This all began with Jesse Richuso and Joe Meno.

Jesse was a UNC student in 2004. He worked at Morehead, and he won a student fellowship to create a program he called “LEGO Lab.” Do you remember it? LEGO Lab was based in the room where the “Zoom In: Science at the Extremes” exhibit is now. On Saturdays that year, Morehead visitors were able to experience the LEGO Lab and create some amazing projects.

Joe heard about LEGO Lab, and that caught his interest. Joe was active with a group called NC LUG — that stands for “LEGO Users Group.” Joe and his friends were adults who had maintained, even expanded, their childhood fascination with LEGOs. Joe called us and asked if there was any way he and his friends could exhibit some of their larger projects at Morehead, as part of the LEGO Lab.

There really wasn’t room to exhibit LEGO models alongside the LEGO Lab activities. But we knew that the LEGO Lab had been really popular with Morehead visitors, and it was hard to resist Joe’s boundless enthusiasm for all things LEGO, so we agreed that we would set up some tables in the Morehead Banquet Hall for the NC LEGO Users Group to exhibit some of their favorite models. We also worked with Joe to plan a LEGO model building contest, using basic LEGO bricks that Joe provided.

We set a date — the first Saturday in February 2005 — and named our event “LEGO-palooza.” The LUG members brought dozens and dozens of models. Joe brought a huge plastic tub filled with LEGO bricks for the contest, and we spread them on a sheet on the floor, with a single table nearby where children could place their entries in the contest. We didn’t really know how many people to expect, but we thought maybe 150 people might stop by during the day. Boy, were we wrong.

A News & Observer reporter mentioned the event in an article about the “Magic Tree House Space Mission” planetarium show. It was just one sentence. Yet on Saturday morning there were so many people in the LEGO-palooza entrance lobby, waiting to enter the Banquet Hall, that they nearly trampled UNC student worker Davida Vinson as she opened the doors.

They filled the aisles. They surrounded every exhibit table. And they kept coming.

The LEGO Users Group members were so busy answering questions and keeping watch over their exhibits that they never had time to take a lunch break. The first table filled with contest entries, so we set up another table. And another. And another. We ran out of LEGO bricks soon after 2 p.m. — the children had built 500 models to enter in the contest, all within about three hours.

By the time we closed the doors, we were exhausted — and excited. Clearly, we had a winner. In fact, I think that LEGO-palooza was responsible for the first blog entry ever posted by anyone about any Morehead activity (Paul Jones blogged about his visit with his son Tucker).

Fast forward to 2010. A lot has changed since that first year. LEGO-palooza is now a two-day event that routinely draws 1,200 or more visitors. We’ve added new activities (BrickFilms!) and dropped others (“farvel” — Danish for “goodbye” — to the contest and the LEGO play space). We’ve experimented with LEGO “classes” for families, with timed tickets and with age-group-specific activities. Lesson learned: Keep it simple, and focus on the exhibits.


And so we have. If you’ve been to LEGO-palooza, you’ve seen an amazing array of LEGO models over the years: Sabrina and Signe Gravett’s “Star Wars” collection, Mike Walsh’s trains, Joe Evangelista’s spaceport, Carin and Jane Proctor’s neighborhoods, Cyndi Bradham’s castle, Jennifer Poole’s “Hogwarts” collection, Taylor Poole’s “Batman” collection, Joe Meno’s robotics demonstrations and many more. (My personal favorite remains a kinetic LEGO machine that Rafe Donohue exhibited several years ago.)

Some of the LUG members have joined forces (and their impressive supplies of LEGO bricks and other goodies) to create huge original environments, ranging from space stations to amusement parks to western frontier forts. The NC LUG membership has added new members with its high visibility at LEGO-palooza, and LUG friends based in other states have traveled to Chapel Hill to exhibit their models, too.

That brings us to LEGO-palooza 6 — mark your calendars now! It’ll be Saturday, March 13 (11 a.m.-4 p.m.) and Sunday, March 14 (1-4 p.m.). It’s free, as always, and it’s a great adventure for children ages 4 and older, accompanied by parents or caregivers. No tickets, no reservations — just be here.

And as for the guys who instigated this phenomenon? Jesse’s now in grad school in Georgia. Although his LEGO Lab is gone, the LEGO camps that came from it are still popular on Morehead’s Summer Science Camps schedule. And Joe has turned his love for LEGOs into a career as editor of BrickJournal magazine. He passed the coordinator’s torch to Carin Proctor for a few years, and now Joe Evangelista is taking a turn as torchbearer.

If you’ve never seen LEGO-palooza before now, make this the year. And if you’ve been here before — well, if you love LEGOs, there really isn’t any other place you want to be on March 13-14.

It's not just a toy, it's an addiction.

A recent Bioblitz, in which over 100 citizens worked with scientists to identify species at Mason Farm Biological Reserve in central North Carolina.

Perhaps you’ve attended an art festival before.  Or a movie fest.  Or a Greek fest.  Or a beer fest.  But have you ever attended a science festival?  If that thought appeals to you, then 2010 is your year!

Morehead is coordinating the first ever North Carolina Science Festival to be held this Sept. 11 – Sept. 26.  The goal of the Festival is quite simple – to engage more North Carolinians in science.  We’ll do this by highlighting hands-on activities, science talks, exhibits, nature experiences, lab tours and other science-related activities taking place across the state.  Whether you’re a kid or an adult, it’s going to be lots of fun.

Please check the North Carolina Science Festival web site regularly for updates.  If you have a cool idea for the Festival, please let me or Julie Rhodes, Festival coordinator, know.

And if the North Carolina Science Festival leaves you wanting more, join Morehead staff – and about a million other people (literally!) – on the National Mall in DC for the USA Science and Engineering Festival Expo from Oct. 23-24.  Morehead is an official partner of this event.

Go science!

Denise Young is Morehead’s director of education and planning. She’s never met a festival she didn’t like.

Earth's Magnetic Field

Earth's magnetic field protects us from solar radiation, as shown in this image (an artist's conception from NASA). Is it possible that this protective shield might disappear on December 21, 2012?

So far, we’ve debunked four end-of-the-world claims in our 2012 blog series (see them all here). But those who are predicting a 2012 doomsday seem to have taken a “more is more” approach in terms of their ideas about just what will bring about an apocalypse on December 21, 2012 – one website lists 22 possible causes! One pervasive claim on 2012 sites is the idea that Earth will undergo a magnetic pole reversal on 12/21/2012, leaving us completely unprotected from fatal levels of solar radiation.

First, let’s examine the facts behind this claim:

  1. The Earth’s magnetic field has been declining in strength over the past century or so.
  2. Earth’s magnetic field does protect us from solar radiation.

Unfortunately for the 2012 crowd, that is where the facts end. While Earth’s magnetic field strength has been declining recently, it is still well above average. A graph of field strength over time shows many fluctuations – the current decline is nothing unique. While there’s no way to prove that we aren’t heading for a reversal, there is also no definitive proof that we are.

Secondly, the protection from solar radiation afforded by our magnetic field would not disappear during a reversal. While the magnetic field strength does decrease during this process, it does not fall to zero – and even a weak field can stop many solar rays. Those that do get through a weakened magnetic field would then have to deal with our atmosphere, which is as effective at stopping solar radiation as a 13-foot-thick wall of concrete! The greatest risk during a reversal would be to satellites and astronauts orbiting the Earth at high elevations, where our atmosphere is too thin to provide much protection. If previous magnetic reversals coincided with damaging levels of solar radiation here at ground level, we would see evidence of it in the fossil record – and we simply don’t.

If these arguments haven’t convinced you, then here’s one more: magnetic reversals take thousands of years to complete, not a single day! So rest easy – and don’t be afraid to step into the sun on 12/21/2012.

To find out more about the 2012 claims, plan to attend our Science 360 show “The Truth Behind 2012” when it opens on February 6.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360. Her favorite 2012 possibility is #21; the phrase "catastrophic pinball machine" conjures up some great images.

Mars HiRISE Image

Think you're seeing trees on the Martian surface? Guess again - it's an optical illusion. The "trees" are actually dark streaks on the sand caused by evaporating gases. This image is one of thousands in the HiRISE collection.

When someone says the word “Mars,” what image comes to your mind? Most likely, you picture a dusty, cratered, rust-colored wasteland. But thanks to the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), you can see our planetary neighbor like never before. The HiRISE camera, part of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, is operated by NASA and the University of Arizona and is currently the most powerful camera on any NASA spacecraft. The beautiful images it has sent back to Earth highlight the fact that while parts of Mars may seem familiar to us, other features of the Red Planet are bizarre and mysterious.

Unlike Mars rovers, which are designed to investigate only a tiny portion of Mars’s land area, the HiRISE camera orbits the entire planet and can be directed to take images of any interesting area. It has taken thousands of detailed images, all of them available to view online. Now, with the release of the HiWish public suggestion tool, you can help determine future target areas for the camera. After registering for the program, you can browse large-scale areas of the Martian surface and send in your suggestion for where HiRISE should take its next close-up image. The site also allows you to track your suggestions and receive notifications when your images are taken.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Red Planet, plan to attend our Science 360 show “Mission to Mars,” which returns to the MPSC schedule on February 6, 2010.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360.