Tag Archives: Science

Model Trains Showcase the Best of Texas

2018-01-06 Train cover artA state the size of Texas is not only full of a rich history and a diverse culture, but it is also home to some of the most awe inspiring and picturesque natural landmarks in the country.  Presenting all these features to the viewing public is one of the primary missions for the Houston Museum of Natural Science, a mandate the museum takes seriously, but one that David Temple, Associate Curator for Paleontology, believes can be fun as well.  The museum, which tries to design exhibits with a Texas theme, debuted a new feature last November for the holiday season called Trains over Texas, showcasing the best the state has to offer in 1/48th scale perspective using a traditional Christmas toy to do it.

2018-01-06 Train experience HLDSC_7163With landmarks such as Enchanted Rock, Pedernales Falls, and Big Bend National Park highlighted alongside man-made features like the Alamo, the Tower of the Americas and the Houston Ship Channel, the state is well represented in the tennis-court-sized display nestled in the main hall in the museum’s exhibition center, right next to the video monitor where guests can see themselves walking among computer-generated dinosaurs before visiting the trains.  Kids are the main draw for the exhibit, which Temple says is as it should be.  “We have an educational mandate,” he said.  “We look for things that promote learning and hands-on activities.”  Carrying that mandate forward, Temple says the museum plans on expanding the display to include trains that guests can actually control.  The current setup is not designed with that level of interaction, but according to docent Carl Olsen, President of the Gulf Coast chapter of the Train Collectors Association, the kids have come in droves just the same.  Many local schools bring several classes of children to the museum on field trips throughout the week.  “We had roughly 2500 kids at one time,” he said of opening day. 2018-01-06 Train Pic 1

The exhibit is segmented into three primary sections with anywhere from five to six trains running in each section.  There are places where guests can crawl under the track and observe the train from inside the loop.  Two-year-old Conrad Kuhn was running around the display, the track at a perfect eye-level for the tow-headed youngster, as his mom, Amanda Kuhn of Pearland, watched.  “They love trains,” she said of her two sons. The Kuhns have attended the exhibit four times since its November opening.  In fact, the family became members of the museum because they love the trains so much. “They have a couple at home with wooden tracks they love to play with,” she added.  Conrad echoed his mom’s statement, saying that he loves choo choo trains, but adding that “Thomas is sick.”  The display has a hidden track that runs under the main display where Thomas, the Tank Engine, runs in a circle.  The area has a viewing window that kids can crawl under the display to see.  On this day, Conrad was distressed to find that Thomas was out for maintenance and a street car had taken his place on the track.

2018-01-06 Train track HL

The trains at HMNS are powered by six transformers to drive the eighteen trains running at any given time.  Keeping the system up requires regular maintenance.  Olsen and his crew of volunteers are members of fourteen train collecting clubs in the Houston Area. They volunteer their time by attending to the display, answering questions from the guests,  maintaining and repairing the trains and tracks to ensure the exhibit remains fully operational.

DSC_7270The Train Collectors Association members trained museum staffer David Herrada in the care and maintenance of the trains, a job Herrada takes very seriously.  Working in a cramped compartment behind the west Texas part of the diorama, Herrada meticulously cleans the wheels of the cars and replaces worn out components as they break.  “Lionel trains are durable, but where the average train set might run sixteen hours in a year, these trains run eight hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.  In order to prevent breakdowns, the trains run for three minutes and then stopped in place to cool down for a minute.  Herrada and the association volunteers do work hard to complete any needed repairs, but sometimes, as with poor Thomas, the damage may be too great. “If we can’t repair it, we have to send it back,” Herrada said.  The Trains are sent to Lionel or TX Trainworx for warranty work or replacement.  Fortunately, despite the amount of wear and tear, the trains keep running and they have only had to send about eight trains back over the course of the exhibit.   The entire display is O-scale, which is 1:48 size and according to Olsen, “…is a reliable scale that you have minimal problems with.”

Deciding on which of the several model scales to use was part of the development process that occurred over a two-year period.  The museum’s board of directors, responding to a request from a prominent museum patron—an avid train enthusiast named Glen Rosenbaum,—reached out to Dallas-based TW Trainworx, for help.  Rosenbaum had TW Trainworx build a large train display of his own at his home, but no where near the size of the Museum’s.  The Houston-based attorney describes himself as a bona-fide train nut who has enjoyed a lifelong passion for trains. “It’s very relaxing to watch these things lumber around the room.  I’m also fascinated by the power, the size, and the history.”

TW Trainworx owner Roger Farkash says his company caters to the train enthusiast from the individual hobbyist to large corporate clients like the Ronald McDonald house to build large scale models.  Displays like Trains Over Texas are a good way for people to enjoy model railroading, a hobby that is becoming expensive to enjoy at home.  Farkash said that the cost of train sets have risen dramatically since the hobby’s heyday in the sixties and seventies, when it was common to have a train set at home especially at Christmas.  Part of the rise in cost is because of new technologies that improve the user experience with sounds and smoke and digital controllers.  To have a layout with the level of detail that Trains over Texas features is not an inexpensive option.  Farkash said that the cost ranges from $250 to $300 per square foot and can go up into the thousands per square foot depending on the level of detail and technology of the models.  For those who do decide to have a display built, the main consideration is size.  “What they typically want to do is find the largest room that they can spare and fill the room.  There really isn’t an average size.  People want to fill the largest room they can afford.”

2018-01-06 Train ticket HL

Photo Nov 17, 10 35 15 AM

The Selection of the models and landmarks used in the museum’s exhibit was made by the board of directors.  The theme is based on Texas’ history with trains and how important they were in the expansion and development of the state over the years.  The sites selected for the display include any city that features a rail museum or historic train depot.  The Pecos River bridge features prominently in the display, spanning from one display to another over the entry into the museum’s giant Foucault pendulum, so visitors can walk under the bridge.  The Houston ship channel is up front and is one of the first aspects seen by visitors.  Interspersed between the town models are representations of natural features including the Chisos mountains of Big Bend, the Rio Grande and Enchanted Rock.  “The funny thing about models is you have to compress space,” Temple said.  “You almost have to present small little vignettes.  Capture the high points…or the flat points depending on the geography,” he added with a smile.  TW Trainworx built the exhibit using urethane foam and latex paint to form the mountains, and other synthetic materials for the grass, trees and gravel.  Farkash and his team worked hard to make the setup modular, so it could be taken apart and moved, but still look seamless.

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The modular design will be useful when the exhibit reopens in November, as the museum intends on expanding the feature for a larger display area.  The exhibit initially featured several large Christmas trees, in keeping with the tradition of trains at Christmas, but after the holidays, the trees were replaced with representations of Atlanta and Boston as well as Reliant stadium to commemorate Houston’s hosting Superbowl fifty-one. Temple says that this year’s exhibit will still have a Christmas theme, but probably without the large trees.  “They took up a lot of space that we can use for more models,” he said.  The exhibit will run every year from November to January, then it will be stored and redesigned for the next year. Admission to Trains over Texas is included in the price of the general admission to the museum.

 

This article appears in the December, 2017 issue of TexasLiving Magazine.

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Picture Perfect

With the recent snow, I noticed something that I had been thinking about for some time. Pictures are being taken left and right these days by everyone. I was taking pics of the snowstorm at lunch Friday and this couple came out of the restaurant I had just left and both pulled out cameras and started taking pictures too. The guy had a camera phone (I think it was an iPhone) and the lady pulled out a small digital camera. It seems everyone has a camera these days.

As a photo hobbyist, I tend to take a lot of pictures (some may say too many) and I appreciate others pictures as well. I have a very nice Nikon D-80 with which I do my serious photography. I also use a Canon Powershot A40 and I even shoot film on a Canon EOS Rebel G. I even have a vintage Canon AE-1 Program that I shoot as well. In case you can’t tell, I like Canon. I got the Nikon because it uses SD instead of CF memory (and because my wife wanted a Nikon).

Even though I shoot film occasionally, I do not get prints when I get the film developed. I opt for the photo CD and print the pics I want on my photo printer at home. It’s cheaper and gives me more control and less prints to file away (and trust me, there is little more annoying that boxes of pictures that have never been indexed or put into albums gathering dust in a cabinet or closet somewhere). I still have several old prints to scan so they will be available and indexed in digital format. Every image I have shot is now digital. It makes things easier.

With the advent of digital photography several things happened. One, you no longer have to worry about the expense of developing all of your pictures. You can pick and choose which ones you really want to have printed and discard the rest. Two: you no longer have to worry about running out of film—at least not in the traditional sense. In the old days—and younguns you may not understand this—you only had between 12 and 36 exposures (old-time term for picture on film) per roll of film. If you ran out of film, you stopped taking pictures, so you really had to pick and choose your shots and take great pains to make sure it was right. Worse still was that you couldn’t know if it was a good picture until the film got developed—which back in the day could take a week or more, so you took pains to make sure the lighting was right and it was in focus. Three: pictures look a lot better now with the improved optics and resolution. Four: the price of the equipment plummeted so anyone can get a camera.

Photographers used to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on cameras, lenses, flashes, tripods, meters, lighting equipment etc to take their pictures. Those who wanted to take snapshots of their vacations still paid a pretty penny for the camera and the film and the processing. Only the “good” shots got taken and most people only had one camera. Then Polaroid made instant photography and more people got cameras, but they were still relatively expensive. Even the cheap plastic 110 film camera couldn’t become “must-have” technology, despite a huge marketing campaign. Film and processing were still price hurdles most people didn’t want to make.

But with Digital, well, now we’re talking. Since the price of electronics fell into the basement, a digital camera can be had for as little as five bucks. Even a 10-year-old can get his hands on five bucks—and they do, trust me. They only thing you need besides the camera is a computer with which to view and/or print the pics—and you don’t really even need that. Most printers now can print straight off the memory card or even right off the camera itself. So, cameras are dirt cheap, memory is dirt cheap and prints are cheap. Now—the camera is must-have technology.

I credit the cell phone for it really. When cell phone started featuring cameras, many people at first thought “why do I need a camera on my phone?” But they quickly started using it. Even though the picture quality was terrible (even worse that the pictures those old plastic 110 film cameras took) people took pics. With today’s phones, the image quality is better than even the average hobbyist might have taken back in the day with a nice camera. Couple that with the price of dedicated digital cameras and it is even more accessible. Camera phones have come a long way since Sprint introduced it back in 2000, but a dedicated camera still has better optics and better image resolution.

Kids all seem to have either a camera-phone or a digital camera with them at school. Social networking sites are loaded with pictures kids take with their phones. The internet is crammed full of pictures. In fact, there are too many pictures. Since there is no more issues with developing and printing costs, people just snap away. With the availability of cheap huge-capacity memory, no one ever seems to run out of space. Some people use SD memory like a film package. They take the pictures until the card is full, then the file the card away and buy a new one.

The sad part is that since there is no real expense to take a picture now, people take photo after photo after photo. Sometimes, they don’t even try to figure out the lighting, they just snap away until they get one that they like—and then they don’t delete the bad ones. They just post all of them. Have you ever seen some of these Facebook albums? I know they are your friends. Heck, they’re my friends too; but some of them are loaded with hundreds of pictures of the same blurry or washed out or dark thing. Come on, people. Pick the good ones and delete the rest.

But do continue clicking away. Photography is capturing a bit of history that—someday—you will want to look at again. Just be careful what you shoot. Some things no one wants to see.

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Is It Really a Question of Intelligence? Really?

There are not that many things that upset me in life. I try to roll with the punches as often as I can and keep a positive attitude in everything…when it is possible. The times that it is not possible are few, but the biggest trigger I have—the one big button to press if you want to see me upset—is to insult my intelligence. I read the liberal media and blogs and I let a lot of things slide, but some things demand an answer. I am not an ignorant man. I have a college education. I have completed the course of study for a master’s degree with a 4.0 GPA. I am an educator (of sorts…technical training is still education). I can reason my way out of just about any problem with which I am presented.

And I am also a Christian.

There seems to be a wave sweeping the country that the two are mutually exclusive. Many seem to assume that any Christian is a religious nut who lives in a box and refuses to accept that the world is round. These individuals portray Christians as “right-wing red-staters” to discount the conservative political view, assuming that being conservative is fundamental to being a “red-neck” or a hick or any other stereotype associated with ignorance.

This movement posits the notion that all intelligent people must agree that Christianity (or any organized religion) is a fallacy and science is the only true power in the universe. Their reasoning is that science has disproved all the creation ideas of the faithful and has explained, without any doubt, how mankind came to be the dominate life form on this rock, and science will tell you exactly how old that rock is.

Poppycock

Hogwash

Malarkey

Science has no way of determining the exact age of anything older than a few hundred years. All the millions of years that science claims have passed since this planet was formed are based on a mathematical formula extrapolating figures based on another mathematical formula used to determine atomic decay. Folks, have you ever seen an atom decay? I’ll save you the effort of thinking about it. You haven’t. No one has. No one can say for sure how long the Earth has been spinning, unless they were there when it started. And folks—no one alive today was there.

No one has seen a monkey evolve into a man. No one has seen a living dinosaur, so they assume that dinosaurs must have evolved into the species we have today. There is no conclusive proof that says that the Raptor became an eagle or any other bird, though that does not stop scientists from suggesting so. Scientists claim to have mapped the human genome and that there are only the smallest of differences between the human gene sequence and that of any other species. How does this support the claim of evolution? Will they next suggest we evolved from frogs?

There is one basic flaw with science: it relies on facts in evidence at the time. Like a court case, conclusions are made based on the data that the scientist observes and the experiments he or she conducts. This data is then—and pay attention here because this is key—INTERPRETED. This means that the validity is entirely dependent on the person making the conclusion. There have been many cases where a supposed scientific fact has been disputed and disproven. For years, the best scientists in the world believed the Earth was flat. This lasted until an explorer sailed around it. For years it was believed that handling frogs causes warts (and some people still believe this to this day).

Think about nutrition. There is one science that changes its mind daily about what is good for you and what is bad. The one basic flaw keeps popping up. No one can know anything for sure. No one can make a claim and then spend a lifetime observing every possible subject in every possible permutation of situations to base a general claim as a fact. No one can go back in time to observe the big bang and the formation of life on this planet. No one can. There is no conclusive proof that the Earth is in fact 4 billion years old. There is evidence based on theoretical mathematics that supports the conclusion that it is 4 billion years old, but nothing that is without doubt.

There once was a time when scientists admitted that it was all guesswork. But perhaps egos grew too big. Perhaps the push to publish and be authoritative grew too strong, but it was probably a bit of both. Either way, science has become the end-all-be-all of human endeavor. If enough people believe in a thing, it is accepted as fact, even if there is no proof.

People are replacing faith with science; but those same people are accepting science on faith. They believe the conclusions on nothing more than faith in the minds of those who make the claims. The scientists write books explaining their beliefs and the population hold these books as proof to dispute any religious views to the contrary.

I have a book too. In this book, learned men make conclusions based on observation as well as direct testimony. My book is the Bible and I will put it against any book you hold up. You have faith in your science, I have faith in God. I am not ignorant, I am not in denial and I am not burying my head in the sand. I am a reasoning, intelligent man and I believe in God and Jesus Christ.

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