Happy Chinese New Year! The Science of Dragons & Dinosaurs – 新年快樂

Have you been eating your mammoth bones lately?

Leading up to THL’s first Chinese language science learning book releases in Asia at the Taipei International Book Expo, as well as the opening of our new office on ZhongXiao E (Dong Lu), Houshanpi, Taipei, THL staff have been busy at work on preparations in Taiwan, throughout the New Year.  2012 – the year of the Dragon (龍) –  is significant for Tumblehome Learning, as ‘fraudulent dragon fossils’ are a key theme in several of the inaugural books produced by THL this year, including the Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil, and Dinosaur Eggs & Blue Ribbons, both authored by Barnas Monteith.

Dinosaur, in English, originally named by Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892), is derived from the Greek words deino, meaning “fearfully great”  and sauros meaning “lizard”; however in the most widely spoken language in Asia, Mandarin Chinese, the word Dinosaur is translated as “kong lung” (恐龍), which means “fearful dragon”.  Dragons and dinosaurs have long been closely affiliated in Asian cultures in more ways than just their names; for hundreds of  years, dinosaur and other vertebrate animal fossils, often darkly colored, were thought to be the charred and hardened stone bones of long-dead mythical dragons.   As such, they were thought to have mystical healing properties and were revered by doctors and people with severe illnesses, not knowing that they were actually fossils of dinosaurs, reptiles, amphibians and even birds from millions, even hundreds of millions of years ago (this is even document in ancient text such as the Shennong Bencao Jing, ca. 100 AD).  These “fraudulent dragon bones” were often crushed into powder and prepared in teas, and mixed into foods, in an attempt to use the magic of the dragon bones to heal the wounded and sick.  Needless to say there were very few people truly healed by these dragon bones, but yet, even to this day the practice of using dinosaur bones in Eastern medicine still continues.

Although not Peking Man, this is an example of an early hominid skull fossil

It is a lesser known story that the origin of mankind, and the study of human evolution, was first discovered in a pile of these so called “dragon bones”.    Peking Man (Sinanthropus pekinesis, named afterBeijing, once known as Peking), is known to be an early ancestor of homo sapiens (man).  In the late 1800’s, many paleontologists, rather than going out and digging in the field, would instead visit Chinese pharmacies, knowing that some of the best finds could be had in the dragon medicines.  German physician, Dr. KA Haberer picked up a number of fossils on a trip to a Beijing pharmacy in 1899, and unbeknownst to him, also picked up a 2 million year human-like molar, which it was later determined was that of the Peking Man, a very early ape-like ancestor of man — and additional parts were later found on subsequent expeditions to a limestone quarry location just south of Beijing known as “Chou Kou Tien” or “Dragon Bone Hill”.  Important fossils continue to be found to this day, in remote apothecaries throughout Asia.

In Fraudent Fossil, students learn of a modern day fraudulent fossil mystery, which they must solve by going back in time to visit and learn from historically significant geologists, naturalists and other scientists who helped to shape the ideas which have evolved into modern paleontology.  One such scientist/naturalist was Shen Kuo (沈括, 1031-1095) a high ranking Song Dynasty statesman who discovered the concepts of geomorphology and stratigraphy, while viewing the bamboo-like plant fossils found in different rock layers of the Taihang Mountains in Wenzhou, China.  Shen’s idea of how rocks and mountains were formed predated the concepts of sedimentology and rock formation described by James Hutton in 1802, which has often been referred to as the work which defined modern geology.  Geomorphology (the study of the shapes of landscapes and land formations) and sedimentary deposition / stratigraphy (how smaller rocks such as mud particles are joined together to make larger solid rocks like mudstone and slate over time, and then form layers) are perhaps the most crucial tools used by geologists & paleontologists to utilize in studies of evolution (e.g. dating fossils to determine whether or not they are truly “missing links” – not to mention their validity as real fossils).  Students also explore the world of Roy Chapman Andrews – an adventuresome American paleontologist and explorer often referred to as the real world basis for the movie character “Indiana Jones”.   Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960) also visited China to hold expeditions in the Gobi Desert of Montana to try to find more clues about the history of early mankind, and to find evidence of missing links even earlier than “Peking Man”.  However, instead, Roy Chapman Andrews became the very first paleontologist to uncover dinosaur eggs, and to describe in significant detail some of the behavioral characteristics of dinosaurs which could be inferred from fossils.

Reconstruction of a Gobi Desert, Mongolia oviraptor nesting site, exhibiting parental behavior. Roy Chapman Andrews aka "Indiana Jones" uncovered numerous nesting sites throughout the Gobi of China on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History, and had several species names after him.

In Dinosaur Eggs & Blue Ribbons, Barnas Monteith digs deep into the world of modern paleobiology and the various advanced biochemistry techniques used today to uncover and compare ancient proteins, while offering tips and advice about how to succeed at winning science fairs.  In the story, Barnas discusses his adventures as a young student of paleontology doing field research for his science fair project in the badlands ofMontana, under the guidance of famed paleontologist Jack Horner, a MacArthur Genius award winner, and the model behind the lead character inJurassicPark.  Jack Horner’s work on dinosaur egg placement suggesting material nesting behaviors in Maiasaurs over60 m.y.a. were cutting edge in the1970’s and80’s, and Dr. Horner has continued to innovate new fields of paleontology.  A number of years ago, Jack led a team of researchers to uncover proteins from a highly well preserved T-rex bone, which was so well fossilized, that some organic materials and possibly even cells of T-rex blood, actually remained within the bone.  In recent years, Jack has been doing significantly more fieldwork in Asia, where a plethora of bird fossils and new nesting grounds continue to be found on a frequent basis; as a result of all this new data, Jack has come up with various new theories and ideas to support the idea that dinosaurs were incredibly bird-like and that dinosaur-like reptiles very likely evolved into birds.  One of Dr. Horner’s ideas involves the concept of genetically “reverse engineering” dinosaurs from chicken DNA; so far, he has already been able to get a normal chicken to grow a small dinosaur-like tail by simply awakening old “extinct” genes.  And he is not the only one working to revive extinct DNA – it was announced in 2011 that Japanese scientists have begun work on resurrecting 8,000 year old Woolly Mammoths, and expect work to be completed within 4 to 5 years.  Scientists hope to revive DNA from intact If research advances as predicted, it  may be possible to have a real woolly mammoth walk into the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. before the 2017 U.S. Presidential inauguration (for those of you who haven’t been there before, there is a giant woolly mammoth centerpiece which greets you, as you enter the lobby of the museum; museums are among the best ways to get children interested in science by the way, as can be seen in the most recent previous THL blog – by THL cofounder Penny Noyce).

Barnas Monteith, THL CoFounder at the Taiwan Museum of Natural Science

Taiwan’s own Taichung Museum of Natural Science, one of the largest and most well attended museums in the country, is home to an amazing collection of fossil elephants, mammoths, rhinoceros, and other mammals found throughoutTaiwan.   The Taichung MNS held a special mammoth exhibit in 2009, to display elephant and mammoth finds fromTaiwan, as well as from around the world, includingSiberia.  Although Taiwan’s climate does not permit permafrost in most areas and therefore can not offer a good preservation environment for genetic material, the mammal fossils in TW are very well preserved, and have been described as early as the1920’s by Japanese paleontologists, as being related to other fossils found in mainland China, as well as in Japan.  Most of these animals are from the recent Ice Ages,10’s of thousands of years ago.  A recent study by scientists at a traditional medicine center in Oregon have determined that a variety of randomly sampled “Chinese medicines” are in fact fossils of elephants, woolly mammoths (Stegodon) and rhinoceros – very similar to the profile of fossils found in Taiwan.  Who knows how many mammoths have been mistakenly consumed as “dragon bones” throughout time, acrossTaiwan, and throughout Asia?

Woolly Mammoth fossil skull, displayed at the Taichung Museum of Natural Science, Taiwan

One thing is for certain: the dragon is an important mythical cultural symbol throughoutAsia, and their real counterparts – dinosaurs – will be a key feature in THL’s 2012 book catalog.  This year, THL will celebrate the Year of Dragon by releasing a minimum of 3 books focused on paleontology; and will be building a major presence in Asia, the original home of the Dragon.

The "Year of the Dragon" exhibit at the Taichung Museum of Natural Science

Don’t forget the next time you get ill, be sure to eat all your “dragon bones”…

If you happen to be in Taipei currently or in the near future, please visit THL’s booth at the Taipei International Book Expo from Feb 1-6, 2012, at the Taiwan World Trade Center (details on our events page), or visit our new Taipei office at ZhongXiao DongLu (please set up an appointment via our contact page).

 Be sure to buy the new copy of Barnas’ book “The Furious Case of the Fraudulent Fossil”, now also available in Traditional Mandarin Chinese:

This Chinese translation of the book is soon to be released in Taiwan:

This is what the new Traditional Chinese version (瘋狂化石詐騙案) of the Fraudulent Fossil looks like; Mandarin editions are not currently available at the THL, check back later, in the meantime, please buy an English edition


Books as a Pipeline to Get More Kids Involved In Science Fairs

This Post Was Originally Published on the Tumblehome Learning Website, Written by Pendred Noyce:

Education in many countries across the globe, including the U.S., has been steadily moving in the direction of increased prioritization on assessment and accountability.  While fair and adaptive standardized testing and increasing/maintaining teacher quality are certainly critical to improving education, the balance of time spent on science & engineering labs and assigned inquiry-type homework projects has been generally decreasing in most areas.   Economic downturns have meant a severe lack of funding for many school systems, which has further compounded these issues, as schools struggle to maintain minimum quality computing and scientific lab equipment, especially in high needs areas.  Formal after school extended learning, enrichment, and school system supported (although often extracurricular) programs such as science fairs and robotics competitions have begun to play a more important role in supplementing the hands on learning needs of young children .  Whereas even without inquiry based learning, students may in some cases show improvements in science, math and engineering subject related test scores, the lack of involvement in the first hand experience of witnessing an amazing chemistry experiment (and by that we mean more than just putting a few mentos in a Diet Coke bottle, although that is quite cool), programming a robot, building a model airplane, or doing a science fair project, can lead to a lack of interest in these subjects.  In fact, it is expected that based on current declining student interest rates in STEM fields within the U.S., and in many other areas across the globe, there will be a shortage of scientists and engineers, not to mention teachers in these subject areas, compared to the predicted demand in the not-too-distant future.

That means fewer biochemists and medical specialists to create drugs and devices to combat health problems, fewer civil and architectural engineers to design and build safe roads, buildings, and other infrastructure needs, fewer agricultural scientists to help create and maintain efficient crops and healthy livestock, as the need for more food increases across the globe, fewer materials and electronics engineers to help find new sources of alternative energy and use that energy efficiently, etc..  As parents, teachers and mentors, we all just want to provide the best opportunities for the young people around us in our lives – and a career in science or engineering can certainly be one rewarding path.  However, society as a whole needs scientists and engineers to help make the world go around, and to improve people’s health and general quality of life.  When learning becomes bland, and fun is replaced by testing, and true critical thinking skills are replaced by rote memorization and test-taking formulas, young students become less inspired to WANT TO LEARN and less inspired to ENTER THE WORLD of science & engineering.   At THL, we want to change that way of thinking.   We want kids not only to realize the potential opportunities that are out there, but to feel them with their own hands.  We want society as a whole to have a good reason to get excited about STEM learning, and understand why it’s important for all of us.  We are studying education methods and learning materials throughout the world, to develop and share best practices

In recent surveys by a statewide science fair organization, it was discovered that roughly half of all program alumni respondents were influenced in their career and college choices because of their involvement in a school, regional or statewide science fair.  There is considerable peer reviewed published data to suggest that students do not necessarily choose their career paths in college when they choose their majors, as one might think, but rather in earlier years — as early as elementary school.  In fact, it has been suggested that if a student is not positively influenced to enter a STEM career by middle school, with reinforced interest throughout high school, then it becomes unlikely that student will enter a STEM career in the future.  The name of the game is influencing young minds as early as possible, by tapping their curiosity, and allowing them to learn at their own pace, in a way that they can truly enjoy.

A good story is a great way to engage the mind.  We’ve all heard of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes and other such fictional heroes, who solve mysteries, and face adventures – at times with a multitude of enemies and overwhelming odds stacked against them – to save the day.  At THL, we utilize a variety of exciting storylines with relatable characters as a vehicle for delivering cutting edge science & engineering knowledge, as well as concepts which follow modern engineering design methodologies and the scientific process.  We cover a wide variety of subjects, and introduce characters of diverse backgrounds throughout the books.  In our elementary Galactic Academy of Science(G.A.S.) series, the books  are centered around a group of students from different backgrounds entering a science fair project, as team members, and as they begin to search for ideas about what to work on for their projects, are suddenly drawn into a detective mystery, filled with heart-pounding adventures involving various well known  or historically significant real-world scientists and engineers throughout space and time.   Throughout the story, students are introduced to concepts and content which help them along their pathway to solving the mystery, winning the science fair, and just maybe being inducted into the Galactic Academy of Science.

While THL’s core products are centered around science mystery and adventure books as well as related online or physically published written content, we encourage children and parents to supplement reading with hands-on activities.  THL’s core products are packaged with “kit” materials which align with the various lessons in each of our books.  Standalone THL books are also available, and supplemental resources are made available through tablet/phone/device software or online, through virtual learning games and puzzles, optional physical learning kits, and even activities that can be done with materials floating around the house [NOTE: some materials are still in development and will be available during 2012].  Our materials additionally encourage students to enter real world science fairs, robotics competitions  and other activities, and resources are made freely available through our printed materials and website.

Hands on learning is at the heart of THL’s mission.  So, get your hands on some THL books and kits and begin inspiring young minds today!  Available by pre-order, shipping in April — or come see us at the USSEF in Washington D.C. at the end of April — details in our News section.


Are Diamond Chips Real?

With the upcoming THL release of Penny Noyce’s “The Desperate Case of the Diamond Chip,” we’ve been hearing questions from people who wonder if diamond semiconductors are just science fiction or a metaphor of some kind.  Well, while our Galactic Academy of Science series is centered around the concept of time travel, which is indeed science fiction (at least for now), the underlying diamond chip mystery is founded in real modern science.

In the “Diamond Chip” book, students go back in time to learn about the origins of modern semiconductor science, studying chemistry, physics, some basic electronics, through to the creation of the Si chip (by Penny Noyce’s father, Robert Noyce, founder of Fairchild Semi and Intel) and onward through modern cutting edge materials science.  In their journey, they learn about the various creative thinking methods used by famous scientists from the past, to uncover important knowledge, building on prior knowledge, to create the modern microchip.  Microchips are the central component in most of the technology devices people are familiar with today – from computers to microwave ovens to cellphones to cars.  It seems that these gadgets get faster and better all the time.

This concept, that chips become faster in speed and performance, and smaller in profile, is known as “Moore’s Law”.  Gordon Moore, along with Penny’s father Robert Noyce, were among a handful of original engineers who took Robert’s Silicon chip and through Intel, helped to create Silicon Valley and ultimately created one of the largest global industries today.  Moore’s law stated that the number of transistors (the parts of the chip that make things happen) on a chip will double about every 2 years, thus making chips smaller, and progressively more powerful, at a faster and faster pace as time goes on.  Well, Moore’s Law, which was first stated in 1965, has largely held true, for the most part over many decades.  But in recent years, many scientists have begun to believe that Moore’s Law has hit a wall or may potentially need to be revised.  A number of scientists claim that the physical limitations of materials and perhaps even physics itself is being reached.

One of the biggest problems facing chips, and many other electronic products, is heat buildup.  As chips become hotter, computers or other devices which house the chips become hotter, and performance is degraded dramatically.  Heat causes chips to fail or perform incredibly slowly.  Outside of the difficulties in making smaller transistors, and finding new materials to protect the small circuits, heat has been a major factor in semiconductor industry changes in recent years.  Silicon, which is still after so many years the basis of all modern chips (or in some cases Gallium Arsenide or other exotic materials), has an inherent inability to remove heat.  Companies across the world are looking for alternatives to Silicon, for the future product roadmaps.  There are a number of materials now being explored, but one thing is certain, and has been known for many decades – diamond is not only durable and brilliant, but is one of the best materials in the world for thermal conductivity.

Work is currently being done by various companies on carbon based materials related to diamond such as “graphene” (which is quite similar to diamond in many ways) and other advanced materials as substrates, as well as materials on the inside of the chip, including “low K” materials (which act as insulators in the chip, protecting electrons from flying away into the Silicon and producing more heat and wasted electricity), among other things.

As this work is proceeding, companies are working in other areas to do their best to extend Moore’s Law; for instance, most companies are expanding the size of wafers more and more to make the production process more efficient, as transistor sizes become smaller and more densely packed together.  The industry is currently capable of making “features” or parts of the chip, like little transistors, under 20nm in size.  As a matter of fact, in a number of labs throughout the world these features can go even smaller (thousands of times smaller than Robert Noyce worked on, almost at the atomic level).  Many companies are also working to make chip architecture more efficiency by stacking chips together, or making “3D chips” – these are already in production and are expected to be a major source of industry growth in coming years; they extend Robert Noyce’s 2D ideas (which were not only novel at the time, but have kept the semiconductor industry going for half a century, and are still the same basic processing blueprints for how to make a 3D chip).

One possible next step in the future, to make chips both high speed and cooler at the same time, is doped synthetic diamond.  Diamond is considered quite possibly the “holy grail” of semiconductors; in fact there are now a number of companies out there looking into what is known as SOD (semiconductors on diamonds), although there are still a number of technical hurdles to overcome in order to make the concept commercially feasible.  Diamonds, for at least the past decade, have been in use in the production of most semiconductors, as an abrasive on the surface of giant pads, which polish Silicon wafers (in a process called CMP: chemical mechanical planarization).  Diamond was at one point extremely expensive (and natural diamonds from deep under the ground continue to be expensive), but in its synthetic form has become progressively cheaper and cheaper since the 1950′s when diamond synthesis first became possible.  Because of its superlative physical properties, diamond is already used in many laser applications, defense, aerospace, medical equipment and even consumer applications like LEDs (LED means Light Emitting Diode, which is basically a piece of semiconductor-like electronics that replaces light bulbs, making them brighter or last much longer without replacing – even up to 30 years; examples of LEDs are traffic signals / crossing signals, flat panel TVs and various types of car lights), nail polish (to make the polish last longer, without chipping), high end speakers (to make the high end sounds of tweeters more crisp, so you feel like you’re listening to a real symphony instead of a recording) and golf clubs (to make the golf balls go much further than just metal golf clubs) – to name a few.  Very tiny diamonds, nanodiamonds (10^-9 m in size) are now being considered for use in pharmaceutical drug delivery (so people who are sick can take medicine one time and it can last a long time instead of taking many pills every day, which they might sometimes forget) and even cosmetics (so the cosmetics last longer, keep their color, don’t smudge, and have more brilliance), among many other things.  Some of these diamond applications are based on thermal properties (diamond has the highest thermal conductivity in the world, because it is a very solid crystal which can transmit heat through waves, and not just particles), some for optical properties (diamond is the most clear, optically pure material in the world), some for hardness (diamond is the hardest material in the world, so it’s scratch proof), and also healthcare because diamond is made up entirely of carbon, and as such is completely compatible with human bodies, which are all carbon-based.

There are lots of new fields of diamond science popping up every day like diamond foams for high efficiency radiators (both to take heat away and to distribute more heat in a house or car), diamond-coated cookware to make food cook faster and more evenly, high efficiency diamond solar cells (some of which are 2-3x more efficient than Silicon in lab results), diamond “solid state lubricants” (which means that you can use diamond powder to replace motor oil which helps make machines move, and it lasts much longer without replacing), diamond you-name-it…  Perhaps someday, you or your children can find more applications for this wonderful material, and like what happened in “Silicon Valley”, a “Diamond Valley” may emerge and give birth to derivate industries and new computing innovations for decades to come…

One of the big problems facing new exotic materials is that they are often hard to produce in large sizes at a low cost; while there are many commercial tradeoffs between advanced materials such as graphene and diamond, researchers are at this very moment pursuing both options fiercely to advance technology, and will undoubtedly uncover many new and unexpected findings along the way.  While we do not know for certain whether or not there will be graphene chips, diamond chips or another type of carbon or non-carbon-based chip in the future, perhaps in the coming decades, we are certain that it is possible.  It is the possibility that is exciting – especially the possibility that perhaps children reading books from THL’s G.A.S. series, might become inspired to one day be the inventors of the enabling technology that allows these materials to be used.  That is our hope.

The featured picture of this blog is author and THL co-founder Barnas Monteith, along with colleague Dr. Michael Sung, standing in front of one of their diamond wafer coating machines.  Barnas and Mike (who met each other in high school at the International Science & Engineering Fair, and have remained friends ever since), previously founded a company in the field of diamond materials synthesis and semiconductor research, and for nearly a decade focused on thermal management and how best to use diamonds to make chips.  The work goes on…

The Desperate Case of the Diamond Chip debuts at the Taipei International Book Expo on Feb 1-6, 2012, at the Taiwan World Trade Center, with galleys / advanced reader copies available in both traditional character Mandarin Chinese, and English. 

Solar Lithography

A simple experiment to demonstrate the power of sunlight.

What you’ll need:

  • 1 sheet of paper
  • a pair of scissors
  • a small piece of glass
  • light sensitive paper
  1. Draw a pattern on a sheet of paper
  2. Cut out pattern you want to imprint out of the paper
  3. Layer the design over the light-sensitive paper and cover with a glass
  4. lay the combined paper sandwich (glass upwards) in the sunlight and leave out for 5 minutes
  5. Remove the glass and rins the light-sensitive paper