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Newsletter archive > Halloween 2003

Halloween is for Science

There are lots of fun links on the web for this great holiday, but here are a few of special interest to scientists and budding scientists. You may remember many of these sites from last year, but there are lots of new ones as well.

  1. Why do we like to be frightened? What makes us go to scary movies, and why do some of us like them more than others of us do? Read about all this at the Why Files “Things that go bump in the night” website. While you are at the Why Files, take their “Horror of Science Quiz.” It will lead you to all sorts of really spooky science information. How do movies make those scary special effects that give us such shivers? Check it out at the NOVA special effects site.
  2. Everyone’s favorite Halloween flying mammal — the bat! (Well, all right, the only flying mammal.) There are some terrific bat sites on the web. Don’t miss the National Geographic “Creature Feature — Vampire Bat”. It comes with video, audio, maps, even an e-postcard to send to a friend — and after all, what bat is more representative of Halloween than this largest of the American bats? You can also try the Bat Quiz to see how much you already know about these intriguing creatures. What sounds do bats make? Hear some samples of bat calls. You can also hear bat echo-location sounds and read a brief description of how echo-location works. Visit a bat cave in Jamaica. Tired of mosquitoes in your yard? Build a bat house to entice these interesting, insect-eating animals to your neighborhood. A bat can catch six hundred mosquitoes in an hour. Learn more about bats from this bat FAQ.
  3. Your Halloween bats may be accompanied by other creatures of the night, such as owls. There are so many different kinds of owls. See and hear different species of North American owls. The Chicago Museum of Sciences invites you to solve the “Strange Case of the Mystery Rock”. Did you know that owls use their faces to help them hear? Information of all kinds can be found on the Owl Pages.
  4. I always thought Stonehenge deserved a place in Halloween — even though it may have nothing to do with the holiday, since Stonehenge most certainly predates the Celts and Druids. It’s just the sort of thing that seems like it should be so. Of course, Stonehenge is the most famous henge, but certainly not the only one, and all are neat places to visit. The Canadian Discovery Channel takes you to a Mystic Place — Stonehenge, or visit some of the other stone circles and megaliths of Europe. Was Stonehenge a place of ritual sacrifice or murder? Did astronomy have its beginnings at places like this? Check out a “Brief Introduction to Archaeoastronomy”. And, wow, what a feat of engineering! NOVA provides an extensive question and answer page with details of the engineering and building process.
  5. Before they had pumpkins in Europe they had to make Jack-O’-Lanterns out of turnips — and it’s not easy to carve a turnip! You can grow an Atlantic giant pumpkin following these detailed instructions. The world record pumpkin weighed 1,092 lbs. — hope you have a BIG yard. Be ready for next Halloween! Before Columbus, the old world didn’t have any squash, or corn, or vanilla, or chocolate, or potatoes, or … the peoples of the Americas gave us all these good foods to eat, and more … Squash (of which pumpkins are one) was so important it often figured in ceremonies or religion. Learn about the interesting Squash Kachina, and other Kachinas, of the Hopi. Squash was important to the Hopi — young Hopi women even have a special hairstyle called the squashblossom. You can learn more about the Hopi at the tribe’s official website, the website of the Official Hopi Cultural Preservation Office or an exhibit on the Hopi from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Or try some pumpkin or squash recipes, based on Native American cooking. This Native American Indian site has several of these recipes (as well as some ordinary pumpkin and squash recipes).
  6. You might want to stock up on wolf’s bane and garlic for the holiday. Can’t find any wolf’s bane around the house? Don’t know what it looks like? Get a detailed description or see a photograph. It’s good to recognize this plant — not only does it ward off werewolves (so they say) but it is very poisonous. And don’t forget the garlic. It may not keep werewolves and vampires away, but it may help ”keep the doctor away“. Actually, there are a lot of herbs connected with Halloween. Some say the famous witches’ brew from Macbeth is more likely made of various herbs than of animal parts. You can find additional information on these plants using botany sites on the web, like the Digital Flora of Texas used for the wolf’s bane information above. [Many of these sites may require the Latin name of the plants; use a dictionary site to find the Latin names.]
  7. What could possibly be spookier than a Halloween forest … and what kind of trees might be in it? My favorite is the contorted filbert tree, also known as Harry Lauder’s walking stick. You might also find the oldest living thing on earth, the ancient bristlecone pine, which has important uses in tree-ring studies for anthropology and ecology. See if you don’t agree these spooky-looking trees belong in every Halloween forest. Are there other trees that fit into a Halloween forest? How about oaks? Trees and groves were special or sacred to a lot of ancient peoples. The Celts of Ireland even based their alphabet on the names of trees.
  8. How can you celebrate Halloween without the eerie sound of a wolf’s howl (or possibly, a werewolf’s howl)? And what do different howls mean? Visit the NOVA Wild Wolves site to hear (and see sonographs of) a lonesome howl, a confrontational howl, a pup howl, and a chorus howl. More wolf howls (and a few videos) are available at and Natural Worlds. Is a wolf howl different from a coyote howl? You can track individual wild wolves or packs through the telemetry data provided by the International Wolf Center. Or use various methods to track and study the Yellowstone wolf packs. Find out about these surprisingly shy animals. Make a wolf mask, send a wolf e-postcard to your friends, or take a wolf quiz to see how much you know. Do you think that someday you may see a wild wolf?
  9. Halloween pictures seem to always have a full moon, but how often does this really happen on October 31? Will there be a full Halloween moon this year? Next year? How about a blue moon? You can find the answers to some of these questions at the US Naval Observatory Moon Phase site (which lists all the phases for 1990 to 2005) or this list of full moons (from 1900 to 2100). NASA tells you about the phases of the moon and how the moon was made. Or read about the moon’s origin on the Why Files. Check the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Moon for other great moon pages. Other than turning into werewolves if they happen to have been bitten, do people really behave differently when there is a full moon?
  10. Actually, I’m not sure I have ever seen anyone in a mummy costume at Halloween, but somehow I can’t imagine a Halloween without mummies. Visit the National Geographic’s Mummy Road Show to join bioanthropologists as they solve mummy mysteries. Or learn “How to Make a Mummy”. Peel through the layers of Inca mummies. Medical artists are using new techniques to discover what these people looked like when they were alive. This article is too technical for me, but I could see the process just from the incredible pictures. And, of course, Egypt isn’t the only place with mummies. For instance, visit the Ice Mummies of the Inca or the Mysterious Mummies of China, and the European bog bodies. Dr. Dig answers a lot of your questions about mummies and the people who study them. And don’t miss CyberMummy. In 1989, the World Heritage Museum in Illinois acquired a mummy from an antiquities dealer. Without any background information to draw on, scientists at the museum painstakingly uncovered the mummy’s history. This site explains the non-destructive methods they used (including x-rays, CAT scans, and isotope and DNA analysis) to gather information without damaging the fragile mummy. Special features here include several video clips and a program that translates your name into hieroglyphics.
  11. Skeletons — you can’t have a Halloween without them! Get a close look at all the different bones there are in a human body. Examine human, gorilla and baboon bones in detail at. You can build a skeleton from a pile of bones at The Virtual Body and the FOSS Human Body. Some skeletons are much older than humans are. Look at the skulls of some of the ancestors and relatives of homo sapiens, for instance, and see how the skulls have changed through evolutionary time at the Smithsonian Institution or UC-Santa Barbara. You can watch a brief video about how our skeletons are adapted for walking on two feet. The Smithsonian computerized a Triceratops skeleton. You can watch it move to see how the animal walked. [You might need the most recent version of QuickTime for some of these websites, but don’t worry, you can download it for free.]
  12. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes and kinds. What about the Loch Ness Monster? And how about ghosts? The BBC has some interesting things to say about ghosts, and why we may “feel” their presence. Some of the most interesting real monsters live deep in the ocean. And once, before there even were people, all kinds of giant monsters roamed the earth.
  13. Of course masks and costumes are celebrated at many occasions, in many cultures, as well as at Halloween. You can get a beautiful Yupik Mask screensaver as freeware. See other stunning Yupik masks, fabulous African masks at Siebe Eling Boersma’s site and The Universal Mask, shamanic masks from the Himalayas and Huichol beaded masks. It takes a lot of work to make most traditional masks. Masks can be strictly utilitarian, too. Ever wonder how a gas mask works? Did you know that wearing a mask on the back of your head might protect you from tiger attacks?
  14. Do black cats cause bad luck? The eternal question, and one that has rarely been subjected to rigorous scientific testing. However, Mark Levin has taken it upon himself to examine this issue. An informative source of cat anatomy can be found at “Cats: Plans for Perfection”. Or you may be interested in why you see those glowing, scary eyes in the dark. How do animals see in the dark, anyway? Did you know that cat species that purr cannot roar, and vice versa? The secret is in the vocal chord structure.
  15. There are a lot of warm-blooded animals associated with Halloween — wolves, black cats, owls, bats — but how about other species? Every good haunted house has a few spider webs and well they might, for these fascinating creatures are everywhere. Why don’t spiders get caught in their own webs? Different spiders make very different webs, all made uniquely by a species-specific pattern. Spiders have special organs to make their special silk, which is the strongest natural fiber known — 5 times stronger than steel, and elastic on top of it all. You can listen to a discussion of the protein structure of spider silk. Spider web silk is just plain amazing! A lot of what you think you know about spiders probably isn’t true at all.
  16. The history of the era of witch hunts in Europe and America is a study in the sociology and folklore of that time and place. Might you have been on trial in Salem? But it may be that the witch-hunting hysteria was at least partially caused by the eating of moldy rye bread. PBS explores this possibility in one of its “Secrets of the Dead” programs. Ergot has darkly affected the history of mankind more than once. What does ergot look like? See pictures provided by the American Phytopathological Society and the HGCA.
  17. Since many of our Halloween customs trace back to Celtic beliefs, you may want to check out the mythology and mysticism of that ancient people and an educated class of the Celts, the Druids. You can find information on their art and culture, or general information about these vibrant peoples, including information about celtic burial mounds. Learn how to build an Iron Age round house with these instructions.
  18. Have a green Halloween! The Environmental Defense Fund provides us with tips to have an environmentally friendly Halloween.
  19. Besides green, Halloween is red, orange and yellow — the time for flaming foliage. Where is the best display of vibrant colors this week-end? This question and more can be answered by the Fall Color Hotline operated by the USDA Forest Service. Ever wonder about the chemistry of fall colors? Or wonder why leaves change color? Watch a movie about this process. Red seems to be a particularly hotly debated leaf color by scientists. You can preserve the beauty of these leaves in several ways. Some of the brightest leaves belong to the maples. Did you know you can learn a lot of physics from making maple syrup? What kind of tree is that? You can also use fall color to identify tree species. Find out more about fall color at NC Natural.
  20. How about Halloween in the stars? NASA has gathered interesting images you can associate with the holiday. How about the Ghost Head Nebula, for instance, is that spooky enough for you? Or how about weird space-generated sounds? Don’t go trick or treating without knowing how to navigate by the autumn stars! You wouldn’t want to get lost on a spooky night like Halloween! Would Halloween be an especially good date for a spooky space invasion? Orson Welles thought so in 1938, when he broadcast the science-fiction radio program “War of the Worlds”. What does Mars look like? Could there really be life on Mars? How do we search for alien life in the universe? Find answers at NASA and PBS. Did aliens teach ancient humans how to make things?
  21. Keep your child safe! Consult this site on Halloween safety.
  22. For more traditional Halloween websites, visit these websites: You needn’t miss the fun because of disabilities. Here are really neat costume ideas for folks in wheelchairs.

Happy Halloween!

Stephanie Bianchi, National Science Foundation Library, 2003.