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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (8.28.08)

Box Turtle Closeup
Creative Commons License photo credit: audreyjm529

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

Paleontologists have found the fossil of a 75-million year old pregnant turtle – something that has never before been found.

We’re lucky to have the Gueymard telescope – one of the largest in the country for public viewing – right in our backyard. But looking into the heavens wasn’t always so easy. Check out this list of 20 things you didn’t know about telescopes.

Are we giving robots too much power? The Onion weighs in.

Now we play the guessing game: what will happen with Hurricane Gustav?

Photos: a new statue of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius has just been uncovered in Turkey.

Live From the Poles: North Lake and the Journey Home

Our guest blogger today is Chris Linder, a Research Associate at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He is the project manager and field photographer for the National Science Foundation-sponsored Live from the Poles project. He’s been sending us weekly updates about their progress.

On July 21, scouts, summer campers and Ecoteens had a chance to get their most pressing climate questions answered from Ian Joughin, the leader of the Greenland Glacier Expedition that Chris has been writing about here through a live satellite link to the campsite in Greenland; later that night, adults got their turn. You can listen in, below.

The team is now back from the Greenland; here’s Chris’ last post on what they learned.

North Lake and the Journey Home

It has been a whirlwind since my last post—a hectic final week on the Greenland ice sheet studying two glacial lakes, a helicopter transfer back to the town of Ilulissat, and a long series of flights taking us home. Warm socks and down jackets are now a thing of the past—I’m typing this dispatch in 87-degree heat in Seattle (I know that’s not really hot for Texans, but it’s quite a tough adjustment for me after a month of subfreezing temperatures!)

A final aerial survey just before we left showed
that the lakes were beginning to form ice on the
surface again. As winter returns to the ice, the
lakes will freeze solid and remain frozen
until the next summer. © Chris Linder, WHOI

Our final week on the ice was dedicated to exploring two nearby lakes, one of which had recently drained (dubbed “North Lake”) and another that was partially full of water when we arrived (dubbed “North North Lake”).

North Lake made the news earlier this year when Dr. Sarah Das (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) and Dr. Ian Joughin (University of Washington Applied Physics Lab/Polar Science Center) published a pair of papers in the journal Science about the spectacular draining event that they captured with their instrumentation in July 2006. That summer, a giant hole called a moulin opened up in the lake bed and drained the entire water volume (which is a lot; this lake is several kilometers long!) in an hour and a half. This year, the lake was already empty when we arrived (in fact, we had already heard from colleagues that it drained on July 10, the day we arrived at South Lake camp), so the research team had the freedom to explore the empty lake basin on foot.

The dimpled surface on these tilted blocks shows
that these were part of the former lake bed. The
cracking of the ice sheet surface caused them to break
free and float to the surface as the lake drained.
© Chris Linder, WHOI

Our visits to the North Lake basin revealed a bizarre landscape of car-sized blocks, canyons, rivers and waterfalls. The variation in the landscape on the ice sheet, particularly in the drained lake beds, is staggering. I expected it to be, well, flat, and white.

What we saw was quite different—towering blocks of pushed-up ice, rivers of freezing melt water carving their way through 60-foot deep canyons, gaping bottomless cracks and holes. The color of the ice ranges from opaque white to clear to bluebird blue. To my glaciologist companions, the landscape was also an open book. The blocks indicate where major cracks occurred (the blocks are pieces of the ice sheet that are broken loose during the cracking), and the rivers lead us to the crevasses (cracks) or holes (moulins) where the water was still pouring through the ice sheet to the bedrock. If you put your ear to the cracks, you can hear the water echoing in the depths.

Moulins, or holes in the ice sheet,
can be an otherworldly blue.
© Chris Linder, WHOI

It will still be some time before the final picture of the 2008 lake draining can be told. The scientists had only a brief amount of time to examine their instruments and prepare them for another year of data collecting before we had to pack up and fly out. In the coming months, scientists will be examining the data their instruments collected over the previous year. Dr. Mark Behn, a scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Geology and Geophysics department (and resident “icequakes” expert), had this comment about the data he did look at:

“Even with a 10 minute look, I can see that the quality of the data is good, which tells me the instruments are working. We can also see the timing of large cracking events that drain the lakes, which stand out as dramatic spikes on the record.”

Be sure to check the Polar Discovery website to read dispatches about our other adventures at North Lake, including the release of a harmless tracer dye into a moulin and the investigation of “North North Lake.” 

Thank you to everyone who came in to the museum on July 21 to talk with moderator Twila Moon and Dr. Ian Joughin live from the ice. Stay tuned for future Live from the Poles expeditions on the Polar Discovery website. Until then, best wishes and thanks again for reading,


Interested in learning more about Chris, his team and their journey to Greenland?
Learn about the purpose of this trip.
Travel to Greenland with him.
Read what they did their first week.

Grand Canyon Adventure: making water conservation cool

Glen Canyon
Creative Commons License photo credit: mandj98

We had a staff preview of Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk 3D a few weeks before it opened, and it is a fascinating film – though it was way more effective at inspiring me to go white-water rafting than to install a low-flow shower head (one of the main character’s stated goals). So inspiring, in fact, that Jamie recently announced our first Blog Contest – where you can share YOUR greatest adventure with us for a chance to win some great prizes, and to see it posted on BEYONDbones.

We love this film, because anything that gets people to appreciate nature surely also inspires them to help conserve it. So, we hope you’ll share your adventures with us – and possibly take home some cool prizes, too. In the meantime:

Author/anthropologist Wade Davis and his adventurous daughter Tara were a part of the river-rafting team that follow the Colorado River in the movie (now playing at HMNS). Davis is Explorer-in Residence at the National Geographic Society – and his globe-circling work exploring indigenous cultures has inspired feature films, documentaries, TV series and best-selling books, while taking him from African plains to Tibetan mountains. Tara, an apprentice river rafting guide, began attending Colorado College just as filming ended, inspired to pursue Environmental Studies.

Q: Wade, you’ve traveled the planet for a wide range of projects. What compelled you to become part of Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk 3D?

Wade Davis

Davis surveys the Grand Canyon

WADE: The real inspiration behind it was Greg MacGillivray, who somehow intuited that by putting myself, Bobby Kennedy and our daughters, Tara and Kick, on a boat going down the Colorado that it would become a magical experience. It was a real risk, and, honestly, I had no idea just how magical it would be until I got on the river. The trip became one of those rare times in life when you are living through an experience and, at the same time, are cognizant that it will become one of the greatest memories of your life.

Q: What made it so memorable?

WADE: As a father, it was a chance to get to know Tara in a way I never had before. You know, children grow very much in the way a river does – becoming richer, fuller and more intriguing everyday – and there was a real feeling on the river of launching this wonderful person into a new life.

Q: Tara, you literally grew up riding rivers; what has kept you so intrigued by them?

TARA: My very first experience was when I was around 6, on the Turnagain River [in British Columbia] – and it rained for days, while my sister and I played “think of an animal” in our tents! But what I fell in love with were the campfires, the stories, the laidback feeling. You become part of the wild and you forget social constructs. Rivers are also just a lot of fun!

Q: Wade, did you already know RFK Jr.? You seem like old friends.

WADE: We’d only met a few times but we share many reference points. We have friends in common, we’ve lectured back-to-back, we were even at Harvard at the same time. There’s also something about us both being Irish – me the storyteller, he the raconteur. And we both equally love rivers. On the Colorado, I became quite enamored of Bobby in the sense that I truly felt that here is a man who could lead us out of the wilderness.

Colorado River, Marble Canyon
Creative Commons License photo credit: Gonzo fan2007

Q: Tara, you also hit it off with Kick; how did that happen?

TARA: Initially, I think it was our humor that brought us together – she and her dad are so funny. Also, a river is a great place to make friends. Everything else kind of falls away and, no matter who you are in real life, everyone’s a kid again.

Q: Wade, as a whitewater guide, did anything surprise you about the Colorado?

WADE: I thought Lava Falls would be even tougher! (laughs) But perhaps the biggest surprise was seeing Tara and her spontaneity with Kick.

Q: What were your favorite moments, Tara?

TARA: The nighttime scorpion hunts were pretty classic. If you turned on a “black” flashlight at night you’d see scorpions everywhere; it’s pretty cool to realize that all this life surrounds you. It was also great to spend time with my Dad, who has taught me so much about the world, in this amazing place.

Grand Canyon waterfall

Shana Watahomigie, a member of the
Havasupai tribe and the first Native American to
become a National Park Ranger and river guide,
at a waterfall on the Colorado River.

Q: Wade, do most indigenous cultures you’ve studied have a sacred relationship with water?

WADE: Around the world, water is fertility, water is life. In so many ways, people around the world recognize rivers as the arteries of the planet, metaphorically, spiritually and culturally.

Q: Do you think there’s still time to change our approach to water to one of conservation?

WADE: Water will become an increasingly precious commodity and a big battleground, even more so than oil. Everywhere there are rivers, these issues will play out. It’s really a question of what kind of world we want to live in. How are you going to feel when the last wild river is gone? I feel so fortunate to have been able to follow so many rivers untrammeled all the way to the sea. It’s one of the great experiences of life. But I also believe that Margaret Mead was right when she said “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

Q: Tara, is your generation up to the challenge of making those changes?

TARA: Oh, I definitely think we are. I’ve met so many people my age who are passionate about the environment, and who are ready to think in more innovative, creative and far-reaching ways.

Shana, leading the group down the Colorado River.

Q: There’s a focus in Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk 3Don sharing outdoor experiences between generations. Wade, what does that mean to you?

WADE: I’ve always tried to live a life in which knowledge and seeking are the benchmarks of existence and I’ve tried to share all the wisdom I can with my children. But I also believe in what Kahlil Gibran said about children being the arrows and parents the bow. In a wonderful way, this was a journey about passing on the torch.

Q: Tara, how do you think young people will respond to Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk 3D?

TARA: The 3D is going to amaze them. There’s no better way to understand the vastness of this landscape- and then to feel the waves flying up in your face, it’s going to be really fun! I think the Grand Canyon inspires everyone who sees it. Every day on the river I wondered how such a place could have been created, and about how to protect it for the future. I really hope to return to the river when I’m older, maybe even with Kick.