Science Center of Iowa Blog

At the Science Center of Iowa, our goal is to be a quality community resource for informal science learning where children, families, school groups and individuals come to explore science and technology. To continue the learning outside our walls, we give you the SCI blog! Our knowledgeable staff, along with special guests and local scientists, will give you a behind-the-scenes look at SCI activities and in-depth information about science events.

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Your Brain On Love

Join science writer Kayt Sukel at SCI on Saturday for a special Cafe Scientifique presentation, "Your Brain On Love." Details at

Join science writer Kayt Sukel at SCI on Saturday for a special Cafe Scientifique presentation, "Your Brain On Love." Details at

Guest post by: Kayt Sukel, science writer and presenter of SCI's "Your Brain On Love"

Why is love so complicated?  Your brain may be to blame.

Helen Fisher, an evolutionary biologist from Rutgers University, hypothesized that there are three distinct yet intersecting brain systems that correspond to sex, romantic love, and long-term attachment (like a mother-child bond or the comfortable relationship you might see in a couple who have been married for sixty years). These three separate systems, she argued, could cover all facets of love: romantic, parental, filial, platonic, and that old bugger, lust.

Scientists have long known that the seat of the sex drive is the hypothalamus. When it is removed, folks lose all interest in sex, as well as the ability to perform sexually. This almond-size brain area is linked to the pituitary gland, which produces the hormones necessary to fuel the desire to "get it on."

Humans are more than just their sex drives, however. With romantic love, Fisher and her colleagues observed brain activity in areas outside the hypothalamus, including the right ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the right caudate nucleus. These are both part of the basal ganglia, a brain area connected to both the cerebral cortex and the brain stem. The basal ganglia, along with the hypothalamus and amygdala, is implicated in reward processing and learning. It’s a little like bribery: when we experience something that feels good, such as satiating our hunger, having a sexy romp, or spending time with the object of our affections, these areas of the brain give us a little extra boost to encourage us to do it again. If we are talking about deep emotional attachment, the ventral pallidum, a different part of the basal ganglia circuitry, is activated. All these areas are very sensitive to the neurochemicals dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin, which are thought to be pleasure-inducing and critical to forming pair-bonds in socially monogamous animals like prairie voles and Titi monkeys. But they each work a little differently.

The two regions that seemed most important to romantic love in Fisher’s research were the caudate nucleus and the VTA. These areas reside in what is called the "reptilian brain" — a cluster of subcortical regions near the brain stem that have existed since before we evolved to walk upright — and are strongly implicated in both reward processing and euphoric feelings. They are also part of an important dopamine-fueled circuit called the mesocortical limbic system, a pathway critical to motivational systems; unsurprisingly it’s a circuit that has been implicated in addiction. These study results led Fisher and her colleauges Arthur Aron and Lucy Brown to conclude that romantic love is not an emotion but a drive. According to Brown, "Love is there to help fuel reproduction, to help us psychologically by connecting with others. It is distinct, yet related to lust and attachment."

Think of it this way: Lust may be the simplest of the three hypothesized systems, an almost reflex-like process that keeps us getting busy. Certainly if it were a more involved process, we would not find ourselves so interested in individuals like Pamela Anderson in all her glory or, like one of my girlfriends who is too embarrassed to be named, totally hot for the ’s resident Lothario, Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, right? At the same time, we also have a system for attachment. Feeling connected to someone is a rewarding behavior, hence that ventral pallidum activation; it is nice to have someone to come home to, even if you are no longer inclined to jump his or her bones 24/7. Somewhere in the middle is the romantic love system, connected to both lust and attachment. It hits on areas involved in attachment and lust, as well as those implicated in reward processing and learning. It is no surprise that romantic love feels good and helps us to bond with another person (and consequently promotes procreation).

"These brain systems often work together, but I think it’s fair to say they often don’t work together too," Fisher told me when I asked whether these three systems overlapped in other ways. "One might feel deep attachment for one partner, be in romantic love with another partner, and then be sexually attracted to many others. There’s overlap, but like a kaleidoscope, the patterns are different."

It is also possible that these systems work on a bit of a continuum: one’s physical attraction for a person can develop over time into romantic love and then into a deep-seated attachment. It might even work the other way: a good friend to whom you are deeply attached may one day, inexplicably, seem physically irresistible. A quick flick of the wrist, a change in circumstance or age, and that love kaleidoscope may offer you a completely different configuration. 

With these kind of systems in play, is it any wonder that love can drive us so crazy?

Kayt Sukel is a passionate traveler and science writer, she has no problem tackling interesting (and often taboo) subjects spanning love, sex, neuroscience, travel and politics. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New Scientist, USA Today, Pacific Standard, the Washington Post, ISLANDS, Parenting, the Bark, American Baby, National Geographic Traveler and the AARP Bulletin. She is a partner at the award-winning family travel website Travel Savvy Mom and is also a frequent contributor to the Dana Foundation's many science publications.

Category: General SCI


RAWR! How to T. rex -proof a museum

3 semi trucks + 11 staff + 38 crates = one BIG exhibit!

3 semi trucks + 11 staff + 38 crates = one BIG exhibit!

By: Allison Schwanebeck, SCI Exhibits Director

RAWR! Something big is coming to SCI!  

If you haven't heard, A T. rex Named Sue opens at SCI on February 2. Our planning process has been quite fun, and you can probably imagine the dinosaur and T. rex jokes that have filled our office. (Including this URL redirect:

But before we introduce Sue to the public, we have a lot of work to accomplish... We have to T. rex -proof the museum! 

Winter Closure: January 22-25

SCI will be closed next Tuesday through Friday for annual maintenance and cleaning as well as to get ready for our dino-sized visitor. We're also going to be doing many construction and exhibit projects. 

Why close? Well, there are some projects that are just too big to do while we're open to the public!

When we reopen, the biggest change you'll see is the removal of the wall in Founders Hall (what the staff refers to 'the big purple wall'). The wall was installed to allow us to bring large traveling exhibits such as Da Vinci: the Genius and Body Worlds: Vital  to Des Moines, but A T. rex Named Sue will be included with general admission, so a wall is no longer needed!  This change will be quite dramatic, and when you first walk into SCI, it will be BAM! DINOSAUR! (Well, at least while Sue is here 'til May 12...)  

Other things on our agenda:

  • Constructing a large dig pit for the exhibit
  • Making repairs and cleaning to our much-loved permanent exhibits (Can you imagine the impact 200,000+ visitors can make in a year?)

Planning for the future

While Sue is at SCI, we will continue the planning and design for the reinstallation of one of our permanent exhibits. I can’t give too much away now, but stay tuned for more details.

Make sure to stop by and say hi to Sue between February 2 and May 12! She can’t wait to eat…I mean *meet* you!

Allison Schwanebeck is SCI’s Exhibits Director. This is a recent promotion from her role as Traveling Exhibits Manager. Allison has worked at SCI since June 2007, when she started as a Programs Presenter.


7 tips to see Facing Mars before it leaves SCI!

Mission: Accomplished - Facing Mars ends January 6!

Mission: Accomplished - Facing Mars ends January 6!

By: Emilee Richardson, Marketing & Communication Coordinator


It's hard to believe that Facing Mars is wrapping up its time at SCI!

From the initial excitement of its arrival to following the awe-inspiring journey and landing of NASA's Curiosity rover, and with programs like Train Like An Astronaut  and a visit from astronaut Peggy Whitson, we've had a ton of fun celebrating space and exploring the challenges of traveling to the Red Planet.

If you haven't seen Facing Mars yet (or if you want to see it again!), there are only a few days left - it leaves SCI on Sunday, January 6.

We anticipate that many people also will wait until the last minute, so here are a few tips to get the biggest bang for your buck:


  1. Experience Facing Mars this Saturday for "Space Spectacular,"a day packed full of space-themed activities and programming included with general admission!
  2. Visit either day this weekend and take a Hovercraft Ride, offered Saturday from 11:00 am - 12:00 pm and 2:00 - 3:00 pm and on Sunday from 2:00 - 3:00 pm. Hovercraft rides are included with Facing Mars admission.
  3. Stay and experience SCI. Facing Mars tickets include all-day admission to SCI. Continue the adventure with live science programs, including Journey to Mars!
  4. See Roving Marsin IMAX. Explore the surface of the Red Planet through the eyes of NASA's twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.
  5. Continue the journey through outer space by visiting the NASA Shuttle Legacy exhibit, "Conquering Low Earth Orbit."  This special exhibit in SCI's Why The Sky? experience platform features artifacts and information from the Space Shuttle program, a real spacesuit, shuttle tire and a 1:15 scale model of a Space Shuttle.
  6. Need a night at SCI without the kids? SCI's monthly 21+ event, Mixology, is this Friday from 5:30 - 9:00 pm. Mix up your Friday night with live music from Seedlings and experience Facing Mars for only $10.
  7. Become an SCI member and save! Members receive FREE admission to Facing Mars every day, plus discounts throughout the year!

Don't procrastinate! You don't want to miss out on this hands-on and thought-provoking traveling exhibition. Want more details? Check out the Facing Mars site for information about the exhibit!


Staff Shenanigans: Spider Style

Staff Shenanigans: Spider Style

By: Jenny Koska, SCI Programs Coordinator

Squishy is the name of my pet wolf spider. 

My coworkers found her roaming around SCI about two months ago. How do I know she is a girl? Well, she has short hairy legs opposed to long lanky legs. Oh, and she laid an egg sac! (But more on that later.)

When we first found her, our entire office was obsessed (see photo). We used a digital microscope and looked at her (photo). Then we decided to keep her. I made her a home, complete with a rock and a stick (photo). 

Every day, I give her fresh water. Once a week, I give her a mealworm to eat (photo). Don’t worry, I’m not a terrible mother - that’s how often she eats, because she is poikilothermic (cold-blooded).

About three weeks ago, Squishy started acting very funny...

She started burrowing in the soil and hiding under the sticks in her aquarium. When I would try to find her, she would get aggressive. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until a week later when I saw her with this (photo). THAT’S RIGHT - Squishy is going to be a MOMMA! I was ecstatic; The rest of my office (for the most part) was less-than-thrilled. 

The egg sac is attached to her abdomen. Wolf spiders are nomads and don’t have make a web. They travel around and look for food. They attach the egg sac to their abdomen so that they can take it everywhere with them. 

One day, something terrible happened: Squishy lost her egg sac. It got caught behind a stick and came off her abdomen. The next five minutes were some of most stressful and traumatic moments I have ever seen. Squishy was searching all over the aquarium for her egg sac. I was trying to help her find it, but she was not appreciating my help. She kept attacking the pipet I stuck in the aquarium. Finally, I was able to guide her back to the location where her egg sac fell off. She scooped up her babies and bear hugged them (photo). It was possibly the cutest thing ever. Look at her, just holding onto her babies. Anyway, she was able to reattach the egg sac to her abdomen, which was a relief.

Then I realized something very important: We needed to baby-proof the terrarium.  

Baby-proofing at the Science Center of Iowa is a little different than the traditional baby-proofing that happens before human babies are born. We covered the top of terrarium with makeshift netting, and I’m really hoping the spiders won’t be able to eat through the netting... Not everybody at SCI would be okay with tiny baby spiders crawling around our offices.   

Squishy's eggs have not hatched yet - a wolf spider's gestation period can vary from 9 to 27 days, depending on the temperature of the environment. (p.s. - Aren't you glad it doesn't work that way for humans?!) When they do hatch, the babies will spend the first few days traveling on Squishy’s back learning the ways of the world. Then, we will put them in the refrigerator so that they hibernate until Spring. Once it's warm enough, we will release them into the great outdoors.

Stay tuned  - a baby spider update will be coming soon!

Jennifer Koska is a Program Coordinator at SCI. As part of her job, she figures out different ways to blow things up and light things on fire to further program development here at SCI and for the entertainment of SCI’s participants and staff. Jennifer studied Environmental Science and Environmental Policy at Drake University. She has worked at SCI since May 2011, when she started as a Programs Presenter. 

Category: General SCI


Mixology: The Tale of the Cocktail

Mixology: The Tale of the Cocktail

By: Chris Haines, Food Chain Café Coordinator

When I joined the SCI team last year, it soon became clear that in addition to managing the café and catering jobs, I also would assume the role of resident mixologist. This was new and exciting, and so I began to explore the variety of drinks and concoctions we could make for our guests.

I’ve discovered many fun potent potables, and that got me thinking about where the cocktail got its start...

A bit of history

The origins of the cocktail are disputed – from stories of bar owners putting feathers in drinks as a garnish to the dregs of a keg being called the "cocks tail." Another theory is that it came from the "cocks ale," a colonial specialty where ale was added to a sack of parboiled chickens, raisins and spices. This mix was then allowed to sit for nine days before being served. Yum?

These less-than-appetizing concoctions bore little resemblance to the modern cocktail.

The first published use of the term "cocktail" was in a London newspaper in 1798. By 1803, the word shows up in a story where the farmer "drank a glass of cocktail." An official definition finally appeared in an 1806 journal: ‘a stimulating liquor composed of spirits, sugar, water and bitters.’ (Side note: at this time, cocktails became very popular in electioneering, with voters being inclined to favor a candidate serving the strongest sling. It’s said that the new Democratic\Republican party of Jefferson and Madison used this new popular fad to great effect.)

Throughout the 1800s, the popularity of mixed drinks increased. By 1862, a bartender’s guide included multiple recipes for punches, sours, slings, cobblers, toddies and flips. These beverages were beginning to resemble the modern cocktails we're used to today.

Over time, bitters became the key ingredient that differentiated a true cocktail from a simple mixed drink. Toward the turn of the 20th century, as the drink culture continued to grow, many of the drinks we’re familiar with came about. The cocktail evolved to become a before-dinner drink, designed to whet the appetite with only a hint of sweetness, and sweet drinks were relegated to after meals or earlier in the day.

So what is a cocktail, scientifically speaking?

The basic cocktail has three components: the base, the modifying agent and the flavoring or coloring agent.

  1. The base is the principle ingredient and is usually a spirited liquor (such as rum, gin or whisky) and makes up 75% of the drink.
  2. The modifier is what gives the cocktail its character. The modifier is used to soften the base while enhancing the flavor. Typical modifying agents are bitters, aromatic wines, vermouth, fruit juices or things like sugar and cream that are used to smooth the raw taste of the base liquor.
  3. The final component is the flavoring or coloring agent. Always used sparingly, these can be liqueurs, cordials or sweet syrups (like orgeat or grenadine).

The ratio for these components is generally 8:2:1 for Base: Modifier: Flavor.

The ever-evolving cocktail

As the trends of mixed drinks evolve, we’ve seen a return to the classic cocktails of another era. We haven’t quite gone back to the late 18th century when the "cocks ale" first evolved, but at least today’s popular cocktails are reminiscent of a time before appletinis and nasty-named shots… a time when a Manhattan , a sidecar or an old-fashioned weren’t trendy, they were just good drinks.

So come on down to Mixology at the Science Center Iowa and try some history in a glass. I promise no par-boiled chickens – just some fun delicious cocktails and a great time.

The next Mixology is this Friday night – December 7 from 5:30-9:00 pm! Enjoy music from DJ 2-4-8 and learn the science of the REALLY big screen with a "behind-the-screen" IMAX tour!

Chris Haines is SCI's Food Chain Café Coordinator and resident mixologist.

Category: General SCI