Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cool Science Websites

You often hear that we're living in a golden age of scientific discovery.  That's true, but  it's also true that we're living in a golden age of science communication and education.  These days, innovative websites and visualization techniques have made it easier than ever to understand the basics of science.  The web is loaded with great free sites for learning about science and nature.

If you're interested in science in general, or in keeping track of the latest discoveries, the online versions of magazines are a great place to look. Discover Magazine has excellent articles written for laypeople, while Scientific American gets a little more into the technical details.  Science Daily is a great place to catch up on breaking news in science.  National Geographic covers more than just science, but its website has an excellent section devoted to science and nature. Public television networks are also great for science information.  PBS has a science and nature section of their website, while the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) has separate sections for science and nature.

Science and natural history museums also have some great websites.  Some of the best are the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, home of the famous Hayden Planetarium.  If you're especially interested in fossils, dinosaurs, and such, the University of California Museum of Paleontology has great online exhibits about the history of life on earth.  The museum with the best online exhibits may be the Exploratorium in San Francisco, "The Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception". 

If you like watching videos about science and nature, the first place we recommend is one of the library's databases:  Access Video on Demand, or AVOD.  AVOD has thousands of streaming videos about all kinds of topics, including hundreds about science and nature.  There are videos from BBC, PBS, Nova, National Geographic, Scientific American Frontiers, and more.  If you like to hear great thinkers and scientists talk about their discoveries, TED offers hundreds of fascinating 20 minute lectures by some of the world's great minds, available for free online (and on AVOD).  The people at TED have also launched a site for young people, called TED-Ed.  TED-Ed's video are shorter than TED videos, and many of are beautifully animated.  Here's one that explains just how small atoms are (they're really, really, really small).

The Open Culture website has links to all sorts of free educational material online.  Their webpage on great science videos has enough links to free videos to keep a science buff entertained for weeks.  Another great way to find science videos is to look at science channels on YouTube. National Geographic, Scientific American, and NASA all have channels with fascinating videos.  If you or your kids like science experiments, Sick Science is a great channel to check out.  Finally, Hulu has a page devoted to shows about science and technology.  You may also be interested in their documentaries page.

Now let's look at a few of the best websites that focus on the different branches of science:

Astronomy and Cosmology
An Atlas of the Universe: This amazing site lets you see where the Earth fits into the universe; allowing you to jump to larger and larger views:  from nearby stars, to galaxies, to the entire visible universe.
Eyes on the Solar System: This interactive website lets watch a "you are there" simulation of the Mars Curiosity landing, and virtually fly around all the planets in the solar system!
HubbleSite - Picture Album: Another stunning website, which lets you look through all the images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. 
The Scale of the Universe 2:  This interactive animation lets you zoom inward and outward to visualize just how small atoms are, and just how stupendously gigantic the universe is. 
The Particle Adventure: A nice overview of particle physics from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. A great website about general physics topics, with links to a wide range of other good sites.
Web Elements: An online guide to all the elements in the periodic table.
What's That Stuff?  If you've ever wondered what's in wasabi that makes it so hot, or what Silly String is made of, here's the place to find out.
Earth Sciences "News and information about geology"
Global Climate Change: A good website on the topic from NASA
Encyclopedia of Earth: An online encyclopedia covering all the earth sciences.
Encyclopedia of Life: "Global Access to Knowledge About Life on Earth"
Learn.Genetics:  An informative website about one of the fastest-changing areas of biology.  From the University of Utah.  A little more technical, but this site features amazing animations of the the molecular machinery inside of us all.
Brain and Behavior
The Secret Life of the Brain:  A great site from PBS, with an interactive 3-D model of the brain, and amazing optical illusions.
 Exploratorium: Mind:  A wonderful resource for exploring the mind and its quirks.
We'll cover technology websites in depth in a future blog post, but here are a couple of interesting ones.
 How Products Are Made: An online encyclopedia with hundreds of articles about how everyday products are manufactured.
 How Stuff Works:  A good website explaining how all kinds of things work.  There are a lot of ads, but many of the articles and videos are worth wading through them.
This is just a small sampling of the amazing variety of science websites out there.  If you look around and find some other great ones, tell us about them in the comments!  Have fun exploring!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Looking Beyond the Rhetoric: Finding Non-Partisan Political Information

 “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” - Mark Twain

Actually, that's a lie itself:  Mark Twain didn't really say it.  Most people who have heard the quotation think he did, but it really comes from a British Minister named C.H. Spurgeon.  The fact that it is so commonly attributed to the wrong person just shows how true the quotation really is.  It's a lot easier to spread a lie than it is to figure out what's really true.

As a librarian, I know this all too well.  One of the most important parts of my job is helping people find accurate, unbiased information. Needless to say, this is a real challenge when it comes to politics. Any time an issue is politically-charged, people start trying their best to convince everyone their stance is the right one. The more opposing interests there are, the more spin there will be, which makes it harder and harder to get a clear view of the real facts and issues.

In a situation like this, it's very important to find information sources that strive to be nonpartisan and fact-based. It's doubtful that any observer can be completely unbiased, but there are some sources that do a very good job of walking the tightrope between one side and the other. One of these is a website called, which is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center; a non-partisan organization dedicated to providing voters with accurate information about politics and politicians. FactCheck investigates claims by politicians on both sides of the aisles, and points it out when they have their facts wrong.

There is also a column at the Washington Post called The Fact Checker, written by Glenn Kessler. Kessler gives claims a rating of between one and four "Pinnochios", with four being awarded for the biggest whoppers.  Claims found to be completely true get a "Geppetto Checkmark."  These don't seem to be given out very often.

Another good fact-checking site is Run by the St. Petersburg Times, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its fact-checking coverage of the 2008 elections. PolitiFact rates the truthfulness (or lack thereof) of political statements by showing a reading on their "Truth-O-Meter." Statements are rated True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, and False. Statements judged outrageously false are slapped with a rating of "Pants on Fire". also gives the sources used in researching claims, and explains their rationale for the rating given.

If you're an iPhone user, you may want to check out the SuperPAC app, which can identify political ads on TV by sound, and then direct you to sites like and

Finally, is a slightly different kind of fact-checking site.  This site started out investigating the origins and truth of urban legends.  However, as more and more people got on the internet, false rumors about political figures came to be circulated widely through email.  The stories would change and grow over time, much like urban legends.  So, became a fact checking site for political rumors.  It's gotten so well known that some of these email rumors, even though they're false, will claim in the email that they have been found true by  Apparently, this keeps people from actually checking, and that helps keep the rumor going.  So it's probably a good idea to check Snopes, especially if the email suggests that you don't need to.

Of course, when you are talking about fact checking, the question that eventually comes up is:  who will fact check the fact checkers?  In other words, how do we know the fact checking sites aren't biased?  That's tough, and all of the sites listed above have been accused of bias, often by both sides of the political spectrum (which suggests they can't be that biased).  Perhaps the safest bet, if you really want to evaluate a claim or rumor, is to try to check it on multiple sites.  Another strategy is to look at the links and sources the fact checkers cite, and check them out yourself.  Figuring out the truth can be a challenge, especially when it comes to complex political issues where different people want you to think different things. 

All the websites above are very good for up-to-the-minute coverage of issues in the news. For more in-depth coverage of controversial issues, Terrebonne Parish Library has two very good resources. One is a database called Issues & Controversies. This database, which can be found under the Social Sciences heading on our database page, has a wide range of articles giving a balanced overview of controversial issues. Most articles start with a short summary of the arguments on each side, and then go into a more detailed explanation of the history of the controversy, and the points of view of the opposing sides. This database is excellent for high school and college students studying politics or debate, but it is also a good way for adults to get some balanced background on today's overheated quarrels. Access Issues & Controversies directly from within the library, or call the reference desk (985.876.5861, option 2) for the username and password to use it from home or work.

Another excellent source for understanding both sides of various issues is a series of books called Opposing Viewpoints, published by Greenhaven Press. These books have the following motto: "Those who do not know their opponent's arguments do not completely understand their own". Each book includes several essays, both historical and current, arguing on either side of the debate. They also provide lists of articles, books, and even organizations that address the issue. Terrebonne Parish Library has a wide range of Opposing Viewpoints titles. If you want to try to understand the arguments on all sides of today's big controversies, this series is a great place to start.

- Ross Mays, Reference Librarian