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Archive for the ‘Science!’ Category

Today is the autumnal equinox, or the official start of Fall. I like to think of it as the Universe giving all of us here in the Northern Hemisphere a pat on the arm and a kind word to prepare us for that whole Winter thing.

What is It saying? When it comes to the grand workings of the Universe it’s always difficult to be sure, but I imagine the conversation goes something like this:

“Now now, Winter’s still a ways off and hey, you had a good Summer, right?”

(inarticulate mumblings about sunburn and too many mosquito bites)

“Well, not to worry. We know Winter is hard so We try to ease you into it with the likes of apple pie and hot cider.”

(sniffles, with a muffled acknowledgement that pie is really quite nice)

“And remember how much you liked that new recipe for spicy beef stew? Pull yourself together, dear, it will be fine.”

For those who prefer a slightly more technical explanation of the experience on which we are all about to embark, a few more details…

Solstice: occurs when the Sun is the farthest away from the celestial equator, or the imaginary line above the Earth’s equator. This happens twice a year, around June 21st (when it reaches the northernmost point) and December 21st (when it reaches the southernmost point).

Equinox: marks the time when the Sun crosses the celestial equator. Day and night are (close to) equal length. This happens twice a year, around March 20th (vernal) and September 22st (autumnal).

Would you like to know more? Check out Time & Date or Royal Museums Greenwich or EarthSky for additional information, helpful diagrams and fun facts (like Chichen Itza’s Snake of Light).

I do love pie and cider and crisp autumn days and bright red leaves. Today I’m also grateful that marking such astronomical events no longer requires human sacrifice, for the word “phenology,” and for the reminder that in spite of everything, we all see the same sky.

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In honor of today’s eclipse, I’d like to spotlight this piece on Annie Jump Cannon from the funny and informative site Rejected Princesses. Their tag line?
“Women too Awesome, Awful, or Offbeat for Kids’ Movies.”

Hee hee! If you’re interested in quick, clever portraits of some of the most interesting women in history, Rejected Princesses is the site for you.

(Related aside: I’m also pretty sure that popular movies are selling our kids short.)

Why Annie Jump Cannon? Because she fell in love with the stars at a time when most women were only expected to fall in love with homemaking, and then she went and did something about it.

Born the same year President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, she attended college at a time when few women did, and then worked at the Harvard Observatory as a “computer.” (If you’ve seen Hidden Figures, you know what “computer” meant lo those many years ago. If you haven’t seen Hidden Figures, I highly recommend you do, stat!) She excelled at Harvard, classifying stars by the hundreds of thousands and building a spectrographic star classification system still in use today.

Ms. Cannon has been called The Queen of Modern Astronomy, but also brought a useful perspective to more terrestrial concerns. And while earthly challenges must continue to occupy our thoughts and energies, one quote in particular seems appropriate for our current times:

“In these days of great trouble and unrest, it is good to have something outside our own planet, something fine and distant and comforting to troubled minds. Let people look to the stars for comfort.”

If you don’t already have eclipse plans but you’re interested in a once-in-a-century astronomical event, NASA has a great site. They’ll help you enjoy the eclipse with everything from maps, safety, activities, DIY pinhole viewers, what to do if you don’t have a viewer but still want to see the event, and more.

Like most people I’ll be outside the path of totality, but we’ll still get 65% coverage. Well worth putting together a pinhole viewer… Oh look, here’s one I just happen to have, hacked together from a shoe box, legal paper, the sticky bits of reusable adhesive you find on the back of various packages, and a phone for easy photo taking:) I’ll cut the lid off to better control the distance between pinhole and paper, then hope for clear skies!

Eclipse: Who? What? Where? When? and How? is a good place to start, or check out the Eclipse Kit for all most of your eclipse party needs (beverage of choice not included:)

Have fun!

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What am I doing this fine Saturday morning? Why, playing with Google’s newest entry into the Made with Code catalog, Coding with Wonder Woman.

Made with Code is Google’s push to keep girls and women active in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Girls are awesome. Sci-tech is awesome. Together, they make an awesome sandwich.

Of course, boys are awesome too (hello, most excellent nephew!), but they aren’t facing this less-than-awesome prospect:

Yeah, that’s just… no. We can do better. If we’re going to tackle the long and growing list of environmental, social and technical challenges in the world, we need everyone’s brain parts. And not in a night of the undead hunger sort of a way.

There are a lot of intro to coding resources on the web, but this one is fun, free and lets you fight bad guys with a magic lasso and a big-bad sword. So girl or boy, man or woman, child, teacher, parent or otherwise curious mind, if coding looks like fun but you don’t know where to start, this may be the game for you.

(Haven’t seen the movie? Recommended!)

 

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Another busy, busy week, but before that I had out-of-town guests, a full weekend of fun, excellent food, and (of course) Wonder Woman. And today I found this amazing image in my inbox!

Here’s hoping that you, too, see light in the darkness.

 

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Still Magic!

I’m busy, I’m working, but hey, there’s still magic in the world!

 

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This is a public service announcement for writers and other humans:

If you’ve ever confused stalactites with stalagmites, here’s a hint: mites crawl.

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Making yogurt is easy, affordable, and (if you’re a kitchen nerd like me) fun. It can also give you a much better product than you’ll find in stores. The process is simple: heat milk to get rid of existing bacteria and denature the proteins, cool it, then add good bacteria and give it some time to work. That’s it.

I like writing, so this recipe will be wordier than strictly necessary. Don’t let that make the process feel daunting! It isn’t.

The tricky bits, and there aren’t many, are in the details. It helps to have a thermometer. It helps to have an oversized heavy-bottomed pot, a few things like a canning funnel and conveniently-sized jars, kitchen towels to help keep the yogurt warm as it cultures, and a Post-it to keep you from hitting the oven’s on button with your yogurt inside (ask me how I know!).

None of those things are necessary, however.

Search for information on yogurt-making and you’ll find a variety of alternate recipes and methods, from counter-top to Crockpot. We’ve distilled that information and found a way that makes thick, tangy lactose-free yogurt and works for us. Tweak at will!

 

Yogurt, Plain but not Boring

Ingredients:

  • 1 gallon/4 Liters milk, whole or 2%
  • ½ C. plain yogurt with live and active cultures (~2 T. per quart)

1. Scald the milk: add milk to a large pot over low to medium-low heat. Cover and heat to 195℉, or until just simmering with bubbles forming around the edges.
2. Denature the protein: reduce heat to the lowest setting and hold the milk at 190-195℉ for 15 minutes.
3. Cool: remove from heat, uncover and cool to 115℉, or pleasantly warm to the skin.
4. Inoculate: Preheat the oven to 115℉, then turn off. Add a half cup of the milk to your yogurt starter, whisk together, then add the mixture to the milk and whisk until smooth. Leave in pot or move milk to containers. Fill one jar with ½ C. to use as starter for your next batch.
5. Culture: If using jars, place on a cookie sheet. Insulate containers with kitchen towels. Place in oven or other warm spot. Let sit for 6 to 20 hours, then store in the refrigerator.

Transfer the starter to the refrigerator after ~6 hours to keep bacteria healthy. Longer cultures produce thicker and tangier yogurt. If you’re lactose-intolerant, culture for 18 to 20 hours to give the bacteria time to digest the lactose for you. No pills necessary!

Bacteria at work. Yum.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Those are the basics. For a distillation of the tips and tricks we’ve learned over the years, read on!

Notes:

  • You can make yogurt with lower-fat milks but the resulting taste tends to be chalky and not as nice. We use 2% because Mr. Man is reasonable. I prefer whole milk myself;)
  • We bump this up to 5+ liters of milk (that’s four bags if you’re in Canada) but keep the amount of starter the same; it works fine.
  • For your starter, you want a plain yogurt with minimal additives and no sweeteners. We’ve had the best luck with more industrial-strength brands like Dannon or Stonyfield or (in Canada) Astro or Western than with some of the boutique varieties. There are other culture sources (like chili peppers!) but the grocery store is the easiest way to get started. Whatever you choose, you want bacterial cultures that are tough and ready to work. Rawr!
  • The heating and cooling cycles are somewhat time-consuming. I don’t recommend rushing the heating part of this process as that way lies hard-to-clean pans and nasty flavors, but you can speed cooling by sitting the pot in a sink of cold water. Be careful not to splash or otherwise contaminate the milk.
  • There are ways to make mesophilic yogurt at room temperature without the heating and cooling cycle but this thermophilic method works for us.
  • Precise measurements aren’t required. You need enough starter for the bacteria to get off on the right foot, but as long as you have live cultures and eliminate any competitors by heating the milk, the good bacteria will have room to work. If the yogurt isn’t thickening as fast as you like, feel free to start your next batch with an extra tablespoon or so of starter, or give it another hour or two to set up.
  • The longevity of your starter will depend on the strength of the original bacterial strain and how you treat it. We often go six or more months before buying replacement starter, and we make yogurt about once a week. If your finished product isn’t as thick as before, takes longer to set up or (heaven forfend) smells off, it’s time for new starter. We keep the starter in its own container to avoid contamination, try not to let it culture longer than ~6-8 hours, and whisper encouragements. Your mileage may vary.
  • The jars we use (see below) are perfectly sized for our needs (Mr. Man strains one for breakfast, I now use two per smoothie) but you can use any option you like so long as it’s clean and non-reactive. You could re-use quart-sized yogurt containers or, if plastic isn’t your thing, mason jars, jam jars or the pot you used to make it.
  • If you like additives, add them just before serving. Jam, honey, fruit or other flavors are great additions.
  • Straining the yogurt to make a Greek-style thick version is also easy. Use a yogurt strainer, a bag of cheesecloth in a strainer over a bowl or with a filter in your drip coffee maker.
  • Strained yogurt is a great base for dip too. I like to add grated cucumber, lemon, minced garlic, salt, pepper and herbed Boursin with a sprinkling of bourbon-smoked paprika.

Optional: for your information only, here is the list of the tools we use to make yogurt:

  • 8-quart stainless pot
  • remote thermometer
  • stainless whisk
  • stainless cup measure
  • canning funnel
  • glass jars with lids
  • cookie sheet
  • kitchen towels
  • yogurt strainer
  • one yellow Post-it

We didn’t get all of these things at once, but as we realized we needed them and that we were in it for the yogurt long haul. I’ve found the remote thermometer to be the most useful tool for this, as it lets us be precise and to do other things while the milk is coming to temperature. We use an older version of this one, but there are a lot of options out there. Your needs may vary!

For even more information on the technique and science of making yogurt, I recommend these sources:

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