Enchantment in the dark: An uncommon occurrence brings a common bond to Lascaux caves lecture

Editor’s note: This week’s guest post was written by Becky Lao of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) – Houston. On Tuesday, Nov. 12, Dr. Randall White, a prominent expert on paleolithic art, spoke at HMNS as part of the AIA series on the development of art as a great human innovation. The AIA lecture was presented in conjunction with HMNS and The Leakey Foundation.

Imagine this scene: introductions are almost complete. A FULL house is anticipating a talk about the first art made by humans 40,000 years ago in caves. A speaker introduces Dr. White, speaking on caves without light.

Suddenly, THE ENTIRE BUILDING IS PLUNGED INTO DARKNESS!

Four hundred people gasp — this outage was not a special effect! We rush out to find the surrounding area is completely dark. A major power outage is affecting the entire Museum District and Medical Center. Looking out the window, we see some lights slowly turn on in the Med Center as emergency generators kick in. HMNS staff works valiantly to find a battery-powered microphone as emergency lights switch on, dimly lighting the hall. We allow the audience to leave or stay to hear stories told in the dark — just as might have happened 40,000 years ago!

Half decide to stay.

Cave paintings from Lascaux on display now at HMNS

Our intrepid lecturer begins. He talks of gorgeous art produced in the deepest depths of caves, illuminated only by animal fat lamps or torches; thousands of stunningly tiny beads made from pearlized shell nacre and calcite, each of which took three hours to make (why devote that many hours to adornment production rather than food procurement?); multitudes of prints made from the hands of a wide range of individuals — two-year olds up to those with arthritis; an image of a bull constructed from densely overlapping handprints.

This is what it means to be human. We are all sitting in the dark, mesmerized by his tales, skin prickling as an amazing sense of wonder and community envelopes us. Some 40,000 years after this art was created, we are huddled around a storyteller in the dark. It’s enchanting.

Half an hour later, electricity surges. Dr. White zooms through his magnificent images of wondrous sites. The image of the bull made from human hand prints is breathtaking. The Chauvet depictions of lions and horses are … indescribable.

We depart into the cold night for well-deserved drinks around the fireplace at a pub, made better by an uncommon encounter with who we are and who we have been for thousands of years.

Sculpture of a stone age family in the Lascaux exhibit at HMNS.

Click here to go to The Leakey Foundation’s website to listen to the audio from the lecture. Make sure you turn off the lights so you get the full experience!

Randall White, Ph.D., New York University

 

A Short Biography of the Foucault Pendulum.

When you walk into the Wiess Energy Hall, the very first thing you see is our Foucault pendulum.

It is a metal ball suspended by a cable that swings back and forth encircled by pegs. Children and adults will run through the rest of the museum, reach the pendulum, and wait with baited breath to watch a peg topple. When one of the pegs finally falls, you can hear a cheer erupt from the area. It is one of the most memorable parts of the museum. As the pendulum swings, it moves clockwise knocking down pegs as the Earth turns. It swings back and forth, back and forth (you are getting sleepy).

Foucault Pendulum
Foucault Pendulum at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

It is interesting to sit around the pendulum and listen to people try to explain it.

Some will talk about how it is a clock.  Others will put the time between pegs being knocked down between 10 minutes and 1 hour.  Our pendulum knocks down a peg on an average of every fifteen minutes. While the pendulum looks like it rotates around the circle, it is the Earth that is rotating and the pendulum that just swings. The pendulum is a visualization of a rotating Earth. To describe it in a different way, T = 24/sin q where T equals the amount of time to make one complete revolution and q is the latitude of the pendulum. At least that’s what Foucault said.

Star TrailsCreative Commons License photo credit: monkeymanforever

Leon Foucault was born in Paris (France, not Texas) on September 18, 1819.

As a young boy he did not show an inclination towards science or study.  In fact his teacher considered him lazy because he did not turn in his work. He did, however, enjoy building mechanical devices, such as a small steam engine and a telegraph, and tinkering.  He entered medical school to become a surgeon, but found that he fainted at the sight of blood.  Instead of becoming a blindfolded surgeon, he switched to physics. 

At the age of 25, not having learnt anything at school nor from book, enthusiastic about science but not about study, Léon Foucault took on the task of making the work of scientists understandable to the public and of passing judgment on the value to the work of leading men of science – J Bertrand, Éloge historique de Léon Foucault.

Foucault proved his worth in being able to take mathematical proofs and construct a mechanical proof, his pendulum being one of those.

He also constructed a device to prove that light moves slower through water than air. The mathematics describing the proof had been around for over a decade, but Foucault was the first to prove that it worked. His first pendulum on public display opened on February 3, 1851 in the Paris Observatory (again France, not Texas). Instead of knocking down pins as the pendulum moved, the first Foucault pendulum drew in sand.  He also invented the gyroscope, which stays in place as the Erath moves around it. This invention has proved essential for planes, space craft, and even the Hubble Telescope.  

Hubble Space Telescope
Creative Commons License photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video

After he came to power, Napoleon III, an amateur scientist, created a job for Foucault at the newly named Imperial Observatory. There, Foucault developed his knife edge test to measure the conic shape of mirrors. This led to a more constant quality of lenses for use in telescopes.  He died on February 11, 1868 from multiple sclerosis.  His legacy lives on today.  He has an asteroid named in his honor. But he is honored around the world by his plethora of pedula that swing to and fro, showing people that the Earth keeps on spinning.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (7.8.08)

from-airplane-greenland-12
Creative Commons License photo credit: william.ward

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Are melting glaciers causing sea levels to rise? A team from Utrecht University says no. A team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is exploring that issue this month – check back here for updates from Chris Linder.

And you thought the Sun was harsh – “O” stars in the Rosetta Nebula “can be a hundred times the size and over a thousand times brighter” – and they destroy planets.  

Despite the fact that scientists have traditionally been wary of Wikipedia – which relies on the “wisdom of crowds” – a new Gene Wiki is being developed to “describe the relationship and functions of all human genes.”

Ancient river camps show humans in Paris almost 10,000 years ago.

Researchers have developed a way to trick kidney cancer cells into killing themselves.  

The Chronicle has a new space blogCosmo.Sphere - written by a UT astronomer, a NASA vehicle systems engineer and a long-time amateur astronomer.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (5.14.08)

 

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Marching into Houston…in 2009.
Creative Commons License photo credit: mandiberg

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

It sounds psychedelic – but it’s probably even cooler-looking than that. Scientists have discovered that shrimp can see “a world invisible to all other animals.”

The world’s smallest helicopter – it literally looks like a set of propellers you attach to your head, or like a beanie that actually flies - is heading to Italy, to take flight from the place where da Vinci originally conceived of a vertical flight machine.

And, in other da Vinci news – builders in Abu Dhabi are working on the da Vinci Tower, a 68-story building with independently rotating floors. The shape of the building itself will be in constant flux. Check out the video here.

Divers in France’s Rhone River have found the oldest-known bust of Caesar - and they’re wondering, why did it get thrown there?

Well, I’m not very good at either, but a new study of mice indicates that eating less is better than moving more.

We didn’t mean to make you sad, BayouDawn – but we can’t get the Terra Cotta Warriors here until next year. To cheer us all up, though, BD does have a list of great exhibits you can see now in Houston.