Look Up! The Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower Is Here

Rocky Raybell via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Rocky Raybell via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Set your alarm for the predawn hours of Saturday May 6, go outside, and catch the Eta Aquarid meteor shower—one of two annual showers caused by the collision of the Earth and the debris field of Halley’s comet. It’s not the most spectacular shower of the year, but as it peaks tomorrow morning, you can count on it to deliver a ghostly streak of light every few minutes.

The shower is named for its seeming point of origin—the constellation Aquarius—but don’t confine your view to that one spot in the sky. The streaks of light will seem to be everywhere. If your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, the skies are clear, and the area is sufficiently dark, there’s an excellent chance you’ll see something special—no telescope or binoculars required.

HALLEY’S PHANTASM

Going back millennia, every 75 to 76 years the comet Halley has appeared in the sky, dazzling and mystifying the creatures of Earth. As of 1986—its last appearance over Earth—it was visible with the naked eye despite light pollution caused by poorly designed streetlights, ill-conceived fixtures, and the over and upward illumination of buildings in areas rural and urban alike. Most of us have never seen the night sky, but rather, some poor, washed out approximation of it. You look up, think you see space, and wonder why we’re spending so much money to visit so little. A proper night sky is a kaleidoscope of greens, blues, teals, and violets. There are more stars out there than grains of sand on the Earth. The first time you see the Milky Way in all its splendor, you may wonder why we do anything other than explore the cosmos.

milky way galaxy

Lukas Schlagenhauf via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

All of this bears note because for most of Halley’s history, there were no electric lights to outshine the universe. There were no planes or space stations to make illuminated objects coursing across the sky humdrum affairs filtered from thought. When something moved in the night sky back then, it was stark, obvious, and unnerving. Today we see a meteor shower and wonder how long the faint show might last. Centuries ago, people saw meteor showers and wondered if the world were about to end. The first recorded showing of Halley was possibly in 476 BCE. Aeschylus hadn’t yet written Agamemnon. The Roman Republic was in its infancy. Its recurrence has been associated with the birth of Jesus (its appearance may have coincided with the Star of Bethlehem), has been seen as a harbinger of death for royalty, and was a guiding light for Genghis Khan. Astronomy has always been as much about humanity as it is about the cosmos.

HOW TO MAKE A METEOR

The same dark skies unobscured by light pollution would have made the Aquarids—and every meteor shower to some extent—must-see viewing. Its first recorded observance was in 401 CE (the Roman Empire still stood then), and it was officially discovered in 1870. Six years later, it was calculated that the parent of the meteor shower was none other than the famed comet Halley, and people really started taking notice. As a comet travels along its orbit, it leaves a fine debris field in its wake. The Earth, happy and oblivious along its orbit, eventually crosses into the field of dust and sand-sized particles that were once part of Halley, and the result is a meteor shower: specks of dust slamming into the Earth’s atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. As they are vaporized, energy is released, producing those famed streaks of light in the night sky. (Later in Earth’s orbit, it will encounter Halley’s debris field again: the Orionids in October.)

So how can you see the phantom trail of Halley’s comet? The most exciting way is to wake a couple of hours before dawn, lay out a blanket in some dark area, and look up. Once your eyes adjust, you should be able to catch about 10 meteors per hour. If that’s too much work for you—it’s hot out there, and mosquitoes, you know?—Slooh will be broadcasting the meteor shower live, with running commentary by astronomers.

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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Barnard College’s Corpse Flower Just Bloomed for the First Time Ever—Watch It Here

This corpse flower is ready for her closeup.
This corpse flower is ready for her closeup.
Nicholas Gershberg/Barnard College

If someone’s talking about a corpse flower, or Amorphophallus titanum, there’s a good chance they’ll end up mentioning one or all of these characteristics: It’s phallic, it smells atrocious, and it might only bloom about once a decade.

Earlier this week, Barnard College’s corpse flower unfurled for the first time ever, and you can watch its slow progress in real time on the YouTube livestream below. This particular specimen was given to Barnard’s Arthur Ross Greenhouse by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Horticulture Department in 2013, and it’s named “Berani,” after the Indonesian word for brave—a nod to the species’s native region of Sumatra, Indonesia.

In previous years, the greenhouse staff has watched the potato-like tuber sprout into a tall, leafy structure—each taller than the last, with the most recent one measuring about 12 feet—hoping that next time, they’d get to watch it blossom into a flower instead. When Berani began to shoot up again this spring, they noticed it looked different, and by the time it was nearly 3 feet tall, they could confirm that the swollen spathe would soon unsheath a beautiful, putrid flower.

Since the coronavirus pandemic prevented them from inviting the public to see Berani blossom in person, greenhouse administrator Nick Gershberg and his colleagues have documented the process on the greenhouse’s Instagram account (as well as the livestream), and they’re planning to release a time-lapse video soon.


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A post shared by The Arthur Ross Greenhouse (@barnardgreenhouse) on

Gershberg tells Mental Floss that the flower reached its peak on Sunday night, May 31, at which point it measured 72 inches tall and 44 inches wide. And, true to its reputation, the corpse flower filled the room with a heavy stench that initially smelled like a dead rat. As the flower heated itself up to a temperature about 12 degrees warmer than the room—a respiration process called thermogenesis—Gershberg detected other recognizable scents, including dead fish, Camembert cheese that’s been left out overnight, and the odor of slightly decayed lilies. After the flower’s temperature came back down, it settled into a much more pleasant smell: a freshly-gutted pumpkin.

The corpse flower gets its name because its odor is often compared to that of a corpse, but Gershberg’s experience suggests that the association might be more in our heads than anything else.

“It was only when I went on the mental expedition of happening upon [the smell] in a jungle and thinking, ‘Oh my god, that’s a dead body,’ that it was actually nauseating. At that point, it was very nauseating,” he explains. “But as soon as I stopped thinking about it as, like, ‘Oh this is a dead body, or maybe dead person, even,’ then it didn’t have that effect. So it was interesting to see how in the face of this extreme odor, so much of it was really psychological, as far as whether I thought it was a good smell or a bad smell.”

Since a corpse flower only blooms for about 48 hours, Berani will soon begin to wither, and it’ll eventually fall over and separate from its base. After the roots die, the only thing left will be what Gershberg describes as “a 40-pound, beach ball-sized potato.” The team will remove it from the pot, clean it, inspect it for any infections, replant it, and wait for the now-dormant tuber to send up a new leaf, which will likely happen sometime in the next three to six months.

barnard college corpse flower closeup
Berani is giving every glamorous red carpet gown a run for its money.
Nicholas Gershberg/Barnard College

According to Gershberg, the experience of seeing the corpse flower bloom in all its majestic glory fundamentally changes how you view its usual tuber and leaves.

“It’s like when you see someone do karaoke and you’re like, ‘My god, that person can really sing,’ and you never quite look at them the same way again,” he says. “You’re like, ‘There’s actually a superstar in that head of accounting over there.’”

To help them remember just how big of a superstar Berani really is—and give the public a chance to see it for themselves in the future—the Barnard team is hoping to preserve some of it as a flower pressing. While you’re waiting to see what that looks like, you can learn more about corpse flowers here.