Nantucket Science Festival


March 28, 2015  10am – 2pm   Middle School Cafeteria, 10 Surfside Rd.Nantucket Science Festival 2015

The first ever Nantucket Science Festival is right around the corner!  This hands-on and interactive event is full of activities for all ages from preschool to adult.  Hosted by the Maria Mitchell Association and the Nantucket Community School, the Nantucket Science Festival is all about connecting people with their inner scientist.  There will be fun and gooey substances to play with, mechanical machines to dismantle, electrical circuits to build, robots to build and program, and experiments in nanotechnology to perform.

While many activities are geared towards kids, adults will have an equally exciting experience.  I often hear people say something along the lines of “I’m not a scientist, but here’s my opinion.”  This statement is seriously inaccurate!  Your opinion is based on the Nantucket Science Festival 2015same information a scientist would collect.  In reality, we are all capable of doing what a ‘scientist’ does and we do it every day.

A scientist observes, questions, deduces meaning, and experiments.  Here is an extremely simple example: When you see someone slip and fall, as I did recently, you immediately question why, observe all the ice on the ground, and deduce that the ice is slippery and that maybe you should be careful too.  Unlike me, hopefully you put that knowledge to use as you hurry over to help.  I hurried over and promptly slipped myself- that was my experiment.  This may sound like too simplistic an example, but if you apply the ‘observe, question, deduce, experiment’ technique to Nantucket Science Festival 2015bigger questions, you are doing the same thing that led to the discoveries of vaccines, electricity, pasteurization, flight, lasers, and modern medicine.

Since we all are capable of being a scientist, no matter what a person’s background, everyone will learn something at the Nantucket Science Festival.   Bring the whole family!

Nantucket Science Festival 2015

New York Times Op-Ed in line with MMA renovation of Eco-Lab

“Specimen libraries are vital for biology.
So why are museums being forced to cut their funding?”

Nantucket Moths at the Natural Science Museum

Today’s NYTimes op-ed piece points out the importance of maintaining specimen libraries.

This is just another reason why the Eco-Lab project is so exciting for us here at the MMA, as we will be upgrading our collection preparation, storage, and display capabilities as part of the project, enabling us to better preserve and analyze Nantucket’s natural history.

-John Daniels, President of the Board of Directors and Interim Executive Director

Dr. Michael West talks about Hubble Telescope on WCAI

If you’re interested, Dr. Michael West’s latest interview with WCAI (Cape and Islands NPR radio station) aired this past Friday. It is available to stream anytime from WCAI’s website.

The 5-minute interview with Steve Junker discusses what astronomer do when the weather is lousy like it has been lately. West and Junker mostly chat about Hubble Space Telescope and observations that West’s colleague and he did with it last week to learn about how galaxies change when they move from ‘rural’ environments in the universe into teeming ‘galaxy metropolises’ that are the equivalent of cosmic cities.


-Dr. Michael West

Stellar Flyby


An interesting new study provides evidence that a star zipped through the outer part of our solar system about 70,000 years ago. If you’d like to know more, you’ll find additional information here:

Popular Science: When We Weren’t Looking a star passed within .8 lightyears of Earth

NBC NEWS: Alien star missed us by less than a year, scientists say.

Global News: Astronomers find star buzzed outer solar system 70,000 years ago

-Dr. Michael West

Illusion of Lights: The Importance of Protecting Our Dark Skies

There’s a stunningly beautiful new time-lapse video of the night sky titled Illusion of Lights that reminds us of what we’ll miss someday if we don’t protect our dark skies here on Nantucket and elsewhere. Click on the link below if you’d like to watch this short video.


If you’d like to know more about the project or the photographers, you can find additional information on their website.

Here’s hoping your skies are dazzling,

-Dr. Michael West, Director of Astronomy

Comet Lovejoy’s Journey Continues

Comet Lovejoy is still visible with binoculars for a few more weeks, though it’s starting to get dimmer. If you’d like to look for it, here’s an updated map of its location in the sky each night during February, courtesy of Sky & Telescope magazine.

May15_Lovejoy_Lg-Dr. Michael West, Director of Astronomy

The New Maria Mitchell Ecology Lab and Collections Facility

Maria Mitchell Library

The old MMA Science Library, once a circulating library and go to place for students working on science fair projects, has not been officially open since 2005.  Its book and journal collections sat mostly idle, used only occasionally by researchers, students, and interns.  However, for the past ten years, MMA staff have continually discussed how to renovate the building into something that serves the MMA’s mission and is useful to Nantucketers and visitors alike.

Discussions on converting this space into a new home for the biological collections and lab began as we were planning the new science center.  Now that the science center project is paused, the new Ecology Lab and Collections Facility is our top priority.  This new facility will be a better use of space and will provide MMA the infrastructure and tools needed to re-launch a campaign to build a science center downtown.

A schematic of the proposed Ecology Lab and Collections Facility on Nantucket

A schematic for the proposed Ecology Lab and Collections Facility. A versatile space for all things Ecology!


So, what is the vision?  Our biological collections containing 10,000 specimens are currently stored in the basement of the Natural Science Museum in Hinchman House.  These will be moved into the renovated and climate controlled basement of the new Ecology Lab.  The first floor of the old library building, the part that was formerly William Mitchell’s school house, will become a lab space for the preparation of specimens and processing of field collections (like plants and insects).  This space will have microscope stations, equipment for digital media, and a small hood for working with chemicals.  The stucco wing of the library will become office space for the Director of Natural Science and the Curator of the Mitchell House, as well as work space for visiting researchers.

Schematic of the proposed collections facility on Nantucket

A new, safe home for plant, insect, bird, shell, and mammal specimens.

Who will use this new facility? Everyone!  Local and visiting researchers, public and private schools, students working on science fair projects, and anyone interested in viewing the collections or learning about the natural world of Nantucket.

Progress is rapid! The roof has been redone and the structural walls are in the process of being repaired thanks to a grant from the CPC. Check back or drop by Vestal Street to see the how things are going.

Mysterious Fowler’s Toad Discovered

fowlers toad found on Nantucket

The specimen on the beach.

What is the last thing you would expect to find on the beach in February on Nantucket?  A flamingo? A kangaroo? How about a dead toad that was thought to be extirpated from Nantucket 50 years ago?

On February 1, while walking the beach by Brant Point, I happened to find just such a toad in near perfect condition lying in the sand half way between the low and high tide lines.  This was during the first nice day after two snowy and rainy storms (one being Juno).  After excitedly showing the toad to the three other people on the beach, I took it back to the Museum lab for cleaning, photographs, and eventual freezing.

fowlers toad found on Nantucket

The top side of the toad. It had one injury on the right side of its head.

fowlers toad found on Nantucket

The underside of the toad.









Note the pale underside with a darkish spot in the middle.  That feature, along with several other characteristics, identify this as a Fowler’s toad (Anaxyrus fowleri) (thanks to Scott Smyers at Oxbow Associates for identification expertise).  Once common on Nantucket and Muskeget (and presumably Tuckernuck) it has not been seen since the 1950′s.  The Museum of Comparative Zoology has six specimens, four from Muskeget collected in 1889 and two from Nantucket collected in 1853.  DDT and other pesticides are usually blamed for its disappearance.  However, Fowler’s toads are abundant elsewhere in Massachusetts.

So what does this mean?  Where did this toad come from?  Fowler’s toads live in areas with sandy soils and breed in shallow standing water. They can be found in dune habitat, pastures, and even woodlands.  There is no way we can tell where this specimen came from but we can make some guesses to guide future searches.

The smooth green snake is only found on Coatue on Nantucket. It is found elsewhere in Massachusetts.

The smooth green snake is only found on Coatue on Nantucket. It is also found elsewhere in Massachusetts.

The most remote part of Nantucket is ironically less than a mile from downtown.  Coatue is a forbidding and pretty harsh environment, at least for humans.  Anyone who has stood out there as a storm rolls in knows the feeling of helpless exposure.  However, Coatue is also the only place the smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis) is found on Nantucket.  Maybe it’s just the place for long lost species. There are wet areas, sandy soils, and very little human impact.  Could a small population of Fowler’s toads survive there?

With knowledge of that possibility, hopefully staff from the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and the Trustees of Reservations, the main land owners, keep their ears open this spring for the distinctive call of this toad.  You should too! If you hear any unusual frog or insect calls, or find an unusual snake, frog, or turtle, please let us know- it could be a major find!

Comet Lovejoy Still Visible

Comet Lovejoy is still visible with binoculars for a few more weeks, though it’s starting to get dimmer. If you’d like to look for it, here’s an updated map of its location in the sky each night during February, courtesy of Sky & Telescope magazine.