This is the second story in a four-part, weekly series on taxonomy and speciation. It's meant to help you as you participate in Armchair Taxonomist — a challenge from the Encyclopedia of Life to bring scientific descriptions of animals, plants, and other living things out from behind paywalls and onto the Internet. Participants can earn cool prizes, so be sure to check it out!
On the sixth floor of New York's American Museum of Natural History — far away from the throngs of tourists and packs of schoolkids — there is a cold, white room, filled with white, metal cabinets.
The cabinets are full of dead things; leeches, sea anemones, lobsters ... any kind of invertebrate you can imagine. Even a giant squid. All of them have been carefully preserved. Each soaks in its own, luxuriant ethanol bath. Here they sit, some for a hundred years or more, waiting for scientists to pull them out into the light.
It's a bit like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but for slimy, crawly, spineless things. There are collections like this all over the world, containing every species of animal, plant, and microscopic organism. Together, they serve as a record of Earth's biodiversity, a library of life. In them, you'll find more than just random specimens. Some of the individuals are special. Called "type specimens", they serve as ambassadors for their species, real-world models that define what each species is. For instance, the leech species Myxobdella maculata is both a group of leeches and exactly one leech — A leech that I got to meet on a behind-the-scenes tour with invertebrate curators Estefania Rodriguez and Mark Siddall.
Famed grindcore band Napalm Death were slated to play a unique concert at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Friday night, but the museum cancelled the show fearing that "the high level of decibels generated by the performance would damage the historic fabric of the building." The group was to play through a sculptural ceramic sound system built by artist Keith Harrison. The sculpture was expected to crumble under the volume of the performance.
"Sound as a weapon - or a weapon of change - is a very interesting concept and I think that the whole process of our sound gradually degrading clay sculptures is captivating," Napalm Death vocalist Mark "Barney" Greenway said last week. "The noise element of music should never be understated and this exhibition at the V&A will hopefully demonstrate that music can do interesting things beyond the realms of clipped production techniques."
According to the V&A, the museum "is committed to an exciting programme of exhibitions and events but the safety of our visitors and building remains our priority at all times."
Above, Napalm Death's "Suffer the Children" from their 1990 album Harmony Corruption, the first album to feature Greenway on vocals.
Chicago's Field Museum isn't just a science museum. It's also a research center, especially for archaeologists and anthropologists who come to the museum to make use of its extensive collections of artifacts — only a tiny fraction of which is on public display at any given time. Unfortunately, the museum is currently up to its neck in debt, and part of the current administrators' plan to deal with that problem is to restructure the research department and cut back on curators and staffing there.It's hard to understand why this has the archaeology community so on edge unless you really understand what the Field Museum has in those vast Indiana-Jones-inspiring storage collections. Here's Michael Smith, an archaeologist who studies the ancient Aztecs, explaining why the Field Museum is so important to his work and that of his colleagues.
The photo above shows an Aztec flute in the museum. I have excavated many small fragments of these objects in Aztec domestic middens, but never an entire example. When one just has the animal's ear, or a segment with a hole, or a fragment of the mouthpiece, it is hard to figure out just what these are pieces of. It is through study of the whole flutes in the Field Museum or other museums that I learned to interpret the tiny fragments of musical instruments, and of many other unusual items, from my excavations. Or consider our knowledge of Aztec music. Scholars such as Adje Both have reconstructed aspects of Aztec music by studying flutes like this and by playing them (and recording the tones and doing analyses of the sound diagrams). Museums are the only places with the resources for such research, and the Field Museum is one of the most important in the U.S. and the world.
Last week, I got to visit the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City. It's an amazing collection — well worth driving out of your way to see. I was expecting just a selection of different animal skeletons. The actual collection was a lot bigger and more awesome than I'd guessed it would be, and included some really nice exhibits on evolutionary adaptation, convergent evolution, deformed skeletons of both humans and animals, and the process of stripping a body down to a clean and shiny bone structure.
One of the things I found really fascinating was the skeletal features that you can't see just by looking at the outside of an animal. Take this Indian Rhinoceros, for instance. You'll notice that his horn is not a part of the skull. That's because the horn isn't really bone. The "horn" isn't a horn, at all.
Horns are made of bone. They're hard on the outside thanks to a thin layer of keratin — the stuff that makes up your fingernails and hair. But the majority of that material is living bone. Rhinos, on the other hand, have "horns" that are almost 100% keratin. They're really thick bundles of protein fibers.
That's a pretty well-known fact. But it's one thing to know it intellectually, and another thing entirely to see the place where that keratin horn attaches to the animal's actual bone structure. The intricate, lacy network of spongy bone was absolutely fascinating to me. It reminded me of the way ceramic artists will attach one piece of clay to another by scoring little cuts into both pieces and then applying a layer of thin, goopy clay that cements the cuts together as it dries. Seeing the rhino skull really drove home the idea that the "horn" was something else entirely. The horn was attached to the bone. It wasn't part of the bone.
New York's Museum of Modern Art has acquired 14 videogames that will be playable in a gallery there beginning in March 2013. According to Paola Antonelli, the MoMA's senior curator of architecture and design, these titles are "the seedbed for an initial wish list of about 40 to be acquired in the near future, as well as for a new category of artworks." I'm delighted that my favorite game, Pac-Man (1980), was part of the initial acquisition. The others include: Tetris (1984), Another World (1991), Myst (1993), SimCity 2000 (1994), vib-ribbon (1999), The Sims (2000), Katamari Damacy (2004), EVE Online (2003), Dwarf Fortress (2006), Portal (2007), flOw (2006), Passage (2008), and Canabalt (2009). "Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for Starters"
Here's a big difference between nature and a natural history museum: In the wild, when you find a skeleton of anything, it's seldom arranged in a neat, orderly, anatomically correct manner. Even if an animal dies in captivity, nature won't just conveniently produce a skeleton suitable for mounting.
So how do museums get the perfect skeletal specimens that you see behind glass?
The answer: Lots and lots and lots of tedious work. Plus the assistance of a few thousand flesh-eating bugs.
This video from the University of Michigan traces the creation of a bat skeleton, from a fleshy dead bat in a jar, to a neat, little set of bones in a display case. It's painstaking (and moderately disgusting) work. Sort of like building model cars, if the Ford Mustang had realistic organ tissue.
Not that there can't be more than one museum for something, but it's worth noting that there already is a Nikola Tesla Museum. It houses more than 100,000 of his original documents, plans, and drawings, as well as some of Tesla's personal belongings. (Including a needlepoint his mom made for him!) The museum covers the history of electricity and subjects related to Tesla's other inventions. There is even a little shop. And you can go there, right now ... or at least the next time you're in Belgrade. (Thanks, Leonard Pierce!)
Today, when almost every major city in America has a science museum with hands-on, interactive exhibits, that particular format of education seems pretty obvious. But it wasn't always.
In 1969, Frank Oppenheimer opened the Exploratorium, the first American museum to use these now-familiar educational tools. The experiment was sort of a combination of the skills Oppenheimer had learned as a high school science teacher (he spent several years teaching school after being blackballed from research science due to Red Scare paranoia) and what he saw happening in European science museums of the time.
Oppenheimer would have turned 100 years old today. Celebrate with this video, where he explains the ideas that led to the creation of the Exploratorium. It's a fascinating look at the once-revolutionary origins of a paradigm that was so successful, we now take it completely for granted.
On Saturday, I spoke at an Earth Day Tweetup at the Science Museum of Minnesota. As part of the event, the museum took tweeters on a behind-the-scenes tour, including the exhibit workshop. (The Science Museum of Minnesota is one of the few science museums in the United States that designs and builds all its own exhibits from scratch.) Also on the tour: Science House, a nifty resource center for Minnesota teachers. That's where this photo comes from.
Science House is a separate, detached building, set in the Museum's "backyard", that's open to teachers during after-school hours and during the Summer. It's home to a vast array of science paraphernalia. Besides this collection of skulls and plastic biology models, there's also racks of microscopes and chemistry glassware, a bookshelf full of solar system models, a regiment of Van de Graaf generators, and a full human skeleton dangling from a hook in the ceiling. There's also dozens and dozens of intriguing red plastic tubs lined up on shelves. The tubs are full of equipment, tools, and books that aren't available in every school. Teachers can check out any of these things from the museum, like you'd check out a book from a library.
The Smithsonian, the world's largest museum, is planning on producing 3D scans of its collection and making them freely available to the public to print out at home on their 3D printers (or incorporate into their virtual worlds). CNet's Daniel Terdiman has the story:
Update: Sarah Taylor Sulick from the Smithsonian sez, "Unfortunately we have no plans to make 3D scans of our collection freely available for the public to print. The CNET story is a bit misleading on that point. Our 3-D team mentioned that we COULD go there theoretically, but as of right now it is not part of our plan.
The reality is also that we have 137M objects in our collection and only 2 people working on this project. So we are no where near being able to scan everything and essentially never will be."
Now, with that high-end scanner, as well as less expensive tools that include normal digital cameras and freely available cloud-based digitization software, Metallo and his fellow 3D digitization coordinator Vince Rossi are slowly setting out to begin building a new Smithsonian digital archive. They hope this initiative will eventually lead to scores of 3D printed exhibits, as well as countless 3D models that could theoretically be used in the museums, in schools, or just about anywhere people have an interest in the Smithsonian's vast physical holdings...
Metallo and Rossi's goal is clear: they want to build a large collection of 3D scanned objects and archaeological sites that can support the entire Smithsonian complex. They've got technology on their side--with minimally invasive laser scanners they can capture the geometry of just about any object or site with accuracy down to the micron level.
But their resources are few, and the two told CNET that they have to be smart about the projects they choose to digitize. They have to know that their work is going to tell a story in a new way or give researchers new tools in order to justify spending the time it takes to do the work.
In 1950, as part of promoting a new exhibit on space exploration, the Hayden Planetarium in New York City put out the word that it was accepting applications from would-be space tourists. Over the next few years, hundreds of letters poured in. This is one of them, written by a man who would like to get to Mars early in order to corner the hot dog market there.
You can view several other letters at the American Museum of Natural History's website. They're equally delightful and packed with awesome Happy Mutant goodness—from a man who helpfully offered the planetarium his own, home-brew rocket schematics; to a man with the nickname "Stardust" who told the planetarium they could cancel his reservation if he was able to hitch a ride on a flying saucer sooner; to Barbara, a 16-year-old who informed the Planetarium that she "won't be content" until she was on a rocket headed to far-off space. Beautiful!