Holograms, Impossible Objects, and Floating Furniture

An impossible shape, the Penrose triangle, in Gotschuchen, Austria, erected in 2008 by the "physics meeting" association as part of the project "Physics on Spielplatz" Used with a creative commons license. Click for source.

Impossible Objects

In one of my recent posts I mentioned that studies have shown that we start recognizing impossible objects when very young.  Fortunately, they continue to be fascinating, and have led to amazing art, interior design, and stories like DB Johnson’s Escher-inspired Palazzo Inverso.  (I’m still holding out for a closet that’s either Narnia or a TARDIS, but while they are working on making tractor beams a reality, pocket dimensions to increase the size of my apartment are not on next year’s Christmas list.)

…Though I might want to talk to this guy: Jerry Andrus’s Illusions.  The warping clouds are enough to give you a headache, but the bolt-through-the-impossible-nuts is pretty impressive.  Even after seeing it repeatedly my brain still gets tricked.

Check out other life-sized impossible sculptures like the one above from Austria here.  Almost all of them are the sort that require you to look at them from one particular perfect vantage point: if you’re feeling inspired, there are directions on creating your own impossible triangle sculpture at Cool Optical Illusions: Penrose Triangle.


If they’re working on tractor beams, surely holodecks aren’t far behind.  Eye Spy featured artist Betsy Connors is a holographer here in Boston, and likes to work with whole-room holographic installations, though her works currently showing at the Peabody Essex Museum are discrete elements instead of a single larger piece.  Her route to holographic creations includes lasers, a giant sand table, mirrors, film, and a multi-step developing process (see the PEM interview with her here).

If you’d like to try a similar effect without the heavy-duty equipment, William Beatty’s got detailed instructions and a lot of related links on creating what he calls a “Scratch” or “Abrasion” hologram.

Through the Looking Glass

Optical illusions are a great inspiration for unusual decoration.  These designers have gone beyond painting the roses red, however, to create chairs and couches that seem to (or maybe even will) float, exploding bureaus, room-lengthening curtains (aha!  there’s my pocket dimension after all!) and invisible tables.

Still here? After all those cool ideas?  Fine, have a book trailer for the aforementioned Palazzo Inverso, a very entertaining story you read front to back, and then upside down back to front.  And when you’re done with that, go read Mirror Mirror, which is a set of fairy tale poetry from two points of view, read down the page and then up it again.

Happy International Literacy Day

International Literacy Day, according to the calendar hanging in my office, was technically September 8th, but as I have been having inexplicable glitches attempting to access WordPress, I’m a little behind.  (But the Salem LitFest isn’t for another week, so I’m still in the running!)

Therefore, in the name of celebrating cool stuff, which today is reading (who am I kidding?  We celebrate reading all the time in my world), I bring you neat thoughts about literacy, and a handful of reading-related activities.

First of all, good news for those of us who have more books than shelves to put them on: Book owners have smarter kids from Salon.com

And next, hear about how educators at the Eric Carle Museum focus on ‘reading the pictures’ in their storytimes as much as reading the words, improving comprehension and engaging kids and adults in the art of illustration: Noggin video

Looking for good books to read?  Ask your local librarian or check out some useful lists on Reading Rockets, helpfully organized by theme.

Also, don’t forget to check out the awesome interdisciplinary lesson plans available at the Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge–many of them have literacy themes.  One of my favorites is the Adjective Monster, a ‘paper sculpture’ art and geometry project built around Go Away Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley.

Illustration from Wiesner's Flotsam

Inspired by the ‘reading pictures’ video?  Everyone loves a good wordless book, and David Wiesner has created several.  Try out this very cool classroom photography project featured in School Library Journal and inspired by Flotsam, with neat tie-ins to science and history.  Kudos to my Anonymous Tip-Master for pointing this one out! I love how crazy and beautiful his illustrations are, and part of a long tradition of fish-exaggerations.  In 1719, the first full-color illustrated book of fish was published, including several fish that were figments of the illustrator’s imagination!  (See The Fantasy Fish of Samuel Fallours for the scoop.)

For more science tie-ins, read Flotsam paired with Tracking Trash, a very cool book about ocean currents and the problem of the ocean as ‘plastic soup’ [National Geographic].  Sector 7 is also a personal favorite, and great for teaching story-boarding or introducing a unit on clouds.

And lest we think all literacy only has to do with kids old enough for words, a neat article about visual literacy that begins developing in infancy: Escher-Themed Nurseries?  Even 4 month olds can recognize impossible objects from Cognitive Daily.  (You thought I’d manage not to include a reference to Eye Spy in this post, didn’t you?  Tune in next time for more cool stuff to do with impossible objects and how to create your own scratch holograms!)

Ideabox: Water Balloons

Today may see a brief break in the previously unremitting gross weather of the last two weeks, but there are surely more scorching days in our future.  To that end, I present a post about water balloons.   (Because if they’re good enough for NASA they’re good enough for me…)

ideabox water balloons

Watch a Water Balloon Break in Slow-Motion

People Study This Stuff?

How does a water balloon pop in low or no gravity?  NASA wanted to know, and not just because it looks cool.  Think about delivering water to a colony on Mars, or to the International Space Station.   Think about taking a bath in orbit.  Check out the awesome video results of the Symphony of Spheres and other experiments.

If you’re looking for other cool water droplets and bursting balloons, look no further!  Doc Harold Edgerton was a pioneer of stroboscopic photography, and dozens of his videos and photographs are available from the online MIT museum collections.

But they’re mostly about fun, right?

There may be a creativity crisis in America, but these two kids have come up with 27 ways to play with water balloons…how many can you think of?

Or don’t use a traditional water balloon at all–this family documented their experiment with the amazing 120 foot water balloon using latex tubing.  (And these folks built an air-pressure-powered water balloon cannon…but if you make one of these, don’t tell me–and don’t blame me if your cannon explodes, as is mentioned as a possibility in the comments.)

Recommendation: Playing to Learn

I’m always interested in what other people have to say about the connections between learning and play, and I really enjoyed this presentation (designed as if on a game board) which talks about ways to keep learning fun without being entirely lame lost in the maze of a good idea poorly executed.

Do make time to watch the section on Bloom’s Taxonomy as explained by the Pirates of the Caribbean. I laughed a lot.

Level 4: Analysis. "Me, I'm dishonest. And a dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. It's the honest ones you've got to watch out for."

“Children love to learn, but at some point they lose that and become adults that don’t like formal learning. Let’s explore why “play” has gotten such a bad rap and figure out how to get it back in education.” ~Maria Andersen, Playing to Learn? on Prezi

Synapses in Rhythm: Music and Brains

There’s a lot of research out there about the effect music has on the brain, and there are a fair number of misconceptions, too.  I’m not tackling the whole Baby Mozart thing here, just interested in sharing a few music-related articles that I find fascinating, plus (as always) a few good ways to play.

Babies are pre-programmed to dance and to enjoy it, research by the University of York has shown.

The study of 120 children aged between five months and two years found that babies spontaneously started moving to music and rhythmic beats.

Scientists also found that the better the children were at moving in time with the music, the more they smiled.

It is not known why humans have developed this predisposition, researchers said.

And here’s the rest of the article for your enjoyment and edification…Because you never know when ‘baby dance’ may pop up in casual conversation.

C'mon, doesn't that just make your day? Photo credit to benrybobenry on Flickr

For a denser look at what’s popping in the brainpan, I recommend How The Arts Develop The Young Brain.  And this month there was a neat article on a rock song writing/performance pilot program for middle schoolers in Littleton, MA which was a truly interdisciplinary project.

I also ran across a fascinating blog post this past winter over on Arts Journal about whether or not there’s a benefit to watching musicians while listening to music, or watching something tangentially related.  In this visually dominated culture I think it’s interesting to contemplate whether what you look at while you listen impacts the way you hear the same way it’s been demonstrated that what you hear influences your impression of what you’re seeing.

Music’s interesting to read about, better to listen to, and best yet to play, so if you haven’t picked up an instrument for a while (or ever) but have a hankering for raindrops, chimes, and rhythm, check out Andre Michelle’s  Pulsate, a compose-your-own virtual musical accident.  Or Tonematrix by the same artist, which allows you to build chords and adjust or remove notes in a more controlled way, for those of you who prefer deliberate composing to the pleasant effects of randomness.  The whole site is actually worth poking about in, if you  have the time: there are guitar and synthesizer activities, simple composition by pinwheel, and a number of other neat sound-related experiments and ideas.

Feeling inspired?  Directions for traditional kids’ craft level homemade instruments are here.  If you were intrigued by the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra I mentioned a few posts back, here are directions on how to make a Carrot Strummer and an Eggplant Clapper.

Want more plant-produced music?  Check out the Richmond Indigenous Gourd Orchestra (kudos to my coworker for finding these guys!).

Cartoon Brain Food

This turned up on one of my museum discussion email lists, and I had to share it with you for several reasons.

1) Cartoon characters visit a museum and get excited about the artwork instead of running through it, destroying it, or ignoring it, ala Tom & Jerry, Scooby Doo, or any number of other cartoons I could name. (Granted, the fact that it was produced by a consortium of French museums does make it more likely that the art would be more of a focus than otherwise…but it’s still great and models mostly appropriate museum behavior.)

2) In one minute the three characters manage to actually model close-looking and observation of the artwork depicted. One character knows more than the others and helps them look for details, then gives them some context for what they’re seeing.  The cartoon gets away with sounding a little condescending, which I wouldn’t really advocate, but otherwise it’s a good model for teachers, docents, or parents to follow when tying in details of kids’ lives with facts about a more distant time or culture.

3) There’s a very “I Spy” attitude to the conversation, which is a game kids love, and which I’ve been tuned into recently due to the upcoming opening of Eye Spy in my section of PEM.  I particularly love the last detail of the reflection of the man in the window, since reflections, distortions, and other plays on perception are all over the upcoming exhibition.

4) This is part of a whole series of movies which feature artworks from the participating museums, so you can do a cartoon-guided virtual tour of a bunch of very cool art .  Check out some of the others on the Louvre’s YouTube channel, at the “Jeunesse” playlist.  (Some of the videos are in French and some in English.)  Note, as far as modeling appropriate behavior goes, the characters never touch any of the art, even the really appealing lion with the movable tail.  Even I wanted to give it a yank and see what might happen!

Music, Accidentally On Purpose

*waves* Hello All!  I have returned from my trip to Italy and essentially recovered from the Italian cold I brought back with me, and I’m back on track to keep bringing you fresh Brain Popcorn.  Today’s post celebrates unusual music.

ASIMO conducts the Detroit Symphony. Click for story.

Music is a great interdisciplinary doorway.  Though I ran as far as possible from the calculations necessary for the ‘physics of music’ class they offered in undergrad, the fact remains that music and physics *are* closely linked, and so are music and art, music and history, music and literature, music and myth, music and….you get the refrain.  Today we’re going to focus on a few science connections.

Gravity Makes Music!

Gravité from Renaud Hallée: check out some very cleverly edited percussion work with falling tennis balls, forks and knives, televisions, basketballs, and light sticks.  It reminds me a lot of the number “Trashing the Camp” by Phil Collins, from Disney’s Tarzan.  (Thanks to Rob over on Politics et Alia Sensae for the heads up!)

For a slightly more complicated set of interactions (with some entertaining moments and some real physics –there’s a Newton’s Cradle in there!) check out the Rube-Goldberg-inspired “This Too Shall Pass” by OK Go.  Once you’ve watched it once and have stopped laughing, go again and keep your eyes out for levers, weights and counterweights, wedges, and a number of other simple machines.

Vegetables as instruments?

Well, it beats eating them… If you missed my earlier link to the ViennaVegetable Orchestra, here it is.  This is a great way to talk about materials engineering (what qualities are they looking for when they pick their vegetables?  How do they change those materials to get the sound they want?), and also just to discuss the ways people make noise (beating, blowing through a tube or over a tube, plucking, shaking…how do these veggie instruments resemble or differ from what a regular orchestra/band/jam session uses?).

Did you know? The palm cockatoo is known to beat hollow logs with sticks to make loud drumming sounds. ~courtesy of @AMNH, the American Museum of Natural History’s Twitter feed

Animal Music–apparently not confined to cetaceans and songbirds!  (Does anybody else have the lines from Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb running through their heads yet?  “Many more monkeys drumming on drums! Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum!”)

Earth Music

Luray Caverns Stalacpipe

The Stalacpipe Organ at Luray Caverns, photo from their website

Three years/2500 attempts = 37 formations/5 octaves = The Stalacpipe Organ.  There are so many cool paths you can take from here, looking at caves and earth science, spelunking, Virginia history, invention of musical instruments, more math and physics of sound, inspiration for creating your own tube-length-instruments.  Or just check out the site for Luray Caverns and play the audio clip.

And finally, for sheer amusement value, “Flight of the Bumblebee” played on an iPad.  Is this cheating?   Having played this piece on the flute, I’m going to say yes.  If you’re not out of breath by the end, it doesn’t count.  🙂

Sliding, Rolling, and Gliding

Downhill skiing is fast.  Ice skating’s got those nifty blades.  Bobsleds are faster and those runners are longer, and they make that awesome ‘whooshing’ sound.  What’s not to love?  (Okay, so I was maybe influenced a little a lot by Cool Runnings as a kid.  I’m not the only one.)

Bobsleigh Homepage at Olympic.org — full of fun stuff!  Current photos and videos from the ongoing games, equipment and history, techniques, etc.

Physics of Bobsledding at Howstuffworks

Team USA’s Bobsled page

Want to try building a bobsled course at home?

There was a tree at the base of the best side of the house for sledding when I was a kid.  A really big pine tree that you didn’t want to hit, if at all possible.  So my brother and I, assisted by our parents, got pretty decent at packing up snowbanks so that we would curve around the tree, around the corner of the house, and out into the backyard.  It worked enough of the time to be worth it.

However, there are safer, smaller ways to build a bobsled course that don’t involve pine needles down your jacket collar.  My favorite is the paper-towel-tube bobsled run.  The simplest of indoor Olympic sports, all you need are paper towel tubes (wrapping paper tubes, mailing tubes, toilet paper rolls, you get the picture), marbles or toy cars (I’m more of a marbles fan, myself.  Run 4 at a time for a four-man sled!), masking tape, and a whole lot of books, furniture, and boxes to form your ‘hill.’  Cut, tape, and go wild!

(To make ‘curved’ sections, I recommend cutting out triangular pieces from the paper towel rolls [which end up looking like diamonds once you’ve made the two angled cuts] and bending and taping them together.  This takes some practice to get a reasonable variety of angles that aren’t going to make your marbles stick in the turns!)

For other examples, check out some of these snazzy runs for ideas!

Patriotic Marble Run

Courtesy of Marie at MakeandTakes.com

Winter Olympics Games for Kids from MakeandTakes.com (for very young children)

A 3 floor marble run and you want more?

For the truly Olympic oriented educator, Kathi Mitchell’s impressive Olympics for Kids round-up page, with lesson plans, interactives, and assorted links galore.

Icy Cool Science

I was going to post this tomorrow, but in honor of the enormous blanket of white stuff covering the East Coast from DC northwards, I’m posting early.

Boiling Water to Ice Crystals in a Flash

Boiling Water Flash Frozen

Boiling Water Flash Frozen

On a day when temperatures are below freezing (the colder the better!), get a mug or pot of boiling water and bring it outside.  Toss the water in the air (away from yourself and any innocent bystanders!)  and watch the water flash freeze into a cloud of ice crystals.  NB: If you do this at your school or museum, do not direct the water where ice will fall on walkways, parking lots, or visitors.

Why does this happen?

All things being equal, cold water freezes faster. It takes time for the energy contained in a hot object to be transferred to a cold object. However, the rate of heat transfer is proportional to the temperature difference between the two objects, so hot water will lose heat faster than cold water. In other words, if you have water at 90 degrees C and water at 10 degrees C and the freezer is at -10 degrees C, the hot water will lose heat five times faster than the cold water; however, the cold water will still win the race. As the hot water cools it’s rate of heat transfer will decrease, so it will never catch up to the cold water.

Some people claim that hot water freezes faster because a pot of boiling water can be thrown into the air on a cold winter day, and it freezes in mid air creating a shower of ice crystals. Whereas a pot of cold water thrown into the air comes down as large blobs of water. This happens because the hot water is so close to being steam, that the act of throwing it into the air causes it to break up into tiny droplets. (hot water is less viscous than cold water, listen to the sound it makes when you pour it in the sink) The small water droplets have a large surface area which allows for a great deal of evaporation, this removes heat quickly. And finally, the cooled droplets are so small, that they can be easily frozen by the winter air. All of this happens before the water hits the ground. Cold water is thicker and stickier, it doesn’t break up into such small pieces when thrown into the air, so it comes down in large blobs.

Joe Larsen, Ph.D. Chemistry, Rockwell Science Center, Los Angeles, CA

For video and further information, see http://blog.wired.com/geekdad/2009/02/boiling-water-.html

Plus an extra-cool kaleidescope snowflake generator, with thanks to Paul Orselli of Exhibitricks for the link!  I love the option to spin your crystals round not only in two, but in three dimensions.

The Past in Motion

This does not, I suppose, technically qualify as archaeology.

However, in the theme of really-cool-bygone-stuff, I bring you: The Animated Bayeux Tapestry.

This is no substitute for getting to see the real thing–the sheer immensity of this tapestry just does not convey on a video clip.  However, it’s a cunning piece of animation, and the foley artist involved clearly had a lot of fun with everything from the feasting noises to the horses to the ‘guuuuh’ and ‘gack’ sounds of battle.  And if you’re looking for a way to liven up the story of 1066 and the Norman Conquest, this is a fun way to go about it.

Have I whetted your appetite for tapestries, Normans, or movie-making?

Britain’s Museum of Reading has a great site about the Bayeux Tapestry, including an activities page which made me grin.  [Specifically the directions on how to make your own Norman soldier’s helmet.  (Halloween, anyone?)]

If it’s the sounds that really caught your fancy, check out Paul Orselli’s great recent blog post: Exhibit Designer’s Toolkit: Creating the Sounds of Gore and Squidge

And if you’re intrigued by the illustration style of the medieval tapestry, try your hand at the Historic Tale Construction Cit (presumably pronounced ‘kit’ as all ‘c’s are hard).  Write and illustrate your own story using figures, settings, and beasts from the Bayeux Tapestry–careful, this is a hoot and dangerously addictive to those of us who grew up loving computer programs like Storybook Weaver.  The image interface is pretty sound, too–you can resize and flip the image elements, as well as type captions, with the option to create several frames, save them, email them, and submit to a visitor-created gallery.