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Newsletter archive > Halloween 2005

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. But maybe, just maybe, haunted places really do exist
  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? The BBC has a great bat website. Learn about bats on Science Friday 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 a brief description of how echo-location works. 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.
  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. The Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife had a LiveCam for both a burrowing owl and a barn owl’s nest. The season is over and the owls are gone now, but you can watch some fascinating archived footage of owls eating, grooming, and just generally being owls. Listen to owl cries as well. Did you know that another name for Barn owls is “Ghost owls”? They are silent and deadly, and they cry a haunting screech instead of a quiet “who”. You can build nest boxes to entice Barn owls to live near you. Find out more about these ghostly birds. Print off a gorgeous owl mask. New: Ravens (and their cousins, crows) are another Halloween bird. Although they aren’t night creatures, like owls, they have a spooky reputation. For one thing, they look so sleek and dark. See pictures from Carl Cook or Animal Diversity Web. For another, they have a raucus call. And they can also eerily mimic human speech—perhaps better than parrots. Put this together with their association with death (these omnivorous birds will eat almost any food, including carrion—but they also help us by eating lots of grubs and harmful insects), and you have a perfect Halloween bird. Ravens and crows are intricately associated with folktales and mythology in many cultures. But actually these highly intelligent birds are very adaptable, and folks who have rehabilitated injured birds have nothing but kind words for them. [Remember, wild birds should NOT be kept as pets, and it is illegal to do so with crows!] Is there a difference between crows and ravens? Learn more about these interesting birds from the Crow and Raven FAQ.
  4. For a spooky spin on physical science, just in time for Halloween, stop by the Atom’s Family website! Come tour the mummy’s tomb, where you’ll learn about energy conservation and the different forms of energy; or you can check out the phantom’s portrait parlor, which hits the highlights of atoms and matter. Wherever you choose to go, you’ll find plenty of lesson plans and background info to keep you coming back for more. (Thanks to ENC)
  5. Inventors love Halloween, too. The US Patent and Trademark Office offers “The Little Shop of Halloween Patent & Trademark Horrors”, inventions with a Halloween theme that have been patented through the years.
  6. 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.
  7. Before they had pumpkins in Europe they had to make Jack-O’-Lanterns out of turnips or beets—and it’s not easy to carve a turnip! Read about the history of Jack-O’-Lanterns at eSSORTMENT and the Journal Sentinel. Learn all about pumpkins, how to grow them, their history, and get some neat craft ideas from the University of Illinois. Carving jack-o-lanterns, like any other human activity, can inspire people to invent ways to do it better, or differently, like Paul Bardeen did. New: You can watch a fun contest video of science teachers competing for the title of “Iron Science Teacher” by developing activities involving pumpkins. The world record pumpkin weighed 1,092 lbs.—hope you have a BIG yard if you decide to grow one! 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 site has several of these recipes as well as some ordinary pumpkin and squash recipes.

  8. 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. Don’t forget to avoid the deadly nightshade as well. 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 and other plants using botany sites on the web, like the ones 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.]
  9. 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 and their mythology and folklore? 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. In these modern times, special trees still impact people’s lives, like this Live oak in Georgia.
  10. 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 the International Wolf Center wolf watch cam and World of the Wolf. 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. New: Not all wolves look alike. The endangered Ethiopian wolf, for example, is quite different from the Timber wolf. Do you think that someday you may see a wild wolf? New: We all know there are no such things as werewolves, but there are a lot of theories as to how these legends began, including several interesting medical conditions. However it began, the belief in werewolves, and other were animals, goes way back into the history of many cultures around the world.
  11. 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. New: Explore the moon with Google Moon or get details about sights you might see on specific nights at Inconstant Moon. 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?
  12. 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. The virtual mummy allows you to unwrap a mummy with a click of your mouse. 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. The Exploratorium provides you with instructions of how to make your own mummy — of a fish!
  13. 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. You can build a skeleton from a pile of bones at MEDtropolis and Lawrence Hall of Science. 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 Human Evolution at the Smithsonian Museum or UCSB’s Human Evolution. You can watch a brief video about how our skeletons are adapted for walking on two feet. The Smithsonian digitized 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.]
  14. Hey, if you have vampires, you have to have … blood … lots of it. Vampires can’t live without it and neither, of course, can you. If you want the low down on blood, check out the “Red Gold” website. And have some fun while you learn about blood from Billy Blood Drop. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute offers an animation of the “visible heart”, so you can watch how blood is pumped to circulate round your body. Visit their “vertebrate Circulatorium” to see how blood flows around the bodies of other beasts.
  15. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes and kinds. What about the Loch Ness Monster? 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. But what about Bigfoot?
  16. And how about ghosts? The BBC has some interesting things to say about ghosts, and why we may “feel” their presence in Ghosts ‘all in the mind’ and Ghostly magnetism explained. Whether ghosts are real or not, they inspire invention. There are a host of items invented for or used for detecting ghosts and other paranormal things. Maybe you can invent something that will change the way people do things or think about things.
  17. Halloween Science: Folk remedies, old wives’ tales, and Frankenstein’s monster. It’s Halloween on Science Friday, so let’s look at the science behind Frankenstein’s monster, physician’s findings on folk remedies, and maybe a ghastly topic or two. These programs date from 1997 and 1995, but still raise both interest and goose bumps! You can learn more about the use of creepy crawlies in medicine, and if you get over the yuckiness of it, it is pretty interesting stuff. New: Read an interview with a leech or hear about using leeches for arthritis relief. New: Learn more about leeches from the leech fact sheet. New: You can catch and care for leeches … if you want to … Not a very cuddly pet …
  18. 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 from Siebe Eling Boersma, and the Museum of Ancient and Modern Art, shamanic masks from the Himalayas, Javanese masks, New: masks from the Potlatch collection, and Huichol beaded masks. You can make an African animal mask using this site from PBS, or more elaborate animal masks with these directions. Read a short story written by an Apache which tells of a great warrior who wanted a mask. Masks can be strictly utilitarian, too. Ever wonder how a gas mask works? In many times and cultures masks have been considered magical, for good reason. Did you know that wearing a mask on the back of your head might protect you from tiger attacks? New: Check the web for any of dozens of excellent instructions on making masks. This one is particularly well illustrated.
  19. 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” New: In fact, it is a cat that is the fastest of all land animals—the cheetah. If you watch this video clip, you can see how its flexible back helps the cheetah run so fast. You may be interested in why you see those glowing, scary cat 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. New: Ever wonder where pet cats came from? From wildcats, of course!
  20. 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. Get under the spell of spiders! These creatures have interesting physical features & unusual habits — two main body parts, unusual eyes, senses, sensitivity to vibrations, silk webs, how they catch & eat their prey, & how they reproduce.
  21. 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. Ergot-caused hallucinations may also be one of the bases for belief in werewolves. What does ergot look like? See pictures from the American Phytopathological Society and the Home-Grown Cereals Authority
  22. 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 about how their customs and beliefs shaped Halloween. 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. New: The BBC offers a number of interesting Celtic games and activities. New: Or make a “green man” mask or costume.
  23. Have a green Halloween! The Environmental Defense Fund provides us with tips to have an environmentally friendly Halloween.
  24. 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.
  25. How about Halloween in the stars? NASA has gathered fun activities for the holiday. There are scary looking things out there. 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 stars! The most important one for those of us in the northern hemisphere is, of course, Polaris. You might want a “sky map” for October, and NASA shows you how to make your own starfinder. Before GPS was around, folks used lots of methods to find their way. Stars, migrating birds, even songs. 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? StarChild and NOVA explain. Did aliens teach ancient humans how to make things?
  26. Keep your child safe! Consult these sites on Halloween safety.
  27. For more traditional Halloween websites, visit these websites: Halloween Online, or Librarian’s Index to the Internet: Halloween. 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.
Webpage last updated October 2005.