Sunday, November 2, 2008
Desperately Seeking Science
Bank of America has had a year long promotion going on called "Museums On Us", where if you show up at a participating museum with a Bank of America credit card on the first weekend of every month, admission is free. We checked out the list of participating museums and found that the Harvard Museum of Natural History was on it.
And awaaayy we go...
Call me a geek, but I love museums. Especially during the colder months, or whenever the weather isn't cooperating, they're a great place to go to slip into the past, be befuddled with technology and physics, marvel at the beauty of nature or gawk at masterpieces of human art. Today it was the 'marvel at nature' variety, with a little 'slip into the past' thrown in for good measure. It took us about an hour and twenty minutes to reach Cambridge.
Harvard has an astoundingly good natural history museum, in my opinion it rivals the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Maybe not in size, but certainly in the quality and variety of the specimens, fossils and exhibits.
We happened to have watched the movie 'Alien' just a couple days before this visit...
One thing this museum is not short on, is birds. They're displayed everywhere. Every case, nook and cranny they can fit them into. Their mixed in with the whales, the land mammals and the fossil exhibits.
Here are some examples of some colorful south American varieties,
as compared with the slightly less showy types that we're more familiar with up here.
The Passenger pigeon. One regrettable story of incredibly wretched mistakes by man, is the hunting to extinction of this once ubiquitous bird.
They say these birds were so abundant in the early 19th century that the flocks would literally darken the skies, and pass over settlements for several days, if that can even be imagined. They would devastate forests wherever they roosted, from their sheer weight on the branches of trees, and the acres of excrement they would leave behind. There are records of the billionth bird being shipped to New York City in the mid 1800's.
By 1900 there were none left in the wild. In 1914 the very last one died. From billions, to zero. We'll never see even one. Few people today probably even know they existed up until less than a century ago. The Bison is a similar story with nearly similar results. The Dodo, on the other hand, is the same story.
Wiped out by man and never to be seen moving on this Earth again.
The California Condor, with the largest wingspan of any bird in North America, was down to just a handful of specimens and confined to captivity until the early 90's. It is beginning to make a comeback with several hundred pairs now out in the wild. It was a very close call for them.
They say what comes around, goes around. Are we humans to ironically suffer the same fate, and at our own hands? Some people sure think so; Be it by thermonuclear microwave, or slow pressure cooking...
Whatever happens, the Earth will probably live on, and with complete indifference to our whining. The Earth has been on a roller coaster ride of temperature change from day one. At one point scientists now believe it was completely covered in ice, even to the equator.
All this talk of extinction has me in the mood for fossil viewing. Here's a Giant Sloth, from about 10,000 years ago. Luckily for contemporary humans, it was an herbivore, and hopefully a good natured one.
This giant turtle shell from South America is in the Guinness Book of World Records.
This almost mythical sized animal lived in South America, at a time when the continent was cut off from the rest of the world. As a result of the isolation, the balance of nature there took the animals on a strange journey. Entirely unique animals developed, and many common animals mutated in strange ways. Many of them became giants. Sloths, crocodiles, armadillos, and other species grew and grew to titanic sizes.
Eventually the whole natural experiment ended when the isthmus of Panama formed, reconnecting South America with the north, allowing many to escape, and predators from the north to invade, wiping out most of the unique species.
Earlier in animal history, giants lived and bred for much longer epochs. Like this Kronosaurus, who plied the waters around Australia, 135 million years ago.
Some of our current water-borne creatures were there to witness those giants swimming by.
Of course some giants still roam the Earth. The massiveness of the Right and Sperm Whales become apparent, stretching across the ceilings of one exhibit room.
The giants, then as now, share the Earth with the tiny. Hmm.
Apparently the Min-Pin had at one time terrorized the paleolithic era, too...
Fossilized man is represented, with it's slow ascent from the shadows of larger beasts and predators...
...agilely hiding in the heights of trees or quietly in the depths of caves, all the while learning, adapting, changing over millennia...
...to finally arrive at perfection.
One of the main exhibits going on at the museum right now is the glass flower exhibit. Thousands of exquisitely crafted glass flower and flower parts.
The craft is a throwback to old time glass working craftsmen. You know, the ones that hand made eyeballs..!
We passed a short tribute to the nature photographers of old, who would go on months long expeditions, carting heavy cumbersome equipment and braving all dangers, to bring back images of wildlife in the remotest regions and ancient hidden societies buried in the depths of jungles...
Speaking of ancient societies, we rounded out our visit with a look at the Native American societies of old.
From North America to South,
When man was more in tune with, and at the mercy of, nature.
Not so today, as we emerged from the comfortably heated museum, out into the cold campus air, buzzing with students rushing back and forth,
and finally out onto the noisy bustling streets of Harvard Square.
Cars, lights, subways, newspapers, pavement, steel, running water, clothes, phones, food.
Everything at our fingertips.
Nature is survival of the fittest....
and for now, it looks like we've won...