Bermuda Land Snails & New Evolution Theories Blog/Vlog

Punctuated Equilibrium – The Relatively New Theory of Evolution Invented by Tiny Snails in Bermuda


Well, actually, it was Stephen Jay Gould, of Harvard University, and a colleague of his – Niles Eldredge of the AMNH in New York.  But it’s commonly believed that a group of tiny Bermudian snails secretly whispered it into Gould’s ear one day (just kidding).  You have a choice: see more about this theory in the vlog above by Barnas of THL/MisterScienceFair, or continue to read the blog below – or both.

Punctuated equilibrium is a theory that says animals evolve rapidly in new environments.  It’s similar to the work of Charles Darwin (and of course 1800′s British paleontologist Mary Anning, who did not receive much credit for her work, described in THL’s The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil - link below), which states that animals will adapt to new conditions, based on random mutations.  However, Stephen Jay Gould believed that it could occur in much faster spurts, in geologically speaking, very short periods of time.  There were periods in time, when there were large numbers of species evolving, and they were generally times after something catastrophic or significant happened.  That’s why you can find 15 species of Bermuda land snail fossils in a relatively short geological timeframe of only a few hundred thousand years.

Back when Dr. Gould was a young student in the late 1950′s, he was a deckhand for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, based in Massachusetts, which ended up taking him on a research trip to Bermuda.  He had already done some studies on Gastropods (snails and related creatures), and noticed various living and fossilized snails while he was there.  It turned out at that time there was a single very abundant species of snail, Poecilozontes bermudensis, which could be found all over the island (there were also other species too, including P. nelsoni and P. renianus).  This snail was so ubiquitous, that the they were sometimes collected and burned just for their lime (CaC03).

Well, it turned out that the government felt these snails were too common and may affect crops, so several predatory species of snails were introduced to the island, as well as an edible species.  Within just 2 decades, the Bermuda land snail was nearly wiped out, and the new species dominated.  Currently, it is believed that three species of snails have gone completely extinct, and only one remains, Poecilozontes circumfirmatus, which is now an endangered species, and may also be extinct soon.

However, based on fossil evidence, this group of animals has likely been on the island for hundreds of thousands of years, very well adapted and relatively stable until the last century.  Only man has been the greatest factor in its extinction, by importing new species, both intentionally and accidentally.   The amazing thing is that all these snails which evolved there were thought to have been introduced to the island by only 1 or 2 animals clinging to a log or some other floating debris, part way across the Atlantic ocean.  Bermuda is so far from mainland North America (2 hours plane right from most places in New England) and in relatively cold water, that it’s quite remarkable to imagine these tiny animals could have survived the journey and filled the entire island with their progeny.

For Stephen Jay Gould at the time, this was a fascinating topic, and he decided to use it for his Ph.D. thesis (not to mention, Bermuda’s not a bad place to do some fully funded graduate science research).  Later, this idea “evolved” into a theory known as Punctuated Equilibrium, which was the subject of a number of books written by both Gould and Eldredge.  Despite some opposition, this theory is widely recognized for its various merits and is accepted by many in the paleontology and general biology communities.

Stephen Jay Gould remained the Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology for many years, and I had the pleasure to speak with him on various occasions, when I worked there during college (although I was working in the vertebrate, not invertebrate department).  It was a great honor to work with an amazing thinker, and to all young readers out there, I encourage you to cherish your time with your mentors, because you never know when it may end.

Interestingly enough, I have recently discovered that land snails were also a favorite topic of my great great grandfather, Olof P. Nylander.   Olof was Swedish immigrant, who became a well known naturalist in Northern Maine, and later founded the Nylander Museum in Caribou, Maine, which is still in existence today.  In fact, he also studied and had a group of land snails named after him — the Vertigo nylanderis.  New species are still discovered all the time, and old species once thought extinct can sometimes pop up where you least expect it.  It is thought that one extinct group of Bermuda Land Snails may have been recently found, though it’s not verified yet.  So, be sure to get out there and look on the ground, in the plants, and keep exploring – there is a possibility you can make another big find, or have a species named after you too.

If you find evolution mysteries interesting, like I do, please read my recently released book: The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil.

Vlog: THL & MisterScienceFair at the Boston Book Festival – Video of the G.A.S. Series Release

Tumblehome Learning and MisterScienceFair were at this year’s Boston Book Festival, held in Copley Square — downtown Boston, Massachusetts.   Barnas Monteith and Penny Noyce unveiled the new books in the Galactic Academy of Science series, and showed off their second edition books with all new covers and art (the first edition books will soon be collector’s items so be sure to get yours right away).

Here is what they had to say, in this interview at the Fair, followed by audio introductions of the new GAS books, narrated by the authors themselves:

See more about the books they discussed here.

Fun Frankenstorm Activity: Learn About How Scientists Can Predict ‘The Perfect Storm’ — Make a Weather Satellite at Home!

A Fun Space / Satellite Engineering Activity You Can Do At Home For Free!

In light of the upcoming “Frankenstorm” hurricane which is supposed to hit Eastern U.S. next week, we thought we’d post a fun activity about how you can make your own weather satellite at home (of course it won’t be able to predict the weather but it’s lots of fun):

Taiwan National Space Organization (NSPO)’s Formosat-II Weather Satellite

Image credit: EADS Astrium SAS/ NSPO (National Space Programme Office) of Taiwan

These girls did a project at the Taiwan International Science Fair, about Sudden Stratosphere Warming Using the Formosat-II Weather Satellite

During their trip to establish THL-Taiwan (known as 藏寶家 – Tsang Bao Jia), THL Co-Founders Penny Noyce and Barnas Monteith visited the Taiwan International Science & Engineering Fair, and saw a number of projects in Earth & Space Sciences about the Taiwan earth observation (imaging and sensing weather satellites) satellite series known as Formosat.  Formosat was developed with the collaboration of US, European and Taiwanese space agencies.  Formosat (and related project COSMIC) was designed, among other things, to provide highly accurate weather and related data to the scientific community, for current day weather, as well as long term studies of changes in the Earth’s atmosphere.  Formosat-I was designed to look at the ocean and ionosphere (the part of the atmosphere from 85 to 600km above Earth, which receives most of the effects of solar radiation from the sun).  Formosat-2 does what they call high resolution change detection (a fancy phrase meaning it’s really a giant digital camera), so it can help with the preparation for disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis and was useful in the emergency management for natural disasters such as Katrina (and because of its excellent resolution camera, it can also be used to monitor security situations such as nuclear power plant sites in unfriendly nations).  Brief info on the mission, direct from NSPO, can be seen here. Formosat-3 uses GPS to produce highly accurate coordinates for ionosphere and magnetometer (which measure the strength and direction of magnetic fields, like that of Earth itself) data.

The new COSMIC project (Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate system - based on the Formosat series mission) uses a number of Formosat-3 GPS mini-satellites working together to produce accurate weather data at various elevations above ground.  Thus instead of using data from just one expensive satellite, with one set of sensors, this more cost effective LEO (Low Earth Orbiting) satellite array of data can be used to more precisely predict and monitor the impact of severe weather such as typhoons/hurricanes (like the two below, that Barnas experienced this summer), and more.  The COSMIC system, jointly developed by Taiwan and the US is one of the most advanced weather systems in the sky today.  These satellites previously used to be launched from various types of space vehicles in the US, including US Space Shuttle, and in fact a Taiwan satellite mission was in the last flight of the US Space Shuttle project.

A weather satellite view of two typhoons which struck Taiwan in rapid succession this year (which was supposed to become a “Frankenstorm” of sorts but never did)…

A closeup view of one of the typhoons, using Infrared (IR) data imaging, as opposed to regular optical imaging

So, with data from Formosat and similar weather satellites, students can not only develop new formulas and methods for predicting and planning for current day weather, but also track global trends, and even climate shifts.  The good thing about science fair projects of this type is that a large amount of the data is freely available online, as it is from a publicly funded agency.  From there ,you can do an infinite number of different types of computer simulations and develop new formulas which could potentially be useful to meteorologists throughout the world.

Penny and Barnas visited Taiwan’s NSPO to see how they make the real Formosat / COSMIC satellites

Following the science fair, Penny and Barnas also visited NSPO this year – the NASA of Taiwan, based around the center of the island in Hsinchu, Taiwan.   We learned that NSPO is planning not only to expand its COSMIC multi-satellite weather array program (see a youtube video about COSMIC here), but that it is working closely with US’s NOAA (US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) to do so.

A Display about NSPO (Taiwan’s NASA), and the various satellites they have launched, many of which were collaborations with the US, and are focused on weather data

A launch vehicle, and a large model of one of  NSPO’s weather satellites

Our guide at NSPO provided us with a cool and simple activity that you can do at home if you have an interest in meteorology or aerospace science.  He provided us with a piece of paper, containing all the parts of Taiwan’s Formosat-II satellite, which you can cut out, glue together (using general purpose, paper or wood glue), and pointed us to online images of what the real satellite looks like.  The satellite model contains accurate scale paper replicas of the solar panels (how the satellite obtains energy to power its instruments), it’s propulsion system (how the satellite can move around), and its body which contains various instruments (to monitor the satellite, collect data, and then send it back to Earth to be studied).  You can see some of the images and read more about the program here.

Here’s Barnas, on the ground, cutting out parts with a razor knife to make his paper weather satellite

Here is Barnas recently making his Formosat-II satellite model, using just some paper, glue and an eXacto razor knife (though you can probably just use safety scissors).  Be patient – this is medium difficulty project for a middle school student.  It takes a few hours (2-3 hours) for an adult to carefully cut out and glue all the parts together, to make a final product like the one below, working at a normal pace, so expect that it may take a bit longer for a child:

Here are all the parts, cut out

You can download and print the Formosat-II satellite PDF files (using a color printer of any type) to make a cool satellite model, via the links below.  There are really no accompanying directions, so it’s really a bit of a puzzle – but that’s what makes it more fun!  [Credit: Taiwan R.O.C. NSPO, produced this paper kit, for educational, non commercial purposes]

One view of the final product

Another View…

Yet another view

And, one final view.. a thing of beauty

Download your own 2 page cutout sheets, to print yourself in full color, here:  NSPO-Formosat-II-Cutout-2pages PDF

What you’ll need:

  • Download the 2 page cutout above and print using any reasonably good color printer (tip: print 2 copies each in case you mess up; also here’s a tip: we suggest you reinforce the blue solar panel either by printing and cutting 2 of them and gluing them back to back, or use a hard piece of colored paper and glue it to the bottom of the panel to make it stronger and more visually appealing)
  • Either an Exacto-type razor knife or good scissors
  • Strong paper or wood glue (and a toothpick or other object to apply the glue)
  • The pictures above, of the final model, will provide some clues about how to put it all together.  However, you may also want to download and print some pictures of Formosat-II  (or preferably, to be environmentally friendly, just google them and leave them open on a laptop screen which you can occasionally check as a reference for how the satellite looks).
  • Aluminum foil (optional: this is only if you want to cut out aluminum foil and place around portions of the satellite to make it look more interesting)
  • Thin string, preferably transparent fishing line, which you can tie loosely around your satellite and hang from something in your room, so it looks like it’s floating in space
  • Patience – again, there’s no instructions, and you need to research how the satellite looks yourself, so it’s both a fun and challenging project, requiring some preparation — and hopefully some learning, along the way (you can start with the several links provided in this blog post).

One of our scientist-authors at THL, Micheal Erb, is studying variations of the orbit of the Earth, around the sun, using a number of scientific tools, and one of them is satellite data.  His weather mystery/detective story book, which is available at THL’s online store, as well as is called “Kelvin McCloud and the Seaside Storm”.

THL will soon be releasing a weather activity kit to accompany this book, expected to be released later this year.

If you have fun making your satellite, and want to purchase a kit, we recommend taking a look at the upcoming THL solar kit series – we’ve got cars, fans, plant watering kits and more.  Nearly all satellites use photovoltaic (solar) energy in one way or another, and this is a fun way to learn more about how you can make energy just by putting a panel out side, and facing it toward the sun.


Geologists Find Largest Dinosaur Eggs in the World… Another Fraudulent Fossil

A man, in Chechnya, next to the so-called “largest dinosaur eggs in the world”

A few months back there was a report that the world’s largest dinosaur eggs had been discovered in Chechnya (do a google search for “world’s largest dinosaur eggs” or something like that and you’ll see links everywhere).  It made it to worldwide news within days, and was even reported on ABC News.  Chechen officials were ecstatic that there may be a surge in tourism and revenue to their local economy.  In fact a number of dinosaur enthusiasts, mostly local, did try to visit the site in coming days and weeks.

Around the same time a report came out from the University of Zurich (Dr. Marcus Clauss, and others) that one of the major reasons for large dinosaur extinction was the fact that dinosaurs had to lay eggs.  Although dinosaurs kept getting bigger (for instance the Titanosaurs which are well known from fossils in Argentina, and thought to be some of the largest animals that ever lived — there were several dozen species, some of which could have weighed up to 100 tons), their eggs were getting comparatively smaller.  An average Titanosaur’s eggs were only about a foot in diameter.  So, the babies inside would have only weighed a few kilograms — a far cry from the at least 50 tons they were expected to grow to, as an adult.  Eggs are designed this way in part because there are physical limitations to airflow through a membrane, which means that in order for the egg to retain its strength it had to remain small enough for oxygen to get inside, and carbon dioxide to get out.  It is theorized that because the babies of the large dinosaurs had to occupy such a widespread niche in the dinosaur’s ecosystem, there were comparatively fewer small dinosaur species around, which could have survived a massive extinction event.  Furthermore, as babies the dinosaurs would have largely fended for themselves, whereas mammals, and smaller birdlike dinosaurs were more involved in the raising of their young.  This meant the large dinosaurs were more likely to die off in a catastrophe with a food shortage.

The largest dinosaur eggs ever discovered were found in China in the 1990′s, and were 2 feet (60cm) long, and around 20 cm in diameter.  Much smaller than 63cm to 1 m, which was the originally reported size of the “eggs” found in Chechnya.  Considering that the largest vertebrates which ever existed had eggs about a third of this size, you’d have to wonder how big the animal was, that laid these huge eggs.

Having studied dinosaur eggshells for a number of years, when you hear something completely astonishing like this, you have to regard it with a careful scientific eye, if not outright skepticism.  The claim that the eggs had widely varying diameters, and the “yolks” and “whites” clearly visible were a key indicator that the eggs may not be real.  Dinosaur eggs are rarely discovered intact, and moreover, they rarely have consistent, clearly divided sections, and are without lots of eggshell evidence around.  As a young budding paleontologist, in my middle school years, I had the opportunity to study at “Egg Mountain” – the first dinosaur egg nesting site in North America made famous by Montana’s Dr. Jack Horner.  I recall that for every partial egg you found, you’d see tons of eggshells along the way leading up to it, which were so plentiful, and so scattered, you wouldn’t even bother to collect them.  Like modern chicken eggs, dinosaur eggs would have been relatively speaking, fragile, and could shatter, and as dry eggshells, spread easily all over the ground.

Barnas Monteith, with Dr. Jack Horner, at a site near “Egg Mountain”, the first dinosaur nesting site discovered in N. America

Part of the reason that eggs and eggshells are so complicated is because they have to serve a bunch of different purposes.  They have to 1) protect the embryo from the environment and predators somewhat, like armor, 2) protect the embryo from toxins, 3) allow the baby to breath, 4) be able to be broken by the baby when it’s time to hatch.  There are a number of other purposes too, but these are really the main ones.  Eggshells are made up of a mixture of both organic (protein-based) materials and inorganic (calcium carbonate usually, and sometimes calcium phosphate, like bones) materials.  The eggs contain an inner lining of a membrane which helps keep bacteria and other toxins away from the whites and yolk, and pores which allow for gas exchange.  It is this membrane that serves as a growing point for the fibers and calcium carbonate crystals which act as the “skeleton of the egg”.  Below is a picture of a modern eggshell which I took with an SEM for comparative purposes, when I worked at Harvard’s OEB lab, trying to determine if an egg-like fossil from the Triassic was really a membrane based egg.  Now that was a tough project, and still has no firm conclusion.


A scanning electron micrograph of a membrane-based eggshell, at very high magnification, in which you can see the proteinaceous fibers embedded in the inorganic calcium carbonate matrix

So, when you look at the initial pictures of the eggs from Chechnya, you see something quite interesting.  You see concentric circles around some of the eggs, which is pretty inconsistent with  the growth patterns of normal eggs, which grow from the membrane out, and not as large, single spherical shells from one end to the other.


Chechnya’s “dinosaur eggs” containing circular patterns around the eggs, indicating that it is a likely concretion rather than an egg

They look a lot more like the concretions or “bowling balls” like the ones here on bowling ball beach in California (a real place).

Mendocino, California’s Coastline “bowling ball beach”

From, a picture of concretions from CA – note that the rock in the left center appears to look a bit like a cut hard boiled egg, due to various mineral stains., but alas, it’s just a rock – not a fossil egg.

It wasn’t even days after the ABC report came out that scientists came forward with publicly expressed doubts.  A month later, a Russian university report came out which finally declared that the “eggs” were nothing more than rocks.  In more recent months, people with access to the specimens have confirmed that these “eggs” were indeed nothing more than concretions and should have been checked more thoroughly before an announcement was made.

Even more recently articles have been published that a set of small meat-eating (Theropods, like Velociraptor) dinosaur eggs was found that resemble the morphology (shape) of modern bird eggs, in that they are oval and elongated.  This suggests that just maybe, the small meat eating dinosaurs may just have evolved into birds in the nick of time, and became the very birds we see today.  A paleontologist Nievez Martinez, who passed away over a year ago, discovered this group of ovoid eggs, and was able to do research on this amazing discovery before her untimely passing away.  More on her research can be found here:

In fact, there are more recent scientific studies as of this week ( that add further evidence to suggest Steven Jay Gould may just have been right that vertebrate evolution occurs in short, necessary bursts, based on a basic genetic developmental toolkit which has existed for hundreds of millions of years (published a few days ago in Science).  The differences between a very light hollow-boned hunting dinosaur with feathers and a very light hollow-boned bird with feathers and wings is really very very small, given the huge variety in species today.  It’s still possible that some of the birds you see flying around today, are distant cousins of T-rex, or at least maybe Deinonychus or Velociraptor.  One can only wonder and hope.

This is yet another Furious Case of a Fraudulent Fossil… I am not sure that this one was solved by the Galactic Academy of Science though.  But you never know…

If you’d like to read more about how the Galactic Academy of Science solves cases of Fraudulent Fossils, please buy my new book here (and this book has a LOT to do with dinosaurs to bird evolution, and fossilized eggs).  Note that the link below is a sneak preview of what the second edition cover of “Fraudulent Fossil” will look like.  But, for now the first edition is a collector’s edition, so buy soon:

Click here to Read More and Buy “Fraudulent Fossil”

There’s No Such Thing as Triceratops!

 So Many Dinosaur Species… Or Were There?

Dawn of the Dinosaurs Exhibit at Taipei’s CKS Memorial Hall

As I was walking through the Dawn of the Dinosaurs exhibit in Taipei’s Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall the other day (which I highly recommend, although the exhibit is about to leave the country this week and go somewhere else in the world), I noticed that there were walls and walls of dinosaur species lists.

One of many dinosaur skeleton reconstructions at the Dawn of the Dinosaurs, representing a species which rarely gets displayed to the public

The exhibit was overflowing with information about “brand new” dinosaur species. It got me to thinking — growing up, there were maybe a dozen really important dinosaur species you just had to know. Then in my teens, entering international science fairs about dinosaur evolution, where I had to be up on my “dinosaur terminology,” I recall I probably knew maybe a hundred (I know, this is not terribly normal, really, but for a fan of dinosaurs, not too abnormal I assure you). Now it seems to me there are thousands — many quite obscure and closely related to other known species, and identified only from a few fragments of bone. And the list keeps growing all the time.

Giant list of Sauropodomorpha species (a type of dinosaur, similar to “brontosaurus” or more correctly, apatasaurus)

Perusing the halls of one of Taiwan’s most important architectural icons, I couldn’t help but think how cool it was that it was full of iridescent skulls from “never before displayed” dinosaur, reptile and mammal fossil species. Well, it turns out that some, if not many of them, may not have ever existed.
During the early part of the last century, after the “gold rush” of the prior centure, there was another geological scramble to hit popular society, and that was the “dinosaur rush”. P.T. Barnum, in the late 1800′s instilled a sense of showmanship into American culture that has not been matched since. During that same time period, O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope, the famed “giant dino” hunters, and many other amateur paleontologisits, found dozens of new species every year in fossil sites throughout North America. They would name species left and right in a mad rush to claim newspaper headlines that such and such museum would be showing a new species of dinosaur. there were countless dinosaurs discovered, by the largest museums and zoological centers in the world, seeking to attract new visitors.

Frenguellisaurus ischigualastensis, (also known as Herrerasaurus) was one of the first dinosaur species in history, displayed at the Dawn of the Dinosaurs trvaveling exhibit

According to Dr. Jack Horner, of the University of Montana, prominently featured in my new book ” The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil,” there are a number of species of dinosaurs that never truly existed (and not just Triceratops, but also a type of Tyrannosaur known as Nanotyrannus, among many others). That is, according to the rules of scientific naming rights, they should not exist as new species. This is very similar to the way that engineering recognizes patents, which are issued on a first come, first served basis. If you file your patent first, you get the right to a technology and can own a localized monopoly that can last for decades, which could make you billions of dollars. In the world of academia, if you find a bone which you think represents a new species and publish first, you get the right to be able to name your species and keep that name forever. Individual paleontologists, academic instititions and museums all love this system, because it gives them permanent bragging rights on their respective resumes and brochures. It turns out that many species in paleontological history may have been named withourt proper due scientific diligence.

A study was published in recent years, with Jack Horner as principle investigator, which looked at Triceratops and Torosaurus skulls; it was determined that Triceratops may have merely been juvenile Torrosaurs (juveniles on top and adults on bottom)

Horner claims that one prominent example of this “dinosaur rush” effect was Triceratops. Prior to the naming of Triceratops, one of the world’s most well known and beloved dinosaurs, there was another 3-horned, larger dinosaur called Torosaurus, which was previously identified and named as a competely different species. Well, it turns out that according to bone density and other studies of a large number of specimens at fossil sites containing both Torosaurs and Triceratops specimens, it appears that Triceratops were merely just juvenile Torosaurs. The following is a Ted Talks speech by Horner on “shape shifting dinosaurs”:


Well, as Horner put it at the beginning of his TED talk, 3-to-12 year old children (a good part of Tumblehome Learning’s target audience) may be shocked to hear this fact but sadly, according to the rules of science, the Triceratops did not exist!  However, it’s doubtful that childrens’ book publishers and toy companies will do anything about this new fact anytime soon, as the word Triceratops is now so well embedded into our common culture.

Beautifully done modern reconstructions, with the detail of wax museum sculpture, can be found throughout the Dawn of the Dinosaurs exhibit

It’s unknown just how many dinosaurs at this point may have been incorrectly named or renamed, and there are indeed a number of people who believe that Horner’s hypothesis is not correct. However, it does point to the fact that science is constantly evolving, and scientific facts which have been widely accepted for over a century, can still be wrong. Despite the possibility that there are fewer dinosaur species out there than previously thought, new species are still found every year. So, get a copy of ‘Fraudulent Fossil’ or our FF companion kit, and start digging today!


The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil, by Barnas Monteith

We Landed on Mars!

We Landed on Mars!



Well, we didn’t really land on Mars, but the $2.5B Curiosity unmanned rover recently did – on August 6, 2012, and THL was on site in Florida when the vehicle came online.

The featured image is actually a digital postcard of me just outside the NASA Kennedy Space Center’s “Mars Room”, where a computer digitally merged a webcam photo of my face into the image of what a future NASA astronaut may look like, on the surface of Mars.  2012 marks the 50′th anniversary of the space center, in addition to being the last year of the US Space Shuttle program, which is regarded by many to be the greatest US achievement in space technology, aside from landing on the moon.

The shuttle program was designed to be an economical way to reuse most of the parts of the launch vehicle while at the same time being able to carry more payload and more passengers safely.  See here a cool NASA moving space shuttle model, that is around 3 or 4 feet tall (talk about an awesome idea for a Lego Mindstorm project).

Moving space shuttle model at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center launch site

Future launch vehicles will likely return to the older typical rocket form factor, and will be operated commercially, with government support.  THL was on-site at the USSEF in Washington DC to see one of the first future rocket designs, the Orion, produced by Lockheed Martin (see below a pic from our blog at the USSEF).

New Orion spacecraft, set to replace the space shuttle, was featured at the USSEF in Washington, DC, along with THL’s 2012 book launch

Note this picture of an early Apollo era spacecraft, and its similarity to the Orion above

While man has not yet ever actually landed on Mars, the US has sent a number of rovers to explore the surface of Mars.  NASA recently sent a brand new robotic land rover, named Curiosity, which traveled over 354 million miles, smacking into Mars at over 13,000 mph (taking 8.5 months of travel), which offers some of the highest resolution imaging of the surface of Mars, in a vehicle that is stronger, with longer lasting batteries and more powerful sensing instruments than its various predecessors (2 others in recent history, see below).   NASA, an organization which strongly supports STEM education about current technology, has already installed an exhibit about Curiosity at the Kennedy Space Center education hall, within one day of landing.

New Curiosity Exhibit at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center “Mars Room”

In recent days, there has been a buzz in the news about some photographs taken by the Mars Rover, which happened to capture Curiosity’s crash landing in the distance.   It is incredibly difficult to land a space vehicle in a very precise region, when you’re traveling unmanned at speeds that are many times the speed of sound, let alone on another planet with a 14 minute communication delay.  Below is a JPL-animated video of the launch and landing of the Curiosity.


The Mars Curiosity Rover, part of the Mars Science Laboratory, is the largest rover sent to Mars, nearly twice as big as previous rovers.  It’s mission is to study the geology and biochemistry of Mars’ surface, with the intent of determining it’s “habitality” or livability for future manned space missions.

Sojourner, an earlier Mars Rover, was approximately the size of a microwave oven

THL’s Daedalus Graphic Novel Series, in partnership with FutureDude Comics, is “real science fiction” about interplanetary travel in the not-too-distant future within the solar system.  It was written and designed by a former engineer from NASA, Jeffrey Morris, based on real scientific information.  The predecessor to the Daedalus series, Slingshot, contains an endorsement and foreword by one of America’s most famous astronauts , Buzz Aldrin, who was on the first mission to the moon, and walked on the moon’s surface with Neil Armstrong. THL’s Venus: Daedalus One is the first in the series and is already available via our online store.  The next book in the series, THL’s Mars: Daedalus Two, which as the name implies is about mankind’s upcoming mission to land on and temporarily colonize Mars, is expected to come out in early 2013.

 Buy your copy of Venus: Daedalus One Today By Clicking On the Venus: Daedalus One graphic Below:


Artwork from THL’s Daedalus Interplanetary Space Travel Graphic Novel Series

-Barnas Monteith, Tumblehome Learning

* Note that most pictures in the above blog were taken at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and contain images of simulations or real vehicles that are the property of NASA.

Top Ten (Top 10) Fraudulent/Fake Fossil Cases In History

Top Ten Fraudulent Fossil Cases Throughout History

As I was hiking up one of the tallest mountains in Taipei the other day, I came across an exposure of sedimentary rocks that appeared to be somewhat recent, and with very clear marks that looked like fossils.  As I looked closer, I saw some markings that looked a lot like plants.  I had heard that this particular region had a number of really well preserved plant fossils – and these looked just like ones I had seen online (click on the pic to enlarge it).


Weathered extant plant appearing to be a fraudulent plant fossil

Well, it turns out after I poked at it a bit, a piece of it lifted up.  After a few kicks, the plant fossil scratched away entirely.  It turns out it was a really flattened modern plant that has gotten somewhat muddy and adhered itself to a really flat piece of mudstone.

The next day, I visited one of the first fossil sites ever discovered in the country of Taiwan, in Miaoli County.  As I was walking, I saw a sandy exposure along the road, with seashells all over the ground.  Here is a picture of some of these shells:

It turns out these weren’t seashells that were pushed up from a beach a few hundred feet away, after some big storm.  But in fact, they were real fossils, that had been preserved in sandstone since the Miocene, perhaps sometime between 10 and 20 million years ago.  Here you can see a video of some of the fossils from this particular locality (and the nearby rock wall, while it may look like a sandy dune near a beach, I assure you, is as hard as cement). (and below is a really good, cleaned & prepared example of this type of fossil)

It goes to show that you can find “fraudulent fossils” anywhere (stay tuned for the upcoming release of my new Galactic Academy of Science series book “The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil”), and can sometimes be fooled by some really well preserved fossils in special localities into thinking that they are merely modern (extant) remains.  In my book, I mention one case of accused fossil fraud in the 1700’s, but I was inspired to look more into other fraudulent fossils over time.

It turns out there have been many cases of malicious fossil fraud in paleontology throughout time.  Some of these fossils were “faked” to gain scientific fame, and some were done with the intent to gain money.  But the bottom line, is that these so called important fossils, have been debunked, using scientific methodology, just like the missing link fossil in my book.  Here is a list I compiled of some of the most well known cases of fossil fraud throughout history:

10. Brazilian Irritator

This was a species of Cretaceous spinosaur (meat eating theropod with huge spines on its back), that was named because of the irritation that the discoverers/authors  felt when they realized that they had a fraudulent fossil.  It was identified in 1996, from a partial skeleton and skull, which was given to paleontologists at a museum in Brazil.  However, it was partly altered with plaster by fossil thieves, who had changed its appearance to make the fossil seem more intact.  In doing so, they elongated the skull of a known dinosaur species, and made researchers believe that they had discovered a new animal altogether.  It was never a real animal, but for quite some time, it fooled paleontologists who thought it may indeed by a new type of spinosaur with a very long alligator-like skull.  The official name of the not-real-species is Irritator challengerii named after Prof. Challenger in “The Lost World.”

9. Chinese Dragon Bones / Peking Man

It is thought that Chinese have believed in dragon mythology for thousands of years, with the earliest depictions being in Neolithic caves in Asia between 5,000 and 6,000 B.C..  It has long been thought that the bones of petrified dragons could be found throughout China, although these have all since that time been identified as fossilized dinosaur bones or other types of more recent fossils, including reptiles, birds, mammals and even humans.  These “dragon bones” were thought have special curing powers and were commonly sold by ancient “pharmacies” to heal illnesses.  One such case of early human and mammal bones being sold as dragon bones was just outside of Peking, which is now known as modern day Beijing, the capital of China.  Peking Man (homo erectus pekinensis) was a very early human ancestor who lived around 700,000 years ago, and was discovered in the 1920’s in a locality known as “Dragon Bone Hill”, named because it was a quarry from which these fraudulent medical dragon bones were regularly extracted.  A Swedish-American team first identified the possible human ancestors from teeth that they found in this hill – these fossils otherwise may have ended up as medicine.   Originally, early hominid bones were thought to be merely misformed apes (such a Eugene Dubois’ discovery of Homo erectus in 1891), but it wasn’t long before the study of early human ancestors picked up.  Peking Man also faced further controversy later on when its bones were stolen during one of the World Wars, never to be found again.  These “dragon bones” weren’t necessarily malicisously replicated or altered fossils, but they were purposely misidentified and as such I decided to thrown them in as “fraudulent fossils”.

8. Sicilian Maltese-manufactured fossils of invertebrates and fish:

Since the 6th Century BC, Romans have loved fossils and had adorned their palaces and places of worship with various types of invertebrate and vertebrate fossils (the Temple of Juno bore woolly mammoth tusks).  3,000+ years ago, teeth of large extinct great-white sharks called Carcharadon were found at sacred sites throughout Italy and Greece.  Not to mention, these fossil teeth were also regarded as a form of medicine throughout Europe too.  They were commonly faked with extant bones and bones of other extinct animals, and as such, laws were even passed to prevent selling fake fossils.

Gastropods and other sea fossils were replicated in large quantities – baked in clay ovens and used in religious rituals throughout Roman times.  Some of these fakes were even discovered in Minoan remains in Crete – some of the earliest examples of faked fossils.

7. Calaveras Skull

A human skull found by laborers in Calaveras, CA, in the late 1860’s, which was given to a Harvard geology professor (Dr. Whitney) who believed that humans and mastodons (mammoths) coexisted in North America.  The skull, which was found deep inside a mine, underneath volcanic debris, was thought to be the earliest known record of man in North America.  However, by the early 1900’s another professor from Harvard visited the site to investigate further, and it was determined that it was likely placed there within the mine by workers who did not like Dr. Whitney (and had sourced the skull from nearby ancient native burial grounds) .  Other fossils of Pliocene mammals and plants which were found nearby were genuine, however the skull was in fact from a relatively modern man (within the past 1,000 years, though not from the 1800’s), and was put there as a hoax, which was believed for decades.

6. Moroccan Trilobites

It’s sad to say, but we at THL have been accused of creating our own fraudulent fossils based on Moroccan trilobites.  Here is a picture of a Morrocan trilobite, at the Taiwan National History Museum; it is very similar to the ones we have used for internal team building exercises at THL (pic below – compare to the THL Facebook page:

However, we have done so for our own fun, and not for profit or for scientific fraud.  It is a well known fact among fossil collectors that Moroccan trilobites have a very large amount of mold piracy and forgery.   Many of these fossils, which are available on Ebay and collector sites, and via nature stores throughout  the world, are made of a carefully developed plastic resin and are attached to real matrix (pieces of limestone, mudstone, etc), via glue, and inserted into holes which are manually chipped/fitted by laborers.  Trilobites are a favorite collector item for fossil lovers, because they are all quite old (they became extince during the Permian mass extinction, so they are all hundreds of millions of years old), and they have a very unique appearance.  Coincidentally, if you purchase a copy of ‘Fraudulent Fossil’ direct from THL, we will send you a trilobite keychain or necklace/ornament, of your choice.  (external link with more information:

5. Cardiff Giant

This “giant human fossil” was one of the biggest hoaxes in US scientific history.   In 1869, workers digging a well behind the barn of a man named William Newell in New York, discovered a huge stone human in the ground, over 10 feet tall.   It was created by a man named George Hull who spend thousands of dollars (at the time, a huge sum of money) to create controversy within religious circles – to disprove a prominent group of people who thought that a race of giant men once roamed the Earth.   It was in fact a highly detailed stone sculpture, which was buried under the ground, and left for a considerable amount of time to appear to be weathered.    P.T. Barnum later offered to buy the giant, but when he was refused, he created his own and put it on display in his own facility.  As a result of this, David Hannum, one of the people who owned a stake in the original giant, was the inventor of the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute”.   You can still view this fraudulent fossil in a farm museum in upstate New York.

4. Acinonyx Kurteni – Linxia Cheetah

This is a highly debated and controversial discovery of the first cheetah in history, from China.  It is estimated to be 2.5 to 2 million years old – an “Old World” cheetah.  It was described in 2008 and then published a year later in a paper in the well known publication PNAS, but since then has been criticized publicly by a variety of experts in China who have seen the fossil and believe that it was faked.  Deng Tao, from the Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in China, noted that parts of the skull were created from plaster, and are missing part of the parietal crests.  Qiu Zhanxiang, a global expert in mammalian craniums, has also conferred that the skull of the cheetah appears to have been forged.  However, as of now, the skull is still not permitted for view by outside researchers, and little data is allowed to be released on the matter.  Although it’s not a very popularly known hoax, it is among the worst kinds of fraudulent fossil, as it has received widespread global media attention but yet, is still unresolved.

3. Johann Beringer

This was previously one of the most well known cases of fossil fraud, since it was so blatant.  In 1725, Beringer was a naturalist (the closest thing to a paleontologist at the time) on the faculty at the University of Wurzburg, and was well known for being arrogant and somewhat pushy.  His colleagues – a Professor Roderick, in a nearby Dept, and Johann Eckhart, a librarian, decided to trick Beringer with a little fossil hoax.  They had artisans carve intricate, realistic fossils of various reptiles, amphibians, insects, and invertebrates into real pieces of limestone — along with ancient Hebrew writings – and they planted them along a nearby mountain, for Dr. Beringer to discover.  Beringer created instant media attention with the finds and wrote a book about the fossils and their possible religious meanings.  Later, when the hoax was revealed, all three of the academics were discredited and forced to leave their posts.  The original Beringer book, translated in 1963, can now be read in English, and the remaining “fossils” can be viewed at the University of Oxford.   It’s funny but when I saw some of these fossils, they reminded me of our various CNC-produced trilobites for our plastic injection molded parts:

2. Archaeoraptor : “The Dinosaur-Bird Missing Link”

Archaeoraptor is the most relevant fraudulent fossil to me right now, since it concerns dinosaur-bird evolution, and that’s what “The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil” is all about.   This is a case of a fossil that was found in 1999 in Xiasanjiazi, China; the find was published in National Geographic, which later turned out to be an elaborate hoax.  The fossil, claiming to be the missing link between theropod dinosaurs and modern birds, turned out to be a partly real and partly fabricated fossil.  However, even prior to publishing, there were doubts about whether or not it was real.  At first glance it looks a bit like a German Archaeopteryx fossil – light brownish gray flat matrix, with a bird like fossil, and brown markings indicating where wings, feathers or other organic material may have been.  But a team of scientists around the world worked together to debunk the idea that this fossil ever existed, and came up with a map of exactly how the fraudulent Archaeoraptor was forged.  This intricate forgery points to the concern that the trade of fossils in developing countries with access to large areas of land and money, is a rising threat in the world of paleontology.  Not to mention, fossil collectors who place a high value on authentic fossils.  But even as recently as 2012, there have been newer and better “real” examples of theropod (Velociraptor-like) dinosaurs with feathers.  However, so far, none of these are yet considered true precursors to modern birds.  Details about the Archaeopter fraud can be found here:

1. Piltdown Man

This is by far the most popular fossil hoax in history.  It’s difficult to make a query of a group of people, asking something about fraudulent fossils without at least one person raising their hand and saying, “What about Piltdown Man?”

In 1912, Sussex England, the remains of an early human ancestor were found in a gravel pit and named Eanthropus dawsoni, after the man who discovered it – Charles Dawson.   Dawson claimed to have spent 5 years collecting parts of the specimen in a gravel quarry, after first receiving a fragment from a worker.  After revealing the skull to prominent scientists, including those at the Royal Geological Society of London, it turned out that there were a number of scientists who believed that this fossil was the “missing link” between apes and humans and just so happened to be in the UK, which was a major center for paleontological science at the time.  It took several decades before geological research and fluorine chemistry tests (1949) determined that Piltdown was a hoax.  However as early as the 1910’s, there were scientists in Europe who believed it was nothing more than a combination of fossilized ape and human parts put together.  It turned out to be predominantly fragmented ape skull bones, along with several human molars.  The identity of the forger was never found, but it was clear that it was either Dawson or someone close to him.  The forgery was officially declared in 1953.  Given the widespread promotion of the find as the “first Englishman” for decades, it has also been regarded as a key example of the problems in science and a symbol of Western arrogance.

So, why do people make fraudulent fossils?

Well, there are many incentives.  For some people, who are under pressure to perform within the scientific community, it’s all about publish or perish.  Sometimes, you need a discovery “or else” – and out of desperation, some scientists resort to unethical behavior.  Sometimes, people, especially amateur enthusiasts, are looking for attention and want to create a hoax to gain attention.  In some cases, reputable scientists have been duped because they have not ever experienced a hoax before, and are eager to promote a new discovery.  In some cases, fossil thieves/poachers merely want a little extra money, so they “enhance” their fossils a bit without realizing the ramifications of their actions – that they might be fooling people who are in the real world of science.  However, by far the biggest incentive to create “fraudulent fossils” is money.  Fossil sales can be big business.  As we have learned time and time again, in the news, you can make pretty big bucks with very large and popular fossils, as well as extremely rare and important fossils.

A number of years ago, a T-Rex named Sue was sold in the US to the Chicago Field Museum for $8.36M USD.  Recently, in May 2012, a controversial Tyrannosaurus sold for $1,052,500 USD in New York City, despite the sale being blocked by a judge order.  So, clearly the incentive for money is there for people who would be forgers of fossils.  Here is additional information on fake fossils, for collectors:

However, like anything else, where collection results in harm (endangered species artifacts, anything from rain forests, oceanic or archaeological/cultural relics, etc..), it is advised not to collect rare fossils as it not only hurts science, but may also hurt people, animals and the environment too.


- Barnas Monteith, Author, “The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil”  Get your copy of the new Fraudulent Fossil book today:


Since this post, I have found another “fraudulent fossil” that really belongs in this list.  Consider it #11 –



The Ring of Fire : Solar Eclipse 2012 / How To View An Eclipse

 ”I fell into a burning of fire

I went down, down, down and the flames went higher

And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire

The ring of fire… ” – Johnny Cash



The “ring of fire” has a lot more meaning than the popular 1963 song by Johnny Cash, repopularized by the 2005 movie, “Walk the Line”.   That’s what scientists are calling this latest full solar eclipse.  It is a full annular (ring) eclipse of the sun, that only happens every few decades or so — depending on where you live.   The hydrogen based fire of the sun is eclipsed by the shadow of the moon revolving around the Earth, such that the moon appears to be a small dark shadow with a slightly smaller diameter than the bright, radioactive sun.  This most recent eclipse happens to have “peaked” both in certain parts of Asia and certain parts of the US, separated by 12 hours or more of time zone.   It resembled a “ring of fire” because it looked just like the sun was a burning ring of fire, with a moon in the middle of it.

The moon revolves around the Earth such that it has a full rotation to the same point around Earth around every 27.3 days (a sidereal  month), in large part because it is 385,000 km away from the center of the Earth.   So, it doesn’t move as fast as the Earth can turn around one full axis (24 hrs).  Furthermore, the sun pulls at the moon with over twice the strength of the Earth.  So, the moon’s orbit around the Earth changes all the time, and as such, given all the different variables it can be very difficult to determine when a solar eclipse will occur.

At THL Asia, based in Taipei, despite relatively rainy and stormy weather, we were able to see the solar eclipse at around 6:46 AM, which was slightly after its supposed peak.  However, our view of the eclipse was not quite the same as south of us – in Vietnam or Southern Fujian Province (where the author of this blog normally lives these days); we had only a partial solar eclipse, in between the clouds due to lots of increased year over year rain activity.

Normal, cloudy view of rainy Houshanpi – same mountain as below

According to most doctors and scientists, you should not look into the sun directly, eclipse or not, because it is harmful to the eyes.  So, we at THL Asia used 3 different types of filtration methods to see the solar eclipse and document its progress along its pathway, which lasted a total of 1.5-2 hours.


The first method we tried was the pinhole method, in which you poke a 1mm diameter hole in a piece of cardboard (either solid thin cardboard like you find in the back of calendars or cereal/packaging boxes, or even corrugated cardboard, if you are careful), and shine it on a piece of white paper from a few inches away.  Generally this 1mm thickness is the thickness of a ballpoint pen tip, but can be plus or minus.

The cardboard & pinholes used for the eclipse viewing experiment, compared to a US penny and 1 New Taiwan Dollar (NTD)

So, try different objects like paperclips, clothespines etc.  Make sure you try things than generate perfect circles — and make sure you do multiple holes an inch or so apart so you can shine it on a standard piece of 8.5×11″ or equivalent white paper to see the results are all the same.  These are the results we achieved (Note the brighter ones were actually the larger pinholes — but the clear ones were the smaller pinholes.  Too small of a diameter shows nothing at all; so you should experiment to find what diameter works best for you):

Cardboard-pinhole reflections of the solar eclipse against a white piece of paper, a few inches below a piece of cardboard with various small holes


View of the pinhole cardboard against a white piece of paper underneath — held 7-9 in apart; pictures taken from different angles will show different sizes/proportions  of circles/ellipses.

The second method we tried was reflecting the sun from a high clarity mirror to a white wall, through the pinholes on the same piece of cardboard.  Multiple pinholes were made, of various diameters, ranging from needles to pen-tip-holes, to holes as large as the diameter as a regular # 2 pencil.  You can see that the different diameters resulted in different sized reflections.  Try to establish a good, bright reflection using different depths, ranging from 1inch to 1 foot away from the surface of the mirror, and reflect the light up to 6 feet away, with direct sunlight, so you can see where the position of the eclipse is.


Reflections of various pinhole representations of the solar eclipse on a white wall, reflected from a high clarity mirror – each one ie not terribly bright but several inches wide, and the entire room of people can view them

More reflected images of the eclipse

The last method we tried was when the sun died out a bit — and it turned out the be the best.  When the sun is completely behind a cloud and there is no direct sunglight you can use dual polarized glasses and try to look at the sun directly for a second.  Or, preferable, to avoid permanent damage to your eyes, you can take dual polarized sunglasses and angle them against a digital camera to find the appropriate angle to look at the sun.  Make sure to only look at the sun through the digital display (LCD/LED display) so that you don’t hurt your eyesight.   Although that method was a bit tricky , we got   some of the best results!


Here you see a sunglasses-filtered picture of the eclipse – the big bar to the left of the center is the edge of the sunglasses, as taken by a digital camera – right side polarized

Closeup of same picture – note how real picture is opposite of the reflection in the pinhole pictures



Here you see the same picture overlayed with a diagram of where the moon would be at the approximately correct scale (though the contrast compared to outer space, as well as the haze of the Earth atmosphere, blocks out the real outline of the moon, and all you see is a “shadow”)

Sun to the left of the glasses frame – right side is polarized, left side is not


Closeup of the unfiltered pic

Try these different method, or use a professional filter or binoculars/telescopes or magnifying glasses, which are applied to a piece of white paper from several inches away.  This can be tricky though.  The methods described above are quite easy and can be figured out in a matter of minutes.  Try them all, if you have time (like a 2 hour solar eclipse window) and see what you can achieve too!!  Again this is only for solar eclipses — if there is a lunar eclipse, you can try another techniques, which are much easier than a solar eclipse– check out this NASA site here, and click around to find additional lunar eclipses in the future:   NASA eclipse link .


Here you see the cardboard with various-diameter pinholes, along with the flat mirror, and the polarized sunglasses used by Barnas Monteith when viewing the eclipse above the mountains in Houshanpi, Taipei, Taiwan.

Michael Erb, a scientist from Rutgers University, who is specifically focused on studying the orbit of the Earth around the sun and how it affects long term climate change, is a THL featured first time author.  His recent book “Kelvin McCloud and the Seaside Storm” is about weather/meteorology science and how it can be used to solve science/CSI mysteriies — it can be purchased at our online THL store: .


Science scores rise with hands-on and choice

Eighth grade students who do more hands-on science projects in class score higher on a national science test than students who do fewer projects, according to the “The Nation’s Report Card” released this week.  So do students who take advantage of opportunities to do science “not for school.”

In 2011, a sample of 122,000 students from all the states took the science section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  Their performance was measured in physical, life, and earth and space science, using a combination of multiple choice and open-answer questions.  The NAEP is a good, thoughtful test, not narrowly pitched at a particular curriculum and not a test students can cram for.

Overall, on a 300-point scale, students in 2011 scored 2 points better than on the previous test administration in 2009. African-American and Hispanic students made the most progress, slightly narrowing the achievement gap between them and their white or Asian peers.

Science performance still strongly correlates with family income.  Students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch (45% of students) score 27 points lower on the science NAEP than their more affluent classmates.  Two years ago, the difference was 28 points. And male students on average score 5 points higher than female students.

Along with the test questions, students and teachers answer questions about their background, attitudes, and practices within the science classroom.  These answers can be correlated with student scores to see if some practices are associated with higher scores.  Of course, correlation does not prove causation, but it does raise hypotheses for further investigation.

In the 2009 science NAEP, higher student scores were strongly correlated with classrooms that spent more time on hands-on science projects.  The median 8th grade student works on a hands-on activity or investigation in class once or twice weekly.  The more often they do, the higher their scores: students who did hands-on investigations almost daily scored 16 point higher than those who did so almost never.  Presumably the latter students were doing most of their learning from books and worksheets.

Also positive, but less strongly so, was the correlation between working together with other students on a science project and student performance.  Here the score difference between those doing so almost daily and those never doing so was 7 points.

The impact of student interest and out-of-school involvement in science activities can be discerned from another question, asking students whether they agree with the statement, “I do science–related activities that are not for school.”  29% of students agree.  Those who strongly agree perform 16 points better than those who strongly disagree.

For us at Tumblehome Learning, these findings underline our commitment to providing fun, engaging, scientifically sound stories and activities for students to pursue on their own or with friends.  Let’s bump up that 29% of students who do science even when they don’t have to.  With interest comes effort, improved learning, and opportunity.  That’s where we’re aiming.


New Generation, New Power: The 2012 Taiwan International Science Fair

New generation, new power — that’s the slogan of the 2012 TISF, or Taiwan International Science Fair.  It is a year of change for the TISF, as well as a year of growth.  Hundreds of students, from 17 countries have participated in this year’s TISF, including representatives from Intel ISEF (the International Science & Engineering Fair), displaying projects in the following subject areas:  mathematical sciences, physics & astronomy, chemistry, earth & planetary sciences, animal sciences, plant sciences, microbiology, biochemistry, medicine & health, engineering, computer science and environmental science.

THL’s Barnas Monteith and Penny Noyce, while visiting Taiwan, had the opportunity to attend several events of the TISF, which is a week long event, held in the Shihlin district of Taipei.  Many of you may know Shilin as the Tourist Night Market area, where you can get such famous Taiwan street snacks as “tso doufu” (stinky tofu), oajen (fried oyster omelets), xiangchang (Taiwanese sausage on a stick), not to mention various parts of chickens, ducks and other animals grilled, broiled, fried or otherwise cooked on a stick (which the author of this blog loves by the way).   However, Shilin district is also home to various educational science museums such the National Taiwan Space Museum , and the National Taiwan Science Education Center (NTSEC), which is the host organization of TISF.

The week-long international science fair started off with a welcoming event at the Grand Hotel, which is only  a short distance away from the NTSEC.  The Director General of the NTSEC, Dr. Chu Nyan Shan, welcomed all to the event with inspiring words of encouragement, on behalf of the 56 year old institute, and home to the ever-expanding TISF.   Following the welcoming speeches and flag event, was a  “Meet the Scientist” lecture and panel discussion featuring:  Academician (meaning, a fellow of Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s premier Academic council, similar to the US AAAS)  Dr. C. Y. Cyrus Chu (朱敬一院士) , economist and newly appointed head of the Taiwan National Science Council, Academician Dr. “Frank” Hsia-San Shu  (徐遐生院士), energy researcher and head of the Taiwan Central Normal University, and Academician Dr. Chao Han Liu (劉兆漢院士), a climate scientist and one of the key innovators behind Taiwan’s Formosat weather satellite array, and its 12 satellite array successor, COSMIC, partly funded by the US/NOAA.   Ambassadors and other delegates from various countries were in attendance, not to mention honored guests Penny Noyce of the Noyce Foundation and Barnas Monteith of the MA State Science & Engineering Fair.

Left to Right: Dr. Chao Han Liu (劉兆漢院士), Dr. “Frank” Hsia-San Shu (徐遐生院士), and Dr. C. Y. Cyrus Chu (朱敬一院士)

Students at TISF face a rigorous week of educational workshops, lectures at local universities, cultural events, not to mention multiple rounds of judging, followed by press events and public viewing days, prior to the final grand award ceremony, in which the top award (a full scholarship to anywhere in the world) is presented by Taiwan President Ma Ying Jiu.  THL’s Penny Noyce and Barnas Monteith attended one of the public viewing days and had a chance to meet with a few inspiring students and see their projects.

Observing Sudden Stratosphere Warming by Using data from Formosat III, a team project by several students at an all-girls school in central Taiwan, looks at data from one of Taiwan NSPO’s (the equivalent of NASA in the US) active high resolution weather satellites.   The data was used to demonstrate that there are substantially more dramatic seasonal warming trends observed in the upper atmosphere, as altitude increases.

Employing GPS to Observe Tsunami-Ionospheric Disturbances, another team project by students from an all boys school in central Taiwan, takes a look at NOAA oceanic data trends to determine subtle weather patterns surrounding Tsunami events, in order to attempt to create a predictive model.

Seeing With Your Tongue, is a part-biology, part-engineering project by an enthusiastic international student from Romania, who provided a lengthy explanation of a novel method to aid the blind in seeing, through the use of a camera which can recognize written characters such a street signs and convert them to tactile (touch) signals on the tongue.  Because the human tongue contains a large number of nerves (more than most other areas of the body), it is an ideal location to provide high resolution “touch response” information to a person, and a small tongue sensor device is a portable way to be able to see on the go, in a pinch.  The device also operates like a visual aid, warning the user of any impending danger or nearby objects, through vibrations.

The projects at TISF were mind blowing, some clearly worth of patents, and certainly all would be competitive at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair, perhaps even a select few may someday lead to Nobel prizes in the not-too-distant future.

TISF has been a recognized and highlighted success for Intel Taiwan, as well – the fair’s primary corporate sponsor, with TISF winners placing extremely well at ISEF, and spreading the adoption of inquiry learning into classrooms across Taiwan.   As mentioned above, it is also a year of change for TISF.  At the helm of the fair is new Executive Director Christina Huang, taking over for Marianna Fung, who was instrumental in consolidating a national science fair for the country of Taiwan, and then expanding it into a grand multi-nation event at Taiwan’s premier science education center.  Christina is also accompanied by various new staff who will assist in leading TISF moving forward, as well as a commitment from Intel to fund TISF well into the future.

Left to right: Dr. Chu Nyan Shan, Director-General of NTSEC, MSSEF's Barnas Monteith, Noyce Foundation's Penny Noyce, and Rachel Liu, Head of Intel Education, Taiwan

While TISF is an amazing success story, evolving from a central science fair for a handful of regional fairs throughout the country to a globally recognized event in a span of not much more than a decade, it also faces challenges.  The issues facing the TISF, and science fairs throughout Taiwan are many, and not dissimilar to ones faced in the US and even in states with considerable academic talent and scientific/engineering resources such as Massachusetts.  Funding for science fair / inquiry related materials and learning time in public schools and private schools alike, throughout the country, is relatively meager.  Schools are faced with increased focus on tested curriculum, and accountability of teachers.  Not to mention, while schools in Taiwan spend considerably more time on science & engineering than US schools, they also face a shortage of resources (related both to learning time and physical facilities), and often parents with means supplement their child’s education with after-school “bushiban” courses, and standardized testing prep “cram” courses.   Resource inequality continues to be a problem, where cities and private schools have access to considerably more resources than the public schools in remote or “high needs” regions.  Sometimes, students and teachers are left discouraged, feeling like sometimes the science fair, can actually be a “science unfair”.  These are the very problems that face the MA State Science & Engineering Fair, which is now a 63 year old organization, as well as regional and state fairs across America.  However, take it from a kid who grew up in a lower middle class suburb who won ISEF and other major fairs – a few times… hands on learning is not just for the rich, and as the cliché goes, where there’s a will there’s a way.  Competitive science fair projects can indeed be done on a shoestring budget – and so can inquiry hands-on learning.  I discuss ways to get really expensive science experiments done for almost no money, in my upcoming book about science fairs: Dinosaur Eggs & Blue Ribbons.   Like our other initial release books, DE&BR will be translated into complex/traditional Mandarin and offered in English in the US and in English & Mandarin in Taiwan (as well as other languages in other countries, in the future).  Getting to my next point…one more very big problem facing TISF students from Taiwan as well as other international students in general is language barrier: students in Taiwan and other developed countries are faced with a deluge of increased assessments over time, and most of them require more and more scientific/technical English.  In the US, while we do have secondary language requirements in most schools, we do not require students to conduct significant amounts of testing in other languages (or at least not as it relates to anything but a test of the language itself).  It would be difficult for me to imagine having conducted my science fair judging sessions in Mandarin Chinese when I was just 14 years old, so I can only imagine how difficult it must be for others to not only learn conversational English, but to learn technical vocabulary at such a young age.  It goes well above and beyond just learning a subject matter, and devising a novel experiment or designing a new engineering concept – it is learning a whole other culture, and I have great respect for students who are able to do this effectively.  The students we saw at TISF are truly talented and amazing individuals (and teams)!

Student at TISF showing his SEM micrographs of insect specimen

One of our primary goals in founding Tumblehome Learning was to offer parents and teachers supplemental out-of-school learning materials at a low cost, that are actually fun — not just the boring day to day classroom lessons that tend not to inspire children to want to become scientists, engineers or educators in these fields.   Whether kids choose to become scientists or not, THL’s learning materials are an easy investment for most parents/teachers to offer young ones a look into a different world, and to provide an opportunity for critical thinking and inquiry learning that might not otherwise exist in the formal learning environment.   Our goal is not only to encourage the next MSSEF/Intel winners and TISF winners, but to inspire a life of constant exploration and learning.