Tag Archives: AMNH

A Glimpse of our Space Future

Sputnik1
Sputnik 1, the little Russian satellite that launched the space race in 1957

The American Museum of Natural History‘s new exhibit, Beyond Planet Earth, which opened last Saturday through August 12, 2012, provides a window through the past and an optimistic glimpse at the future of space exploration. As I moved through the historical portion at a press preview last Tuesday, Russian spacecraft pinged, and news reports captured the excitement and enthusiasm of historical moments, press conferences that opened up the world beyond our atmosphere.

I grew up in Florida in the Space Shuttle era, but I never saw a shuttle launch. My family tried to go once, and we thought we’d miss it because of traffic, only to arrive just in time to have the launch scrubbed seconds before scheduled liftoff. Years earlier I’d watched the TV enraptured in my elementary school library as the first Space Shuttle launched. I remember slipping on ice between two of my middle school classes  on a frigid morning in January 1986 — within a couple of hours word spread through the hallways of the Challenger explosion. So my personal piece of space nostalgia came when I walked by the case with the frangible nuts– the piece of the space shuttle that released the engine and rocket boosters and allowed the spacecraft to be reusable.

In many ways, the Space Shuttle was my window on exploration, on space, on science. The  future of understanding worlds beyond Earth seems far less focused, and though exciting and innovative, far less certain.

Sarah with rover
Sarah with the AMNH's Mars Exploration Rover

I paused at the Mars Exploration Rover long enough for a photo. Spirit and Opportunity launched the same year that I started my science writing career, and that mission marks a very personal milestone: a new career, a new adventure, a personal exploration.

But the real meat in this exhibit comes through the journey into the future, a world of Kevlar-sided Moon-homes the size of camping trailers, liquid mirror telescopes, the technology to provide enough water to drink on the Moon or beyond.

The Virgin Galactic Spaceplane: the future for astronauts and space tourists?

I had never thought about mining asteroids, but space mining for rare elements for cell phones and electronics seems plausible, maybe. After our recent near-Earth asteroid experience within the last two weeks, one interactive game that allowed me to use various strategies, bombs and mirrors to divert such disasters.

My asteroid diversions probably line up with Dennis Overbye’s inner 6-year-old boy delight at bombing Mars (see his New York Times review). The exhibit includes a touch table that allows you to terraform Mars, by building factories, setting off bombs. It took me a while to get to a point where such effects might make Mars warm enough to be comfortably habitable. And I couldn’t help but wonder, is this a good idea?

I spent the most time looking at the new Curiosity rover that’s heading to Mars next weekend and learning about the prototype for a Mars spacesuit. Dava Newman of MIT talked about the suit that uses mechanical pressure against the skin instead of a pressurized dough-boy look. The resulting suit works like high-tech athletic gear, sleek and far more streamlined for moving and climbing.

BioSuit by MIT Aeronautics

At the press conference before the  preview last Tuesday, astronaut Mike Massimino talked about his early interest in space exploration that came out of his childhood visits to the American Museum of Natural History: “There were no astronauts living on my block in Long Island.” This exhibit is a lovely tribute to explorations past and a look at the best possible future. I hope that future generations have the same chance to explore worlds beyond Earth.

Photo credits:

Sputnik: © AMNH\R. Mickens

Sarah and Rover: Carol Milano

Spaceplane and BioSuit: © AMNH\D. Finnin

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Biology on a Dinosaur Scale

Titanosaur nest

Last week, along with a group of other journalists, I got a sneak peek at The World’s Largest Dinosaurs, an exhibit that opened on April 16 at the American Museum of Natural History and will be open until January 2. This exhibit departs from the traditional dino-formula of towering skeletons by asking questions about the biology that supported the growth and maintenance of those massive bodies.

That’s not to say that there aren’t big dinosaurs. The model of the Mamenchiosaurus strains the room proportions, but the best part is her double-role as a screen for videos that describe how she breathed, the hundreds of liters of blood coursing through her body and 30-ft-long neck, and how she digested hundreds of pounds of food each day.

But though Mamenchiosaurus is daunting in size, she’s positively awe-inspiring once you get to the exhibit where you push a pump that simulates the heart that would pump her blood. I managed to keep her going for a few heartbeats, but I soon got a warning message: “The dino is dizzy.” I didn’t last much longer.

Mamenchisaurus at the AMNH's The World's Largest Dinosaurs

In a quick conversation with respiratory biologist, Dr. Steve Perry, I learned about their über-efficient lungs. Like birds, these dinosaurs likely had lungs with two chambers. As a result, they could absorb oxygen both as they inhaled and as they exhaled, boosting their ability to extract oxygen from the air to 35 percent from the 20 percent that we mere humans manage.

By making all kinds of connections to large animals that currently walk the Earth—elephants, giraffes, and even large egg-laying birds—it became a little easier to wrap my head around these large creatures roaming the Earth. It was fun to get some biology to add some meat to those bones.

More on the research that formed the basis for this exhibit in Science and in the New York Times.

Want to follow a dinosaur on Twitter? @Giant_Dino

Image credits: © AMNH/D. Finnin

 

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An Amazing Race

[slideshow]

Part of the drama in any race is figuring out which team to cheer for. Looking back on the quest to reach the South Pole nearly a century ago, it’s a seesaw between two teams with different goals. On one side is the single-minded consummate planner, Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who learned about travel and survival from the Inuit and built a village in the ice– sauna included. Then there’s the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott, a man who valued science as well as the bragging rights of being first.

In the new American Museum of Natural History exhibit, Race to the End of the Earth , which opens on Saturday (I got  an early peek at a press preview this week), the visitor gets a chance to follow the journey of those first teams to reach the South Pole. I knew the winner already, but I didn’t know the compelling story of the journey– An Original Amazing Race, without the reality TV trappings. A twisting comparative timeline forms the spine of the exhibit, and it becomes increasingly clear as you traverse it how sound planning and single-mindedness ultimately triumphed. But the exhibit also highlights the achievements of Scott, the man also interested in understanding the science and natural history of this alien continent. The research stations in Antarctica feel like the legacy of the man who came in second.

Scott comes off as the sentimental favorite, particularly when you read his final notes– when he knew he would not survive– to his friends, his colleagues, and his wife and baby son. (Besides getting there first, Amundsen and all his men survived.) But you also wonder at some of his planning choices: bringing ponies to haul sleds in Antarctica? having his men drag sleds laden with food and supplies over hundreds of miles? Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but those choices feel like part folly, part hubris.

The exhibit does the story justice. It’s hard to imagine such bitter cold and nearly intolerable conditions, but at the same time. But I’m thinking of the magic of being among “the first” to see emperor penguins, to traverse this mysterious place and begin to understand its compelling and dangerous secrets.

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Brilliantly beautiful bee nests

nest constructed by female bee, Osima avosetta, by J.G. Rozen, AMNH

I tend to think of bees in hives, but three out of four species of these pollinators strike out on their own. A newly discovered species, O. avosetta, lines its underground nests with flower petals. Two teams of researchers found these unusual nests in Turkey and in Iran.

From the American Museum of Natural History press release:

“In this species, a female shingles the wall of her brood chambers with large pieces of petals or with whole petals, often of many hues,” says Jerome Rozen, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the Museum. “Unfortunately, her larvae never enjoy the brilliant colors of the nest’s walls because they have no eyes—and, anyhow, they would need a flashlight!”

Hat tip to NPR— Read more about how these bees make the nests and see more amazing flower nest photos.

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Whales, mate!

I can’t imagine not being awed by massive air-breathing creatures that move through the water. Whales are smart creatures that live in a dark, alternative Earth-world, where sound is the dominant sense.

This weekend I got a chance to see this wonderful exhibition from New Zealand— complete with two sperm whale skeletons and a life-size model of a blue whale’s heart– at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. (I’ve mentioned the blue whale replica at AMNH before. The heart replica blows your mind in the same way– an adult person can fit inside). Check out the first part of this video.

Continue reading Whales, mate!

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Traveling the (AMNH’s) Silk Road

Pick up a passport, and travel along an ancient road  with silk, haunting melodies and the simmering whiff of oils and spices.

At its best, the American Museum of Natural History’s  Traveling the Silk Road exhibition evokes as many senses as possible, particularly smell and sound. There’s a wonderful market where you can test your abilities to match smells, and, as a bonus, we also heard music by musicians involved in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project (performing on Sundays at the museum).

I just found myself wishing that there were a few more things that I was allowed to touch, particularly with beautiful silks, looms and a video demonstrating how weavers transform worm cocoons into stunning garments.  I heard of at least a couple ancient trading posts that I’d never read about, hubs where ancient roads met for the exchange of all kinds of goods and information.

This trading network was the information superhighway of its time– 600 to 800 AD– exchanging science, culture, design patterns. I was enthralled with the water clock and fiddled for a while with the astrolabe, attempting to tell time from the night sky. I gained a whole new respect for ancient sailors– the number of steps it took just to find out where and “when” they were.

I’ve recently rekindled an interest in ceramics, so I spent a lot of time contemplating classic curves and forms of the various pots and vessels– beautiful, functional, ancient and, yet, somehow modern, too. The exhibit was a wonderful experience in seeing connections between past cultures and my daily connections to a distant past.

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Introducing Material of the Week: Spider Silk

Madagascar golden orb spider (Nephila madagascariensis)
Madagascar golden orb spider (Nephila madagascariensis) Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Followers of this blog might have noticed that the Molecule of the Week (MotW) feature took a summerish hiatus. I’ve decided to expand the feature to include interesting materials, which are often more complex mixtures, either of synthetic or naturally-made compounds. So, I’m adding Material of the Week (MatotW in blogospheric shorthand) to help round out the idea.

This week, a material near and dear to my Webby heart: spider silk.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York is now displaying a length of cloth made entirely from Madagascar golden orb spider silk . At a half million dollar price tag and requiring 1 million spiders, this is the fabric of kings (maybe even Louis XIV) and involves some some serious production snags (See the NY Times or Wired Science for more on those issues).

The silks are made of structural proteins, chains of amino acid building blocks, that in different combinations do the work of living systems and make up other sorts of animal fibers such as hair. The animals use different combinations for different purposes: making webs, catching prey, building nests, or wooing a mate, notes Cheryl Hayashi’s UC Riverside website. (She studies these materials and garnered a MacArthur grant in 2007 for her work).

istockphoto/Taho_H
istockphoto/Taho_H

I’m already making plans to go see the spider silk fabric (and still trying to imagine lining up spiders in harnesses to produce it– quite the mental image). But spider silk reminds me of how much we humans can learn from our fellow inhabitants on this planet. Sure, the military and industry might find all sorts of uses for these threads from armor to moorings. But in this moment I’m simply awed by the natural engineering process and its outcome — a spider hanging from a single super-strong thread, spinning a lacy net to catch prey, and a few dew drops.

Reflecting E.B. White’s words back on Charlotte: “Some Web.”

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Molecule of the Week: Water

Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli
Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli

It’s been a rainy week in New York City, and my office next to our front porch and my container garden has me thinking about that ubiquitous wetness. It’s been soaking my plants, and after a quick errand on Friday afternoon, its dampness lurked for hours on the hem of my jeans.

It’s easy to take the wonder of water for granted because it’s everywhere, but its physical properties are anything but ordinary. Almost all solids of any substance are more dense than their liquid counterparts. But if ice were more dense than liquid water, ice cubes wouldn’t float in cool drinks on a summer day. Ice wouldn’t freeze at the tops of cold lakes (no ice skating), and polar ice caps would be more like suboceanic ice cushions. If water were a normal liquid, the Earth would look really weird.

Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka
Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka

The molecule itself is bent, lending hexagonal elegance to snowflakes. In a liquid the molecules glom to each other, not quite like superglue. But that watched pot (that seemingly never boils) needs lots of energy to release water into steam.

For those of us who’ve built molecules for a living, water is often our enemy, something that can get in the way and keep the right components from getting together. But Nature incorporates water beautifully, using the molecule as a structural tool and as a critical player in the reactions that make life work. Forced to take some tricks from Nature in my own graduate work (my highly charged molecules wouldn’t dissolve in any other solvent), working in water was like learning a related foreign language. I learned some basic grammar and vocabulary, but fluency of water chemistry is a challenge beyond the synthetic lab. By Nature’s standards, I was, perhaps, third rate.

I missed the AMNH’s exhibit on Water when it was in NYC (but I think it’s still touring, check your local science museum). As climates change, ice melts, sea levels rise, more intense storms brew in the oceans, water sits at the heart of the environmental challenge. According to the World Health Organization, as of 2002, nearly 20 percent of the world’s population didn’t have access to healthy, sanitized drinking water supplies.

Three atoms hooked together connect to the inner workings of life, health, the environment and public policy.

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The best part about my job

Puijila darwini © AMNH/D. Finnin
Puijila darwini © AMNH/D. Finnin

Is talking to enthusiastic scientists with a story to tell. When I was at the AMNH Extreme Mammals preview on Tuesday, I talked with Natalia Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, one of the scientists who discovered this fossil, Puijila darwini. It’s an exciting find: a pre-pinniped (pinnipeds are a group of animals that include seals and– a personal favorite here– walruses). This animal could walk as well as swim and probably looked a little an otter. But other features, such as the teeth, make the connection to their coastal kin. Here’s the research paper in Nature, Nature‘s Behind the Paper (both require subscriptions), and a National Geographic News story.

It’s fun science, and I’m sure as a former laboratory scientist that I romanticize the whole field component of heading out into the wild world of the Arctic for a month in the summer to look for fossils. It’s hard work, too. But talking with her about the work, the excitement of the find, the work they hope to do this summer, I caught the buzz, too. One of the great perks of my job is the opportunity to talk with scientists who are passionate about the process and effuse that excitement. The fact that she just published a paper in Nature— well, that bit is great for her career and helps us sell a story. But, in terms of my personal enjoyment, it’s icing on the cake.

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Mammals to an extreme

I’ve been making the rounds of interesting New York City science events this week. Yesterday morning– along with a bunch of other journalists– I got a preview of the American Museum of Natural History‘s Extreme Mammals exhibition, which opens on Saturday, May 16.

Indricotherium © AMNH/D. Finnin
Indricotherium © AMNH/D. Finnin

Walking through the exhibit, it’s interesting to think about what we consider “normal” about mammals and how some of these examples, mostly fossils and model reconstructions, challenge that notion. The exhibit entrance is striking, a model of an ancient rhinoceros relative (Indricotherium), the largest-ever land mammal– so big that he’s the entry gate to the exhibit.

Batodonoides © AMNH/D. Finnin
Batodonoides © AMNH/D. Finnin

Next, of course, is the smallest– a model of a bumblebee bat– a little thumb size creature about the size of those little plastic animals that you sometimes see decorating the end of kids’ pencils or pens. Evolution may be random, but here it almost seems whimsical, like nature created a beautiful toy.

However, the cute centerpiece of the exhibits are live sugar gliders– little Australian marsupials that look a little like a cross between a squirrel and a bat– flaps of skin between their front and back legs serve as parachutes that allow them to glide.

Sugar glider © AMNH/ R. Mickens
Sugar glider © AMNH/ R. Mickens

It’s a fun exhibit with lots of interesting factoids about brain size, trunks, horns, and even scales– unexpected features on some unusual creatures. So, it’s worth a stop, and save time to watch the sugar gliders.

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