Saturday, May 17, 2008

Careers in measuring moth tongues

Yesterday I went to an elementary school just across the border in Washington (though I kind of forgot I was in Washington, and I think I talked about "our forests here in Oregon". Oops.) to talk to the 4th and 5th graders, and again, it was great fun. Thank you, Jone, for having me!

Again, the wigs went over well with boys and girls alike, and the claws too, and I'm confident the "elephant poo paper" would have too. . . if I'd remembered to bring it. I did discover, though, you get almost as big a reaction just by telling the kids the trick you were going to play on them, then showing them the picture of the elephant pooping. Still, it would have been more fun to have the paper!

Here are my 4th grade volunteers (those are boys on the outsides.)
After Wednesday I'd added a few slides to my presentation. One of the things I do is talk about how I came up with my character names and what they mean -- that's how the "box of claws" ties in, because of my warrior prince named "Talon." I also have a character named Bellatrix.

Well, most kids know Bellatrix as a character from Harry Potter, but it's something else, too, which is why I used the name. It's this:
It's a star in the constellation Orion the hunter, and not just any star -- it makes the bow shoulder of the hunter. Well, since my Bellatrix is a warrior and huntress, I thought that was appropriate, especially since Bellatrix means "female warrior" in Latin. Perfect! In talking about Bellatrix and Orion, I also talked about the massive red giant Betelgeuse that makes up Orion's other shoulder, and about how a star that is 600 million miles in diameter (our sun is less than one million) is going to explode! and whether we on Earth should be worried about that. It turns out, not so much, you know why? Because Betelgeuse is 430 light years away. That means we would need to travel at the speed of light for 430 years to get there! Well, being kind of bad at math, I didn't know how far 430 light years was, so I googled around and found, as I suspected I would, a neato "light speed calculator" on line. And you know how many miles it is?
Whoa, baby. I don't even know how to say that number. I loved that after the presentation was over a bunch of boys (and one girl) clustered around my computer studying the number and trying to figure it out:
And here are some kids with the claws and butterflies:
And since I'm such a big nerd for weird science and nature facts, I worked some funky tidbits into talking about the different kinds of wings that faeries have.

There's this cool story, for example, about how Charles Darwin, while doing a study on orchids, came across a species from Madagascar in which the nectar was to be found 11 inches deep inside the flower. Here's the orchid.
See those long skinny tube-y things? Well, the nectar's down at the bottom. So, Darwin theorized based on the existence of this flower that there must be a moth with a proboscis (hollow tonguelike organ) 11 inches long, to pollinate the flower! And guess what. 41 years later, another scientist finally identified that moth. Check out this proboscis:
Pretty cool, no? And then, of course, there's the moth stealing tears from the bird. I found out there's also a "vampire moth" in Asia with a barbed tongue that drinks the blood of deer and cattle. I think when I grow up maybe I want to be a lepidopterist specializing in weird moth tongues). Somebody's got to do it, right?

Anyway, the school visit was really fun. I think I'm really a 4th-grader at heart, totally fascinated by vampire moths and light years and paper made out of elephant poop. I might go to one more school next week, but then that's it for a while. I'll be putting up a new section on my website about school visits, so if you think you'd like to ask your kids' school to invite me out, there will be a place to direct them for information. (Coming soon.)


Disco Mermaids said...

You need to come do a school visit in our area. It sounds like such a fun and interesting presentation!

- Jay

P.S. If you do come down here, please don't forget the elephant poo paper.

Heather said...

I think I got it:

Two quadrillion, five hundred and twenty seven trillion, eight hundred and eight billion, nine hundred and ten million, four hundred and sixty eight thousand, nine hundred and fifty-one point five miles.

I used to type up contracts, can you tell? Never typed one THAT big, tho'!

Anonymous said...

It was fabulous. Both teachers and students loved the science tie in. I am going to reread Blackbringer with a new appreciation of the research that went into it.

Alex S said...

There is the most AMAZING beignet shop in Betelgeuse. If I had more time to go back, I would in a heartbeat but these days its hard to get 430 years of time off from my current employer.
p.s. Greetios from Ashland from both my parents!

Stephanie Perkins said...

I LOVE that story about the moth with the 11 inch proboscis! I remember it from Adaptation, one of my favorite movies (written by my favorite screenwriter, directed by one of my favorite directors). Did you ever read Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief? It's filled with super-neato, Laini-like nature facts. (Like there's an orchid that smells just like grape soda and another like rotting meat!)

GreenishLady said...

Laini, those school visits are such wonderful events! I'm amazed at the information and "props" you bring in. I don't think my local schools have the funds to pay your travel expenses, but if you're ever in the area... !!!