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.

Feb. Flickr Photo of the Month: Lensbaby!

This month’s featured photographer is Etee.

When most people think of a Natural Science Museum, the first image that pops into their head is the Paleontology Hall. Giant dinosaurs towering over your head, reminding us of a time long past. How many of us have photos of ourselves standing next to the terrible Tyrannosaurus-Rex, one of the most vicious predators to every walk the face of the Earth? In his photo , Etee gives us a unique perspective of this tremendous beast.

Heres what Etee had to say about his photo:

The day I took this photo, I was visiting the Museum to get some shots of the “Dinosaur Mummy: CSI” exhibit with my new Lensbaby.  Afterwards, I walked through the permanent exhibits taking more photos, finally coming to the T-Rex skeleton.  One of the things I like about this lens is that it produces an image similar to what is shown on TV as being “through the eyes of the beast”, and I wondered how this perspective would change the image from that of “static museum exhibit” to a more imaginative “how would this critter have looked back in the day…”  While it did not take the T-rex out of the museum, it did really focus attention on that mouth and all those sharp teeth – something I am certain its prey also saw.

So, what’s this Photo of the Month feature all about? Our science museum is lucky enough to have talented and enthusiastic people who visit us every day – wandering our halls, grounds and satellite facilities, capturing images of the wonders on display here that rival the beauty of the subjects themselves. Thankfully, many share their photos with us and everyone else in our HMNS Flickr group – and we’re posting our favorites here, on the Museum’s blog, once a month. (You can check out all our previous picks here or here.)

 

20090111_8467 by Etee

Many thanks to Etee for allowing us to share his stunning beautiful photograph. We hope this and all the other amazing photography in our group on Flickr will inspire you to bring a camera along next time you’re here – and show us what you see.

Making Baby Bearded Dragons

Today’s post is written by Sibyl Keller, a volunteer recruiter and educational coordinator at HMNS. Today, she tells us about the bearded dragons that live in her office, and what happens when another one comes to visit. 

Sibyl, holding Leonardo.

So…what’s happening in the Volunteer Office other than recruiting new volunteers, interviewing new talents, filling tours, booking docents, scheduling on-going training, handling birthday parties, writing college recs, and just keeping up with the hopping pace around HMNS?  Natural science – that’s what! it’s been happening under our noses – and keeping us all intrigued and inspired by how incredible the animal world is!

It all happened when Chris and Erin adopted their first baby – Monster, a beautiful young female bearded dragon!  Draco and Leonardo are the (lizard) kings of the Volunteer Office.  Draco is a handsome beardie – a gentleman of almost ten years.  And I was fortunate to adopt Leonardo – a young chap beardie of two years this last summer.  And then Monster arrived for a visit.

It was love at first sight -Leo and Monster couldn’t keep their eyes off of each other!  And if you have never seen beardies put on their mating dance – it is an incredibly captivating event. Leo – so eager to impress his new friend – totally bearded out with a solid heavy black coloration under his chin (it is this behavior that gives the species the name “bearded dragon.”)  Between the black beard and the head bobbing with determination – Monster was truly moved! She began waving gracefully, first with one arm, then the other. 

Even with an office full of museum staff watching the mating dance, you could have heard a pin drop until Chris expressed that…this was kind of weird…He didn’t don’t know if it is a good weird or a bad weird!

Unfortunately, I don’t have a video of our beardies dancing, but I found a video of another beardie bobbing away.

So when Chris left with the HMNS Paleo Team to head to Seymour, Texas on the Fossil Dig five weeks ago – I got to babysit Monster for a couple of weeks!  So – here we are, 5 weeks later (which happens to be the gestation period for beardies) – hummmmm…

Can you see the eggs?

After mixing together a nice compost for Monster, Googling to find out what beardies like for a nest – the waiting game began!  Day after day, Monster redistributed her compost from one side of her habitat to the other.  She started practicing her digging skills in between warming her growing belly on her heat rock.  Karen (my fellow volunteer coordinator) described her well – what a keen resemblance Monster had to a Portobello mushroom!  And – what an appetite!  Crickets, juicy superworms, carrots and collard greens – of course, the crickets were presented to her with a nice coat of calcium for the mother to be.

Then last week – the discovery was made!  After a long night – it must have been, Monster had created a mountain from her compost on top of her heat rock and was playing king of the mountain just about all morning.  It wasn’t until she got a superworm treat that she would inch away from her mountain!  My work began. 

Karen Fritz, marking the eggs.

Carefully sifting through the compost a little at a time – I was in search of the mother load – a nest of beardie eggs – Monster’s first clutch.  Totally amazed that not an egg was found, I started to think that she didn’t look so much like a Portobello mushroom, there were no eggs – maybe my imagination just got the best of me.  The Princess was so lethargic, I started to worry that maybe she was sick. 

After watching her all day, I felt better when she had a healthy appetite.  I decided to start sifting some of the mulch out of her habitat – as ingesting any of this could be very harmful to her.  As I cleaned her aquarium, I lifted her large heat rock and the discovery was made!  We hit the jackpot with 24 small marshmallow-size beardie eggs!  It is truly amazing that this little lizard knew just what to do to keep her clutch warm.  I cannot even imagine how she was able to dig out the dirt under her heat rock to lay 24 eggs without crushing them!  Nature is amazing.

How did this little Princess lay 24 eggs?!  Well – from the Internet, I discovered it was not at all uncommon for a Bearded Dragon to lay up to 30 – 50 eggs in a clutch!  But – the female wouldn’t necessarily lay all of the eggs at one time.  She could choose to lay a couple of eggs one week, one or two a week later – and as the process continues – it could be months before the whole clutch was laid!  Dang – that meant I would be spending quite a time of the Christmas holiday egg-sitting in the Volunteer Office at HMNS!  Lucky for me — and I’m sure happily for her — Monster laid all 24 eggs during one evening after hours, probably while the music played and laughter was heard during holiday celebrations taking place through out the exhibit halls up above!

The eggs, with black lines to
mark their original positions.

You might notice black lines imprinted along the length of each egg from top to bottom.  The lines were introduced by Karen Fritz, my Volunteer Office co-partner in crime, who has a smooth and steady hand and a good sharpie!  I learned of this process from me earlier research.  It is extremely important to not rotate or change the position of the eggs while moving them.  After carefully uncovering the eggs, Karen marked each egg in order for us to move them in this order.  She wanted to mark them 1, 2, 3…up to 24 — until she understood we just needed a line to identify top and bottom of each egg!  If any eggs were turned upside down, it would surely damage or kill the developing embryo.  We then placed them in small deli cup containers filled with dampened vermiculite that would hold moisture throughout their time of incubation.

Eggs, in the incubator – where they
will stay until they hatch!

As the incubator is quietly protecting these little jewels for 60 to 70 days, Monster is now far away from her little 2 week vacation spent in the Volunteer Office.  She is back home with Erin and Chris – I understand with a frisky new way about her and a grand new appetite!

Monster at home

Celebrating 100: A Centennial of Science

Throughout 2009, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is celebrating one hundred years of natural science education in fulfillment our mission:

To preserve and advance the general knowledge of natural science;
to enhance in individuals the knowledge of and delight in natural science and related subjects;
and to maintain and promote a museum of the first class.

A photo of some of our early educational programs.

When twenty visionary Houstonians established the Houston Museum and Scientific Society in 1909, the new organization welcomed visitors to an assortment of small exhibits first housed in the City of Houston’s public auditorium and at the downtown public library. Since then, through the tireless efforts and assiduous passion of generations of Houstonians over the course of a century, the Museum has continued to grow—first from those modest displays downtown to more spacious accommodations in the Houston Zoo, and then, with the opening of the Burke Baker Planetarium in 1964, to the Museum’s current location in Hermann Park. Over the years, HMNS has continued to acquire major collections, expand its permanent exhibitions, and add new venues: the Challenger Learning Center in 1988, the George Observatory and the Wortham IMAX Theater in 1989, and the Cockrell Butterfly Center in 1994.

Modern kids marvel at the Mastodon
on display in the Hall of Paleontology.

Today, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is an expansive, multi-story science center where millions of families, students and visitors from around the globe gather to experience the natural world through exceptional permanent galleries such as the Wiess Energy Hall and the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, as well as unparalleled world premiere exhibitions bringing the earth’s wonders to Houston, including the recent offerings Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia and The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story, both of which were organized by HMNS.

Even as we commemorate the Museum’s rich past, we continue to look to the future. Our satellite locations have extended the Museum’s educational programs into The Woodlands (2007) and (coming in 2009) Sugar Land. Additionally, with our capital campaign “Building on a Second Century of Science,” we’re planning the launch of a major expansion that will double the Museum’s size in Hermann Park.

This year, celebrate our centennial at one hundred fun family events planned throughout 2009 and get an inside look at the Museum’s vast collections—we’ve selected a hundred of the most compelling objects from millions of possibilities, and we’ll be posting photos and descriptions here – as well as on our main web site at www.hmns.org. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image of a new object every few days.