Solstice Science

‘Tis the season… for astronomy and engineering! After all, the Winter Solstice occurs on December 21 and there’s more to celebrate than the start of longer days.

The Winter Solstice occurs every December and marks the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. But, why does the length of the day change throughout the year?  Thankfully, astronomy explains it all.

The Earth is tilted on its axis – 23.5 degrees to be exact. In the Northern Hemisphere, the Earth is tilted away from the sun during winter and toward the sun during summer. The Winter Solstice is just one of four major “way stations” on the Earth’s journey around the sun. The Summer Solstice marks the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and the Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes mark the days when night and day are exactly the same length.


Most of us don’t celebrate the Winter Solstice and we don’t usually celebrate the holidays with math.  However, engineering was a major part of Winter Solstice traditions in ancient times.

Thousands of years ago, monuments all over the world were designed and built to align with the sun on the day of the Winter Solstice. Some of these include Stonehenge in England, Newgrange in Ireland, and Chichen Itza in Mexico. Check out this video to learn how this works at Egypt’s Karnak Temple.

So how exactly did ancient societies construct these monuments? There are many theories, but experts agree that the monuments are impressive engineering feats. For example, one of the most famous sites, Stonehenge, includes 40-ton stones transported from more than 155 miles away. The builders may have used sleds and rollers or even large woven baskets to move the stones. Even the holes that hold the stones in place were dug at specific angles to ensure the stones did not fall. Stonehenge has been dated to 3000 BC to 2000 BC – even before the invention of the wheel – making its construction even more remarkable.

Be sure to celebrate this Solstice with science! Check out our “Cool Experiments” Pinterest board for some fun winter-themed activities.

The Science of Parade Floats

It’s hard to believe Thanksgiving is right around the corner! For many metro Detroiters, America’s Thanksgiving Parade® presented by Art Van, on Woodward is a beloved staple of the holiday season. The first parade was held in 1924, making it the second-oldest Thanksgiving Day parade in the United States. Although we may not realize it, these amazing parade floats are not just a creative form of celebration, but also an example of science and engineering.

We reached out to the staff at The Parade Company, the organization behind America’s Thanksgiving Parade® presented by Art Van, to discuss the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) behind the floats.


Renée Rodriguez, The Parade Company’s Volunteer Services & Studio Tours Director, stressed the importance of STEM to the evolution of parade floats over time. After all, when the parade first started, the floats were pulled by horse and carriage! That year, the parade featured four bands, four papier-mâché heads and 10 floats. Nowadays, floats are often pulled by a vehicle and are constructed with steel, wood, and Styrofoam. This year’s event will include over 60 parade units with bands, clowns, specialty acts and more.

One of the parade’s most popular floats was “The Big Red Chair,” standing 14 feet tall and 10 feet wide! Its floor was made of 53 enormous alphabet blocks.  The “Energy Innovators” float was a 33-foot-long recreation of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory featuring a 10-foot-tall Thomas Edison, a 7-foot-tall Louis Latimer, a 6-foot-tall light bulb, and a 12-foot tall gas lamp. More than 800 bricks created the display’s backdrop. These floats will not be featured in the parade this year but can still be seen on studio tours of The Parade Company.

One float that was particularly well-engineered was last year’s Strategic Staffing Solutions float (pictured below), which featured nine different pieces all working together to snake back-and-forth down the parade route. We’re excited to see what this year’s floats look like!

2013 America's Thanksgiving Parade, Detroit, Michigan

The Parade Company offers an educational component in their studio tours program. The curriculum was developed by Eastern Michigan University professors and is geared towards PreK-5 students for use at home and in the classroom.

Renée recommends the “Float Creation!” activity for science lesson plans. In this activity, students conceptualize themes for creating their own floats and proceed to design these floats from empty tissue boxes and other classroom art supplies. This activity promotes friendly competition and expands the creativity of students.

You can visit these links to find out more information about this year’s parade, accompanying activities such as the Fifth Third Bank Turkey Trot, and The Parade Company itself.

And, don’t forget to visit us to continue your STEM learning with MiSci engineering exhibits and shows including Kidstruction Zone, the Toyota Engineering Theater, the Engineering Gallery and more.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Count Got it Wrong!

vampire_math offthemark-vampiremath

Guest Blogger: Raul Jacque Mouton (aka MiSci Educator Tony Farris)

I cherish those Saturday afternoons when I sat in front of the TV with rabbit ears (one of the antennae bent), with a bag of Better Made cheese popcorn and Red Faygo pop waiting for “Sir Graves Ghastly” to come on. Whether he featured “The Curse of the Mummy” or “The Invisible Man,” I was eager and willing to suspend all belief for an afternoon of thrills and chills. However, even though I am a die-hard RKO Monsters fan, it grieves me to dispel the idea that vampires and zombies exist today in our society. Simply put, the numbers just don’t add up!

Let’s begin with the existence of vampires (forgive me Bela Lugosi).  Two physicists, Costas Efthimiou and Sohang Gandhi have surmised that the ability of vampires to turn their victims into other vampires far exceeds the rate at which the human population can reproduce. They suggest a scenario in which the first vampire arrives in the year 1600 when the human population was a little more than 500 million. If vampires fed once a month, it would take just two and half years, for vampires to delete the human population – and their food source. This idea is based on a simple math principle known as geometric progression and as we all know – numbers don’t lie!

But could there be some science behind the myths? The medieval period was full of superstitious beliefs, lack of proper hygiene, and deplorable sanitary habits among the masses led to the rapid spread of diseases. Several diseases caused a lack of heme in the human blood system, which may have contributed to people being mistaken for vampires. Porphyria can cause toxins in the body which turn the skin pale and produce a sensitivity to light. In addition, the disease caused the gums to recede and lips to erode, which gave the individual a ghoulish appearance. Tuberculosis (TB) also caused coughing up blood, which could have been taken for an individual drinking blood.

For all you “Walking Dead” followers, I have some bad news. The zombie apocalypse is doomed to fail. You can blame Darwin for that one. Due to natural selection (survival of the fittest), slow-moving, non-complex thinking, brain-eating, flesh-rotting carbon units don’t stand a chance. They occupy the bottom rung of the food ladder. First, once one dies, all those healthy bacteria that are in our gut start to decompose the human body. Second, a zombie would be susceptible to other decomposers such as ants and worms or scavengers such as coyotes and vultures. Third, temperature in the form of heat would speed up the decomposing process, while cold would slow the mobility of a zombie down to a snail’s pace. Fourth, zombies would lack the ability to maneuver various terrain and geographic landscapes. Last, and most importantly, spreading a virus through a bite is not an efficient method to transmit a disease. It wouldn’t be too difficult to stay out of biting range of a zombie attack.

All that being said, I have a stash of Pop Secret Home-style Butter microwave popcorn, a 2-liter bottle of Sprite and a Blu-ray collection of classic monster movies to watch this weekend. And just in case, I have garlic in the fridge and an SUV with a full tank of gas.

Building the Ultimate Machine, Motor City Style

Anyone has the potential to create, build, and invent. This is the belief of Eleanor Meegoda and Jake L’Ecuyer, the founders of Motor City Machine, who assisted teams in compiling the ultimate Rube Goldberg machine on October 18 at the Michigan Science Center.

This begs the question, what is a Rube Goldberg machine?  It is a complex machine that solves a simple task in a wildly over-engineered manner. You may recognize these machines from Pee-wee Herman’s breakfast routine or from America’s Got Talent contestant, Steve “Sprice” Price, who built the event’s finale!

Eleanor and Jake led workshops all summer to help teams create their Rube Goldberg machines. Eleanor hopes people embraced their inner builder at the October 18 event, which took each machine built during these workshops and combined them into the ultimate Motor City Machine.

Builders set up their machines from 10 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. in MiSci’s atrium. Starting at 12:30 p.m., family, friends, supporters, and the general public were able to meet the participants before the launch of the final machine which took place at 2:30 p.m.

Follow these links to learn more about Motor City Machine, Steve “Sprice” Price, or Rube Goldberg machines. Thanks to everyone who attended!

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The Return of the Ice Age


It’s not exactly “Jurassic Park,” but scientists around the world are advocating for the “rewilding” of parts of Europe and North America. One particular movement, called “Pleistocene rewilding,” aims to re-introduce megafauna similar to those that lived in Europe and North America during the last Ice Age.

Of course many of these animals are now extinct, but these scientists believe that modern elephants, giraffes, lions, and more will be effective substitutes.

Pleistocene rewilding proponents have several reasons for promoting their ideas, including restoring balance to troubled ecosystems, fulfilling a moral obligation to these animals, which they maintain were hunted to extinction by humans, and saving nearly extinct species as well as preserving their “evolutionary potential.”

One of the movement’s leading advocates, George Monbiot, discussed his interest in rewilding during a TED Talks session in 2013. And, various groups such as The Rewilding Institute and Rewilding Europe provide education and advocacy around these issues.

Naturally, the movement has some opponents as well. Other scientists argue that the re-introduction of species will disturb modern ecosystems and even cause them to collapse. They suggest the re-introduction of species that have disappeared during more modern times.

Thankfully, you don’t have wait years, travel the world, or put yourself in danger to experience some of these megafauna up close. Just visit MiSci September 27 – January 3 to experience our newest special exhibit, Ice Age Unfrozen, featuring life-size animatronic mammals from the Pleistocene era. And, see our new IMAX® film, Titans of the Ice Age, to observe these mammals and their North American and European habitats with dazzling computer-generated imagery. If you’re a member, don’t miss out on our special Ice Age Family Game Night, October 2. We’re looking forward to seeing you here this fall!


Traveling Science is back in Detroit with more Fizz, Bang Fun!

The Michigan Center’s Traveling Science team, Charlie Gibson and Mike Mroz, brought Fizz, Bang, Traveling Science! to the U.P. earlier this month. They’re now back in southeast Michigan with STEM fun and experiments at local libraries around metro Detroit. Geared up to ooze, pop and simply wow, they’ll soon visit Ferndale, Wayne, Bloomfield Township, Inkster, Howell and more with experiments and demonstrations featuring explosions and chemical reactions.

“The presentation was easy to understand, and the exciting demonstrations helped pique the kids’ interest,” said a staff member from the Ironwood Carnegie Library.

“There was a great balance between explaining the science and keeping everyone entertained,” explained an employee of the Westland Public Library. “Charlie did a fantastic job of tailoring the presentation to teenagers too.”

Check out the full Fizz, Bang, Traveling Science! tour schedule to see if Traveling Science is coming to your neighborhood before the end of the summer. If your city isn’t on our list, don’t worry. We’re also having Fizz, Bang, Science! fun every weekend at MiSci thanks to the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Hope to see you soon!

Charlie Gibson

Charlie Gibson

Mike Mroz

Mike Mroz

Journey to the South Pacific: Rainbow Kaleidoscope

Our newest IMAX® film, Journey to the South Pacificopened this past weekend. This production is filled with amazing underwater footage from the South Pacific, which had us asking – “how did the filmmakers do it?” Well, we have an answer from Howard Hall, director of underwater photography. Keep reading to get an insider’s view on how the film was made.

“This blog first appeared in February 2013 as part of the One World One Ocean Campaign expedition blog series for the film Journey to the South Pacific.


Director of Underwater Photography Howard Hall reports from West Papua, Indonesia where he and the MacGillivray Freeman film crew photographed the IMAX® Entertainment and MacGillivray Freeman Films presentation, Journey to the South Pacific.

As often happens, our last few days of shooting were among the best. Peter and I had planned to concentrate our last few dives on capturing more examples of symbiotic associations between fish. Generally this means fish cleaning behavior. Ironically, we observe small fish cleaning bigger fish much more often that we observe large fish eating small fish. Fish cleaning behavior happens constantly all around us on the reef. That, however, does not mean it is easy to capture the behavior with an IMAX® camera. These gentle pursuits between species are almost always disturbed by the hulking presence of two divers, a behemoth-sized camera, and blinding movie lights. What may be easy to observe from fifteen feet away may be impossible to film from six feet away. I’m not sure what tends to disturb fish cleaning behaviors more, the presence of over-fed divers and a huge camera, the noise this monster camera makes (often described as similar to a lawnmower with a bad bearing), or the brightness of our movie lights. Fish often change color to signal their willingness to be cleaned when they enter a “cleaning station.” It may be that our movie lights change the color of the host by adding warm colors that had been filtered out as sunlight from the surface passes through seawater.

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We spent our morning dive in shallow water shooting fusiliers being cleaned by small blue wrasses. Instead of lights, we used a color correction filter on the lens. We managed to capture a few shots, but even without the lights, the fish seemed incapable of ignoring our massive camera or the noise it makes.

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Fortunately, Pindito captain Edi Frommenwiler saved us from a second frustrating attempt at filming fish cleaning behavior. He had taken one of Pindito’s inflatable boats and scouted an island called Yellit where he discovered another massive school of anchovies and, this time, dozens of Mobulas feeding on them. We changed gears quickly.

As we followed Edi down, I could see a huge swarm of small fish covering a spire of rock that protruded from the island’s steep escarpment. Mobulas circled above the school preparing for their next attack. This looked to be exciting. Peter and I dropped down the wall and settled on the protrusion. Pindito dive masters Rafael Sauter, Amil Ihsan, and Bob Brunskill followed behind us, assisting with our light cables. Once on the pinnacle, I set the aperture and focus on the lens and then waited for the next attack by the Mobulas. About twenty minutes had passed when, suddenly, the school of anchovies began to undulate and flash as predators attacked the far side of the swarm. I switched on the camera and heard the IMAX camera motor bring the film up to proper speed. The camera had run for about twenty seconds when we heard an enormous explosion that momentarily stunned me into stupefaction. Glass rained down in front of the camera’s lens. One of our movie light bulbs had imploded. Instinctively, I then made the mistake of turning the camera off.

Most often, loud noises underwater send fish fleeing. The loud noise our camera makes when running is a perfect example. But sometimes just the reverse happens. Just as the remaining lights went out and my finger pressed the off switch on the camera, a Mobula raced directly toward us veering off just a few feet away from the lens. The ray was followed by an enormous school of large jack travalle fish. These chased the anchovies up against the pinnacle and attacked them ferociously. Within a few moments, they had kicked up so much dust that visibility dropped to only a few feet. It was one of the most dramatic predations I had ever seen underwater. And I missed the shot.

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Later that day I managed to capture several good scenes of Mobulas swimming above the anchovy schools, but I never captured a good example of actual predation by the big rays. Pindito was scheduled to pull anchor that evening to begin the short voyage to Sorong with a short stop at Waia Island. There we would make one more dive to film the Catlin Seaview Survey Team as they mapped Indonesian coral reefs for Google Ocean. That evening, as the sunset flamed the western horizon, Peter loaded the IMAX Mark II camera aboard the live-aboard dive boat, Sea Wolf, and along with Greg and the other members of the IMAX camera team, departed for Cenderawasih Bay where they hope to film whale sharks and leatherback turtles. Michele and I will spend a few days in Sorong before we re-board Pindito and head back out to sea to capture digital video for our own library. I look forward to handling a small movie camera again. And I already can’t wait to get back in the water.

Batman through the Ages

Guest Blogger: David Moan
Michigan Science Center Lead Presenter

l3QZgOn March 31, one of the most popular superheroes celebrated his 75th birthday. On May 31, from 1 – 2 p.m. at MiSci, I’ll discuss the events that caused Bruce Wayne to take up the cape and cowl and become the World’s Greatest Detective. The Caped Crusader we know and love has had his ups and downs over the past 75 years; however, there is still much to come from this masked vigilante.

Batman first emerged as a crime fighter in the May 1939 publication of Detective Comics #27. The brainchild of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman, and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne, was a new, fully human hero created in response to Superman. Immediately, Batman was a huge fan favorite, becoming a true rival to his building-leaping colleague. Publishers answered the public’s demand by giving Batman monthly appearances in Detective Comics, as well as his own comic, Batman.

Batman and his co-stars continued to ride the wave of fame in comics and radio until 1954, when the newly-created Comics Code Authority decided that the realistic violence and adult themes of Batman’s stories and other comics were corrupting American youth. As a result, Batman and Robin’s battles turned from gangsters and corrupt politicians to super-natural beings and aliens from far off planets.

Batman then found new life on a popular new medium: television. From 1966-1968, Batman would wow, pow, and wham the public each week with his exploits. The show starred Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, with guest appearances by some of the most famous performers of the era. This campy adaptation brought Batman international acclaim, but pushed the series even further from the original publication’s dark roots.

The television series allowed Batman to survive through a time when he could have easily perished, and it inspired a new generation to return to some of the original comics’ darker themes. The metamorphosis began in the 70s, but wasn’t fully realized until the mid-1980s. Starting in 1986, comics and graphic novels like Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke showed the world how intense Gotham’s heroes and villains could be.

In 1989, Tim Burton brought the film Batman to theaters across America and the new ambiance of the Batman to a larger public. The critical acclaim and financial success of Batman lead to three more films: Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995), Batman and Robin (1997), as well as the hugely popular television show Batman: The Animated Series.

Then in 2005, audiences got an opportunity to see what Batman would look like in a post-911 world. Starting in 2005, Christopher Nolan created a trilogy around the dark, brooding Batman, played by Christian Bale. Batman Begins chronicled what a real man would put himself through in order to become Batman; The Dark Knight (2008) explored what he would face as a figure of justice; and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) revealed where this journey would eventually lead. Batman became once again the figure we could look to for inspiration when our world seemed too harsh.

This is where we find ourselves now, at the height of Batman media. You can watch many different adaptations of Batman on screens of all sizes, including Batman: The Brave and the Bold on Netflix; the currently filming (in Detroit) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; the Rogues gallery in immersive video games; and the stories of Batman from reprintings of the original comics, graphic novels, and the exciting new stories of DC’s New 52.

It’s a special time to be a Batman fan as we watch his mythology develop and grow. Now that you have a basic idea of this hero’s function in our world, join me on May 31 to hear the story of Batman: the boy he was, the hero he became, and the figure we need him to be.

Taking Science on the Road this Summer

Do time travelers exist? A study explained in Popular Science earlier this year scoured the Internet for mentions of events before they happened. The conclusion? The Internet reveals no evidence of time travel.

We’re not harboring time travelers, but we do have Charlie Gibson and Mike Mroz. This “Traveling Science” duo will be traversing, not time, but the state of Michigan, this summer in a quest to inspire the next generation of scientists.

Charlie recently kicked off the season with a visit to Ludington, Harrison and Alpena. Check out this picture of his route – it proves just how much we love Michigan!

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You also may see Charlie and Mike at Cedar Pointe; Comerica Park; Arts, Beats & Eats; River Days; and many more public events. They’ll also visit nearly 50 libraries across the state (BOTH peninsulas), demonstrating our “Fizz, Bang, Traveling Science!” program with explosions, chemical reactions, and more. Click on the link above to see our tour schedule.

If you miss Charlie and Mike in your neighborhood, don’t worry. We’ll have Fizz, Bang, Science! fun every weekend at MiSci June 21 – August 31.

See you this summer!

Mike Mroz
Charlie Gibson

Hitchhike Across the Solar System at MiSci

Guest Blogger: Buddy Stark
Michigan Science Center Planetarium Coordinator


Whether or not you are a fan of Douglas Adams’ works, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Solar System in our Dassault Systèmes Planetarium is the show for you. This show features the amusing interactions of a world-class, intergalactic hitchhiker (your live presenter) and a rather condescending electronic travel Guide. The Guide appears as a larger-than-life tablet on the surface of the planetarium dome. Created with all audiences in mind, there are fun, interactive trivia questions and cartoon stylings for younger groups, the engagement of a live performance for the slightly older, and a range of interesting facts about our solar system for everyone.

The original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel is set in a universe of the surreal and the ridiculous. A massive supercomputer attempts a 10 million-year-long program to discover the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Five minutes before it is scheduled to arrive at the answer, it is mistaken as a planet in the way of galactic construction and destroyed.

Our show captures the original’s bizarre and outrageous mentality and presents real-life science facts alongside wacky analogies for how the Guide envisions humans can understand it. You’ll learn how the solar system formed, discover several of the various spacecraft we have sent into the solar system, and finish with a tour of the current night sky. This is a fantastic show for your entire family. For more out-of-this-world fun, visit MiSci on Astronomy Day, May 10.

P.S. Don’t miss our subtle references to the novel, including the towel and bathrobe.