HMNS changed the way I think about Earth, time, humanity, and natural history

After 90 days working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, here’s the verdict:

I love it here!

Through research required to compose and edit posts for this blog, I have learned about voracious snails, shark extinction, dinosaur match-ups, efforts to clean up ocean plastic pollution, Houston’s flooding cycle, a mysterious society in south China, and the inspiration for the design of costumes for Star Wars.

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Look at the size of that T. rex! My love for the Houston Museum of Natural Science began with an affinity for dinosaurs.

I’ve learned about many, many other things, as well, and I could feasibly list them all here (this is a blog, after all, and electrons aren’t lazy; they’ll happily burden themselves with whatever information you require of them), but the point of this blog is to excite our readers into visiting the museum, not bore them with lists.

Coming to the museum is a grand adventure, and it’s my privilege to be here every day, poking through our collection and peering into the the crevices of history, finding the holes in what humanity knows about itself and speculating about the answer. That’s what science is all about, after all. Learning more about what you already know. Discovering that you’ve got much more left to discover.

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As a writer, I identify with the oldest forms of written language, like this tablet of heiroglyphs. You can even find a replica of the Rosetta Stone in our collection!

When I took this job, I was a fan of dinosaurs and Earth science. I could explain the basic process of how a star is born and how the different classes of rock are formed. Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Now, I can tell you which dinosaurs lived in what era and the methods paleontologists use to unearth a fossilized skeleton. I know that a deep-space telescope owes its clarity to a mirror rather than a lens, and I can identify rhodochrosite (a beautiful word as well as a fascinating mineral) in its many forms. And there are quite a few.

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Rhodochrosite. My favorite mineral. Look at that deep ruby that appears to glow from within, and it takes many other shapes.

I have pitted the age of the Earth against the age of meteorites that have fallen through its atmosphere and have been humbled. The oldest things in our collection existed before our planet! How incredible to be that close to something that was flying around in space, on its own adventure across the cosmos, while Earth was still a ball of magma congealing in the vacuum of space.

Time is as infinite as the universe, and being in this museum every day reminds me of the utter ephemeralness of human life. It advises not to waste a moment, and to learn from the wisdom of rock about the things we will never touch. Time and space reduce humanity to a tiny thing, but not insignificant. Our species is small and weak, but we are intelligent and industrious. We have learned about things we don’t understand from the things we do. The answers are out there if you know where to look for them.

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Everything turns to stone eventually, even this gorgeous fossilized coral.

I was a print journalist for three years, and I am studying to become a professional writer of fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Don’t worry. It’s a low-residency program. I’m not going anywhere.) I am a creator of records of the human experience, according to those two occupations, and in some ways I still feel that as the editor of this blog, but there is a difference.

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This epic battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid recalls scenes out of Herman Melville.

Here, rather than individual histories — the story of one person or of a family or of a hero and a villain — I’m recording our collective experience, our history as a significant species that participates, for better or worse, in forming the shape of this world. We were born, we taught ourselves to use tools, we erected great civilizations, we fought against one another, we died, those civilizations fell. We have traced our past through fossils and layers of rock and ice, we have tested the world around us, and we have made up our minds about where we fit into the mix.

We are a fascinating and beautiful people, and through science, we can discover our stories buried in the ground, often just beneath our feet. To me, this is the real mission of our museum. To tell the story of Earth, yes, but to tell it in terms of humanity. In the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, we wonder what makes certain minerals precious to us when they’re all spectacular. In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, we trace the fossil record back in time and wonder how things were and could have been had dinosaurs not gone extinct. In the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we connect with the little lives of insects, compare them to our own, and fall in love with our ecosystem all over again. In the Weiss Energy Hall, we learn how life and death create the fossil fuels that now power our society. We find both ingenuity and folly in the values of old civilizations in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.

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These chrysalises, a powerful symbol of personal growth and change, teach a lesson in natural cycles and big beauty in tiny places.

I have often wondered how we justify placing a collection of anthropological and archaeological artifacts under the heading “natural science.” Why don’t we consider our institution more representative of “natural history?” In my first 90 days, I think I’ve found the answer. It’s not just about the story of humanity; it’s about the story of the science we have used to learn what we know.

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The Houston Museum of Natural Science, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is truly one of a kind.

Our goal at HMNS is to inform and educate. To challenge your assumptions with evidence and bring the worlds and minds of scientists to students and the general public. It’s a grand endeavor, one that can enrich our society and improve it if we pay attention.

A ticket to the museum isn’t just a tour through marvels, it’s a glance in pieces at the story of becoming human. After 90 days here, by sifting through the past, I feel more involved in the creation of our future than I have ever been.

And that feels pretty great.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: The Stars of Summer are Here

The Summer Triangle is high in the east.  This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila.  Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to his left.  Leo, the Lion, sets in the west.  From the Big Dipper’s handle, ‘arc to Arcturus’ and ‘speed on to Spica’ in the southwest.  Venus now moves away from Jupiter as they both gradually become lost in the Sun’s glare

The Summer Triangle is high in the east. This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila. Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to his left. Leo, the Lion, sets in the west. From the Big Dipper’s handle, ‘arc to Arcturus’ and ‘speed on to Spica’ in the southwest. Venus now moves away from Jupiter as they both gradually become lost in the Sun’s glare

This is the last month to observe the two brightest planets in the western evening sky. On June 30, Venus overtook Jupiter. This month, watch Venus shift to the left of Jupiter each evening at dusk. Meanwhile, both planets appear lower and lower to the horizon each night, until they are both lost in the Sun’s glare by the end of the month. At dusk, look over the point of sunset for the brightest objects there; Venus and Jupiter outshine everything but the Sun and the Moon.

Saturn is now in the southern sky at dusk. Although it is not as brilliant as Venus or Jupiter, it outshines the stars around it, so it’s also easy to see.

Mars remains lost in the glare of the Sun.

The Big Dipper is above and left of the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the southwest at dusk. Leo, the Lion, sets in the west at dusk.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the southeast, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius rising behind it. Saturn is right above the scorpion’s head. The Summer Triangle has fully risen in the northeast. The stars of summer are here.

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Moon Phases in July 2015:

Full July 1, 9:20 pm; July 31, 5:43 am
Last Quarter July 8, 3:24 pm
New July 15, 8:24 pm
1st Quarter July 23, 11:04 pm

At 2:41 pm on Monday, July 6, Earth is as far from the Sun as it will get this year, a moment known as aphelion. Remember, though, that the difference between aphelion and perihelion (in January) is small (only about 3%). Earth’s 23.5 degree tilt on its axis is a much more important effect. That’s why we have all this miserable heat and humidity now, rather than in January.

Just before 6:50 am CDT on Tuesday, July 14, the New Horizons spacecraft makes its closest approach to Pluto. As this is our first opportunity ever to gather real data from Pluto and its moons, astronomers are quite excited. The craft is already close enough to take some pictures, which you can see here. The Museum will have special activities for this occasion; email me if you want more information.

The Full Moon of July 31 is the second one of the month. That’s one of the definitions of a Blue Moon.

Planetarium Schedule:

Brazos Bend State Park, where our George Observatory is sited, has been closed since May 27 because the rains of Memorial Day and of Tropical Storm Bill caused the Brazos to overflow. The park plans to reopen on a limited basis July 8, making July 11 the first Saturday available for public observing.

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. I generally do one such tour on short June evenings.

Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 6/29-7/5

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week!

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Lecture – Climate And The Demise Of Maya Civilization By Andre Droxler
Monday, June 29
6:30 p.m.
Climate conditions in the Maya’s time can be retrieved from the earth revealing that climate conditions influenced the destiny of the Maya. Geological data from Belize’s Central Shelf Lagoon and Blue Hole, areas proximal to where Maya Civilization thrived and then abruptly collapse are revealing that weather—rainfall fluctuations and frequent tropical cyclones—may have forced the Maya to abandon their sophisticated cities. Dr. André Droxler of the Center for the Study of the Environment and Society at Rice University will explain how Earth science is helping decode the history of the Maya. A special evening screening of Fate of the Maya in the Burke Baker Planetarium at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. is complimentary for lecture ticket holders.

Lecture – The Threat Of Asteroid Impacts By David Kring, Ph. D.
Tuesday, June 30

6:30 p.m.
In 2013 the world was riveted by the impact of an asteroid near the Russian town of Chelyabinsk, where over 1,000 people were injured. It was an eerie reminder of another, bigger, impact event that flattened a forest near the Tunguska River in Siberia on June 30, 1908 – and a modern-day example of the immense dinosaur-killing Chicxulub impact event in the Yucatán. Dr. David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute will describe how these types of impacts events have scarred Earth in the geologic past, the magnitude of their persisting threat today, and the steps we might take to mitigate these types of calamitous events in the future. A special evening screening of Impact in the Burke Baker Planetarium at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. is complimentary for lecture ticket holders to help celebrate Asteroid Day 2015.

Take Two: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
Friday, July 3
7:00 p.m.
After an encounter with a U.F.O., a line worker feels undeniably drawn to an isolated area in the wilderness where something spectacular is about to happen.

 

 

Discover the impact of meteors with Dr. Kring on Asteroid Day

On Feb. 15, 2013, with no warning, an asteroid 20 meters in diameter and weighing more than the Eiffel Tower plunged into the Earth’s atmosphere over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk at speeds in excess of 19 kilometers per second. At such a high speed, the 14,000-ton object exploded at altitude, creating a flash 30 times brighter than the sun and panicking Siberian residents.

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The Chelyabinsk meteor injured 1,500 people and damaged 7,200 buildings in 2013.

The air burst damaged 7,200 buildings and injured 1,500 people, mostly due to cuts from broken glass, but many reported ultraviolet burns similar to sun damage and blindness from the flash. It was not the impact that caused the most damage, but the explosion as it suddenly fell apart in the atmosphere, about 25 times more energy than the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima.

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The impact crater caused by the Chelyabinsk meteor.

The largest meteor impact since the Tunguska event on June 30, 1908 that flattened 80 million trees, Chelyabinsk served as a grim reminder that asteroids still pose a credible threat to the planet the same way they did for the dinosaurs. A massive asteroid collided with the Earth 65 million years ago, bringing about the demise of megafauna like Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, along with more than half of the plants and animals living in the late Cretaceous. Scientists agree the asteroid responsible for this mass extinction hit the Yucatan, causing the Chicxulub crater. And the threat remains, this time for us.

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Dr. David Kring, the man who discovered and named the Chicxulub crater.

Dr. David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the scientists who discovered and named the Chicxulub for a Mayan village near the center of the crater, will pay a visit to the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Asteroid Day, June 30, at 6:30 p.m. His lecture will examine methods to mitigate the threat of meteor impacts to humanity, and guests will have a chance to engage in a Q&A session during the lecture. The Burke Baker Planetarium will offer special screenings of Impact at 6 and 8 p.m., complimentary with a ticket to Kring’s lecture.

Join us to learn more about asteroid impacts and other phenomena on Asteroid Day. Survival favors the informed. Tickets $18, Members $12.