Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C — © 2014
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“Q?RIUS is about ‘Early Youth Engagement through Science;’ the visitor [to the museum exhibit] acts as curator, protector of Nature’s treasures. Thus Q?RIUS empowers our youth’s innate curiosity to seek and value the truth. And there is no more powerful scientific truth than evolution.”
I have previously stated that to be reassured that evolution is true one simply needs to visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Its displays of skeletons of a North Atlantic right whale with a calf, a humpback, a juvenile blue, and a sperm whale can impress anyone curious to compare human bones to those of cetaceans. And such comparison suffices to infer that common ancestry connects mammalian sea gallopers — whales and dolphins — to us, the upright bipedal apes who live in cities and launch vessels to explore the stars.
My addiction to the splendid North American science museums — antidotes to the impostors “Genesis Park” or “Creation Museum” — will remain pleasurably incurable. But a latest visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., was certainly unique. It started while hiking among 540-million-year-old trilobite fossils, at the Burgess Shale deposit in the Canadian Rockies. What used to be the bottom of the sea is, nowadays, layers of flaked rock at 6,900 feet elevation, evidence that Earth’s crust moves and shapes the imposing mountains.
In 1909, Charles D. Walcott, paleontologist and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, discovered the first fossils of the Burgess Shale. He later brought to the National Museum of Natural History 65,000 specimens, mostly collected at Fossil Ridge, which runs from the Wapta Mountain to Mount Field, in British Columbia.
When alive during the Cambrian, the now fossilized Burgess Shale organisms anchored themselves to the sea floor, some were sessile, or dwellers on the muddy substrate, a few swam freely. Sponges, plenty of algae and arthropods like trilobites, or chordates like Pikaia (a tiny elongated and laterally flattened fish-shaped swimmer, related to modern vertebrates) enriched the biodiversity of the oceans. The most appealing to me are the trilobites and the predator Anomalocaris.
To envision the complexity of the Cambrian ecology, one must immerse the imagination into the ways of the archaic ocean or, perhaps, enlarge all creatures 12 times their original size and gather people to watch them. The latter is precisely what the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Alberta — the second stop in my journey — has done. A well conceived exhibit helps visitors understand the relevance of the Burgess Shale fossils.
The adventure began in the dark. Spotlights shepherd our eyes to the colorful sponges Vauxia, Takakkawia and Pirania, which cohabited with green algae in an apparently serene environment. The cute trilobites, with their large-cockroach pretense and curled sensory antennae resembling groomed whiskers, emerged while the audience pointed at them with excitement as the lights brightened, thus bringing our sight onto additional life forms, like mollusks, sea cucumbers or velvet worms. This tranquility was interrupted by the sudden illumination of a 3-foot Anomalocaris (actual dimension of the “abnormal shrimp”). This segmented animal, distantly related to today’s arthropods, swam by undulating lateral flaps along its body. With huge eyes on stalks and two arched gripping appendages with spikes, one on each side of the mouth, Anomalocaris predated upon soft-shelled organisms and, arguably, on the armored trilobites.
The Burgess Shale exhibit was, however, just a warm up for what the Royal Tyrrell Museum had to offer: after the Cambrian interpretation dome, a world class display of more than 40 mounted dinosaurs and large mammals followed; a saturation of fauna, from the Triassic, 230 million years ago, to the Pleistocene, 2 million years ago. The museum’s most prominent specimens were the Late Cretaceous Albertosaurus — earlier relatives of Tyrannosaurus rex — discovered by Joseph B. Tyrrell in 1884. These “Alberta Lizards” were endemic to the region and ruled the top-predator occupation 70 million years ago.
In its entirety, the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Alberta is a celebration of the 3.5-billion-year history of life on Earth, an elegant showcase of the evidence for evolution. But the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History — the last stop in my journey — has brought technology and modernity into two contrasting new exhibits: “Genome, Unlocking Life’s Code,” an interactive touch-screen experience about how research in genetics benefits citizens and humanity, and “Q?RIUS,” a hands-on access to real specimens in the Smithsonian collection. Both exhibits are exemplars of effective informal education.
I looked for Q?RIUS eagerly while walking through ancient whale skeletons, hanging from the ceiling, and a diorama of Cetacean evolution: Basilosaurus (35-40 million years ago), Maiacetus (40-49 million years ago), Dorudon (36-38 million years ago), and Llanocetus (34-38 million years ago), which looks comparable to the baleen whales displayed at our New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Q?RIUS is about “Early Youth Engagement through Science;” the visitor acts as curator, protector of Nature’s treasures. Thus Q?RIUS empowers our youth’s innate curiosity to seek and value the truth. And there is no more powerful scientific truth than evolution. — © 2014 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved.