Late Night with Catalysts: New program offers after-hours fun for the young at heart

When I tell people I’m the Overnight Coordinator at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I usually get one of two reactions. It’s either a sarcastic “Oh, does everything come to life at night?” or an astounded “People can spend the night there?!” While I’m in the Youth Education Programs department and typically work with the kiddos, we decided to partner with the Catalysts young professionals group at HMNS to create a late-night event for the young at heart. On July 30 we had our first-ever adult late night at HMNS exclusively for the Catalysts group.

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The museum up late. From left to right, Emily Lutz, Elizabeth Marlowe, Jayme Schlimper (in the bear mask), Matti Hammett, Kelli Lozada, Nicole Temple, Julia Russell, Kelsey Friedemann, Madison Weinhoffer, Katie Conlan, and Sahil Patel.

Since it’s summertime, we decided to take everyone on a trip down memory lane to good ol’ summer camp. Of course, we had to make it a trip with a bit of that HMNS pizzazz. Late-nighters could “roast” s’mores in our toaster ovens as an indoor (and flameless) spin on everyone’s favorite campfire cuisine. We had a make-your-own trail mix bar complete with barbecue flavored mealworms as an optional but delicious addition. We also had some Cool Chemistry demonstrations by seasoned Outreach presenter Sahil Patel and flashlight-led tours of the Morian Hall of Paleontology with Connor Eichenwald from the museum’s W.T. & Louise J. Moran Ecoteen Program. Finally, if campers wanted to capture the moment, we had Smilebooth there with a bevy of youth ed-crafted, camp-themed props! See some of our favorite snapshots below.

If a summer camp-themed late-night sounds like your idea of a night well spent, then Catalysts is the group for you! Our young professionals group gives you access to a variety of events throughout the year including tickets to an exclusive Catalysts events each quarter and tickets to our Mixers and Elixirs events during the summer. That’s on top of the usual membership benefits like free access to our renowned permanent exhibition halls and advance notice of upcoming events and special exhibitions. Visit our Catalysts Web page to join today!

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From left to right, Christine Dubbert, Sahil Patel, Madison Weinhoffer, and Daniel Echeverri.

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From left to right, Clark Kellogg, Nicole Temple, and Allison Kellogg.

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…and Sahil Patel, again. :)

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Top, left to right, Julia Russell, Zack Kammer, Hunter Robinson (bear mask), and Dalia Rihani. Bottom, from left, Britt Baumgardner and Freddy Dabaghi.

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Dain Geist and Rachel Wilkinson.

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Morgan and Elizabeth Hann.

Wanda Hall: Being Natural

The first things all visitors to the Houston Museum of Natural Science see are an 8,000-pound amethyst geode from Uruguay in the lobby and the smiling face of Wanda Hall. And she wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Security guard Wanda Hall can be found in the lobby between the parking garage and the gift shop, greeting guests with her wide smile. Hall became the front line security guard in July 2014.

Hall has been with HMNS for three years, joining the security staff in 2012 right after the opening of the Dan L. Duncan Family Wing. She began by patrolling the brand new Morian Hall of Paleontology, the special exhibition Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition during its time with us, and the Hall of Ancient Egypt, before moving to her current post at the parking garage lobby July 15, 2014.

Hall relishes her job and the opportunity to speak with every guest that visits the museum. Even during our interview, she occasionally paused to greet parents and children entering for Xplorations summer camp.

“[If] you smile at people, they’re going to smile back,” Hall said. “You can’t help but smile at people.”

Hall grew up in Smithville, TX, about 45 miles southeast of Austin on State Highway 71. At the age of 22, she followed in her brother’s footsteps and traded in the town of 3,927 people for Houston, a city of 2.2 million.

Before finding her way to the museum, Hall spent 29 years working as a social worker for the State of Texas, helping seniors and disabled citizens with Medicaid eligibility. She spent eight years retired, enjoying working out and tending her garden, which includes a lemon tree and a pineapple plant.

This love of nature and plants has made the Cockrell Butterfly Center Hall’s favorite place in the museum. She used to spend her breaks in there, roaming around among the flora and floating butterflies—that is, until she learned of the two green tree pythons living in the conservatory next to the handicap entrance.

“I like the butterflies, the plants, everything. But I’m still afraid,” Hall said. “I haven’t been in there in a while. They said, ‘didn’t you see the snakes behind the glass?’ Ever since they told me that, I haven’t been back in there!”

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Hall sits at her typical post, located right next to the gift shop steps. Even while posing for photos, she continued to greet and assist visitors to the Museum!

Ophidiophobia aside, Hall really enjoys working at the Museum. A true people person, her infectious smile and laughter are great for welcoming visitors to HMNS. She loves interacting with the patrons, and they frequently reciprocate.

“Last year around camp time, this little girl came up to me and said, ‘When I come around the corner, there’s something about you. You’ll smile at me. You make my day.’ That was so sweet,” Hall said.

“I meet a lot of people,” Hall continued. “A lot of people want to sit and talk as they come through. They’ll be gone a few minutes and then they’ll come back and talk. People can be glad to see me, and I’ll be glad to see them. I like working in the front. I don’t think I want to come back inside!”

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is open seven days a week, and Hall will be there to greet visitors Monday through Friday. For those planning to visit on August 14, be sure to wish her a happy birthday!

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.

T. rex vs. Prey: Imagining battles between ancient gladiators

When I was super young, say around five or so, I remember playing in the bath tub with my plastic toys. Some were super heroes like He-Man or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, others were monster trucks and die-cast matchbox cars by Mattel, but most were dinosaurs.

This might be TMI, this story about the kid in the bath tub with bubbles on his head, ramming plastic characters into one another and dreaming up their backstories, the bellows of challenge they traded, and the choreography of their battles, but I know there are other adult children out there with similar memories.

During this epoch in the evolution of me, I distinctly recall pitting Tyrannosaurus rex against Stegosaurus, which, as I’ve discovered in later life, was completely wrong, as was most of what I thought around five years old, but you know, who can blame a five-year-old for muddling up the fossil record?

T. rex is one of the most famous dinosaurs in history, easily identified by its massive, heavy skull, long steak-knife teeth, powerful back legs and tail, and ridiculous vestigial arms, but due to her status as dinosaur royalty, the length of her reign and her identity is as often confused by adults as it is by naive five-year-olds. The T. rex lived for two million years in the Late Cretaceous, never in the Jurassic, as her appearance in Jurassic Park might suggest, but we can forgive this fiction for its oversight. (After all, InGen, the engineering firm responsible for cloning extinct dinosaurs in the movie, infamously mismatched animals from different eras within the same park.) And she wasn’t the only two-legged carnivore.

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In a dramatic representation, Stegosaurus and Allosaurus duke it out in the Jurassic. Morian Hall.

In the time of Stegosaurus, between 155 and 150 million years ago (the real Jurassic), the apex predator was the Allosaurus. Smaller than the T. rex, but with more capable arms with three fingers ending in talons, this baddie no doubt picked battles with Stegosaurus, putting its life on the line for a meal. With its polygonal plates down its back, viciously spiked tail, flexible spine and toes that allowed it to rear up, Stegosaurus could give Allosaurus a true walloping.

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Allosaurus remains feature prominent eyebrow ridges and three-fingered hands with sharp claws.

Forget about jaws and claws. One solid hit from the bone spikes could deeply puncture the neck or torso of any shady Allosaurus looking for a bite, and its plates would protect its spine from being severed by teeth until it could land a blow. It isn’t difficult to imagine eyes gouged and jugulars perforated, many Allosauruses bleeding out after botched predatory encounters with Stegosaurus. There were certainly easier things for Allosaurus to eat, but few battles with other species could match the gladiatorial epicness of this match-up, at least not in this era.

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Even as an herbivore, Stegosaurus would have made a formidable opponent against Allosaurus in the Jurassic, using a spiked tail and bone plates along its spine as defenses.

Fast forward 90 million years to the Late Cretaceous, the reign of the “tyrant lizard.” Tyrannosaurs roamed North America and Asia, preying on a variety of other famous megafauna like Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, and duck-billed hadrosaurs including Edmontosaurus, Brachylophosaurus, and Parasaurolophus. There’s no way T. rex even knew Stegosaurus was a thing. More time passed between these two than between dinosaurs and Homo sapiens.

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As the largest predator of the Late Cretaceous, the T. rex is one of the fossil record’s most iconic species.

Nor was the T. rex the only one of her kind; she was just the largest, hence the name, “king of tyrants.” Among her smaller contemporaries, Tarbosaurus, Albertosaurus, Daspletosaurus, and Gorgosaurus, she was the Queen B, big and bad, in spite of the competition. She had excellent vision, a sense of smell that could detect prey from miles away, and decent hearing, though high-pitched sounds would have been lost to her. Food wouldn’t have been difficult for the T. rex to find, but that food really, really didn’t want to be eaten.

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T. rex couldn’t have fought Stegosaurus, but it preyed upon Triceratops, another iconic species that lived in the same time period.

There’s no more famous match-up than Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. With two long horns and a bony frill like a samurai helmet to guard its neck, as long as the trike met the T. rex head-on, there was no contest. But if Triceratops charged and missed the mark, the tyrant’s big jaws could take out its backbone in a single bite, neutralizing the threat of horns. Recent discoveries of casts of Triceratops‘s hide reveals nodules that might have housed quills, making even a bite to its back a dangerous one if T. rex ever got around the impenetrable helmet. You can imagine this battle yourself in the Morian Hall of Paleontology, where Lane the Triceratops takes a defensive position under an aggressor T. rex.

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T. rex preyed upon Denversaurus and its famous cousin, Ankylosaurus, but both would have made a difficult meal, protected by bony armor.

Against Ankylosaurus and its cousin Denversaurus, also on display in Morian Hall, tyrannosaurs likely had a more difficult time. Both Ankylosaurus and Denversaurus developed the adaptation of a wide, low body and armored plating, making access to its soft underbelly impossible for tyrannosaurs unless kicked onto its back, but Ankylosaurus had another advantage. The tip of its tail bore a mace-like club that, like Stegosaurus’s spiked tail, could maim the jaws of predators that didn’t pay enough heed. One swing from this heavy weapon could break open a T. rex‘s face, cripple its legs, or shatter its ribs, and with arms too small to defend itself, dodging seems the only tactic at her disposal against this tank of a creature. An encounter with an Ankylosaurus could mean either a meal or certain death, depending on the T. rex‘s experience hunting.

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Armor plating on the back of Denversaurus would have protected against a bite from the T. rex and other tyrannosaurs of the Late Cretaceous, but if flipped over, its soft underbelly would be exposed.

A more easy meal for any tyrannosaur would have been Edmontosaurus and other duck-billed dinosaurs. These hadrosaurs had few defenses. No armor plating, no spikes, no claws, no wings, no sharp teeth. But it’s possible they had a different advantage, though it’s tough to deduce through fossils alone. Hollow chambers in the skulls of many hadrosaurs suggest these creatures, like geese and other water fowl, had the power of sound at their disposal. A deafening bellow might have stopped a tyrannosaur in its tracks or sent it running in the other direction. T. rex isn’t known for its sensitive hearing, but as we all know, if the sound is loud enough, it can be excruciating. And T. rex had no fingers to put into her ears, nor could she reach them.

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Edmontosaurus, a duckbilled hadrosaur and cousin of Parasaurolophus, appears to have lacked natural defenses. However, the hollows in its skull suggest it could have protected itself with deafening bellows like giant geese.

Understanding these species as they once were, interacting with one another, is more than bath tub child’s play for paleontologists; it’s a career and a discipline. It’s in the Greek roots of the word “paleontology,” the study of being and beings in the ancient world. The study of what life on Earth might have looked like eons ago. The work of these scientists is more like philosophy than fiction, but building careful theories via the fossil record and considering every angle does require a measure of imagination.

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An artist’s representation depicts Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex in an age-old feud set in the lush swamps of the Late Cretaceous, an imagined scene deduced from evidence in the fossil record. Morian Hall.

I suppose, apart from the spikes and teeth and horns and claws and body armor and all the other things that make these terrible lizards seem like something out of science fiction, or monsters invented by a puppeteer, it’s the daydreaming paleontology requires that holds my attention. To understand their world, you must build it in your mind.