20,000 feet.
NOAA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So, why do these ancient, world-wide powerhouses make so many beautiful shells?  It starts with the fact that their bodies are very soft, just like a slug’s.  Mollusks are invertebrates, which means they don’t have a spine or any bones in their body. Some mollusks, like squid and octopus, do have a radula, a powerful scraping beak that helps them eat.  The rock-scraping radulas of the mollusks known as limpets are thought be the strongest, toughest biological material ever found in any animal in the WHOLE WORLD.  So, even though mollusks are soft, they are still mighty! To be strong and soft at the same time, many mollusks create a hard outer covering for themselves, which is where seashells come from.  How can they make so many beautiful, different kinds of shells?  Well, mollusks have been mastering the art of making shells for at least 400 million years!

A scientist’s reconstruction of the ancient mollusks called Ammonites, which lived on earth 400 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs!
Bramfab at Italian Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
This is an incredible Ammonite shell fossil that was covered with iridescent minerals over millions of years. We told you mollusks are shell-making masters!
JamesPFisherIII, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Every seashell you see was made by one mollusk, to be its home for all its life.  Their shells start small and grow, little by little, as long as the mollusk lives and grows.  Many of our mollusk friends are actually born with a tiny, soft, colorless shell.  This tiny shell, called the protoconch, is a miniature blueprint of the shell it will grow during its life. 

See the very smallest whirl in the center? That’s the protoconch. The rest grew as the mollusk did!

How does something hard like a shell GROW?  There’s more to the mollusk’s magic.  A mollusk takes nutrients and minerals into its body from the things it eats and from the water around it.  These nutrients and minerals then feed into the shell gland, a part of the mollusk’s body that mixes up just the right formula to make a shell.  A mollusk’s shell is mostly made of a mineral called calcium carbonate and also a little protein called chitin.  The shell mixture is released through the mantle, the soft body of the mollusk.  The shell mixture crystallizes, hardens and basically becomes a form of rock!

How strong are shells, really? These are the famous White Cliffs of Dover in England. They are white because the entire cliff is made of hard, compressed SHELLS from ancient mollusks that lived millions of years ago.
Immanuel Giel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A mollusk’s shell grows only from the edge of the shell.  This means that the tiny center point of a shell is the oldest part, the protoconch, that was there when the mollusk was born.  The rest has grown over time.  If you look closely at a seashell, you can see the “growth rings” where the mollusk has added another layer of growth. When you see a big shell with many rings, it means the mollusk was growing for a long time!

See the ridges here? Those are where the shell grew outward! Next time you look at a shell, look for the rings or ridges on its surface.
RealGatba, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Aren’t we lucky to live in a world that has beautiful things like seashells in it? Although shells are formed by completely natural processes, they are as beautiful as anything an artist could create. So now you know, science friend, that shells take a mollusk a long time to grow, and the shell is their only home. If you go to the beach this summer, have fun looking for shells! But if you pick up a shell with an animal at home in it, please put it back and let the animal enjoy its home — they built it themselves, after all!

SOURCES AND FURTHER INFORMATION:

The delightful Dr. Helen Scales introducing everything wonderful about mollusks and shells:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n796FoQjOHI

A quick introduction to shell formation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVNllt_2BiE

A deep introduction to shell formation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C07VIb0vhaM

Ammonites and Ammonite fossils: https://natmus.humboldt.edu/exhibits/fossil-focus-exhibits/what-ammonite

The deepest-dwelling mollusk: https://www.livescience.com/worlds-deepest-squid-philippine-trench

Just beautiful shells and shell facts for you to look at:

KIDS ASK! Where Did The Air Come From? Part II

Here at High Touch High Tech, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

WHERE DID THE AIR COME FROM?

Science is awesome for so many reasons, but one thing we love about learning science is how it helps you to think differently about things you don’t usually notice in your day-to-day life.  Like air.  Air is the source of our life, carrying oxygen to our cells so they can function.  We take about 20,000 breaths of air every day and if we’re lucky, we hardly ever have to think about it.  It’s easy to think of air as just, well…boring.  It’s just there, softly surrounding us and sometimes making cool breezes or big storms.   In fact, the layer of air around the earth, called the atmosphere, is such a rare, unique, unbelievably lucky mixture that we’ve never seen its equal anywhere else in the known universe. The story of how the air came to be is actually one of the most EPIC, amazing stories in all of science.  So what is this air we breathe?  Buckle up science friends, because the story of our air is a truly wild ride –it’s a story of ice ages, deep-sea volcanoes, mass extinctions, comets and no less than the beginning of all of LIFE! 

It’s a story SO epic, we had to tell it in two parts.  At the conclusion of our tale this week, you’ll never see the stuff in your lungs the same way again.

WHERE DID THE AIR COME FROM PART TWO: FROM DEATH TO LIFE

In our last episode, we left our dear young Earth cooling out after a mega-crash with another planet.   At the same time, a few million light years away, earth’s neighbors in the solar system were also forming.  Many of the planets in our solar system cooled and formed an atmosphere, which is a layer of gas that gravity pushes close to the planet.  Earth is not the only planet with an atmosphere. The atmosphere of Pluto is deadly carbon monoxide and methane.  The atmosphere of Venus is mostly poisonous carbon dioxide.  Jupiter’s is hydrogen and helium.

We’re basically the Goldilocks of the solar system.

Only on Earth are we lucky enough to have an atmosphere that is the right mix of oxygen and nitrogen.  Nitrogen actually makes up the most of our atmosphere today, about 78%.  Scientists think a lot of nitrogen came from comets and from volcanoes when the earth was forming.  The rest of our atmosphere is our good friend oxygen, just a little bit of carbon dioxide, and a few other gases like argon.  When you put oxygen and nitrogen together like we have on Earth, the oxygen is able to provide energy for living things, instead of being poisonous. 

If the different gases of today’s atmosphere were your hand.

Whew! Take  a deep breath! So …. the Earth’s formation was pretty wild, full of crashes and smashes and volcanoes and stuff — but now it’s ready with oxygen and nitrogen to support an epic variety of living things, right?  NOOOOPE!  The story of our atmosphere is even wilder than that!  About 4 billion years ago, as our Earth began to cool, the atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide and a lot of water vapor.  Not great for life!  But then came the rain.  For a very long time, maybe as much as TWO MILLION YEARS STRAIGHT, the water vapor in the atmosphere cooled and fell to earth as rain.  Can you imagine a rainy day that lasted two million years? All that rain billions of years ago still makes up every lake, every ocean, and every stream on earth today. Water was there when Earth was very new and has been here on Earth ever since.

Like this, but for two million years.

Because comet strikes and a whole planet strike brought so much water to Earth when it first formed, the Earth became a water planet.  Earth’s water became key to creating the atmosphere you are breathing right now.  After Earth’s water settled into the oceans, rivers, and lakes, our beautiful Earth was cool and quiet… too quiet!  There was nothing alive on the planet.  Over another billion years, carbon in the atmosphere began to dissolve into the ocean, and mix with things like nitrogen.  Somehow, all of those different chemicals and elements that made up the early earth began to mix and clump together in the water, and over a long time, out popped the first living things!  Maybe it was a bolt of lightning that helped all of those compounds come to life?  Or perhaps, just like a lot of Earth’s nitrogen and water, microscopic life came to earth from space?

ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO, via Wikimedia Commons

This is one of the best photos of a comet ever taken. There is recent evidence from scientists in Japan that comets do carry the kinds elements and compounds needed for life.

How life began on Earth is still one of the biggest questions in all of science.  We do know that Earth’s water was essential the beginning of life, and we do know that the earliest life were single-celled organisms called anaerobic bacteria.  Anaerobic bacteria were the first things to grow and reproduce.  It’s thought that Anaerobic bacteria began very deep in the ocean at hydrothermal vents, a type of underwater volcano, and got their energy from the minerals and chemicals in the water around the vents.  Anaerobic bacteria are still around today, closer than you think – lots of them are living around your teeth right now!  Anaerobic bacteria does NOT need oxygen to live. Oxygen is actually deadly to this bacteria.  At this time there was hardly any oxygen on the planet, so there was no problem! 

This is a deep-sea hydrothermal vent called “Lost City.” Using chemical analysis, scientists think life on earth may have begun right here.

Anaerobic life covered the planet until another life form, called cyanobacteria, emerged on the scene, and this little green friend has a lot to do with why you are breathing oxygen, and why you, or anything alive, are even here at all.  Basically, cyanobacteria murdered pretty much everything on the planet by making that oxygen you are enjoying right now. The tiny cyanobacteria did not need deep-sea chemicals for energy.  They used sunlight.  Sound familiar?  The reason we have lovely, life supporting oxygen for everyone is photosynthesis.  Photosynthesis is the amazing process still used by plants and bacteria today that takes the energy from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water and turns it into sugars and oxygen.  Because cyanobacteria could use sunlight to feed and grow, soon they were everywhere on the planet.  That meant more and more oxygen was pouring into the atmosphere.  Oxygen, which is great for us…but DOOM for anaerobic life on earth at that time.  Mega-doom. According to some scientists, it was even-worse-than-the-extinction-of-the-Dinosaurs-mega-doom.

By 2.4 billion years ago, there was so much oxygen in the atmosphere, it caused a catastrophic extinction that scientists call The Great Oxidation Event.  It’s amazing enough that so much of our atmosphere came from awesome things like comets, planetary collisions, and huge volcanoes.  But the truth is, what’s in your lungs right now is also the byproduct of an absolutely deadly extinction event that changed the Earth forever.  At the time of the Great Oxidation Event, oxygen had spread through the atmosphere and into the ocean.  There was so much of it, it reacted with Earth’s iron and covered the ocean and land in rust.  It wiped out most of the anaerobic bacteria, and even a lot of the cyanobacteria too. Even worse, it changed the climate so much that Earth went into a massive ice age that froze the entire Earth like a giant snowball.  Nearly everything on Earth died – 90% of all life!  The 10% of tiny organisms that survived became the ancestors of all living things, even humans.  These little survivors adapted to the new oxygen-rich atmosphere, and were able to use the energy in it to grow from tiny bacteria into everything now alive on earth.  Including YOU: a person who now knows the epic truth of where the air came from!

Sources and Further Information:

That time it rained for two million years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1LdMWlNYS4

How life might have begun on our water planet:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZCeOUSYb4g

How cyanobacteria evolved and took over the world: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ps2GlGs8oso&list=RDCMUCBbnbBWJtwsf0jLGUwX5Q3g&index=1

How cyanobacteria almost wiped out all of life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dO2xx-aeZ4w

A deep dive on the Great Oxidation Event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H476c8UjLXY

KIDS ASK! Where Did The Air Come From?

Here at High Touch High Tech, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

WHERE DID THE AIR COME FROM?

Science is awesome for so many reasons, but one thing we love about learning science is how it helps you to think differently about things you don’t usually notice in your day-to-day life.  Like air.  Air is the source of our life, carrying oxygen to our cells so they can function.  We take about 20,000 breaths of air every day and if we’re lucky, we hardly ever have to think about it.  It’s easy to think of air as just, well…boring.  It’s just there, softly surrounding us and sometimes making cool breezes or big storms.   In fact, the layer of air around the earth, called the atmosphere, is such a rare, unbelievably lucky mixture that we’ve never seen its equal anywhere else in the known universe. The story of how the air came to be is actually one of the most EPIC, amazing stories in all of science.  So what is this air we breathe?  Buckle up science friends, because the story of our air is a truly wild ride –it’s a story of burning stars, mega-asteroids, monster volcanoes, comets, and no less than the beginning of all of LIFE! 

It’s a story SO epic, we’re going to tell it in two parts. Come back next time for the sequel, and you’ll never see the stuff in your lungs right now the same way again.

WHERE DID THE AIR COME FROM PART ONE: 

A WHOLE LOT OF CRASHING AND SMASHING AND EXPLODING IN OUR SOLAR SYSTEM

The story of the air you are breathing RIGHT NOW began in a place like this one

About 4.6 Billion years ago, before our solar system and planets even existed, a small star went supernova.  The mighty shockwave of that explosion compressed a huge – like light-years-across-huge — cloud of gas and dust hanging out nearby.  Over time this mega-cloud pushed in closer, and closer, and closer, until there was enough hydrogen and helium being pressed together, and then … BOOM!

The sun and planets of our solar system

Sol, our sun, IGNITED into its massive, burning existence.  This explosive beginning used a lot of hydrogen and helium from the cloud, and left a lot of other stuff, like gases, elements, and chemical compounds it didn’t need.  The energy and heat of the newly ignited sun somehow ZAPPED all of the stuff hanging out into big drops of molten rock and metal called chondrules.  Over time these became… you guessed it… THE PLANETS! 

Chondrules can be made of many, many different combinations of elements. This kind, Olivine, is made of Iron, Silicon, and Magnesium. There’s a lot of Olivine right under the Earth’s crust.
Antonio Ciccolella
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So, here in the middle of this massive, churning, stormy cloud of molten rock and metal, you might ask: “Hey! Why do we have to go back this far to understand the air?”  Because, science friends, the ingredients in the air you’re breathing right now have been around since the BEGINNING OF OUR SOLAR SYSTEM.  The stuff you’re breathing is really, really old and has been through a LOT to get to you.  All of the stuff that formed the planets is made from elements and compounds that were made in space, and those elements and compounds then gradually formed our atmosphere.  So, what you are breathing is VERY old, and a lot of it was made in SPACE (but not all of it, there’s a Part 2 after all).

An artist’s drawing of our very early, VERY molten earth. It’s Earth’s baby picture!

Slowly gravity began to push the chondrules together into the planets of our solar system.  The early earth was a ball of space-rock and space-metal, and it resembled a super-hot ball of lava, with melted rock and metal just oozing from the center to the surface and churning all around in an ocean of lava.  Over time, MILLIONS of comets and asteroids also smashed into the early earth, adding more chemicals and elements into the hot, melty mix.  So not only is that nice fresh air very old and made in space, some of it, especially elements like nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon, were delivered to your lungs by massive comet impact.  Oh yeah – and another very important player in this epic tale, water, was ALSO made in space and delivered to this planet by comets billions of years ago.  Yeah.  That water. That you’re drinking!

This is an artist’s drawing of an asteroid that collided with Earth later in earth’s formation. The one that hit the early Earth was MUCH bigger.

All those comet impacts were tiny pipsqueaks compared to the moment that another whole PLANET, called Theia, hit the earth and broke apart, in an unimaginably massive smash!  This interplanetary mash-up was 100 MILLION TIMES BIGGER than the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs!  When Theia hit the earth, some scientists believe that Theia may have also brought another huge amount of  water to the still-hot ball of earth.  The extra chunks of Theia left over eventually came together and became our own wonderful moon.  Our beautiful moon will go on to play a big part in the air you enjoy, but for now let’s leave the earth and moon to re-form and chill out a bit after their mega-mega-MEGA-crash. 

See, we told you the story of air was wild!  And the air hasn’t even been made yet!  But out of all these crashes and smashes and explosions in our early solar system, the ingredients are coming together to make our earth, our air, and a little thing called LIFE ITSELF.

Take a deep breath, and we’ll see you for Part 2 next time. 

Sources and Further Reading:

The Supernova that Kickstarted the Sun: https://www.space.com/35151-supernova-trigger-solar-system-formation.html

The Formation of our Solar System: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1QTc5YeO6w

Theia Hits the Earth: https://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/questions/question38.html

The Moon and its Connection to Water: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190521101505.htm

Comets and the Amazing Things they Deliver: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDPPCoUUqY4

KIDS ASK! WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN THE SUN DIES?

A picture of a Red Giant Star with a unique spiral pattern.
ALMACC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Here at High Touch High Tech, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we always make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN THE SUN DIES?

Here at High Touch High Tech, we love talking about all the cool stuff that happens on our beautiful blue planet Earth, but we also love talking about SPACE!  From giant planets to fiery stars to mysterious black holes, space is a subject that always inspires wonder.  Our young astronomers love learning about the “life cycles” of stars, and how stars coalesce from giant, dusty nebulas, ignite, and eventually burn through all of their fuel, “dying” in a supernova full of the elements that make up our very own bodies!  It’s a wonderful thing to know that we are all made of stars, but when we teach about stars, there’s always a quiet moment of realization that our own sun, Sol, is a star too, and one day will come to the end of its “life” as the star that we see. That’s when someone usually asks the kinda-scary question: what will happen when our sun dies?

Our own star, Sol, center of our Solar System.

Well, science friends, there’s GOOD NEWS and there’s BAD NEWS.  Bad news first? OK: Sol will eventually run out of hydrogen and helium fuel, as all stars do.  When that happens, the results will be catastrophic and will probably destroy the earth.  Now the good news!  Scientists are sure that that time will be very, very far in the future, like several BILLIONS of years far.  So, it will not be a problem in our lifetimes.  We also believe by the time the sun does go out, with science on our side, humans, animals, and plants from the earth will be safely living on other planets. So even when the sun dies, the good things we love about earth will be able to go on, even if they are in a different place.  It’s OK to feel sad or scared about the idea that earth will come to an end. All scientists know that even though it’s a little scary, it’s also true that our universe is always changing, and nothing stays the same forever.  That’s just the way the universe works. The end of our sun is a normal, natural thing that is probably happening to several other stars right now, out there in space.  We hope it helps to know that it’s a scientific fact that the whole universe is always changing, but nothing is ever really lost forever. It just changes shape and becomes something new.

This is a picture of new young stars being created out of the supernovas of old stars, in a place called the Magellanic Cloud. Aren’t they beautiful?
X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. Potsdam/L. Oskinova, et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech
, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So, what will happen?  Astrophysicists, the awesome scientists who study stars, have observed many different kinds of stars going through many different kinds of changes.  When Astrophysicists observe stars, the color and size of the star can tell them about how old a star is, and how much fuel it still has.  There are many types of stars, with cool names like “Yellow Dwarf,” which are small and common, and “Red Supergiant,” which are huge, old, and very hot.  Our friend Sol is a Yellow Dwarf star, and is now about 4.5 billion years old.  Sol is currently halfway through its life as a star, which means that it still has plenty of hydrogen and helium fuel to keep shining for another 4.5 billion years.  But when that hydrogen and helium start to run out, Sol is going to change from a Yellow Dwarf into a Red Giant, and that’s when the trouble starts for Earth!

A scientific artist’s drawing of a Red Giant Star.
BaperookamoCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When a star becomes a Red Giant, it means the star is running out of hydrogen and helium fuel in its center, and starts to collapse in on itself, getting smaller at first.  But, as the star collapses in, it actually pushes more fuel together and the star gets a kind of “second wind,” burning even hotter and puffing up to HUGE size.  When Sol becomes a super-hot Red Giant, it will become so big that it will probably swallow up the Inner Planets closest to the sun, our neighbors Mercury and Venus, and then… yup, you guessed it.  It’s coming for Earth.  Scientists are not sure whether the Earth will be completely swallowed up by the Red Giant Sol, or if it will be just burned so hot that nothing can live there anymore.  The Outer Planets that are further away, like Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune, will be pushed even further away by all of this and will probably be OK.  Astrophysicists believe that some moons of Saturn, like Titan, actually hold water and could support life, so let’s imagine humans far in the future watching all of this happen from there!  Maybe there will even be Red Giant-Watching Parties all across the galaxies of space!

Yellow Dwarf Sol and the Inner and Outer Planets. The Earth is the third closest to Sol. Because it is so close, Earth will probably be swallowed up into Sol when it becomes a Red Giant.

Finally, after another long, long time, when all of its energy is burned up, Astrophysicists believe that Sol will probably shrink down and become a White Dwarf Star, a dense, heavy, star with very little fuel left, mostly made of all of the heavy elements like gold, zinc, and iron that are the byproducts of stars burning their hydrogen and helium.  A White Dwarf is sometimes called a “ghost star.” They have a dusty appearance because their gravity is so heavy, they pull in and disintegrate any asteroid or comet that comes near.  White Dwarf Sol won’t be very bright and any humans on Titan probably won’t be able to see it anymore, but hopefully, no matter where we humans go, we will always remember our old friend Sol.

A picture of White Dwarf Stars taken by the Hubble Telescope.

Sources and Further Information:

An Astrophysicist explains Sol’s changes clearly for you, short version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaOPDk8Xbgw

Sol’s changes by an Astronomer, longer version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pcwcsfy2FDc

Detailed explanation of the changes Sol will go through: https://www.universetoday.com/25669/the-sun-as-a-white-dwarf-star/

An excellent examination of mysterious White Dwarf Stars: https://astroengine.com/2009/03/19/what-will-happen-when-the-sun-turns-into-a-white-dwarf/

A WHOLE IMAX MOVIE about Sol and how its going out could affect earth! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUwA610rnZg

KIDS ASK! How Do You Find Fossils?

Smile! This week is all about FOSSILS!
(All photos credit: pixabay)

Here at High Touch High Tech, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part of our work is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam-packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

HOW DO YOU FIND FOSSILS?

Now this is a truth all our science friends, young and old, can agree on: fossils are really, really, REALLY cool!  Whether it’s a giant Megalodon tooth bigger than your hand or a towering T-Rex,  fossils show us a whole world that existed before humans were ever here.  It’s amazing to think that once upon a time, here on this same earth, there were animals like stegosauruses, triceratops, and pterodactyls.  It’s amazing to look at a fossil and realize that this earth is actually very, very old, and our lives are just one little part in the long and beautiful story of life on earth! 

It’s no wonder that our young scientists want to know where to find fossils, and we at High Touch High Tech are happy to tell you more.  When you watch a movie or TV show, you often see Paleontologists (a.k.a. the awesome scientists who get to find and study fossils for a living), carefully brushing dirt away from a huge skeleton emerging from the ground.  Paleontologists really do find huge skeletons from time to time, but the truth is they are pretty rare.  So, bad news first: if you go hunting for fossils you probably won’t find a whole Brontosaurus.  Now for the good news: there are MANY other kinds of fossils you can find, and they are more common than you might think! 

Here’s the real secret of fossil hunting: it’s all about WHERE you look.  Paleontologists and Fossil Fans all follow the same rule of thumb: look for fossils where fossils have been found before.  Usually people find fossils in certain locations because those places had the best conditions for ancient animals and plants to turn into fossils.  For example, there’s a place in England called “Jurassic Beach” where some of the first fossils known to science were found hundreds of years ago, and people still go to find awesome fossils today.  Jurassic Beach is a great place for fossil hunting because a long time ago it was a warm ocean, full of many kinds of life AND the right kind of mud in the ocean to fossilize the bodies of ancient animals and plants.  Before you start your fossil hunt, remember that fossils are only found in places with sedimentary rocks, such as  limestone, sandstone, or shale.  Sedimentary rocks mean that once upon a time a place was full of the kind of mud and sand that makes fossils.

Jurassic Beach in England. See all of the layers in the rock? Places that look like this can be a good place to find fossils!

One way YOU can start finding fossils is to google “best places to find fossils in (your state or country).”  You will see lots of information about the best places to go, and you might even find a few fossil-hunting clubs and organizations that lead trips to those places.  Going with a fossil club will help you learn quickly how to spot fossils, as you go on the hunt with other Fossil Fans.  If you can’t travel, that’s OK too – there might be some fine fossil-hunting spots right in your own backyard!  A great place to find fossils might be what’s called a “road cut,” where construction has cut through a hill or mountain.  If you look at the sides of the road cut and see many layers of different rock, you might be on the road to a fossil find! Another great place can be on steep riverbanks with many layers in the sides.  Just be sure to hunt with an adult science friend so they can help keep you safe, and make sure you are on public land, not in someone’s private backyard. 

These are Ammonites, a very abundant fossil. Keep your eyes open for round and spiral shapes!

The first rule of fossil hunting is: it’s all about WHERE you look.  The second is: it’s all about WHAT you look for.  You might be thinking of big T-Rex skulls or Velociraptor claws when you think of fossils, but there are a lot more fossils out there than that.  They’re just very small, and you have to learn how to look for small clues, not big ones.  Many Paleontologists recommend taking along a special book called a field guide to help you identify what you see.  The vast majority of fossils come from animals called invertebrates, animals like today’s mollusks, snails, and insects.  There are also many types of fossilized plants to keep an eye out for.  When you are out fossil hunting, you will be looking at every rock you see, just like a detective looks for clues.  Look for rocks with shell or leaf shapes in them.  Those shapes are usually fossils!  If your adult science friend has a special tool called a rock hammer, you can even try to split rocks open to see what’s inside.  Look for round rocks called nodules, which often form around a fossil.  

Some fossils to look out for are: Nautilus fossils (above) and Trilobite fossils (below).

Because we know our young scientists are such big Fossil Fans, we’ve included lots of resources below to help you get started.  There are lists of the best places to hunt, a link to a real fossil hunting club, and many videos of experts fossil hunting to show you more.  Happy hunting, science friends!

SOURCES AND FURTHER INFORMATION:

Best public sites to find fossils: https://www.rockseeker.com/fossil-dig-sites/

More about the best places to look and what to look for (very helpful website!): https://www.rockseeker.com/category/fossils/

The North Carolina Fossil Club: https://ncfossilclub.org/ 

A Paleontologist talking about how he finds fossils: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TG_p3CPFJmY

An awesome explanation of the different types of fossils you can find: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdP4_7f0vmo

How to tell a fossilized bone from a rock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erUBB8h-qsY

An excellent explanation of how and where YOU can find fossils (with a good recommendation for books and guides that can help you): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plf3wZI8GOQ

Splitting open nodules on Jurassic Beach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3x6ua5RkERw

KIDS ASK! What Would Happen if You Fell in a Volcano?

Nyiragongo Volcano, Democratic Republic of Congo
Cai Tjeenk Willink (Caitjeenk)CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Here at HTHT, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

What Would Happen if You Fell in a Volcano?

If you’ve seen Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, you know that the ending involves a very famous, and very deadly volcano (if you haven’t seen it, we won’t spoil it for you).  In movies, games, and TV, fighting around volcanoes and even falling into them seem to happen a lot.  Fortunately, we know from volcano scientists, who have the very cool title of “Volcanologists,” that actually falling into an active volcano or lava flow does not happen very often.  This is partly because a Volcanologist studies when and where volcanoes are erupting to help keep people safe, and help them get out of the way of any volcanoes that might be dangerous.  However, it is a scientific fact that volcanoes are so hot and powerful that they can kill you very quickly, just not in the way that we see in movies.

You might be surprised to know that Volcanologists, who are specially trained after years of school, actually CAN walk right up to lava flows and even reach in with tools to take samples of super-hot lava!  Lava fresh from the eruption can be anywhere from a scorching 1,600 to 2,200 degrees F.  Volcanologists sometimes have to wear special helmets made with gold and special suits made with aluminum to reflect the heat, but even then they cannot stay near an active eruption for more than a few minutes.  However, there have been enough brave Volcanologists who have done enough awesome volcano science to be able to tell us exactly what would happen if you fell in to the caldera, or cone, of a volcano right into the lava there.

Movies and TV give us an idea that lava is like water, and can swallow you up just like when you go off a diving board into a pool.  That’s not really true.  Water is a liquid with high viscosity, which means it’s not very dense and it flows easily.  Lava is thick, gooey, melted rock, not water.  Its molecules are totally different than water.  It has what’s called low viscosity, which means it’s very dense and heavy, and flows pretty slowly.  This means that if you landed on most kinds of lava, you’d more likely just hit the surface and sink in a little bit, not go under completely.  But that doesn’t mean you could just walk across the surface and climb out! 

Volcanologists want people to know that the atmosphere AROUND a volcano can be just as deadly as the lava itself.  Although lava is scary looking, the invisible gases volcanoes can give off can be much worse for you. Because a volcano is bringing up all kinds of elements and compounds from deep in the earth, it means that there are many toxic gases around it, such as Carbon Dioxide and Carbon Sulfide , which can asphyxiate you, stop you from breathing, before you even get close to the lava itself.  Plus, the air right around and above the lava in a volcano is very, very hot.  It can be just as hot as the lava itself.  So, the scientific answer to this burning question is a little gross, but it’s true: if you did fall in a volcano, you would probably asphyxiate immediately from all the toxic gases in there, and at the same time, your whole body would burst into flames from the heat.  A volcano is SO hot that if you fell in, even if you fell for just a few seconds, only your bones and ashes would remain to actually land on the lava!

Volcanoes are very, very powerful natural phenomenon that have been shaping the earth and affecting human lives since the beginning of time.  They are an important part of the world we live in and if you are ever near an active volcano,  be sure to go with an expert guide and follow all of their directions carefully.  Most people don’t know that the gases and heat around a volcano can be dangerous too, but now you do.  So, thanks to science, you are now fully volcano-safe! 

Sources and Further Information:

How Volcanologists Study Lava: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j54K0pv3w7k

A Volcanologist in the Field: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egEGaBXG3Kg

What Really Happens When You Fall into Lava: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHdRFUJuptU

More about Lava and Human Bodies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KeSet41brAA

What Really Happened in Pompeii: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rduUDoy3dYE

KIDS ASK! Could Megalodon Still be Alive in the Deep Sea?

Here at High Touch High Tech, we get to do a lot of science with a lot of amazing young scientists. We love feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask about science.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  First up is:

COULD MEGALODON STILL BE ALIVE IN THE DEEP SEA?

This most excellent question is on the minds of shark fans all over the world!  Why?  Because, clocking in at almost 60 feet, the mighty Megalodon was the largest shark that ever lived!  There are several species of big, scary sharks today to capture your attention, but Megalodon was the undisputed BIGGEST and SCARIEST of all.  We know about Megalodon because its huge teeth are still found all over the world, and we know that teeth that big were designed to eat WHALES.  That’s right – imagine an enormous shark big enough to take a lethal bite out of a whale and you’ve got Megalodon.

Say Hello to Megalodon!
Werner Kraus
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Thankfully, no Megalodon is going to come up and swallow you whole while you are enjoying a nice day in the ocean, as depicted in the recent movie, The Meg.  Megalodon IS extinct, disappearing from the fossil record about 2.6 million years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene age.  Although our oceans are enormous and there are definitely huge sharks living even in very deep parts of the oceans, a shark as big as Megalodon could not survive in the deep ocean for many reasons, most especially: FOOD!

An artist’s rendition of Megalodon mealtime
Karen Carr
CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Not getting enough food was one of the reasons Megalodon died out in the first place.  A shark that big requires lots and lots of food to function and maintain its huge body.  Scientists think it needed the equivalent of a couple of cows every day to survive!  When Megalodon died out about 2.6 million years ago, paleontologists believe it had to do with the fact that its main food source, whales, were also diminishing.  As whale populations diminished, not only did the Meg lose food, it also had to deal with another competitor in the oceans – the GREAT WHITE SHARK.  Great White Sharks emerged around the same time as Megalodon was dying out, and the new Great Whites were strong but small.  Great Whites could attack the same prey as the Megalodon, but required a lot less food to survive.

Megalodons, Great White, and late Pleistocene whales
Darius Nau
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But could a couple of rogue Megs have escaped to survive deep in the ocean?  The deep ocean is big, and there is a surprising amount of life way down there, even a few gigantic, non-megalodon sharks.  However, a big dude like the Meg would have some serious problems living there.  Food is very hard to find because the deep sea is almost totally dark.  No light means no plankton, no plankton means no other food.  Most animals that live in the deep sea are scavengers that eat scraps fallen from the upper ocean, and they are adapted to be able to go long, long times between meals.  A huge shark like the Megalodon needs a huge amount of food, and that just isn’t available in the deep sea.

As the light fades, so does the available food
Amy Apprill
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There is also the crushing pressure of all that water.  Living under high pressure would cause a lot of problems for a big toothy creature like Megalodon.  Such high pressure actually dissolves things like teeth and bones, which is why the deepest known fish, such as the Mariana Snailfish, have skeletons of cartilage.  Deep sea animals also have special molecules in their bodies called piezolytes, which help keep their bodies strong and intact under all that pressure.  PLUS, the deep sea is so cold and dark, just to live there would require the Meg to become bioluminescent and expand its eyes to a much bigger size.

All in all, those are just too many challenges for a huge shark designed to expend lots of energy eating whales.  So science friends, the Megalodon is definitely extinct.  BUT, there are some incredible, huge, well-adapted deep sea sharks that do exist that are also really, really cool.  We’ve included some links to videos below so you can see what’s REALLY in the deep sea.

Sources and Further Information:

Incredible Real Deep Sea Shark Videos:

More about the Megalodon:

Rare is many, Rare is strong, Rare is proud!

Images and stories proudly shared from: https://www.rarediseaseday.org/

February 28 is World Rare Disease Day, and we’re here this week to share our colors in support!  If you or someone you love is living with a rare disease, you can easily understand how deeply challenging and isolating the experience can be.  We at HTHT want you to know you are not alone. To celebrate people living with rare diseases, this week our blog is dedicated to sharing the voices of people around the world.  Rare Disease Day is coordinated by EURORDIS Rare Diseases Europe and 65 National Alliances of Patient Organizations for Rare Diseases, who have collected the stories below.  Click the link below each picture to find the stories of real people living with rare diseases, sharing their experiences and the true colors of their mighty spirits. 

If you are unfamiliar with rare diseases, they are defined in the US as a disease that affects under 200,000 people.  There are over 300 million people around the world living with rare diseases, and currently over 6,000 identified rare diseases.  72% of rare diseases are genetic, and 70% of these rare genetic diseases start in childhood.  People with rare diseases often experience difficulty getting a diagnosis, a lack of treatment options, and very little information on their condition.  Advancements in medical science, including gene editing technologies like CRISPR, mean that there are more options than in the past, but the battle to help every person with a rare disease is still an uphill one.  We hope that shining a light on the lives and stories of people living with rare disease will help bring comfort to those afflicted and more awareness to all. 

Tshepiso Gloria

Shambhavi

Vasco

Sayafik

Nada

Jelena

Nitzia

Taka

Zixuan

Wafic

For more about Rare Disease Day, more stories, and for resources to show your support on social media this week and beyond, please visit: https://www.rarediseaseday.org/

The Shocking Scientific Truth about Being Single

Move over Valentine’s Day — Singles’ Awareness Day, February  15th,  is all about showing love for the SINGLES!!  Even coupled folks can get sick of the sappy, romantic nature of Valentine’s Day, but it’s assumed that all of the miserable singletons among us are crying alone into their candy hearts on the day of love. Fortunately, excellent scientific research by Psychologists like Bella De Paulo is breaking down that stereotype and yielding some very surprising results.  So, we at High Touch High Tech wish all you couples out there a happy Valentine’s Day, but to you singles we say, a truly happy Singles’ Awareness day to you too!

Across all media, the “happily ever after” of marriage is portrayed constantly, and there are hardly ever any happy portrayals of empowered single people enjoying their single life.  Bella de Paulo, an expert on the psychology of single life, has pointed out that in most world societies, there is an overwhelming tendency to assume that partnership and marriage are a default human state, and that everyone fears being alone.  This assumption has been so entrenched that it wasn’t questioned seriously by science until recently.  However, in- depth psychological surveys of married people, single people, and divorced people are revealing that single folks are just as happy as married people, and single women may actually be the happiest of ALL! Shocking, isn’t it?

The stereotype of sad singledom is so prevalent, even this cat is surprised at the news!

One of the first major studies of this kind, by Matthew Wright and Susan Brown of Bowling Green University, was focused on surveying people in their mid-fifties and beyond to find out how much having a romantic partner had mattered to people’s psychological well-being across a lifetime.  They thought the happiest of all people would surely be the ones who were currently married, and the unhappiest of people were the single people who were not even dating.  Married people were asked to rate their happiness before marriage, and after.  What did the science show?  Aside from a slight upward blip around the time of the marriage, married people’s happiness before and after the wedding stayed surprisingly the same.  The group who went down the most in happiness over time were the people who had divorced and remained unmarried.  Coming in overall just as happy and steady as married people throughout their lives?  The never-married singles, especially women.  For older women in the Wright and Brown study, partnership status made no statistical difference in their life happiness.

Wright and Brown were working from a model that was based on the idea that more social ties and attachments would increase well-being, and obviously married people had someone around all the time to attach to.  The surprising results that single people, supposedly with less social ties and available care in their lives, could be just as happy can be interpreted in some interesting ways.  One idea is that although there is a perception that romantic love and partnership is the ultimate satisfaction in life, some people are simply happier pursuing things like autonomy, purpose, mastery, or meaning.  Studies have shown that single people are much more likely to report their lives have been “continuous processes of learning change and growth.”  People can absolutely be  happy single because they are pursuing meaningful work and purpose in their own lives that truly matter to them. Perhaps romantic love and partnership just isn’t the only kind of deep lifetime satisfaction out there?

Another interpretation  is that although married people have built-in care, they become “insular” and bonded mostly to each other.  Single people, however, tend to have more friends, spend more time building their social networks, and contributing to their communities.  Single people are as happy as married ones because meaningful social relationships don’t have to come from having a romantic partnership.  It may be that married people have THE ONE, but single people have THE ONES. As Paul Bloom, psych prof at Yale, says: “We need human contact.  But the type of contact can vary a lot.  So yeah, single people can be plenty happy.” And that’s the shocking truth about being single!

Sources and Further Reading:

An Introductory Explanation of the Wright and Brown Study: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-single/201611/no-partner-no-worries-new-study-psychological-health

The Wright and Brown Study: https://europepmc.org/article/MED/28626245

Bella De Paulo Ted Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEELIrm9JKA

Why Unmarried Single Women may be the Happiest of All: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/may/25/women-happier-without-children-or-a-spouse-happiness-expert

Why Will You Be Craving Pizza by the End of this Article?

Admit it, you’re already thinking about it

February 9th is National Pizza Day, but honestly, at least in the U.S., every day is pretty much pizza day!  A person can get a slice in almost every country in the world, but Americans’ pizza consumption stats are particularly impressive: 350 slices are consumed every second, and 40% of Americans eat pizza once a week!  What began in Italy as a quick snack made for Neapolitan laborers has become a delicious, gooey, piping hot, world-dominating juggernaut.  Why do we love pizza SO much?  Are we actually addicted to it? 

There’s a reason your mouth might be watering a little now

It’s no secret that there is a lot of science behind the food industry, particularly in the area of what we call “junk food.”  Neuroscientists such as Francis McGlone study the brain’s reaction to foods as subjects eat inside MRIs.  Sensory scientists such as Herbert Stone calculate and test the exact right amount of salt, sugar and fat that give us the sensations and flavors that keep us coming back for more.  Psychologists connect eating behaviors to emotional and mental experiences, and chemists have broken down and reproduced several of the exact compounds that make certain foods delicious.  All of these fields of science have turned their attention to tasty, tasty pizza, and the general consensus is that although pizza is not exactly addictive in the way a drug would be, it can trigger “addictive-like” eating patterns.  Pizza is a perfect storm of flavorful compounds that do indeed light up pleasure centers in the Amygdala region of your brain every time you take a bite.

Your Brain on Pizza

So what are the molecular culprits in pizza that make our mouths water just from looking at pictures of it?  The ingredients in pizza contain very high levels of certain brain pleasing compounds, and pizza also undergoes chemical reactions while baking that render it even more incredibly wonderful.  The combination of fat, salt, sugar, and carbohydrates that is pizza certainly does not appear in nature, and the combination of those four molecules is already heavenly for our brains, which are still in the “take all the calories you can get” mode that helped humans survive for most of our existence.  But what takes pizza to a whole other level of satisfying is a little molecule known as Glutamate.  Yes, the one that is found in Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG. 

Monopotassium Glutamate

We here at High Touch High Tech are not breaking the news of a worldwide MSG-in-pizza conspiracy, we promise!  Commercial MSG is a synthetic version of Glutamate, which is a very abundant compound in nature that has many types, many of them already occurring in food.  All of the flavors of food come from particular molecular compounds:  sucrose makes sweet flavors, quinine brings us bitter flavors, and hydrochloric acid is sour.  Glutamate is responsible for the flavor more recently identified as “umami,” a flavor that is rich and savory.  Glutamate also enhances flavors, making people crave it and want to eat it more.

Tomatoes = red glutamate bombs

As it happens, pizza’s ingredients mean that it is layer upon layer of high-glutamate ingredients.  Tomatoes are very rich in natural glutamate, and on top of that (literally), so is cheese, especially the aged cheeses like parmesan or asiago that find their way onto every good pizza.  On top of THAT, mozzarella and tomatoes both contain a less common compound, 4 Methylpentanoic Acid, that enhances flavor even more.  Add some glutamate-rich mushrooms on your pizza and your brain’s perception of deliciousness goes into overdrive.  And that’s just the raw ingredients in your pizza.  When a pizza bakes it goes through a process known as caramelization, when sugars in food become brown.  When ingredients are caramelized it makes them richer, sweeter, and more flavorful, especially in the crust.  Even the brown bubbly goodness on top of a pizza is a result of something called Maillard’s Reaction, whereby amino acids in foods react with sugars when heated. 

Mmmm… Maillard’s Reaction
Valereee
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Craving pizza yet?  If you are, it’s not exactly a fault of your willpower.  Pizza is an unusually perfect mix of incredibly delicious compounds and chemical processes that are very hard for our brains to resist! This is why for many of us, we’d be very glad if it was pizza day, every day.

Sources and Further Reading:

Introduction to the Amazingness that is Pizza: https://theconversation.com/why-does-pizza-taste-so-good-125618

More about the Amazingness that  is Pizza: https://us.cnn.com/2018/12/06/health/pizza-addictive-food-drayer/index.html

Compounds and Flavors in Pizza: http://specertified.com/blog/view/why-does-pizza-taste-so-good-the-science-of-the-5-basic-tastes-and-pizzas-c

Intro to the Difference Between Food and Substance Addiction:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHNB8icGMf0

Study on Food vs. Substance Addiction: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4334652/

NIH Compound Summary for Glutamic Acid: https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Glutamic-acid