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.

Latest Posts

Feb
5

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 www.sciowa.org/brainonlove

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

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

Dec
18

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

Dec
5

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

Nov
14

Adventure. Discovery. Pint Size Science.

Learn more about Pint Size Science, our hand-on science program for young explorers, at sciowa.org/pintsizescience

Learn more about Pint Size Science, our hand-on science program for young explorers, at sciowa.org/pintsizescience

By: Kay Murphy, SCI Program Coordinator

What do you get when you mix science, experiments, crafts and preschoolers? A whole lot of FUN with Pint Size Science at the Science Center of Iowa!

When we think about teaching science to young children, we worry that it will be too advanced, complicated or messy.  That is where I come in!

To quote a young SCI participant: "Science is cool until it gets messy. Then it’s awesome!"

Teaching these little explorers is the highlight of my job! I love the preschool age: the enthusiasm, the curiosity, the general wonderment. Plus, these kids say the darndest things! You never know what to expect in each class. By approaching science in a fun and hands-on setting, full of visuals, activities and keywords, this age group thrives into little scientists!

What is Pint Size Science?

Pint Size Science is a monthly class, uniquely centered on a family learning environment that gives young explorers ages 3 to 5 an outlet to encourage their natural curiosity.

Every young child wants to touch, see, do and discover for themselves. SCI designed this class specifically for this purpose. By creating an atmosphere where science can come to life, our youngsters can discover the world around them in a fun, new way!

Planning for Preschoolers

One of the best parts about my job is putting together the lesson plans for each month. I have to put myself in the mind of a preschooler and try to see through their eyes. What would be fun and interesting to them? Can they touch it and experience it for themselves? Are the books easy for them to understand and engaging enough to hold their attention?

Every month, I research and plan, create and design the curriculum. I want the class to be original and fresh – from coloring sheets to posters, real animals and hair-raising experiments, to using our experience platforms as an addition to many lessons. I want to create an environment that our little scientists want to come back to!

Learning is Better Together

Pint Size Science is a great escape from the norm. It’s a chance for this special age to be who they are while learning and interacting with children their age. We encourage parent participation and love seeing families, parents, grandparents and other caregivers come enjoy this class as much as their little scientists! With topics varying from animals, weather, robots, dinosaurs to electricity, we offer something for everyone!   

We want to make these classes fun and convenient for both your child and for you! We offer two exciting class times, Tuesdays at 1:00 pm and now Saturdays at 10:00 am! Our Tuesday classes run through May, and our Saturday classes will be offered year-round!

Each class is led by a SCI Programs Team member and lasts approximately one hour. All lessons include an introduction to the topic, accompanied by a short book, visuals, hands-on activities, finger play, crafts, worksheets and handouts! Continue the learning outside the classroom; you and your child can enjoy general admission to SCI the day of your class included in the Pint Size class registration fee!

As the cold weather approaches and the holiday season sneaks closer and closer, remember the Science Center of Iowa. Pint Size Science classes make great gifts for kids! I’d love to see you there!

Come to SCI to get out of the cold and warm up with some science and serious fun! To register or for more information, visit sciowa.org or call our Sales Office at (515)274-6868 ex. 222.

Kay Murphy is a Program Coordinator at SCI. As part of her job, Kay presents live programs to SCI participants and helps develop new programming, as well as travels for Pint Size Science Outreach to preschools in the metro area. She studied history and communications at The University of Iowa and began working at SCI as a Programs Presenter in August 2011.

Category: General SCI

Oct
25

Kitchen Chemistry: Spooky Science Edition

Learn how to make your own glow-vomit jack o’ lantern!

Learn how to make your own glow-vomit jack o’ lantern!

By: Richard Miles, SCI Programs Coordinator

This Saturday is Spooky Science, SCI's annual Halloween event featuring hair-raising experiments, bubbling potions, visual illusions and more!

Join us from 11:00 am - 4:00 pm to meet creepy crawly critters and explore live experiments that fizz, bubble and ooze. Wear your costume and trick-or-treat throughout the building. Plus, experience two new live science programs: Glow-in-the-Dark Science and Bump In The Night!

We hope you'll join us, but we also encourage kids (and adults) to continue learning and experimenting after you leave our building.

Here are four Spooky Science-themed Kitchen Chemistry recipes to try at home!

Remember: Always make sure you have supervision and/or permission before trying new experiments!

 

Glow Water

Glow water is the basis of many Spooky Science experiments!

Supplies:

  • Water
  • 20 oz. empty soft drink bottle (labels removed)
  • Yellow highlighter ink tube (obtain this by removing the bottom of a yellow highlighter and removing the ink tube inside)
  • Black light

Procedures:

  1. Pour water into a 20 oz. soft drink bottle
  2. Drop yellow highlighter ink tube into bottle
  3. Cap the bottle and shake
  4. Shine a black light onto the bottle
  5. Turn off lights

 

Glow-in-the-Dark Geyser

This is a fun variation of the Mentos + Diet Coke reaction made famous by the Mythbusters.

Notes: This experiment should be done in a room that will become completely dark once the lights are turned off, and it is a good idea to have an aquarium or similar bucket/bowl to contain the experiment! See demonstration.

Supplies:

  • 1 unopened bottle of tonic water with quinine listed as an ingredient
  • 6 mint-flavored Mentos candies
  • 1 10 gallon aquarium or 1 large bowl with plastic or newspaper underneath
  • Black light

Procedures:

  1. Unscrew the lid from the bottle of tonic water
  2. Place the bottle into a 10 gallon aquarium or in a large bowl with newspaper or plastic underneath
  3. Shine a black light on the tonic water (Careful that the black light is not too close to the tonic water)
  4. Turn off lights
  5. Quickly drop 6 Mentos into the tonic water (Be sure your face is not directly over the opening)
  6. Stand back - tonic water will erupt into a glowing geyser!

 

Glowing Slime

A variation of our traditional slime recipe!

Notes: This experiment should be done in a room that will become completely dark once the lights are turned off. Ratio of cornstarch to glow water is approximately 4 parts cornstarch to 1 part water. If the slime is too runny, add more corn starch. If it is too thick, add more water.

Supplies:

  • 1 plastic baggie
  • 1/2 cup of corn starch
  • 1/8 cup of glow water (see instructions for making glow water)
  • Black light

Procedures:

  1. Fill plastic baggie with 1/2 cup of corn starch
  2. Pour 1/8 cup glow water into plastic baggie
  3. Seal baggie
  4. Shine a black light onto the baggie
  5. Turn off lights
  6. Knead baggie with fingers

 

Glow-Vomit Jack o’ Lantern

Your jack 'o lantern's last hurrah! As seen in the photo above, this experiment is a perfect way to add a slightly spooky touch to your Halloween decoration. Try it before you dispose of your pumpkin!

Note: This experiment should be done in a room that will become completely dark once the lights are turned off.

Supplies:

  • 1 carved jack o’ lantern
  • 1 cup of baking soda
  • Glow water (see instructions for making glow water)
  • 1 small, shallow plastic bowl (must fit inside jack o’ lantern)
  • 1 cup of vinegar
  • 1 large plastic garbage bag
  • Garbage can
  • Black light

Procedures:

  1. On a table, place the large carved jack o’ lantern on top of a large plastic garbage bag
  2. Place a garbage can in front of the table, and drape the end of the garbage bag into the garbage can (this will funnel the "glow vomit" from the mouth of the jack o’ lantern into the garbage can)
  3. Fill plastic bowl with mixture of glow water and vinegar
  4. Place plastic bowl in the jack o’ lantern
  5. Shine a black light onto the jack o’ lantern (be careful that the black light is not too close to the jack o’ lantern’s mouth)
  6. Turn off lights
  7. Pour cup of baking soda into plastic bowl
  8. When the reaction slows, pour more vinegar into the bowl

 

Richard Miles is a Programs Coordinator at SCI and our resident astronomy expert. As part of his job, Richard presents live science programs to SCI participants and helps develop new programming. He studied physics and astronomy at Drake University and Iowa State University. Richard worked at SCI from 1992-2002 and returned to SCI in September of 2011.

Category: General SCI