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.

Hey, Texas! Get outside and visit your wild neighbors.

by Melissa Hudnall

Texans! Want to see exotic birds? Look out the window! Want to see 250,000 bats? Just go outside tonight and look up! As a wildlife teacher and outreach presenter for the museum, I’ve had a chance to talk with future generations about the amazing wildlife found in Texas. Usually students think you have to travel to exotic lands to see the really cool animals, and they’re shocked to hear about all of the incredible animals they’ve been living right next to in Texas.

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Texas wildlife artifacts for the mobile classroom. Sahil Patel

That’s why I was excited to see the new HMNS at Sugar Land exhibit Treehouses: Look Who’s Living in the Trees!, because it makes these critters more accessible and feeds a natural curiosity that most children already seem to have about wildlife. After visiting this exhibit, young naturalists may start asking questions like, “Who made those track marks?” and exclaiming things like, “I know what that scat came from!”, which would make any parent’s heart swell with pride. Luckily, Texas is the perfect place to raise a young naturalist.

Look in our trees and under our bridges, and you might have a chance to see the only true flying mammal: bats! (Sorry, “flying” squirrels. Gliding doesn’t count.) Texas has tons of bats. In fact, we have so many that they are often picked up on radar used for weather reports.

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Radar around the Bracken Cave in San Antonio shows a cloud of bats. Every blue dot is one in flight.

Everyone’s heard about the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin and the Bracken Bat Cave in San Antonio, but visit these locations in the winter and you might be disappointed to find they have migrated for the season. Drive just 15 minutes away from the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and you can see bats year round at Waugh Bridge. This bridge has roughly 250,000 Mexican free tailed bats who would love to meet you. Before you go, be sure to get them a Thank You card, because the bats under this one bridge in Houston eat up to 2.5 tons of insects each night!

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This Mexican free-tailed bat might look cute and cuddly, but don’t pick them up like you see in this picture. Being mammals, they can carry rabies. Report any bats that you find on the ground in the day time or behaving strangely. They could be sick.

This is the perfect season to visit Waugh Bridge, as baby Mexican free tail bats test out their flying skills for the first time in early July. Just be sure to watch nearby towers for local birds of prey, such as red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, who are keeping a watchful eye on these bats as a source of food.

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This peregrine falcon can reach speeds of 200 mph diving to catch its prey. This is a preserved specimen that travels to school with our Wildlife on Wheels program. Sahil Patel

In fact, Texas is a huge birding state. Individuals travel from all over the United States just to see the colorful migrants that pass through here, like Cerulean Warblers, Golden-cheeked Warblers, and Vermillion Flycatcher. Our Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife does a really nice job of highlighting some of the phenomenal birds that pay us a visit, for those of us (me) who do not have the patience for actual birding.

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Vermillion Flycatcher

Another adorable, and partially arboreal animal is the North American Porcupine.

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North American Porcupine

Looking for a kiss under the mistletoe this winter? This rodent is happy to oblige. Porcupines have been known to slowly amble up trees in search of mistletoe and pine needles when their preferred shrubbery is coated with snow. However, you may wish to rethink this close encounter, not only because of their dangerous defensive quills, but also because of their orange teeth.

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The orange coloration of the North American porcupine’s incisors is due to the high amount of iron in their enamel.

These teeth are not orange due to poor hygiene, but rather because of iron found in the enamel. This iron oxidizes, forming a rusty color. It’s the same reason your blood is red.

So Texans, get your wildlife education with HMNS and HMNS Sugar Land, then go out and explore! After all, now that you know their home address, it would be rude to ignore your neighbors…

The Things I Made at Summer Camp

Xplorations Summer Camp has been an integral part of summer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science for decades, and it was a large part of my childhood too. Over the years, I took all sorts of camps covering subjects like butterflies, cultures in the Americas and roller coasters. I made so many things at camp that I could probably have an entire exhibit called “Things I Made at Camp!” However, like fossils and artifacts, not all of my camp collection has survived to the present day. I wanted to see which items survived the decade since their creation, so I went on an excavation in my childhood home to uncover some of the lost artifacts.

First stop, my childhood bedroom. Among the stuffed animals and children’s books, I find many remnants of my childhood. Papers from school, photos from birthday parties, but no sign of Xplorations Summer Camp. Then, in the distance, I spot a woven basket. The woven basket (ca. June 1997) was made in a camp covering the cultures in the Americas. While I toiled weaving the reeds in and out, we talked about how many cultures wove baskets to hold food and water. To be honest, this woven basket is not my best work. It could certainly not hold water, and there aren’t many foods that can fit inside. In fact, it has a very distinct lean. It looks like it shares some characteristics with a cornucopia.

20150530_162901Onwards! As I search through my desk, I find the remnants of my emergency kit (ca. 2001) made in Survivor Camp. The original kit was encased in a convenient fanny pack, but the fanny pack has since vanished. All that remains is an emergency blanket, glow stick, and some matches in a waterproof container. If need be, I can survive a cold, dark evening with only these three supplies and the skills I remember from camp. I do miss the fanny pack though. Now that was survival and convenience all in one.

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My search continues. I have combed through all of the things in my room, and in a last-ditch effort I turn my search to the closet. Attached to my navy JanSport backpack, I find a handmade bead animal (ca. 1999). I was an after-camp kid, so I got the chance to make some fun crafts like bead animals after we finished the normal camp day. This particular bead animal was very special because of the rare sparkle blue pony beads that were used for the eyes. In the after camp world, those beads were a prized commodity.

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Eventually, I realize that my search has run cold. There are no more camp crafts to be found. I remember how some of them have been lost. In a medieval camp, I made potpourri and planned to give it to my dad for Father’s Day. Unfortunately, I was a clumsy kid and dropped the glass jar of potpourri on the floor. It did not make it home from camp. I’m sure a number of other camp crafts were dropped in puddles, broken in backpacks, or simply left behind. For all of those lost camp crafts, there are a number of memories that stay with me. As summer camp 2015 commences, I like to think that new campers will make some memorable camp crafts too! Let’s hope that they all make it home!

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Editor’s note: HMNS is in its first week of Xplorations Summer Camp right now! Registration is open to children ages 6 to 12. Camp runs Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and care is available before camp from 8 to 10 a.m. and after camp from 3 to 5:30 p.m. for an additional fee. Live near Sugar Land? Register for camp at our sister location, HMNS Sugar Land. Be a part of the tradition at HMNS Xplorations Summer Camp, and like Kelsey, let your child learn and build lasting memories at the museum.

Educator How-To: Crystals, Geometry and Chemistry

Math is beautiful and inescapable. Especially in nature, patterns and equations just keep showing up.  The path of an orbiting planet, the growth of a nautilus, arrangements of leaves on a stem, the efficient packing of a honeycomb; we can find rules and algorithms and make predictions from them.

Crystals, with their obediently repeating structure, are an elegant manifestation of the ‘rules.’  To be a crystal, your building blocks (atoms, molecules, or ions) must follow patterns over and over and over and over and over.  Atoms, being predictable, simply do what their chemical properties and the conditions (temperature, pressure, etc.) indicate.  So what exactly does it take to go from a mess of elements and compounds to this example from the Crystals of India exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land?

If you’ve ever tried making rock candy from sugar water or ornaments from borax solution, then you have some idea what it entails: something dissolved that is capable of making crystals has to slowly come out of solution – usually the longer you give it, the bigger it can grow and the slower it grows, the more perfect the crystals.

Freezing water into ice also gives you crystals; they just don’t stick around and let you handle them conveniently at room temperature. Water and solutions in water aren’t the only way to get crystals; molten rock cooling (slowly) can also give crystals, but that’s a little tricky for home experimentation.

So time is your friend for crystal growth, pressure is a factor, and it needs to be easier for atoms to attach to the forming crystal than to stay in solution.  Having a solution that is saturated or supersaturated so it can barely hold all of the dissolved material helps. It also helps to have places for the crystals to start forming; a tiny ‘seed’ crystal or sometimes even just a rough spot on a surface can provide the nucleation sites to kick off crystal growth. Are there other ways crystals and the things we consider ‘gems’ can form? Yes!

For those of us with shorter attention spans, a cool way so see the process is with crystallizing hand warmers – a pouch holds a saturated solution of sodium acetate. When you flex a metal disk inside the pouch, you kick off a chain of crystallization and end up with solid material (and released heat energy).  Because the process is so fast in the hand warmer, the individual crystals are very small and jumbled up (polycrystalline); oriented in all different directions, and as a mass they are opaque (light is refracting all over the place) and relatively dull rather than shiny and smooth as slower-forming large crystal faces can be.  The structure of most metals is also polycrystalline, and things like plastic and glass (even the kinds misleadingly labeled “crystal!”) are amorphous.

The external crystal shapes we see are related to the internal structure – there are a lot of different ways atoms can pack together.

Practically, there will always be some disruption in a crystal structure, no matter how perfect it may appear, which allows for some very cool effects – crystals “twinning,” impurities that alter the color; the reason ruby and sapphire (both corundum crystals) appear different.

Crystals aren’t always pretty! Sometimes we want to prevent crystallization to avoid things like kidney stones, but crystals are useful for all kinds of things; optical equipment and lasers, X-ray crystallography to figure out structures of proteins (and once upon a time, DNA), and silicon chips used in electronic devices. 

Whether you prefer your crystals practical or decorative, they are amazing!

Can’t get enough crystals? Check out the Crystals of India exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land (free for members!)