Monday, December 14, 2015

Farewell from City Science Kids

Dear friends:

It's with sadness and quite a lot of regret that I write today to tell you that due to time constraints, I've decided to give up City Science Kids. It's been so much fun these past few years to bring you stories and videos about all the fascinating things that happen in cities right under our noses. I hope you'll be on the lookout for fascinating stories of your own. Meanwhile, you can read more about the science that interests me (and hopefully you, too) in my ongoing articles for Muse and other magazines.

Have a happy, science-y holiday!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Compost Redux

About 3 years ago, our family started composting out here in the wilds of Brooklyn, NY. Instead of throwing away apple cores and banana peels and cucumber skins, we stuck them in a bag in our freezer. And at the end of every week, we took the (very) full bag to the farmers market, where we could throw it in with compost collected by other Brooklyn folks. Then the Sanitation Department brought it all to a composting facility, where it was broken down into nutritious dirt. Which is great for anyone who has a garden and wants to fertilize it without using chemicals.

But maybe the biggest benefit of composting is that it cuts down on the amount of garbage we send to landfills. Landfills are so full of trash that stuff that should rot quickly away to nothing, sticks around for years and years, because there's not enough air circulating to break it down. We did a CSK episode all about composting, which you can watch here.

Now, the City of New York is expanding it's composting program, which is great news! Because now, even more garbage will go to composting facilities instead of landfills. Today, our building received its very own compost bin:

There are so many things to like about this but one of my favorites: Now we'll have some extra room in our freezer for some ice cream!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Don't Dump! A Post from Boston

While we've been gearing up for our next episode, City Science Kids friend Renee Riccardo has been traveling in Boston. She came across this plaque on a storm drain and wondered what it was:

Photo by Renee Riccardo
Renee's friend Robert Chambers, who used to work in marine science before becoming a sculptor and art professor, jus happened to know all about it! 

"The round symbol with three wavy lines represents the Lady of the Water, the deity Sulainor," he wrote. "She is the patron of ponds, bays, harbors, rivers. 

"The fish is a flounder, found in the Boston harbor and an important bio-monitoring tool (like frogs). [That's because] the liver of the flounder, a bottom feeder, metabolizes pollution like lead, cadmium, and pcb's that unfortunately end up in the harbor. Environmental scientists study the flounders' poor diseased livers to monitor pollution. 

‪"The cast iron plaque is letting you know that the nearby drain dumps (unfortunately) directly into the harbor and that gasoline, oil, or anything toxic should not be dumped down any drain connected to oceans, lakes, rivers."

We love citizen scientists who know so much about the world around us and how it works! What about you, have you seen any interesting plaques where you live?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Clue #2 for Our New Episode

Do you know how all this works? You will soon if you stay tuned for a new episode of City Science Kids—coming soon!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Finally! We're Working on a New Episode

And here's the first clue:

Stay tuned to this space for more clues as summer winds down!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Who Ate the Eggs?

A few weeks ago, my friends Carolyn and Dave found this mallard duck hanging out on the sailboat they moor in City Island in the Bronx:

They thought she was just resting, or possibly attempting to hitch a ride somewhere. But the next time they went out to the boat they found these:

It's not such an easy thing to take your boat out for a sail when there are mallard eggs rolling all over the deck. It's certainly dangerous for the eggs, and also, extremely stressful for their mother-to-be. So, Carolyn and Dave contacted a woman known as the Duck Whisperer, who works at a place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called the Wild Bird Fund, which rescues all kinds of birds around the city, including pigeons and swans with broken feet and migrating songbirds that crash into buildings. The Duck Whisperer recommended that they build these eggs a nest:

Which Dave did, using a pillowcase, rope, the seat from a broken chair he found on the street. He gently put the eggs into the nest hoping that, eventually, he'd be able to move the whole thing off the boat, so the mother mallard could hatch them in peace (although, she looks pretty peaceful in these photos):

Last week came news from Carolyn that the nest was down to only three eggs. And today I learned that as of this weekend, all five eggs had disappeared. What could have happened to them? 

Most likely, they were eaten. And most likely, they were eaten by seagulls—although other common city pests, such as crows, rats, and raccoons also eat duck eggs. An alternative theory, since there was no evidence of broken shells on the deck, is that the eggs were doomed to never hatch and the mother mallard pushed them into the water. 

Regardless, it's certainly a sad day for duck rescue. But we're crossing fingers that the mother mallard has much, much better luck next year.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Vet Checks for the Wild Horses of Assateague

Over spring break, we traveled to Virginia to visit the Chincoteague ponies that live on Assateague Island. Along with Mustangs in the western part of the country, these horses (genetically, they're actually horses, not ponies) are among the last wild horses in the United States. There are three herds of them: one on the northernmost, Maryland, end of the island; and two on the southernmost, Virginia, end of the island. The horses in Maryland are managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and they are truly wild; they have very little contact with humans. The only interference they receive from the NPS is contraception, to keep their herd at around 150 animals. Otherwise, they would take over the island and destroy the habitat for other animals.

The Virginia herds are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. If you've ever read Misty of Chincoteague by Margeuerite Henry, then you've already had an introduction to these horses! And you've probably already heard of the annual pony swim that happens every July. This is how the firemen keep their horse population down at 150 animals—they drive yearlings across the Chincoteague Bay, and auction them off. 

But every spring and fall, the firemen also give veterinary care to the horses. That's what you'll see in this episode—along with the amazing roundup by the Saltwater Cowboys who bring them in to the corral. 

To learn more about the history of the wild horses of Assateague, visit the National Park Service

A three-day-old foal with his mother.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

More Ponies of Chincoteague

This fuzzy little cutie is named Pixie Dust. She was a late foal, born in the summer of 2014, and shortly after she popped into the world her mother, Angel Wings, died of colic. Pixie Dust was taken away from the wild herd on Assateague and raised on a nearby farm. This was the first day she was introduced to the other yearlings of the wild herd. So far, they were rejecting her: chasing her away from their hay piles, snubbing her when she approached, and several times, kicking and biting at her. Veteran herd-watchers were sure they would accept her eventually, once they were released from this corral where they were all waiting for a visit from the vet, and let loose on the reserve. City Science Kids is rooting for Pixie Dust!!

We'll have more news soon about the ponies of Chincoteague. Stay Tuned!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Happy Spring Break!

City Science Kids is in Chincoteague, VA, an island hop away from the Assateague nature preserve, where the wild equines roam (locals call them ponies, even though technically, they're horses)! We'll have more to report soon but meanwhile, here's a photo of the stallion, Riptide. On Monday, he broke out of the island's fenced horse habitation with his band of four mares in tow, including his dam, Surf Queen. When we stumbled on them, rangers were leading the band down the main beach road and back into the enclosure.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Where Did the Wax Go?

It feels like forever since we posted an episode! Here's what's been on our minds during the long cold nights of winter: candle wax, and where it goes when it burns. Have you ever wondered the same thing? Then watch this mini-episode and find out all about reduction!

Happy spring! And remember, teachers, if you can't watch it here, check it out on SchoolTube!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Living Green Machine

Yesterday, we visited the Environmental Study Center in Mill Basin with Ada's science class. One of the coolest things they do is filter dirty water through a "Living Green Machine." This is a totally eco-friendly way of removing contaminants. It works like this:

Water is funneled from a filthy pond through a series of tanks. Pictured above are the first two. They contain a mixture of microorganisms, algae, and small fish. As the water moves through each of the tanks, it becomes a little cleaner. The tanks themselves become smaller, since less material is needed to clean the water.

Finally, after it has passed through 10 tanks, the water is nearly contaminant-free! How clean is it? Clean enough to be used on a mini garden of wild ginger plants. Including this one, which is so happy, it's flowering!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Hello, Gorgeous

Almost all the way there! The scent of hyacinths is spicy-sweet and powerful. In fact, these few blossoms are perfuming the entire dining room. Why do flowers have scents? To attract pollinators like bees and butterflies and hummingbirds. Different pollinators are attracted by different kinds of scents!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Welcome, Hyacinth!

Today. Think it will open all the way by tomorrow? Or will it be

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How Much Longer??

Two weeks since the bud on the hyacinth bulb started to open, we've finally gotten to this:
But the question remains: WHEN WILL IT FLOWER?? 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Hyacinth: Will It, Won't It?

A full month after our paperwhite bulbs bloomed, the hyacinth bulb we have been "forcing" finally looks like it might be ready to flower:

What's taken it so long? Hyancinths are notoriously slow, needing a long time in the cold before warming up to the possibility of blooming. But even so, two and a half months seems like a very loooooong time. Not that we mind. We're ready for a little spring here in Brooklyn!

Monday, January 26, 2015

What Makes a Blizzard?

It's not snowing much in New York City right now. But later today, we're expecting a big blizzard. The plows are getting ready to shovel a lot of snow:

All this makes us wonder: What exactly is a blizzard, and how does a regular old snowfall turn into one? According to the National Weather Service, a blizzard is actually more about wind than snow. For a snowstorm to be considered a blizzard, it has to be accompanied by winds that blow at least 35 miles per hour. It also has to reduce visibility—how far you can see—to less than 1/4 of a mile (in New York City, that's about 5 regular-length city blocks) for at least 3 hours.

Here's how a blizzard forms: Temperatures in the air and on the ground turn freezing; if the temperature on the ground is too warm, then snow falling from the sky will turn to rain or freezing rain. To make snow, air has to blow across a large body of water, like the Atlantic Ocean or the Great Lakes. This causes some of that water to evaporate and escape upwards, into the air. Finally, for a storm to achieve blizzard status, warm air has to rise over cold air. This often happens when freezing winds blow down from the North Pole, and meet warm air being pushed north from the Gulf of Mexico. This is called a "front." As of 11:30 AM in New York City on Monday, the front was moving  from the midwest of the country towards the east. The temperature was 29 degrees—3 degrees below freezing—and the winds were blowing at 22 miles an hour. How long will it take before the blizzard here is raging?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Hawks in Winter

I thought Red Tail and other hawks all migrated south for the winter. So I was surprised last week when I spotted five of them on a drive up to the Adirondacks. Three of them were sitting in barren trees by the side of the highway, with their feathers puffed up for warmth. Two of them were on the fly, chasing birds that were sure to become lunch. I spotted the hawks at regular intervals, every 10 or 15 miles. And I wondered: what are they doing here?
It turns out, not all hawks and other raptors (that is, sharp-beaked, sharp-taloned birds that hunt for animals) migrate to warmer climates. Older birds prefer to stay put in their established breeding territories, sticking out the cold weather. Maybe they don't want to have to reclaim their territories in the spring. Maybe they just plain don't want to bother migrating. Unlike songbirds and water birds, hawks don't flap their wings when they fly. Rather, they soar on updrafts they catch when they are airborne. They let themselves be carried by these as long and as far as they'll take them. For this reason, they tend to migrate less far than other birds. And they also don't migrate over big bodies of water, which don't provide updrafts. Migrating, it turns out, is a big hassle. 

But what is there to eat if they stay behind? Other non-migrating birds, for starters. In New York City, where there are growing populations of Red Tails, that certainly means pigeons. But hawks also hunt for mice, rats, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits. And, if necessary, they'll eat carrion—already-dead animals. The reason they perch in bare trees by the side of the road is that these give them a good view of the land: both of any little animals that might be scurrying out of their burrows, and also of any animals that might be lying in the road. 

Have you seen any animals you weren't expecting to see this winter? Write in and let us know!

Friday, January 16, 2015

A New (Old) Lamppost for Clinton Street

The city re-installed an iron lamppost on our street today. A while back it was taken away for refurbishment and now it was all fixed up and ready again for service. This type of lamppost is called a Bishop's Crook, because of the shape of its upper portion—the portion that curves down to the light itself.
Around 1900, the City of New York installed many of these ornamental lampposts around the five boroughs (Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island, and Queens). Many of them were Bishop's Crooks, which actually come in a number of different styles, but there were other shapes as well. 

The lampposts on our block are reproductions. That is, they're made to look like the original old lampposts. There aren't too many of the originals left; those that still exist are landmarks—they can't be replaced or taken away or changed. Of the kind shown here, there are only 12 left in all of New York.

The bases of these lampposts are made of cast iron. They weigh about 2,000 pounds. The workers on our street put the base back into place first. It's so heavy they had to use a crane.

The top of the lamppost is lighter. Like the originals, it's made out of iron pipe and iron castings. 
Before it could be lifted by crane to its place on top of the base, workmen had to hook it up to the light. 
Here they are attaching the wires. Soon, it will be all hooked up and ready to go!
Visit this site to learn more about the history of New York City lampposts, and to see some really cool pictures. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ivy, Still Growing...But How?

This is the question that plagues me this morning as I contemplate the still-growing tendril of ivy in my dining room. While outside, the temperatures are well below freezing, and have been for days. How is the ivy continuing to thrive? Is this kind of ivy hearty enough to survive a northeastern winter? Is this tendril it's own separate plant, now, with roots warm enough tucked away in the warm-enough window casing? What possibilities am I missing? 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Science (and History) of Tap Water

This is a picture of the rusty pipe under my kitchen sink. Thanks to that big hole you see, we had water pouring out all over the floor every time we turned on the sink (until we discovered that hole, that is).
This made me start thinking about water, of course. In particular, where the water we drink in New York City comes from. It's a little complicated.

Once upon a time in New York (in 1677, to be precise), people got water from a well. It was dug down at the southern tip of Manhattan, where most non-native residents lived back then. For about 100 years, it supplied plenty of water for everyone living in the city. Then, with a growing population of 22,000, in 1776 NYC was forced to build its first reservoir to meet the water needs of its people.

Today there are over 8 million people living in the city. They use 1 billion gallons of water a day. Obviously, one well and one reservoir couldn't possibly supply that much water. So what does?

It starts with a watershed. This is basically just land—in New York City's case, 1,972 square feet of land north and west of the city. Rain and snow fall on the watershed. And the watershed drains that moisture into 19 reservoirs. These reservoirs are all connected by water-moving passageways called aqueducts. (Pictured below, the inside of the Catskill Aqueduct as it was being built in 1923.) They, along with 3 lakes, supply all the water for NYC.

From the reservoirs and lakes, water runs through the aqueducts into a big reservoir called Kensico. It sits about 30 miles north of the city and it holds 30 billion gallons of water. From there, the water travels again to another, smaller reservoir called Hillview. It's right outside the city and it holds 30 million gallons of water. The water is treated with a chemical called chlorine, which kills any bacteria that might be floating around in it. And also with ultra violet light, which kills any viruses. 

From Hillview, water flows by gravity through 2 big tunnels, into the 5 boroughs of the city. Tunnel one brings it from the Bronx, into Queens, then Brooklyn, then Staten Island. Tunnel two brings it from the Bronx into Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. From there it's pumped into pipes that snake under the entire city, into every building in town. And finally, when we open the taps in our kitchens and bathrooms, into the pipes in our apartments. Where, if we're lucky, it won't encounter any holes!

Visit here to learn more about the science and history of water in New York City!