Never a Dull Moment

chain-mail-armor-resize
A coat of chain mail armor from
the Genghis Khan exhibt now on
display at HMNS. Find out more
here

As the Houston Museum of Natural Science prepares to show the sequel to the hugely popular Night at the Museum, I could not help but think how interesting a “day at the museum” sometimes can be as well. I am not just talking about the different exhibits we currently have at the museum, but also what is going on at the museum behind the scenes.

I have often thought that one of the taglines associated with the museum should be “never a dull moment.” Here is why I think that would be particularly appropriate: consider Tuesday, February 24, 2009. On that day, a crew of museum people as well as representatives from museums in Mongolia and Russia were busy putting the final touches to the Genghis Khan exhibit. That day, we also received the Mongolian ambassador to the US, H.E. Ambassador Khasbazaryn Bekhbat, who was traveling to Houston for the formal opening of the exhibit two days later. Accompanying him was the second secretary of the Mongolian embassy, Dawadash Sambuu. In the weeks leading up to the opening of the exhibit, he had been very busy working in Houston, helping with the set up of the show. Representing the Hermitage Museum, Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, flew in from St. Petersburg, Russia that day as well.

darwinAlso on February 24, the museum hosted a lecture as part of the year-long Darwin celebrations. Joining us that day was Dr. Francisco Ayala.  He came in to talk about his research into evolution. Dr. Ayala, a recipient of the National Medal of Science, recently published a book on this subject, entitled Darwin’s gift to science and religion. In a well-attended lecture in the museum’s IMAX movie theater, Dr. Ayala carefully explained his reasons why science and faith can go hand in hand. Dr. Ayala took time to meet with High School students from the Houston area, who are participating in the museum’s Young Scholars program. In a closed meeting preceding his talk, Dr. Ayala explained how he got interested in his field of study and what one needs to do in order to achieve what he did.

On February 24, the museum hosted Mongolian diplomats, a Russian museum official, and a Spanish-born geneticist. While this kind of line up does not happen every day, it does occur often enough to warrant what I wrote earlier: “never a dull moment at HMNS.”

A Tale of Two Rulers

This is a story of two powerful rulers. They stand apart from most other rulers because of their achievements; they differ from each other for many reasons. One ruler was much respected, the other was feared. Archaeologists know of the whereabouts of one ruler’s tomb, although they have not excavated it. The location of the other ruler’s tomb is unknown, but that could change. This rather enigmatic introductory paragraph refers to Genghis Khan and Qin Shi Huang, China’s First Emperor.

Genghis Khan ruled over the world’s largest contiguous empire about 800 years ago. (The term “contiguous” is important here; as the British ruled over more territory during the heyday of their empire. However, those territories were dispersed across the globe).

Genghis Khan, or Temuchin (the spelling varies) as he was first called, had a very eventful childhood. Born in 1165 AD, he was betrothed at a very early age. His father was poisoned by the Tartars and his bride was abducted. Genghis was able to regain his wife with the support of other steppe tribes. Temuchin officially became Genghis Khan in 1206. It is thought that this title means “Oceanic ruler,” or “Firm, Resolute Ruler.”

Mongolian
Creative Commons License photo credit: asobitsuchiya

By that fateful year of 1206, Genghis Khan had united the tribes of Mongolia into one tribe. The stage was set for him to embark on one of history’s most astonishing campaigns of conquest. Historians suggest that there may have been several reasons why Genghis Khan went down this road: a quest for treasure, seeking revenge for past offenses, even megalomania. His conquests would take him into China and Tibet, as well as farther west into the Khwarazm empire which ruled over most of what is now called Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

In 1226, during a campaign against the Xi Xia in northern China, Genghis Khan fell from his horse. He died from his injuries in 1227 and was buried in a secret location. Numerous scientific expeditions have been mounted to try to locate his tomb. Currently yet another attempt is being mounted to find Genghis Khan’s last resting place.

The Mongol Empire continued after Genghis’ passing and his descendants continued to expand it. By the late 13th century, it reached from Hungary to the Sea of Japan. By that stage, the empire was divided into four nearly autonomous areas called khanates: China, central Asia, Persia, and Russia.

In 1294, after the death of Kublai Khan, the empire broke apart. There was a brief resurgence in the late 14th century when Timur (the Lame), who claimed to be descended from Genghis Khan, conquered Persia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and parts of Russia. On the way to attack China, however, Timur died, and the Mongol era was finished.

Pre-dating Genghis Khan by fourteen centuries, an individual by the name of Qin Shi Huang, rose to prominence in what is now China. In 246 BC, when he appeared in the scene, China was going through what historians call its “Warring States” period. In about twenty years, Qin Shi Huang managed to unify the country under one ruler. Qin Shi Huang became China’s First Emperor.  The old feudal system was replaced with a central government. China’s writing and currency was standardized. Commerce benefited from a vast new network of roads and canals. Last but not least, gigantic construction works got started during this emperor’s reign; among them the Great Wall (which would be extended many times in later years) and the Emperor’s mausoleum.

Soldiers
Creative Commons License photo credit:
SmokingPermitted

The mausoleum complex was – and still is – huge, covering approximately four square miles near the modern city of Xi’an. While the tomb itself is not excavated yet, the accompanying army of terracotta soldiers was found and partially excavated.

Both men have left lasting legacies. Without Genghis Khan, there would be no Mongolia today. Moreover, it is said that about 16 million men today can retrace their ancestry back to Genghis Khan. This has led to some people getting their 15 minutes of fame, occasionally incorrectly. China looks back at Qin Shi Huang as its founding father. Many aspects of modern Chinese culture can be retraced to this time period, more than 2200 years ago.

But there is more.

Aside from both rulers featuring in Hollywood made movies – one more recent than the other – both Genghis Khan and the First Emperor are soon taking up residence at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Come see for yourself what made these two individuals so special.


Who Owns the Arctic?

A critical question – as the world faces the possibility of an Arctic Ocean that may soon be ice-free in late summer.

Through her nomination as the Republican Party’s Vice Presidential candidate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has increased interest in her state and its energy resources. Meanwhile, Russia has become more aggressive in controlling territory with energy resources. Both Russia and the United States are now rushing to claim energy resources that may lie below the Arctic Ocean.

icebreaker
Creative Commons License photo credit: angela7dreams

In producing an update for the Planetarium’s Ice Worlds show, we discovered political and economic changes that follow the loss of Arctic sea ice.  The melting of Arctic Sea ice has opened the Northwest Passage through the Canadian islands, past the coast of northern Alaska and into the northern Pacific Ocean. This course reduces the ocean distance between Europe and Asia by 5,000 nautical miles. An increase in summer shipping through the Arctic is on its way – from cruise ships to oil tankers. Ice cover is lowest in late summer so the passage remains open now for the second summer. It will close again with the cold of Arctic winter. 

Icebergs and Parakeets. Lago Grey, Patagonia
Creative Commons License photo credit: Steve Deger

Melting Arctic ice will soon open up much of the Arctic Ocean to travel and to the mining of oil and gas underneath Arctic waters. Only five bordering countries can claim parts of the Arctic sea floor: Russia, Norway, Denmark (through its ownership of Greenland), Canada, and the United States. (Here is a territorial map of the Arctic.) Historically, a country could claim exclusive economic control over fishing and mining of resources in an area extending 200 nautical miles from its coastline. This boundary leaves the central Arctic Ocean unclaimed.

However, according to the Law of the Sea treaty, countries can extend their claim in areas that are an extension of that country’s undersea continental shelf. The US Geological Survey estimates that 22% of the worlds’ undiscovered resources, including oil and natural gas, lie in the extensive continental shelves of the Arctic. Therefore, the shape of these continental shelves is critical in determining who owns these resources.

Perito Moreno
Creative Commons License photo credit: untipografico

The Lomonosov Ridge extends from the continental shelf that borders Canada and Greenland, over the Pole, to Russia’s continental shelf. All three nations now claim this ridge as an extension of their continental shelves and seek to extend their territory to the North Pole.

In August 2007, two mini-submarines, the Mir 1 and Mir 2, planted a one meter-high Russian flag on the ridge near the North Pole. Descending to 4,300 meters, the mini-subs collected water and sediment samples from the seabed to shore up the Russian claim that the ridge is an integral part of Russia. If recognized, this claim would give Russia control of almost half of the Arctic Ocean seabed. The “Cold Rush” has begun!

To learn more about the Poles of Earth and the other ice worlds of the solar system, visit the newly revised Ice Worlds show, beginning this weekend.