Monday, February 28, 2011

Who Is 179 Years Old?

Why Jonathan, of course.  Jonathan is a Seychelles giant tortoise who is 179 years old.  He was born in 1832.  He was born before computers, telephones and cars were invented.  He was born before the Civil War.  Jonathan lives on the island of St. Helena, off the coast of Africa.  He spends his time on the grounds of the governor’s residence which is called Plantation House.  Jonathan is similar to Galapagos giant tortoises which weigh up to ¼ of a ton and have shells over 3 feet across.
So why do these tortoises live so long?  Scientists do not have a complete answer; more research needs to be done.  Some scientists theorize that it is partly because of the tortoise’s strong shell which serves as protective armor against predators.  Scientists also theorize that tortoises have their young at an older age and therefore put all their energy when they are young towards surviving.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Space Shuttle Discovery’s Final Mission

On February 24th, Spaceship Discovery started its final mission, STS 133.  (Click here to see a video of the launch.)  Discovery has six crew members on board and the purpose of the mission is to dock with the International Space Station and deliver a module which is essentially additional rooms to be used for lab and storage space. 
Discovery has flown into space more than any other spacecraft.  It is one of five shuttles used by NASA which also included Challenger, Columbia, Atlantis, and Endeavour.  Discovery first launched in 1984.  Since that time, it has made 38 missions, circled the Earth 5,628 times and has taken 246 astronauts into space.  It has traveled 143 million (143,000,000) miles.  It has spent almost an entire year in space.  Now it is time for Discovery to retire.  NASA has created a video of great video of Discovery’s history, please click here.

A Spaceship With a Sail?

NASA has designed a spacecraft that moves through space with a solar sail.  Picture an unmanned spacecraft with a rectangular gold metallic sail that is 100 feet square.  Photons from the sun moving through space hit the sail and move the spacecraft.  NASA launched the NanoSail-D and deployed its sail over the U.S. in low orbit in January.  Here is a link with a great picture of what the spacecraft probably looks like.
Through March 7th, the spacecraft moving through space can be seen with the naked eye (no telescope needed)!  To help you see NanoSail-D, NASA has partnered with to provide tracking maps (click here) so you know when to look up in the sky.  In Chicago, we will be looking north/northwest at 6:30 pm today. is hosting a photo competition with prizes up to $500.  Go to to learn more about the contest.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Deep Carbon Observatory

Here at SuperSmart Carbon, we love learning about carbon.  Apparently, we are not alone.  There is a project being launched called the Deep Carbon Observatory that is being funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.  The purpose of this group is to study carbon deep inside the earth.  Carbon makes up somewhere from 0.7% to 3.2% of the earth’s elements.  We know that there is carbon trapped under the earth’s crust, but we don’t know how much.  The Deep Carbon Observatory is going to study how much carbon there is in the earth and what happens to it.  Another question is what form is the carbon in?  Is it in the form of diamonds?  Is it in the form of organic life?  Scientists have found a lot of microscopic organisms under the earths’ crust.  What if there is as much life under the earths’ crust as there is on the earth’s surface.  This is a whole new area for science to studying.  Click here to learn more about the Deep Carbon Observatory.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Where does gas come from?

Carbon!  (We always love it when the answer is carbon.)  The gas we use to power our cars comes from decomposing organic matter.  What does that mean?  All life has carbon in it -- this includes everything living from you and me to zebras, tapeworms, tulips and seaweed.  Since all living things have carbon in them, they are referred to as organic matter.  Non-organic matter includes things like rocks, water and metals.  When something organic dies, it goes into the earth’s surface.  For example, when a leaf falls off a tree, it settles on the ground.  Over the next months, it slowly rots and dries up.  This process is called decomposition.  As the leaf decomposes, it releases its carbons.  This carbon combines hydrogen to form hydrocarbons.  Hydrocarbons take many forms including oil, which can be refined to gas to make our cars go, natural gas to heat our houses, and petroleum which is used in things like plastics.
Here is great short video about the formation of gas (it includes dinosaurs!). 

Monday, February 21, 2011

A meteorite will (probably) hit earth today

Each year, thousands of meteorites hit earth. Meteorites are parts of asteroids that have broken off or dust from comets.  Most are so small that we don’t even see them. Others fall in places that we cannot find them, like in the oceans.  A scientist at Washington University in St. Louis has compiled a map of the US showing the number of meteorites found in each state.  Click here to see how many have been found in your state.  In Arizona, there is a crater named Meteor Crater – it was caused when a meteor hit Earth 20,000 to 30,000 years ago.  It is as big as 20 football fields!  (Click here for a video.)
As previously stated, most meteorites are very small and do little damage.  In modern times, no person has been killed by a meteorite.  One of the most significant meteorites to enter earths’ atmosphere in modern times landed in Siberia, Russia in 1908.  It destroyed hundreds of square miles of forest. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jupiter has how many moons?!?

Jupiter has 63 moons!  Some are very small and others are larger than Pluto.  The four largest moons are called the Galilean moons because they were discovered by Galileo Galilei in the year 1610.  Ganymede is the largest moon and it is bigger than Mercury.  It is the ninth largest object in our solar system.  The other three Galilean moons are Io, Europa, and Callisto and all are larger than Pluto.  The 59 smaller moons tend to be less than 160 miles in diameter.  Some of these smaller moons have irregular (non-spherical) shapes and astronomers theorize that they have originated from passing asteroids that were pulled into Jupiter’s’ orbit by gravity. 
In February 2007, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew near Jupiter and took pictures of Ganymede, Io, Europa and Callisto.    Click here to see those pictures.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Do bees have GPS?

Did you ever wonder how bees always find honey?  They tell each other.  And no, bees do not have voices to speak with.  They communicate with each other by doing a little dance.  After a bee finds a flower with pollen, it returns to the hive.  There, it dances for the other bees.  The orientation of the dance describes the angle to travel away from the sun.  The length of the dance communicates how long it will take to fly to the flowers. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ugh, skunk!

It is that time of year in Chicago – the skunks are coming out, we can smell them!  The last two years in a row, our little white dog was skunked in February.  I am hoping we avoid the smelly hat trick this year.  Have you ever smelled a skunk?  They smell like a mixture of rotten eggs, burnt rubber and garlic.
So, why do skunks smell?  Skunks spray as a defensive mechanism.  Skunks release a fluid from two scent glands on their backsides.  The spray can fly through the air from five to sixteen feet!  For example, when my little white dog goes up to a skunk and wants to play with it, (see picture of Cortland after a trip to the groomer) the skunk gets scared, turns around, lifts his tail and sprays him in the face.  The spray bothers Cortland, burns his eyes and makes him sneeze.  While Cortland is dealing with that issue, the skunk can run away.  Skunks spray the smelly scent to protect themselves from predators.

By the way, the best way I have found to clean Cortland is equal parts hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and Palmolive soap.  I didn’t want to use tomato juice and turn the little white dog pink.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Black Holes and Oreo Cookies

When I was an undergrad at the University of Chicago, I had the opportunity to join a small gathering one evening listening to Nobel Prize winner Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.  We students all sat on the floor while Professor Chandrasekhar sat on a sunken couch with his knees up to his chest.  He looked terribly uncomfortable.  Someone passed a plate of Oreo cookies to him and before he could take a bite, we began peppering him with questions about black holes.  The poor man spent the next two hours explaining black holes, having to use the Oreo as an example of a black hole in space.
A black hole is a region of space where gravity pulls so much that nothing, not even light, can escape.  The gravity is strong because matter has been squeezed into a small space.  This can happen because a star implodes, or falls in on itself, when it is dying.    Other black holes formed when the universe began.  Black holes will pull objects into them including comets, stellar gases, planets and even other stars.  During the evening, Professor Chandrasekhar frequently used the cookie to represent a black hole and showed how celestial bodies would disappear into the Oreo.
Today, has great videos and articles on black holes so no cookies needed!  Click here to go to to see a great video on the formation of birth of a black hole.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why do kangaroos carry their babies in a pouch?

Joeys (the name for a baby kangaroo) are born at a very young age and are about the size of jelly bean.  At birth, they crawl up the mother’s body and enter a pouch where they attach to a teat to feed.  As it grows, the joey begins to spend more time outside of the pouch and fully leaves the pouch of its mother at about 7 to 10 months of age.
Kangaroos are marsupials – meaning that they give birth to very young babies that cannot survive outside their mothers.  Koalas and opossums are also marsupials and have pouches. There are 47 different types of kangaroos including Wallabies (the smallest) and the Red Kangaroo (the largest).  Kangaroos are herbivores.  They eat grasses and young shoots of plants. Kangaroos need very little water to survive and can go for months without drinking any at all.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Why isn't Pluto a planet anymore?

When I was a kid, Pluto was a planet, the smallest planet in our solar system.  But in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) determined that Pluto is not really a planet, but a dwarf planet.  A dwarf planet is a celestial body that 1) is in orbit around the sun, 2) keeps a nearly round shape, 3) hasn’t cleared the neighborhood around its orbit and 4) is not a satellite.  Pluto was determined to be a dwarf planet because it “hasn’t cleared the neighborhood” around its orbit meaning that there are other celestial objects in its orbital path around the sun. 

Pluto is actually part of the Kuiper Belt.  The Kuiper Belt is in the solar system extending beyond Neptune and it is made up of frozen objects made up of methane, ammonia and water.  Pluto is the largest dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt.  The two other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt are Haumea and Makemake.
NASA has sent a spacecraft to visit Pluto and the Kuiper Belt called New Horizons.  New Horizons left Earth in January 2006 and is not expected to reach Pluto until 2015.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why do seahorses look like horses?

A recent scientific study shows that seahorses evolved from pipefish to support their feeding style.  Pipefish and seahorses are related and similar.  Both feed on small animals, plankton and brine shrimp by slurping them up (kind of like slurping your noodles).  Pipefish swim around and pursue their prey.  Seahorses, however, wrap their tail around a stationary object, like sea grass or coral, and wait for their prey to swim by at which point they reach out their neck and slurp up their prey.
Since the seahorses are not strong swimmers, they adapted to strengthen their hunting style to get food that is further away.  The seahorses evolved the S-shape because it allows them to tense their muscles and snap forward to slurp up their prey.
There is a fabulous two and a half minute video by Nature Video called “How the seahorse got its shape” showing the seahorses and explaining the findings of the recent study by Sam Van Wassenberg, Gert Roos and Lara Ferry called “An Adaptive Explanation for the horse-like shape of seahorses” published in Nature Communications.  Click on the highlighted words to see the video and the study.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Sun in 3D (no glasses needed)

This week NASA released the first pictures of our sun in 3D.  Back in 2006, NASA sent into space two probes called STEREO probes and now those satellites are in place orbiting the sun and sending images back to Earth in Stereo.  Click here to see a link of the Sun in 3D.
The STEREO probes (called A and B) are located 180 degrees apart on essentially on either sides of the sun.  With the 3D view o the sun, scientists can better monitor solar flares and predict the path -of solar storms.  For example, in August 2010, scientists observed a massive solar storm – link here to see the solar storm.  If the STEREO mission had been in place at that time, scientists could have better observed the path of the storm around the sun.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Do you know what planet in our solar system is not named after an ancient Greek or Roman god?


Mercury is the Greek god that is the messenger of Zeus.  The god Mercury is often shown with wings on his shoes so he can fly fast.  If you saw the movie Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightening Thief, Percy used a pair of Mercury’s hightops with wings to fly.

Venus is the Roman goddess of beauty.  Venus is easy planet to see in the sky - it is very bright.

Mars is the Roman god of war.  

Jupiter is the Roman name for the Greek god Zeus.  Zeus was the king of all the Greek gods.  The biggest planet in our solar system is named after the most powerful god.

Saturn is the Roman god of time.

Uranus is the grandfather of Zeus (Jupiter).

Neptune is a Roman god also know as Poseidon, the god of the sea.  Neptune is blue, - it looks like the water on earth.

Pluto (which is no longer a planet, but a dwarf planet) is a god also known as Hades, the king of the underworld. is a great website to learn generally about space.  Another fun site specifically for kids is

Thursday, February 10, 2011

How to Name an Element After Yourself

Here on the SuperSmart Carbon blog, I will talk about the elements a lot because "Carbon" is an element.  SuperSmart Carbon is a blue guy with a green hat and in this blog, he looks like he is 1 1/2 inches high.  He has two rings around him with six yellow spheres.  Although cute, SuperSmart Carbon does not exactly look like elements in the real world.  Elements are really, really, small.  You cannot see them with the naked eye, or even with a microscope.  Although you can't see elements, they are all around you.  Everything is made up of elements: the computer you are reading this blog on, the table the computer sits on, the air you breath, your shirt, and even you!

Scientists have discovered 111 elements.  Some elements I am sure you already know like gold, silver, copper, and oxygen.  Helium is a fun element.  It is used in balloons to make them float.  If you inhale helium, you can make your voice funny.  Check out this video on YouTube of a Mythbusters sounding like Donald Duck after inhaling helium

The cool thing about being a scientist who discovers an element is that you get to name the element.  Scientists have named element number #98 Californium after the sunny state of California.  #94 is Plutonium named after the planet Pluto.  My favorite is element #99, Einsteinium, after the great scientist Albert Einstein. If you were to discover an element, you could name it after yourself.  Most scientists add "ium".  For example, my daughter could name an element "Jacquelinium". This is a great link to Theodore Gray's Illustrated Periodic Table where you can learn more about the naming of the elements.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

NASA’s Kepler Mission Discovers Its First Rocky Planet: Kepler-10b

In January, NASA announced that Kepler has found its first rocky planet which they named “Kepler-10b”.  This is really exciting news because this is the first time we have discovered a rocky planet orbiting a sun other than ours.  Other planets that have been discovered have been gas planets, like Jupiter.  Kepler-10b cannot support life because it is too close to its sun (called Kepler 10).  In fact, Kepler-10b is 20 times closer to its sun that Mercury is to our sun.  Thus, Kepler-10b is not in the “habitable zone” meaning that It is too hot for water and therefore it is unlikely that life can be found on this planet.  Kepler-10b has a very fast year - it orbits its sun in .84 days!  Click this link to see a video on NASA about the discovery: Kepler-10b Discovery.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Is there life on other planets?

Maybe.  NASA is working to find out.
In March 2009, NASA launched the Kepler Mission on Discovery Mission #10 with the goal of finding other Earth-like planets in the universe.   Kepler is an unmanned space observatory that monitors over 145,000 stars (remember, our sun is a star) and provides data to determine if there are life-supporting planets orbiting those stars.  Planets outside of our solar system are called “exoplanets”. 
Kepler finds exoplanets by watching stars.  As you know, stars give off light.  Kepler watches the stars to see if there is a disturbance, or flicker in the light.  If that flicker happens repeatedly at regular times, Kepler has discovered a planet.   This link is an interactive tool for kids to learn how Kepler is spotting planets:  Kepler Exoplanet Transit Hunt Check out the Kepler: A Search for Habitable Planets for more some great information from NASA.
There is a great app for the IPhone and IPad called “Exoplanet” which is a daily updated database of all discovered exoplanets.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Why SuperSmart Carbon?

In our family, we talk about science a lot.  Not as frequently as we discuss the Cubs, Blackhawks or Star Wars, but still quite a bit.  We whip out the IPad and check out the sun bursts on the 3D Sun App.  We visit to get the latest discoveries by the Kepler mission.  We read books together like “The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean.  As parents, we try to introduce science into everyday conversations with our third grader.  I have created this blog to fuel conversations in families like ours about science.
But why the name SuperSmart Carbon?  Quick answer – “Smart Carbon” was taken by a green energy company.  The long answer is that I was looking for a name that might entice families to learn about science together.  Carbon is the basis of all life, so I thought it would be a good place to start our science odyssey. Smart emphasizes our focus on developing knowledge.  When stymied by the use of “Smart Carbon” already on the internet, I brainstormed ideas with my daughter, and she quickly came up with adding “Super” – a perfect beginning!
On this blog, I will regularly post on science topics for families with elementary-age kids.  The posts will be short and hopefully wet kids’ appetites to learn more.  I will post links to sites that we find interesting and I will share books that we have enjoyed.  I am always looking for topic ideas – please let me know what you would like to hear about!