Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bad Chemistry

Even after the following experiment I am still prepared to believe that this is a good book.
Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture (DIY Science)
It is rare, however, that you run into more trouble by following the directions than you would have by winging it.

I read the first experiment, exploring differential solubility and thought it would be a nice intro to chemistry.  As I remembered the challenge was to mix a measured quantity of salt and sand and then try to separate them.

I hoped the kids would try several ideas before they hit on the idea of putting the whole mixture in water and then pouring it through a filter which would let the salt dissolved in water through, but catch the sand.

But then I had to go and take a second look at the experiment.  It calls for sugar and sand, not salt and sand.  So, okay, we did sugar and sand.

The sand was from our sand box which sat open for a while and collected a lot of...umm...organic matter.  So we used a sieve to get rid of the sticks and dead bugs.

Our scale was not so accurate, so we decided to mix 100 grams of sugar and 100 grams of sand.  If all went well we should get back the amount we put in.

One of the kids figured out that the sugar was soluble and the sand wasn't pretty much instantly and shared the knowledge, so I didn't get to witness any scenes worthy of a fairy tale: oppressed children trying to sort the sand and sugar grain by grain.

Instead they ran right to the sink with their jars.

So after running the sand and water mixture through a filter we ended up with several pots of sugar water and several lumps of wet sand.  The sand went into the oven to dry and the sugar water went onto the stove.  Because hey, we'd just evaporate the water, and there would be the sugar, right?

Yeah, right.  Instead we got pots of burnt caramel.

What's worse is that when I wasn't looking the kids ate the dirty burnt caramel! 
At least it was sterile.
Most of the trays of sand hadn't been rinsed, so instead of getting sand back in most cases we got rock hard sand cookies with the filters stuck to them.

Evelyn wanted to get rid of the filter so it wouldn't add to the weight of the sand.   But she didn't want to lose the sand stuck to the filter.  Here was her solution.
She burned away the filter, leaving the sand and a few ashes.

Did we learn anything from this experiment?  Why sure.  Ideas were generated and tried: dissolving the sugar and burning the filter.

We learned that we should have rinsed the sand with water to make sure we'd gotten all the sugar out of the sand.  We learned that if you want to evaporate water to get sugar back you have to be patient, or you will get a chemical reaction.

And I learned that I need to set guidelines on eating the results of our experiments.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Ichthyology Collection

We have 150 gallons of fish living space in 5 tanks.  Neon tetras dart and algae shrimp clean in Ev's big tank.

In Clem's tank corydoras, upside down and glass catfish lurk beneath rocks and dangle in the plants under the watchful eye of a nine inch long plecostomus.

Clementine mapped the origins of all her catfish: tropical freshwater rivers from the Amazon to Indonesia.

Clem discovered upside down catfish at the California Academy of Sciences aquarium. It is a terrific aquarium and my only gripe is how little information is on display. Lots of cool fish, very little about them. We jumped at a chance to go behind the scenes and meet researchers studying seahorses. Little did we know we'd also get a glimpse at the Ichthyology Collection.

We were introduced to David Catania, Manager of the Ichthyology Collection, who led us through security doors to a concrete room filled with rolling stacks. When we came to the gap in the stacks this is what we saw.

Row upon row of dead fish in jars.


I just love the variety of jars, some from the 1800s.

Almost a quarter of a million jars in this library.

This is a circulating collection.  Researchers can request the loan of a pickled fish and the fish librarian will pull it out of its jar, wrap it in gauze, plunk it in a ziploc and mail it across the world.

David Catania opened up a number of jars and pulled out fish for us to look at.  Some highlights.

Stained to show muscle and bone.

An anglerfish.

Our guide took a look at this and said, "Whose going to be that for Halloween?"
Clem said, "I already have been!"

On the belly of this female Triplewart Seadevil is her mate (between thumb and forefinger).
He attached himself to her and now he's just a hanger on.

A remora.

Flashlight fish.  You can see small live ones in the aquarium.

That light-colored thing is the fish's flashlight.  It glows all the time but pops into a cheek pocket to "turn off."

I love this pic.  Poor guy can barely fit in his jar.

Very strange relative of the seahorse.

 Every family has a strange relative, right?

On their best behavior.

The Icthyology Collection gave me an idea.  I could turn a negative into a positive!  One of the downsides of keeping pet fish is that they die with depressing frequency.  But what if we began an ichthyology collection?

The very morning after our tour one of Clem's corydoras catfish turned up dead.  I scooped him up and stuck him in a jar that was already home to platy eyeballs.  Then I remembered Evelyn's hatchet fish in the freezer.  We were hoping to "return" them, since they died of ich and shared it with all their new friends, but we never got around to it.

So here it is.  The beginning of our very own ichthyology collection.  I surely hope we aren't such poor fish custodians that we end up with a quarter of a million jars like the California Academy.  But I take pride that one of the jars actually came from the Academy.  The one on the right.  No, we didn't steal it from the collection.  We got it at the cafe.  Before the hatchet fish it held some really delicious Scharffenberger chocolate pudding.

I'd like to say that the girls share my enthusiasm, but they think it is disgusting.  Can you blame them when these were once their beloved pets?

Monday, March 8, 2010

On Cuneiform and Throwing Your Clothes Off

George Smith, British archaeologist, was so excited when he translated the Assyrian tablet bearing part of the Tale of Gilgamesh that he tore off his clothes and ran screaming through the British Museum.

I am almost as excited about some writing that has appeared at our house.  Good thing the British Museum is at a safe distance.

Getting the kids to read and write are major homeschooling milestones.  Whether it happens all by itself or it takes a lot of work I think we all sigh with relief and joy when it's over.

Greta likes to do things in a rush.  Last year after her 4th birthday she began to draw with a vengeance.  This year, after she turned five, she turned to writing...and writing...and writing.

Her writing, cryptic, without spaces, apparently untranslatable, bears no mean resemblance to the Assyrian clay tablets.

So I was alarmed when she thrust the first page at me and said "Read it!"  She is prone to paroxysms of self-criticism when I can't figure out her drawings, so I was on eggshells.

I tried the mother's saving tactic:  "Why don't you read it to me?"  But she was so on to that and began to launch into "I didn't do it right!  You can't read it!"

So when my eye fell on this my heart sang.
I can go see Lea!  Good good good.

Thank goodness my friend Judith was at my shoulder.
While I was flailing she read:
her it is the docdr ofics o i will fel betr!
Here it is the doctor's office.  Oh, I will feel better!

After a while I caught on to recurring themes and patterns.
thry hens lav to sit on a bratch
Three hens love to sit on a branch.


What amazes me is the trouble I can have figuring out perfectly phonetic words!  Like EGS.  I really struggled with that one.

The next two speak for themselves:


This one reminds me of...was it an Onion article?...about a humanitarian effort to ship vowels to Vrgorac and Vrbovek and other Croatian cities.

But this was the one that brought me the most joy. It was a letter she sent to her dad.
I♥ Clem
I♥Grapo (Grandpa)
I♥At Kely(Aunt Kelly)
I♥Akl Jon (Uncle Jon)
I♥Eleit (Elliot)
I LAV Amelea (Amelia)
I LAV Grasy (Gracie)
I♥LAV Everyone

Greta wore herself out with all her love and asked Gran to write Everyone.  This one gave me the most joy not only because of all the love, but because she is already using her writing to express her feelings.

That makes a homeschooling mom and writer (almost) happy enough to tear her clothes off and run around screaming with joy.