Black Hills Institute

Today’s post is by Sami Mesarwi, a member of the Museum’s marketing staff who recently traveled to South Dakota to visit the Black Hills Institute. 

If the company you work for had to send you on a business trip anywhere you wanted to go, where would it be?  Paris?  London?  Shanghai?  How about Hill City, South Dakota?  Probably wouldn’t be a first choice for too many out there… And while I would have said the same before my trip to the Black Hills Institute of Geologic Research (and I probably still wouldn’t be able to pass on Paris), this paleontological-Mecca should definitely be in the running for you dino-die-hards out there.

Black Hills Institute Outside Facade
The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research

I’ve always loved dinosaurs. 

In fact, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is still one of my all-time favorite books (I may have grown up thinking that Crichton’s logic used in the novel to try and resurrect dinosaurs using the DNA found in preserved mosquitoes, as well as amphibians to fill in the holes, was flawless, but I’ve come a long way since then).  So, going on this trip seemed like it was going to be quite enjoyable from the start.  Our mission was simple enough: to go up and get some photos of the fossils that will eventually be on display in the museum’s upcoming new paleontology hall, opening summer 2012.

A coworker and I took the trip up to South Dakota in April, a time when Houston weather had consistently already warmed up to 90+ degrees outside.  However, surprising to all of us on the trip, we were greeted by snow in South Dakota!  Even though it was April, it was a Winter Wonderland—the color of the snow that covered the ground literally blended in with the sky’s horizon. Needless to say, it was pretty cold.  But I was able to get some pretty nice still shots out of it.

Winter Wonderland
Winter Wonderland!

Day one of our trip to South Dakota was a whirlwind of sights and sounds from within the Black Hills Institute. 

Everyone met up inside the Institute with the famed Peter Larson, the Yoda (though not quite as old) of casting fossils and of T. rex.  He gave us a brief history of his background and of the Institute while in the main lobby area, a who’s who of dinosaurs from several different eras.  In addition to the infamous SUE the T. rex, there were examples of Triceratops, Struthiomimus, Acrocanthosaurus, what seemed like an infinite amount of ammonites, and so much more, all filling an area about the size of an average backyard in the suburbs.  It was amazing—I’ve never seen so many dinosaurs in a compact area before.

Pete Larson
Pete Larson in the zone.
Dino Showroom
The Black Hills Institute Showroom

Onwards we continued to the prepping areas (a separate building from the museum itself), showcasing a few dinosaurs in the development and mounting stages. Pete told us about several of the specimens we’d be getting here at HMNS, before all of the paleontologists on hand broke into a discussion about the immaculate condition some of the fossils were in (I can’t give away too much about what in particular we’re getting—you’ll just have to wait and see!).  Before this trip, I thought I could hold my ground pretty decently well in matters of dino-speak.  But boy was I wrong.  Being surrounded by so many accomplished and literally world-renowned paleontologists (including Pete Larson, Dr. Robert Bakker, and so many others) was really very exciting.  But also quite humbling.

Pete then took us to the casting/molding area, where several Black Hills employees were diligently working to create some very impressive casts of fossils that they had.  They poured the liquid silicone rubber into the two mold halves, and, with some of the smaller ones, fastened them together with—interestingly enough—Legos! Turns out those colorful, little building blocks aren’t just fun to play with, but are also way more practical than you would think…

Pete Larson Bob Bakker
Pete Larson and Dr. Bob Bakker examining a recent find.

Our second (and final) day of the trip allowed for us to talk up close with Pete himself. 

Pete told us all about the Black Hills Institute itself and how it came to be—in 1974, as an earth science supply house, providing teaching specimens for colleges and universities, before branching out into doing museum exhibits.  In fact, as Pete points out, the products coming out of the Black Hills Institute can be found on every continent in the world (though he was mindful to exclude Antarctica from the list—hardly as impressive now, if you ask me).  After he answered our countless questions, Pete allowed for us to roam around the Black Hills Institute at our leisure, getting some shots of whatever it is that we wanted.  We took still shots of some of the specimens that will be making an appearance in the new paleontology hall, as well as some of the stars of the show.

After that, we grabbed a quick lunch at the corner bistro before heading back home to Houston.  Though we did make a quick stop on the way back… As we were only about 15 miles away from Mount Rushmore, we went ahead and visited the famed monument on our way to the airport. Quite breathtaking, I must say!  To me, the tranquility of the park where the monument is located, coupled with the remarkable stature of the presidents whose faces are forever immortalized in the mountain’s façade, were equally as impressive to me as the mountain goat we saw.

Mt. Rushmore
Mount Rushmore.

All in all, the trip to Hill City, South Dakota was so much cooler (both, literally and figuratively) than I originally anticipated.  While the city itself isn’t exactly the largest out there (population: 948), or the most exotic of your travel destinations, it should absolutely be a front-runner for all of you dino-enthusiasts out there.

Watching the River Flow

Water is important. 

That’s a pretty self explanatory statement.  Not only do we need water (at least 8 cups a day), but we are mostly water (60% of us anyway).  It’s one of the indictors we look for in new planets to see if we can use it as future real estate. It’s cornucopia of resources can provide almost everything people need to survive. Animals and plants that grow and live in water can provide food and clothing.  Caves hollowed out by water can provide shelter. The prehistoric oceans provide an area to lay the foundation of hydrocarbons. Water can be drunk to satiate thirst.  The movement of water can power the machines of mankind.

Irrigated
Creative Commons License photo credit: kevin dooley

Man has always known he needs water. Water has always been present whether it comes freely from the skies or washes down in all its fury in a flood.  Agriculture brought about man’s first attempt to channel what water he had.  The landscape was literally remade to get the water to move where it was needed.  Deserts have been made to flower and flowering areas have been made into deserts.  As time went by, we were able to make the movement of water do more for us.  First it was used to help run simple machines, such as mills, where grain was ground into flour.  It was also used in mining, to bring the ore out of the mine, or used to power hammers at a forge.

Water power helped to start the next stage of technological development, the Industrial Revolution. Larger and larger factories were built on rivers to take advantage of the free energy that the flowing water offered them.  Unfortunately they also let the water carry off their excess and trash, making downstream a place to avoid.  While the Thames helped England become a technologic and mercantile titan, it also made the river undrinkable and became so foul that the House of Commons had to be abandoned for a while in the mid 19th century. Water was also the crucial part of steam power that allowed the transportation industry to remake itself from horse drawn carriages to trains and steamboats.

Blast off
Creative Commons License photo credit: fairlightworks

Water is still vital today.

 Most of electricity comes from burning fuels to create steam to move turbines.  Water is also crucially important for solar panels.  Water may sound like an odd thing for solar power to depend upon, but large scale solar thermal arrays can use twice as much water per mega watt hour as a coal fired plant.  Geothermal power plants use water the exact same way as coal fired plants; they heat it into steam and have it turn turbines (although the water could be replaced with other substances). Biomass needs water to grow. 

And of course water is the essential part of hydropower.  Without water (hydro) hydropower would be impossible.  When most people think of hydropower they think of dams (this is where being fond of puns can get you into a lot of trouble, kids. Just leave those dam puns alone).  A dam works by controlling the flow of the water.  It constricts the area the water is trying to move through and uses that movement to turn the turbines.  Because the pathway is constricted, the water backs up and can form a lake (also called a reservoir).  This changes the local environment from a river to a lake. This can affect the local wildlife and lead to erosion downstream.  People (and history) can be affected by dam building as well.  Due to the building of the Aswan Dam in Egypt, over 150,000 people had to be relocated because they were in the flood plain created by the dam.  The Abu Simbel Temple was moved to higher ground as well.

Hydropower can also be generated by the flow of a river, the movement of the waves, and the tides (movement is electricity) and electricity is movement. It is also easy to transfer excess electrical generation into storage by pumping some of the water back upstream or back into the reservoir. 

Electricity generated by hydropower accounted for nearly 7 % of our total U.S. electrical generation in 2010. Over half of the hydroelectricity comes from the 3 states on the West Cost; California, Oregon, and Washington.  While there has been a lot of development over the years, there is still the potential to add more hydroelectric sites and increase the electrical output by a 3rd.  However, the amount of electricity produced by hydroelectric generation varies from year to year with the water cycle.  If you have a year with less precipitation, the rivers may have less water; if the river slows, the amount of electricity is less. Most areas where a large scale hydroelectric plant would work have already been dammed up for use.  The future might be in small scale generators that would help communities near running water.

Dam1
Creative Commons License photo credit: Perrimoon

All that to say water is, in fact, important. 

We have to have it to live.  We have to have it for our energy production. It takes 10 gallons of water to make 1,000 kilowatt hours using natural gas as a fuel, up to 9,200 gallons for solar thermal and about 20,000 gallons for nuclear. So what happens when we start to run out of it?  I don’t mean that the water on the Earth will suddenly disappear.  It is in a mostly closed system and the water can’t go anywhere (except if water is used on a space ship outside the atmosphere).  What I mean is that on a planet that’s mostly water, only 3% of it is fresh water.  We can’t drink saltwater.  We can’t grow crops with saltwater.  In the coming decades we will have to manage what water we have well. There are ways to generate more fresh water.  Desalinization removes the salt from sea water, but it is energy intensive.  In some areas the excess removal of groundwater can cause subsidence.  This has been an issue in the Houston area. In the 70’s this led to the creation of a Harris Galveston Subsidence District, the only one of its kind in the USA, to monitor and regulate groundwater usage to prevent subsidence. 

Water management will become increasingly important. 

Good water management will make sure that both people and industries get the water they need. Communities all along waterways will have to work together to mange their resource.  Managed from the local level up we’ll be able to sail through any water crisis.

Le Monde des Aztèques [The World of the Aztecs]

This blog entry is different from any of the ones I have ever written before.

It contains a book review and commentary on the current state of book reviews in the US. 

A while back, I was asked by a friend and former museum colleague to review a French-language book on the Aztecs. I agreed, read the book, wrote the review and then started looking for a place that would accept it. And that is where things went awfully awry. Between my reading and reviewing of the book and the day I am writing this, about two years have passed. Granted, I have not been pursuing this project on a daily basis, but I have been pretty persistent about finding an outlet for this review. As I have not been successful, I am posting it onto the museum’s blog. This is a first; I hope to follow up with more such reviews.

Drama angle
Aztec calendar stone
Creative Commons License photo credit: gorriti

I am not the only one who has noticed this “book review crisis.” As it happens, Dr. Michael Smith, an archaeologist working on Aztec sites, professor at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a prolific author has made the same observation. He has blogged on this topic on several occasions, like here, here, here and here.

You get the picture. There is a problem out there in the world of publishing. So, here it goes. You will get the book review first, followed by details on the book itself.

Le Monde des Aztèques is a collaborative volume.

Danièle Dehouve is affiliated with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and the Université de Paris VIII. She has written several books on Mexico, most recently, Offrandes et sacrifices en Mésoamérique. Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer is also affiliated with the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. She specializes in central Mexican writing systems and has authored Xipe Totec, Notre Seigneur l’ écorche, étude glyphique d’un dieu aztèque.

Each of the authors wrote about half of the volume. Danièle Dehouve contributed six chapters, dealing with the history of the Aztecs, the city and its king, the calendar, the day count, the concepts of time and space in Mesoamerica and bloody rituals. Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer penned chapters on the Aztec pantheon, worldviews, man in the world, pictographic manuscripts and the writing system.

An introductory chapter sets the stage, defining the concept of Mesoamerica and outlining the physical and cultural geography of this region. The authors link past to present when they mention that out of the hundreds of indigenous languages that existed before Contact, there are more than fifty that have survived until today. In a nod to research conducted in South American rock shelters, human presence in the Americas is set to 33,000 BC, a date that most specialists in the field still find hard to accept.

The chapter on Aztec history addresses topics such as the origins of the Aztecs, how to read Aztec documents, the empire at the time of contact. Information related to the excavations at the Templo Mayor includes discoveries made up to the year 2006.  In the chapter on the city and the king, Dehouve teases apart the fabric of Aztec society. Starting with the office of the ruler, the author covers nobility, warriors, judges, priests, traders and artisans and farmers.

Quetzalcoatl
Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Jami Dwyer

Three chapters deal with the calendar and the perception of space and time all contain common threads: our fragmentary understanding of these aspects of Aztec society is due in large part to the fragmentary nature of our sources.  The author does provide an easy to follow discourse on what could be a difficult matter to comprehend. The author also very effectively uses illustrations to help clarify her points, for example on p. 119, where the tonalpohualli calendar is discussed. One detail slipped though the cracks however, on p. 96, where the location of the Maya site of Copan is incorrectly listed as Guatemala; that site is just across the border in Honduras.

In her final chapter, dealing with bloody rituals, Dehouve argues that one ought to approach this subject from the Aztec point of view. This reviewer believes that references to the scholarly work by Eric Taladoire and Ted Leyenaar with regard to the Mesoamerican ballgame would have made this section more complete.

Anne-Marie Vie-Wohrer starts off her section with a discussion of Aztec deities.

The chapter has three parts, with detailed discussions of what we know about these gods. Illustrations from colonial-period documents are used with great effectiveness.  The following chapter deals with the creation of the world. Again, the use of illustrations allows the reader to follow the story in two complementary formats. For example, the author reviews the first page of the codex Fejervary-Mayer in multiple segments; each of these steps is accompanied by an image of the codex highlighting the very topic discussed in that portions. In the chapter on the creation of humans, Vie-Wohrer points out that there are many versions of the creation story and that some of them are contradictory.

In the final two chapters, Vie-Wohrer covers materials very familiar to her: pictographic manuscripts and writing systems. Those who are interested in these topics will find the references to the holdings at the Fonds Mexicain at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France very interesting. We can all agree with the sentiment expressed by the author regarding the tragic loss of so many prehispanic documents during the conquest and early colonial days.

This is a lavishly illustrated book on Aztec culture. Although there are many more topics on the Aztec world one could write about, I found the chapters well-written and well-illustrated. The bibliography presented at the end of the book presents a good starting point for those interested in things Aztec. One final remark, because the volume is written by two very qualified French researchers, one gets insights that occasionally differ from those offered by North American counterparts (be they Mexican or American). In order to appreciate these contributions, a working knowledge of French is a must. Sadly, this reviewer has noticed that all too often, this is missing among North American researchers.

Publication details:
DANIELE DEHOUVE, ANNE-MARIE VIE-WOHRER. 2008. Le Monde des Aztèques. Rineuve, Paris. 336 pp., ISBN-978-2-914214-51-3.
Book reviewed by Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Curator of anthropology, Houston Museum of Natural Science.
One can find more information on this book here and here. Just like the volume, these reviews are written en français.

Zut alors.

Go Stargazing! November Edition

Jupiter is up virtually all night long as November begins.  

Hubble Images Suggest Rogue Asteroid Smacked Jupiter
Creative Commons License photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video

That’s because on Friday night, October 28, Earth passed between the Sun and Jupiter.  In this alignment (‘opposition’) Jupiter rose at dusk and set at dawn.   Face east at dusk and look for the brightest thing there—that’ll be Jupiter.   For the first half of the month, Jupiter does not set until after 5am. 

Venus has begun to emerge from the Sun’s glare.  Look for it low in the southwest in twilight. (Venus is slightly higher in the twilight sky each night this month). This is the beginning of Venus’ apparition as evening star; it gets higher and easier to see for the rest of this year and is spectacular for about the first half of 2012.  For more of a challenge, try to find Mercury under Venus during the first half of the month, as they both set in twilight.

Mars is now high in the east-southeast at dawn.  It now approaches the first magnitude star Regulus in Leo.

Saturn emerges from behind the Sun into the morning sky this month.  Look low in the southeast at dawn, near the star Spica.  (From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and speed on to Spica).  

The Summer Triangle is high in the west as Sagittarius, the Archer, sets in the southwest.

 As the stars of summer shift to the west, those of autumn fill the sky.   Watch for the Great Square of Pegasus high in the east now and almost overhead at dusk by Thanksgiving.  Pegasus is one of several patterns which depict characters in a single Greek myth (later made into two movies called ‘Clash of the Titans’).  The story begins with Cassiopeia, a queen of Ethiopia who offended the gods by comparing her beauty to that of the Nereids (sea nymphs).  To punish Cassiopeia, the sea god Poseidon sent a giant sea monster, Cetus, to ravage Ethiopian shores.  Cassiopeia’s husband, King Cepheus consulted an oracle and learned that the only way to appease Poseidon was to sacrifice their only daughter, Andromeda, to Cetus.  Andromeda was chained to a rock as everyone waited for Cepheus to come and feed.  However, at just the right moment, the hero Perseus came by.  He had just won great fame by killing Medusa, a woman so hideous that anyone who looked at her turned to stone.  Upon Medusa’s death, the winged horse Pegasus sprang fully formed from her blood, and flew away.  On his way home from that adventure Perseus (flying on winged sandals loaned from Hermes) passed by Ethiopia.  As Cetus rose from the waters to claim his prize, Perseus slew him, saved Andromeda, and married her.  They lived happily ever after. 

Star Cloud Over Saskatchewan.jpg
Creative Commons License photo credit: Space Ritual

In the sky, she is always across the North Star from the Big Dipper. 

In late autumn, as the Big Dipper hugs the horizon and actually sets for us in Houston, Cassiopeia is high in the north, looking like an ‘M’.  In the sky, Cetus swims the very dim region of sky to the south, under Pegasus and Pisces.  Cepheus stands next to his wife in the northern sky, a little to her left as you face north tonight.  Andromeda’s head is Alpheratz, the northeastern star in the Great Square of Pegasus.  From Alpheratz, a curve of stars similar in brightness to Alpheratz and the rest of the Great Square forms her body.  That same curve leads to Perseus in the northeast.
  

Moon Phases in November 2011:
First Quarter November 2, 11:28 am
Full November 10, 2:17 pm
Last Quarter September 20, 8:39 am
Full November 25, 12:10 am

By the way, on most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement.