When 13-year-old Aidan took a winter hike through the Catskill Mountains, he noticed something spectacular about the bare trees. “I thought trees were a mess of tangled branches,” he would later recall, “But [then] I saw a pattern in the way the tree branches grew.”
Armed with a protractor, Aidan measured the angles of the branches and discovered they grew in a Fibonacci sequence—a mathematical pattern that can be observed throughout nature, from the curve of nautilus shells to the spirals of galaxies. In this famous sequence, each number is the sum of the previous two: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, continuing infinitely. Could this branch pattern help trees absorb more sunlight? Aidan’s pursuit of that question in his essay The Secret of the Fibonacci Sequence in Trees earned him a 2011 Young Naturalist Award.
Jim Webster leans over a worktable coated with pliers, wires, and scraps of material, plucking a small, sealed capsule of white gold-palladium alloy out of the ordered chaos. Inside the capsule rests 50 milligrams of crushed stone and liquid, a combination that Webster, a curator in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science within the Division of Physical Sciences at the American Museum of Natural History, uses to understand why some volcanoes erupt explosively.
In his lab on the fourth floor of the Museum, Webster designs experiments to study the processes that caused such explosive volcanic eruptions as Mount St. Helens in 1980, Pinatubo in 1991, and much older volcanoes like Mt. Mazama. More commonly known as Oregon’s Crater Lake, Mt. Mazama is an ancient volcano that explosively erupted nearly 7,000 years ago, eventually spewing so much magma, gas, and ash that it collapsed on itself, leaving a crater where the mountain had stood. In his experiments, Webster uses samples from this ancient explosion that are compositionally equivalent to eruption stages at Mt. Augustine, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Pinatubo.
Would you trust a robot surgeon? Strap your kids into a driverless car? In this podcast, join Michio Kaku, physicist and author of the bestselling book, Physics of the Impossible, as he offers his predictions about how today’s emerging technologies will shape the future.
Dr. Kaku’s talk, “Physics of the Future,” was recorded at the Museum on May 9, 2011.
Is it true that children face an uphill battle at the beginning of every school year to regain ground lost in the lazy days of summer? Yes and no, says Rob DeSalle, curator of the exhibition Brain: The Inside Story. “The fact of losing what you’ve learned during the school year is fairly well known and well researched,” says Dr. DeSalle, citing a Johns Hopkins University study that showed children in general “lose” one to two months of learning, especially in math, over the summer. “It’s not a myth. But it’s not as extreme as people think and it’s’ not insurmountable.”
One way to keep brains active before school resumes is to challenge children with a late-summer reading list, says DeSalle, a Museum curator who conducts research in the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. The John Hopkins study showed, for example, that children in more affluent socio-economic groups fared better in reading because they tended to have more access to books. Games that involve counting and strategy can also stimulate neural pathways. Visitors to Brain: The Inside Story, which closes August 14, can test their ability to strategize and plan ahead, as well as other critical functions, in brain-teasing interactive exhibits, several of which are described by DeSalle in the video below.