Category Archives: Have Science Will Travel

Easter Island

EasterIslandHeadOn Easter Sunday, 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen came across a small island in the Pacific Ocean with about 2000-3000 inhabitants. Considering the date, he named the Island “Easter Island”, but its local name is Rapa Nui.

The Rapa Nui population of Easter Island was already in decline at this point, and continued to decline further until an all time low of just over a hundred people in 1877.

A classic theory that explains the population decline involves the massive statues found all over the island. The Easter Island heads, or moai, were carved from volcanic stone between approximately the year 1100 and 1650. This coincides with the time during which, according to paleobotanists, Easter Island went from being heavily forested to completely treeless, which led to the idea that the population used up all the trees in carving and transporting these giant statues. Thanks to this theory, the historic population of Easter Island has been widely used as example of humans being too selfish, using up resources for their own enjoyment, without considering the consequences.

Since all Easter Islands heads were made in the same rock quarry, they had to be transported to their final locations. The classic suggested method to do this would have been to cut down trees, and roll the statues over logs. But a few years ago, one group of researchers suggested that the historic Rapa Nui population could have walked the statues upright to their locations. They even recreated their theory using a concrete replica of a head, in a field in Hawaii:

If this is indeed how the islanders moved their statues, they wouldn’t have had to cut down trees for it, and not used all their efforts in making statues. But regardless of this theory, making statues was probably not the islanders’ only concern, and without that they would likely have seen deforestation and population decline anyway, perhaps due to Polynesian rats eating all the tree nuts.

So if you discover any islands this Easter weekend, perhaps plant some trees while you’re there.

Map update: astronomy and permafrost edition

I’ve added a few blog posts by other people to our ever-expanding science travel map.

1. Edmond Halley memorial at Westminster Abbey. There are a lot of scientist graves and memorials at Westminster Abbey in London, but Edmond Halley’s comet-shaped memorial is in a lovely spot, away from the crowded sections. Matt Brown wrote about it a few years ago on the now defunct (archived) London Blog for Nature Network.

Tycho2. Tycho Brahe’s observatory on the island of Hven. Heather Frizzell has been writing science tourist posts on her own blog, The Science Tourist. In one post, she describes a visit to the island of Hven, between Denmark and Sweden, where she visited Tycho Brahe’s 16th century observatory.

3. Field work in Siberia. The Polaris Project studies climate change in the Siberian arctic region, and graduate students on the project keep blogs on the site. We added a post by Kelsey Dowdy to the map, which describes permafrost sample collection.

Continue reading

The Dark Side of the Moon

FarSideOfMoonIt’s that time of year where I’m not sure anymore what is real or not. Are the Flaming Lips really releasing an album called Flaming Side of the Moon, to be played at the same time as Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, or is that an elaborate April Fool’s joke? The full stream is available, so it at least exists in some form.

The original Pink Floyd album is the subject of an interesting conspiracy theory, somewhat related to the idea of this new Flaming Lips album, called “Dark Side of the Rainbow”. Apparently if you play The Dark Side of the Moon album while watching The Wizard of Oz, the music synchs with the film. Psychologists have dismissed this theory on the basis of confirmation bias: viewers will remember the moments where the film and music are perfectly in synch, but not the moments where it doesn’t match.

But no The Dark Side of the Moon conspiracy is as wild and wacky as those about the actual dark side of our Earth’s moon.

The moon always faces the Earth with the same side, so that we never really see the other side of it. It’s not literally dark – it receives light from the sun – but we just don’t see that side of the moon very often. The more accurate term, Pink Floyd albums aside, is “far side of the moon”. Continue reading

Duke Lemur Center

I had a chance to join the pre-Science-Online tour of the Duke Lemur Center this year.


lemur4The Duke Lemur Centre houses over 250 animals across more than twenty species. Most are different types of lemurs, but they also have other prosimian primates, like aye-ayes. The lemur centre was established in 1966, and grew to the largest living collection of endangered primates in the world. The center does research in a number of areas, from communication to genetics. All research is non-invasive, so the animals are not harmed in any way.

lemur5Lemurs’ natural habitat is Madagascar, which was separated from other land masses millions of years ago, allowing all kinds of unique plants and animals to evolve. Much like Australia, and for the same reasons, Madagascar became home to animals not found elsewhere on the planet. Humans only arrived on Madagascar about two thousand years ago, and since their arrival many endemic species have already gone extinct. The Duke Lemur Center is also involved in several conservation initiatives in Madagascar, but it’s most visible work is the housing and study of different lemur species.


The North Carolina climate is not the same as Madagascar, and when we visited in February the lemurs were mostly indoors, with access to outside areas. In summer, though, the lemurs are free-roaming within a quite large area of the forest. That would have been amazing to see, so I hope I get a chance to visit the area again in summer some time.


First, fourth, and fifth photos by Melissa V who also did the Science Online lemur tour. Second and third photos by me.

The Travel of Tomorrow

Art by Steve Thomas

At ScienceOnline 2014, Eva and I encountered the folks from The Intergalactic Travel Bureau. They create a unique science education experience where folks get to plan their own getaway to the other planets in the Solar System – as well as some of the larger moons and dwarf planets.

I planned a trip (price tag >$3 billion) to the moons of Jupiter and sent postcards back to my kids.

They are looking to take The Intergalactic Travel Bureau on tour and need your help. Consider donating to their Kickstarter campaign. Do not be dissuaded by the fact that they have already met their goal. More donations just means they can expand the scope of the tour – and donating means you get to vote on where they show up.