Space Race Centrifuge

I am sure it has not escaped your notice but this past Saturday was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.  It’s a significant moment in human history, of course, and one of those events in history where those who were alive then can remember exactly where they were, the context in which they watched or listened to Neil Armstrong’s words.  Neither Mr Pict or I had been born yet but Mr Pict is a bit of an outer space nerd, an out-of-practice amateur astronomer, and he was keen to do something to mark this anniversary.  I really don’t have much interest in astronomy or space exploration and have almost zero knowledge of astrophysics but I stumbled across the fact that we live not too far from a location used in training astronauts and that they were holding an open door event for the anniversary.  It is amazing to me that we have lived here for over 5 years now and are still so unaware of some of the things that are in our vicinity.

The piece of equipment in question is a centrifuge and it is tucked away in an industrial park area of Warminster, in a building called The Fuge.  I sometimes shop in the Costco that is practically across the street and yet I had absolutely no idea this piece of scientific history was there.  There had been a naval laboratory there that was tasked with developing various technologies from the 1940s onwards.  We have all heard of “black box” recorders and GPS and these are things that were developed at this site.  Who knew?  Not me.  One of the things they developed and experimented with was a human centrifuge and it now forms the centrepiece of this building.  If you have somehow ended up at this blog post, post-google, hoping to find something educational, please return to your search results because that is not something I can provide.  My brain just doesn’t absorb physics.  I cannot assimilate those facts.  I can read it and find it somewhat interesting but I just do not retain the detail.  Therefore, all I can convey is our experience.

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We saw the gondola, where the human would sit, at the end of a long arm.  It would have been swung around in a circle at high speed to subject the person in the gondola to gravitational forces.  Initially the idea was to develop understanding of this science for the purposes of putting pilots into ever faster fighter jets but it got co-opted into the space programme.  A number of celebrity astronauts trained there, certainly all of the Cold War era astronauts that I could name.  Unfortunately for Mr Pict, all of the slots for getting up close to the centrifuge’s gondola were filled up so he missed out on that but he enjoyed seeing the equipment and viewing the accompanying display boards, some of which seem to have been contributed by local high school students.  He even learned a few things so he was chuffed.

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Road Trip 2017 #8 – Meteor Crater

One of the things Mr Pict really wanted to do on our vacation was take the kids to see Meteor Crater.  He and I had visited back in 2000 but, as an astronomy nerd, he is always looking for opportunities to engage and enthuse the kids in the subject of outer space.  We, therefore, set off early on the fifth day of our vacation to make the most of cooler morning temperatures and arrived at Winslow just as Meteor Crater was opening to visitors.


As its name suggests, Meteor Crater is a place in Arizona where, 50,000 years ago, a meteor measuring about 150 feet in diameter and weighing several thousand tons collided into the earth at 26,000 miles per hour.  Don’t ask me how scientists know such things when nobody was around to witness or record the event let alone measure it.  They do their scientific stuff and they know and I just learn the precis of their findings and trust their knowledge and understanding.  The result of the impact was a giant crater several hundred feet deep and 4000 feet in diameter.  An introductory video illustrated the scale by showing that 20 (American) Football games could be played inside the crater with room for 2 million spectators.  In the museum, we were able to see and touch one of the large fragments of meteorite that was left behind after the impact and explosion, which was rather cool.


The museum area had definitely improved since our last visit.  It was much more engaging and the kids were able to absorb information through interactive displays. They learned about earth impacts in ancient and modern times, including photos of meteorites that had fallen through people’s roofs and the famous images of the Tunguska Event, and that all the pock-marks on the moon’s surface are the result of similar collisions.  They also learned about Meteor Crater’s use as a site for training astronauts and for studying outer space geology.  There were experiments in magnetism and a game whereby they could “design” a meteor and see what its impact would look like on a particular planet.  Our youngest son celebrated when he managed to completely destroy Earth and Venus.



We stepped outside and were able to properly view the Crater.  I am sure the local indigenous population had a name for this vast divot in the ground but, if they did, we didn’t learn it.  We did, however, learn that it was first recorded as Franklin’s Hole and later it was named Coon Butte.  My children decided that they much preferred either of those epithets to the bland and obvious Meteor Crater.  At the very beginning of the 20th Century, a Philadelphia mining engineer named Barringer took out a claim on the land in the hopes he could locate and mine the iron from the giant meteorite.  He was disappointed but his efforts apparently resulted in much learning.  The evidence of this mining activity could still be seen within the crater – only just so with the naked eye but better with the available telescopes.  Other telescopes were trained on interesting features within the Crater, from a small boulder on the rim that turned out to be the size of a house to a barely discernible pin prick on the crater floor that turned out to be a model of a 6″ tall astronaut with an American flag.  This was useful in really conveying to the kids how colossal the crater was.

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Our visit to Meteor Crater was very interesting and I am glad we took the kids to see it but I just don’t get that excited by science or outer space.  The highlight of my trip to Meteor Crater was that I saw a mountain lion on the side of the road.  Much more exciting.

Museums as Winter Playgrounds

The weather has been pretty miserable here in recent weeks.  Snow, slush, chill winds, bitter temperatures, and dull, grey skies.  This weather has not been conducive to wandering, exploring, and playing outside.  What that means is that my kids build up into powder kegs of pent up energy which runs the risk of igniting and that means I blow a gasket and have to release my flying monkeys.  It’s not good.

The solution was to find somewhere the kids could go and burn off some energy without it costing a small fortune.  That was when we thought of the Franklin Institute.  We have a family membership there so it made complete sense.  And instead of seeing it as a place where the kids could be intellectually stimulated and learn about science, we could utilise it as an indoor playground and they could expend some of that pent up energy.


We let the kids plot the path around the museum so that they could visit each of their favourite places.  While Mr Pict and our oldest son went to the planetarium (to lie back in seats and therefore have no exercise at all), I took the younger three to the brain section.  They played for ages on the neuron climbing frame.  They invented some sort of space ship drama involving aliens and ray guns.  After a few more brain experiments, we headed to the Heart section where they pedalled to power an opera and ran around inside the giant heart.  They wanted to see the train, so we met up with the other two and the kids all ran around inside the train, treating it like another climbing frame.  More energy burn off.  Woo hoo!  Our plan to treat a museum like an indoor playground was working.



The sports science section had been closed for renovation last time we visited the Franklin Institute so we headed there to check it out plus sports ought to mean more energy burned.  The old sports section was a favourite with my kids but it was a bit tired so we were excited to see what they had done.  I must admit, I was a little disappointed.  The layout means that people are funneled in narrow corridors past the interactive exhibits and adults clog that corridor as they supervise their kids.  Not great.  Some old favourites, such as the surfboard were still there, and some of the new exhibits were great fun, but some of the exhibits were already broken.  There was a display of (I assume and hope) fake urine to demonstrate the importance of correct hydration that my oldest son found thoroughly entertaining.



The mission, however, was a complete success.  The boys found the Franklin Institute to be entertaining without us having any sort of focus to the visit (in fact, I think the 10 year old preferred the lack of direct learning) and they did burn off energy and get some exercise.  Museums can be winter playgrounds.  Maybe not the ones with Ming vases though.


Hearts and Other Organs on Valentine’s Day

Nothing says Valentine’s Day like actual hearts, right?  So off we went to the Franklin Institute for a family day out so that half of us could visit the special exhibition ‘Body Worlds: Animals Inside Out’.  Valentine’s Day happened to fall on an especially chilly day so using our annual membership pass for some indoor entertainment and education was perfect.


The exhibition was superb from start to finish.  The kids and I had enjoyed the animal autopsy documentary series ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’ so I knew we would find it engaging.  I went around with my 11 and 7 year olds while Mr Pict took the other two boys around other areas of the museum.  The exhibition showcases the work of the anatomist Dr Gunther von Hagens and his use of the plastination process to preserve and demonstrate the internal organs, musculature and blood systems of a variety of animals.  Being able to see all of the detail of each animal aids understanding of how evolution has worked to enable each animal to adapt to its environment and needs and – in a context that enabled and encouraged comparison and contrast – to see how similar skeletons and organs work differently in diverse species.  The boys and I pored over the detail in each specimen and read every plaque.  We also wandered back and forth to go and study something again.




My 7 year old is obsessed with horses so he was fascinated by all the horse specimens in particular.  There was a horse skull, a wafer thin slice of a horse’s head, a horse’s head split into three sections, a horses head comprising nothing but the capillaries and a young horse rearing up.  There was always the potential for my son to be disturbed by the sight of dead horses but the little scientist in him was stronger.  He was absorbed in seeing the adaptations in the legs, the size of the brain cavity, the thickness of the nose and in learning why it is that horses cannot vomit.


The handling of the specimens was fantastic in terms of bringing the educational lessons to life, for instance in showing how the muscles and skeleton combine to handle movement. One diorama depicted two reindeer in mid gallop.  I like to think that the dissected human we saw in the last gallery was not Santa.  There was also a bull posed as if ready for a charge which evocatively demonstrated the power in its muscles and the energy contained within them.  There were running ostriches, one showing the circulatory system and one showing the muscles.



There were familiar farm animals galore, from dissected sheep and goats to ducks and piglets shaped from the mass of red wiring that was their circulatory system.  There were rabbits and peeled cats – including the nervous system of one moggy – and frogs and lizards and a dog caught in mid-bark.  There were slices of fish, there were preserved octopus and squid – the latter providing us with the opportunity to see just how large its eyes were.  The more exotic land beasts, however, provided the highlights of the exhibition.  There was a camel – or rather a conflation of three camels in order to illustrate the movement of the head – which the kids found fascinating since camels are such peculiar looking beasts even from the outside.  The specimen was used to illustrate its complex digestive system involving four stomachs.  Best of all, however, was the giraffe exhibit.  One giraffe was presented in thin slices.  We could stand between its legs and look up through its semi-transparent layers.  Completely weird and compelling.  The other giraffe was dissected, its skin peeled off to show the skeleton, muscles and organs, but the specimen was shown as if mid-run.  Next to it was a preserved heart in order to show how the blood pressure of a giraffe is made possible.




It was not just the whole animals that were fascinating, however.  I loved the sculptural quality of the tangled lines that formed the circulatory system, all the blood vessels turned into crimson plastic.  The hearts of various animals were shown side by side so that the different structures and scales could be compared.  A display my cheeky 7 year old especially enjoyed was all about the reproductive organs, the male parts of a reindeer, the testicles of a bull and a fetal reindeer.  I admit that made me feel a little sad as did the baby camel on display.  Apparently all the specimens were sourced ethically from vets and zoos and no animals were killed for the purpose of the exhibit.  My boys and I certainly emerged from the exhibition with greater understanding of the wonders of biology.

We went to rejoin the other half of the Pict family who were – oddly enough – running around in the Franklin Institute’s giant heart.  In addition to the heart area and the other favourite, the brain, we went to explore two sections of the Institute we had not visited in any of our prior visits, namely the sections dedicated to electricity and to engineering.  The boys especially enjoyed creating electrical circuits with their bodies, initially just completing the circuit with their own individual bodies but gradually linking hands and forming a circular chain in order that the electricity pass through them all and make the light come on.  My highlight of the engineering section was seeing Maillardet’s Automaton.  Constructed in the 18th Century, it is a complex contraption, a figure programmed so that it draws numerous pictures and writes poems.  You can see a short video of it in action on YouTube because certainly I am incapable of describing it adequately.


We have plans to return to the Franklin Institute again in a few weeks’ time so we are certainly getting our money’s worth out of our annual membership.





Maryland Science Centre, Baltimore

On Saturday, we Picts took a mini road trip to Baltimore in order to meet up with a friend, her husband and kids, who live in Maryland.  My mother-in-law is actually from Baltimore originally yet I have only actually been there once before and that was way back in 1995.  It only takes us about two hours to get there so we really ought to take trips there more often in future.

It was a grey and rainy day so our choice of venue for the get together was perfect.  We met at the Maryland Science Centre.  It has a reciprocal arrangement with the Franklin Institute so we could use our membership pass from there to gain free entry at the Maryland Science Centre.  Despite that, the cashier insisted on charging us for tickets for two of the kids.  I was about to sally forth with righteous indignation when she revealed that the price for those tickets was $2.  I thought I would let that pass.  It was a dollar entry day.  That meant the place was hoaching, a good Scots word meaning teeming.  In fact, as we were leaving, there were still queues outside the door in the pouring rain.

We started off in the dinosaur section.  There were lots of replica skeletons rampaging through the space which the kids could get up close to and thus gain a sense of scale.  My kids especially liked being able to touch the skulls and they spent a long time brushing sand off fake fossils, measuring bones, making footprints and placing bones in position in order to rebuild a fossil skeleton.  There was also a live lizard in a tank and a very chubby and very indolent bullfrog named Jabba who the younger kids found fascinating.  They also spent a great deal of time lounging around in dinosaur footprints.  It was actually great that they spent so long in that section since there is not a dinosaur section in the Franklin Institute and the kids found it so engaging.  I mean, what kid doesn’t love dinosaurs?

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We then moved on to the earth science section.  There the kids had a lot of fun creating a tornado.  It required the air to be undisturbed to form a funnel so our kids got uber-frustrated when a heap of other kids kept sticking their hands into the air stream but that just made the sense of accomplishment that bit sweeter the times that they finally got it to swirl upwards.  They then all used Google maps to find the location of their homes, with my kids finding both their house here in Pennsylvania and our former home in Argyll, Scotland, and dressed up in polar explorer thermal jackets.  Another big hit was a large bowl that contained “clouds”.  The children spent ages wafting their hands through the vapour, blowing it away from the bowl’s edge and my 9 year old even stuck his head in it.




There were also experiments we were familiar with from the Franklin Institute and science centres we had visited back in Britain.  While my friend’s kids were patient enough to wait for an opportunity to use them, my kids could not be bothered with hustling their way through the packs of kids to try and get a turn.  I guess my British kids are just way too used to queuing to deal with the chaotic thronging of so many other kids.

Meanwhile I was started to feel starved of fresh air and felt like I was experiencing hot flushes.  The grown ups were starting to feel frazzled and the kids were beginning to get fractious.  We could have had a “fun” competition over which child was going to blow a gasket first.  We, therefore, undertook a rapid fire and incomplete tour of the human body section.  My kids enjoyed running through a maze-like set-up which I think was supposed to teach them about the structure of cells but which they just saw as a much-needed opportunity to run around and burn off some energy.   That made it clear that the kids were no longer engaging in the content of the Science Centre so we said our farewells to our friends and headed back out into the welcome fresh, chill air.


It was a good Science Centre and my kids especially loved the dinosaur section but I think my kids have been spoiled by their several visits to the Franklin Institute.  Possibly they would have enjoyed their visit more had there not been an overwhelming number of people visiting, thanks to dollar day, because my boys don’t do well with crowds in confined spaces, especially when those crowds are not forming orderly queues.  However, it is definitely worth a visit if you are in the Baltimore area with kids and it certainly appeals to a wide age range.  We will definitely go back to Baltimore some time to explore it’s other attractions.



Climbing around a Brain at the Franklin Institute

The first time we went to the Franklin Institute, back in March, we decided to take out an annual family membership.  We had only covered a few sections of the interactive museum on that trip so a return visit was definitely in order, even if we had not had the annual ticket.  It, therefore, made sense to take my parents there during their visit from Scotland.

The Franklin Institute recently opened a whole new area which is dedicated to the science of the brain.  It was, therefore, there that we started our visit.  The kids loved all of the interactive exhibits.  It’s a brilliant way to keep them engaged with things and to have them absorbing learning through osmosis.  It was diverting and absorbing for adults too and certainly I could have spent a lot longer in that area of the museum than I did but my pace was dictated by that of my children.  They learned about neurons and pathways, got to see brains at different ages and saw scans of brains.  There was even a docent with plasticised animal and human brains teaching the kids how to compare brains.  My 7 year old loved seeing the horse brain (which he was permitted to touch) since he is a massive fan of horses.  He was glad to learn that a horse is much “brainer” than a cow.  He also showed them how to compare a healthy brain with that of someone with Alzheimer’s which was quite arresting.  They also enjoyed sections about how the brain processes the senses with things like optical illusions and a room that induces motion sickness.  Their favourite section, however, was a dark room filled with a funky climbing frame to illustrate how neurons travel around the brain.  They loved it.  They could have stayed in that room for hours.

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We then decided to go and see an Imax show.  My children have never been to see an Imax movie before so we thought this would be a fun way of them experiencing such a large scale projection.  We opted to see a documentary about Great White Sharks since the kids and I are fascinated by sharks.  We have the Ocearch Global Shark Tracker app on my phone and like to check in and follow where the sharks are.  My 7 year old has particular favourites in April, Lydia and Katherine.  The Imax show was brilliant.  The focus was on conservation efforts and trying to educate people about sharks  – and Great Whites in particular – in order to eliminate the fear that has led to their persecution and endangerment.  It was quite breathtaking to see the sharks being projected on that scale.  I admit, however, that I had to close my eyes during some of the seascape bits as it was a bit boak-inducing.

Immediately after that, my oldest had a shot on the Skybike.  This is a bike suspended on a wire in the ceiling of the Franklin Institute.  It makes my knees turn to jelly just thinking about it but he doesn’t have vertigo and was eager to have a go.  There was too long a queue during our last visit there so this time he grabbed the opportunity to have a turn.  This was much to the consternation of his little brothers who were all massively miffed that they did not meet the height requirements.

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We then asked the boys to nominate sections of the Institute they had visited before but would like to return to and show their grandparents.  I was surprised when they elected to revisit the section dedicated to sports science.  My kids are all pretty active but none of them are sporty either in terms of playing or spectating.  Clearly the interactive nature of the exhibits won out over the subject matter.  Unfortunately the race car exhibit was out of order and some boys were hogging the area that measured the speed of a pitched baseball.  Nevertheless my kids had a blast with the wheelchair racing, climbing wall, penalty shoot out and surf board.

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A hop, skip and jump then brought us into Isaac’s Attic where they had fun with all sorts of interactive experiments involving gravity, motion and light.  My 8 year old especially enjoyed the sections involving light – coloured lights changing the appearance of a printed art image and spinning a block to create different shapes.  They also loved an experiment that involves shuttling a ball back and forth using the force created by pulling down on a rope and releasing it.

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A favourite section is the one focused on the human heart.  My younger three kids raced around the giant heart umpteen times and then crawled and jumped around inside blood vessels.  The 11 and 7 year olds were also fascinated by the rotating display of heart of various sizes, from a minuscule canary heart to a massive whale heart.  We then finished with the gallery next to it which is all about geophysics.  The boys had fun assisting their Grandad with building structures that would survive an earthquake.  They also enjoyed crawling through yet more tunnels and playing a space invaders style game about greenhouse gases and global warming.

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We had a brilliant time and will definitely go back again.  And again.  And again.  I think my kids would go back today just to play in the brain section.  My parents also thoroughly enjoyed the Franklin Institute and were impressed by all the interactive exhibits.  We highly recommend.

The Franklin Institute

On Saturday we went to the library and borrowed their family pass for the Academy of Natural Sciences.  Unfortunately when we opened up the pack we discovered the librarian had given us a pass to an arboretum.  Arboretums are cool and we will go there at some point and no doubt enjoy ourselves but right now the landscape is so freeze burned that it looks like the type of tundra musk oxen migrate across.  Definitely an outing for better weather and recovered plant life.  So Mr Pict suggested that we head to the Franklin Institute instead so that is what we did yesterday.

In the end we actually took out an annual family membership at the Franklin Institute because it made more economic sense for us as a family of six to do so when we are likely to be back at least one more time and probably more within the next year.  We had been told it was the best attraction in Philadelphia and, while I cannot judge that since I have not been to other places yet, certainly it is a superb science and technology museum.  It is very well organised into sections of knowledge and it is really interactive and hands on for the kids.  I am not really a science museum person – I am definitely an arts and humanities person – but even I found it to be engaging.

We actually started off our visit with the special exhibition which is on the subject of Pompeii.  I guess that ties into science because of the volcano but it was a bit of a stretch.  Nonetheless, it was a good opportunity for us to show the kids some of the artefacts from such an important archaeological site.  Mr Pict is an obsessive Romaphile; he loves ancient Rome.  He was, therefore, especially happy to be given another opportunity to share his obsession with his sons.  Mr Pict and I have actually been to Pompeii, in October 2006, so for us the exhibition was lacking on impact but only because we have been spoiled by the luxury of actually having been there and seen everything in context and even by the archaeological riches on display at the museum in Naples.  However, the items on display were well chosen and the exhibition was organised in a thoughtful and informative way.  The kids loved seeing all the Roman glass, the gladiator helmet and grieves and guessing which particular god was being portrayed in each art work.  The one section that did not work for me was the conclusion where they had casts of the original casts of the bodies.  That room followed one in which there was a dramatic rendering of the day of Vesuvius’ eruption and to then follow that with casts of the victims seemed a bit trite, sensationalism followed by individual tragedy.  It is also very difficult for those casts to have the same impact out of context.  When we saw them at Pompeii, I had a sorrowful lump in my throat seeing all the people in the Garden of the Fugitives huddled up together.  As individuals on plinths it just seemed a bit lacking in emotional sensitivity.  But, as I say, Mr Pict and I are spoiled and the exhibition was still well worth visiting.

The kids had fun learning about different types of energy by conducting over-sized experiments in the Isaac’s attic section.  Particular hits were the experiments using light and one that used the impact of air to push a ball back and forth through a tube.  I am a physics dunce so I have no means of describing that with any sort of scientific accuracy.  They got to look through a telescope at sun spots which was fun since it was not something they had ever done before.  They loved all of the interactive exhibits in the sports science section, especially the virtual wheelchair racing and the surf board.  We watched a show in the planetarium – and I almost nodded off in the dark.  We visited the geology area but the kids were not engaging with that so we decided we would jettison that and return to it with fresh minds on a different day so we concluded our trip with a visit to the Heart section.  In that gallery, the kids saw representations of human blood vessels and cells and a great revolving model graphing the different sizes of animal hearts, from canary to whale.  They also got to learn about medical science through lots of interactive exhibits.  Their absolute highlight, however, was getting to scramble around inside a gigantic heart, as if they were the blood cells being pumped around it.

We were in the museum for five hours but there were whole galleries of the museum we did not even visit or touch on and areas we only skimmed the surface of and areas the kids would like to do again so the annual pass was definitely a worthwhile investment.  If you happen to find yourself in the Phildalphia area with kids, I highly recommend the Franklin Institute.

Here are some of my photos from the visit.