Archive for: February, 2011

The rest of the iceberg

Feb 18 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Working in a museum is an awesome experience. It's something I wanted to do since the age of four and I've been incredibly fortunate to get established in this highly competitive field. The role of a curator is particularly rewarding since we get to research collections and bring some hidden treasures out into the light of day (figuratively speaking of course, our head of Conservation would be very disapproving if we did that literally).

Unfortunately, no matter how much material we manage to put on display, the vast majority of collections are kept in storage since there is simply too little room to display everything. This means that what you see in showcases is very much the tip of the iceberg; at the Horniman Museum for instance it is estimated that 95% of the collections are in storage. Of course some people are critical of this and want to see more material on display, whilst others subscribe to the less-is-more philosophy in exhibitions (see point 8 ), but being in storage doesn't mean that the collections don't get used - far from it. Researchers, artists and members of the public use the stored collections for all sorts of projects - in fact, we even refer to our stored objects as our study collections.

Exhibition space limitations aside, much of what we have in storage wouldn't be considered to be particularly interesting if it did go on display. Some specimens are very small and plenty are by no means pretty. Many can't tell an interesting story without an awful lot of additional information and prior knowledge. As a curator I have a desire (and indeed a duty) to provide some of the information and knowledge needed to make objects relevant and interesting. As a technophile I think that the Internet provides a fantastic medium for doing this, which is why I started a blog back in 2009. This has provided an opportunity to show a tiny glimpse of the rest of the iceberg.

Damage by the ivory-eating squirrel, the odd object in storage that inspired the first Friday mystery object

So for 83 weeks in a row I have posted an image of an object and I've asked a simple question relating to it (usually I ask for an identification). The responses to my question gives me an opportunity to gauge how self-explanatory an object is and it also provides an insight into how objects are perceived by a varied audience. Then when I provide an answer to my question the following Monday I get the chance to provide a greater depth of information.

This Friday I've decided to use a particularly challenging object, that a few people will identify immediately because it is so distinctive, but anyone who hasn't seen one before is likely to struggle a bit. Can you work out what type of bone this is and which species it comes from?

(N.B. this is the same bone photographed from different sides - click for bigger)

For those few that are in the know perhaps you could drop hints rather than blurting out the answer and I hope that everyone else will feel free to ask for clues or make a note of their thoughts about this specimen in the comments section below. Good luck!

4 responses so far

Marketing vs Exploration

Feb 15 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the things I'm passionate about is space flight. I just wrote on Engineer Blogs about how NASA partnered with industry to build a quieter jet engine. I believe both manned and unmanned space flights need to continue because what we gain in knowledge and experience far outweighs the short term costs and risks. The image below is from a flight just last night of the Stardust-NExT. It passed the Tempel 1 Comet at 8:41 PST at a distance of 946.05 trillion kilometers on Valentine's Day for a romantic encounter and a few pictures.

We last flew by the comet in 2005 with the Deep Impact mission. What are the advantages of whizzing by a comet a second time? It certainly doesn't come free.

Total cost of launching and running the Stardust program was $300 million (US). It's actually part of a low cost series of proposals NASA put out to industry to see what kind of cheap unmanned space flight could be built for scientific endeavors. It's built and run by Lockheed Martin. When you consider Lockheed's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet costs $92 million of the shelf, not including development costs built into the contract and what it actually costs to train pilots, pay ground crew, and support repairs and further operation of the F-35 (of which the US has agreed to buy 2,443 so far) the Stardust looks like a freaking bargain. The F-35, as kick ass as I think it is, can't even go into space.

In the movie Apollo 13, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) is asked what he thinks about the possible end of the Apollo program and he asks the reporter, "What if after Christopher Columbus no other explorers had returned to the Americas?" I think the near total annhilation of Native Americans at the hands of European imperialists is probably a terrible metaphor. But I think many people do wonder what the point of going up into space now. We've already been to the moon, we've built a space station, what more is there to do? It's gotten so bad NASA has to sell every single project it does in some neatly packaged PR blitz. Though I think the wallpaper they designed is rather adorable (click to embiggen).

You don't see Lockheed or Northrop having to justify their expenses to the public with a "why are we building this" even when in the short term fighter jets don't seem to be a crucial part of our successful war strategy. And many would argue that neither a large defense program or a space research program are necessities we should be spending tax dollars on. I won't argue on behalf of needing a strong and modern air force today, but I do think having a strong space flight and research program is equally as necessary and yet completely undervalued. It's to the point now where our shuttle astronauts are hardly astronauts anymore as much as they are marketers and spokespeople for manned space flight and for the space station. Shuttle Astronaut Shannon Walker asked "Why should the United States explore space?" in a YouTube video contest. The three winning entries are worth watching and their excitement and attitudes really inspire me and give me hope for a future where space is a cornerstone of who we are and continues to contribute in powerful ways to our science, technology, manufacturing and industry.

2 responses so far

Museum collections and mystery objects

Feb 14 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

On my personal blog I provide an object for identification from the collections of the Horniman Museum every Friday (my imaginatively titled 'Friday mystery object'). Often the object is something I've had to identify (or reidentify) myself as part of my work as a natural history curator. Last Friday I used this specimen:

Pretty much all of my regulars recognised it as being the skull of a dog or dog-like animal, but the large size of this skull (27cm long) caused some confusion. Quite a variety of possible species and dog breeds were suggested, but Rachel, Jamie Revell and Jake converged on my identification of Newfoundland dog Canis lupus familiaris Linnaeus, 1758.

Domestic dogs show a remarkably diverse range of sizes - consider that a Chihuahua's entire bodylength can be shorter than the length of the skull of the Newfoundland. Just comparing this specimen with a 'normal' sized Collie-type skull shows a remarkable difference in scale:

Dog skull shape is also hugely variable, depending on what the dog breed has been selected for. For example, Bulldogs have bizarre skulls, with a very shortened rostrum (muzzle), with a mandible (lower jaw) that doesn't seem to fit:

Because of this variability and the care taken to protect pedigree lines, domestic dogs can provide a valuable insight into the genetic mechanisms involved in the development of morphological traits. One study in particular (Fondon & Garner, 2004) shows the remarkable rate at which mutations can occur within dog breeds, neatly summed up in this diagram:

Fig. 3 from Fondon & Garner, 2004 DOI:10.1073/pnas.0408118101

Rapid and sustained evolution of breeds. (A) Purebred St. Bernard skulls from ≈1850 (Top), 1921 (Middle), and 1967 (Bottom). (B) Purebred bull terrier skulls from 1931 (Top), 1950 (Middle), and 1976 (Bottom) (24). (C) Purebred Newfoundland skulls from 1926 (Top), 1964 (Middle), and 1971 (Bottom). Despite the lack of genetic diversity caused by population structure and history, these breeds are able to continually create new and more extreme morphological variations at a rapid and sustained pace.

This diagram also provides a useful reference for comparing St. Bernard and Newfoundland skulls - they are of a similar size and shape, but the St. Bernard has the upper second molar (the very last tooth in the back of the jaw) in a more elevated position above the upper first molar (the next tooth along) than the Newfoundland. The nuchal crest (the bony ridge at the back of the skull) is also straighter and lower in the St. Bernard.

This piece of research is interesting at several levels and I particularly like the fact that it is a good example of the value of museum collections for providing a snippet of the past to compare with the present. Without historical specimens there would be no way to get the base-line information needed to unpick the type and rate of change that has given us what we see today. This ability to look into the past helps inform us about the future.

To finish I want to offer a hearty thanks to everyone who made suggestions - they sent me in the direction of more information on a variety of canid species and dog breeds, which was fascinating and has helped me improve my confidence in the identification. For me, the comments I receive are the most valuable part of running a blog, because they make me look at museum objects in a different light. I will be posting a Friday mystery object on the Scientopia guest blogge this week, so I hope you'll join in and have a go at working out what it is.

2 responses so far

The E in STEM

Feb 13 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Hi, I am FrauTech and I am a mechanical engineer. I blog over at Design. Build. Play. as well as at Engineer Blogs. I've been following the Science Blogging community for a couple years now and in fact it is this larger community that inspired me to try my hand at blogging. It's been very exciting to see science blogging gain in popularity and following. And while I've felt like these were my kind of people, the people who talk about how kickass their science is, I've wondered how and where I fit in.

One of the questions I'm constantly thinking about is, is engineering science? I pondered this question over at my own blog. I believe there are many engineers in academia or research labs who are doing science. But the typical engineer working in private industry does not necessarily do science as a part of their job on a daily basis. So when the fine folks here at Scientopia asked me to guest blog I was very honored but still unsure as to my place in the science blogging community. That was part of the reason several other blogging engineers and myself started Engineer Blogs.

One of the strange things we've found so far is the lack of engineers in the blogosphere. And I'd like to postulate some reasons for why this might be. It's no surprise science blogging can be a little life sciences heavy. This is probably because these topics are easy to understand and get interested in by people not necessarily in the field. Compare that to say, "pure" mathematics, and it's plain to see who's blogging and who's getting read. Back in the day there were all these great videos like Disney's Man in Space. America had its first pre-Obama Sputnik moment.

But now despite the closeness in the average person's life to computers, their iPhone, and complex and advanced automotive systems there seems to be less of an interest. I don't think this is engineering only, certainly scientists suffer the lack of interest in what they do and how they do it. My second explanation for the lack of engineers in the blogosphere is the kind of work they do and the fear in discussing it. Academia seems to me to be the last bastion of a place where people's jobs are protected enough that a certain percentage of them can speak out with no fear. But for private companies there's an emphasis on secrecy. Despite the recent ruling in favor of the fired employee who complained on Facebook I think the general trend is in the other direction. And this is why I blog under a pseudonym.

So where does this leave engineering in the science community? I think it can definitely be a part of the science blogging world, despite not always being research-oriented. And I think like many other less glamorous parts of science the only thing to do is to keep writing and keep persevering because if I love engineering this much certainly that must come across in my writing at least some of the time and maybe more engineers will come along and write about what they do and the online STEM community as a whole will be all the better for it.

Thanks for having me here and I look forward to having discussions and interacting with this community over the next couple weeks.

17 responses so far

Greetings Scientopians and Happy Birthday Charles Darwin

Feb 13 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Hello, my name is Paolo Viscardi, I run the blog Zygoma, I'm an administrator at Ask a Biologist and I am a natural history curator at the Horniman Museum in Southeast London. I'm here at Scientopia as a guest blogger for the next couple of weeks, so I hope you enjoy my scribblings about my interests and my work as a scientist in a cultural institution - an incongruous but rewarding experience. This first post is really just a brief introduction and a belated 'Happy two hundred and second Birthday' to Charles Darwin for yesterday (he can't hear me, so being a day late shouldn't hurt).

In 2009 I made a bigger effort to mark Darwin's Birthday, by heading up a £100k project with the Horniman and partners to celebrate his bicentenary and the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the publication of the snappily titled 'On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life' (or 'The Origin of Species' as I tend to call it).

I'm not sure how much enjoyment Darwin derived from the events, stuck in his tomb in Westminster Abbey, but I certainly enjoyed myself and our little project successfully informed, engaged and entertained an audience of a million or so people. One of the most successful outcomes was a photographic competition, which produced some fantastic observations of nature.

Tree Frog - by Simon Roberts

At a National level there was also a huge push to celebrate Darwin - perhaps unsurprisingly given that in 2002 he was voted the 4th greatest Briton of all time (despite the fact that apparently half of Britons don't believe in evolution [pdf of survey results here]).

The Wellcome Trust and NHM worked hard to support the wide variety of events and activities that went on across the country in 2009 and I think it's fair to say that the celebrations largely went down very well. The downside to all this is that many of the individuals and organisations involved felt a bit Darwined out by 2010. I know I did.

That said, it's easy to celebrate Darwin - he was a great scientist and a thoroughly nice chap to boot. For me he represents a perfect example of the value of informal learning. He was a disaster at school, he flunked his first undergraduate course in Medicine and he only began to succeed in his studies when his learning became driven by his eclectic interest in nature rather than by necessities imposed by his course. It was hobbies like insect collecting that spurred him on - getting out into the field and dealing with zoology, botany and geology in their raw state.

A recent discussion at the Grant Museum of Zoology asked 'Would Darwin get a job in science today?' and I personally doubt that he would - at least in a funded academic capacity. Not because he would lack the ability (far from it), but because I doubt that the structure of modern academia would stimulate his interest enough to keep him engaged. I think it more likely that he would become one of the many talented amateur natural historians that form the core of organisations like the Linnean Society, the RSPB and the Mammal Society. People who sometimes 'do science', but would seldom describe themselves as 'scientists'.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

4 responses so far

Welcome to the Scientopia Guest Blogge!

Feb 12 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

This is a new Scientopia blog that will be hosting a wonderful slate of non-Scientopia bloggers for two-week guest-blogging stints. Have fun!

11 responses so far

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