High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Nerdlingers on the Town

So, in mid-June, my nonfrontier sister told me that they were planning on doing the Field Museum and the Tut exhibit during frontier sister's visit. I told her to count me in, and to count M in if it was a weekend. Within 48 hours the plan had completely devolved and no one was going anywhere on any day.

Frontier sister e-mailed to inform me that C, the older of her two sons, was completely crushed by this. Not only was he crushed by losing the trip to the Field, he was specifically crushed that he wasn't going with me. (Apparently my sister tried to offer up a paternal aunt as the sacrificial lamb, but C wanted Auntie Matilda: Accept no substitutes.) She asked if we would take him home with us Tuesday night, and I would take him to the museum on Wednesday. I thought this would totally rock and I told her so. My only reservation was one echoed by M

M: Uh, so I'm assuming the [nonfrontier sister] most likely "decided" for everyone that no one wanted to go.

Me: I can neither confirm nor deny, but almost certainly.

M: So, when we try to leave with one child, it's likely that 4 children will suddenly be going completely apeshit that they don't get to go to the museum with you.

Me: Pretty much, but I contracted for one child and one child is all I'm taking.

Sure enough, the others made some noise about wanting to go. S (C's little brother) mostly to annoy C. My niece, C, seemed to be joining in for the sake of joining in. Ironically, though, my nephew A seemed genuinely to want to go. There was no way in hell that I was taking both A & C anywhere by myself. In very different ways, they are complete attention sucks. Also, they don't get along. So with a reproachful look at nonfrontier sister, I told her I'd happily take A on another day, just not today. Today was about the the care and feeding of a nerd.

When I say that my nephew C is a nerd, I say it affectionately and not at all lightly, as will become clear as we go along. We hopped the Rock Island at 99th street and happened upon a free trolley to the museum campus right outside the station. As the trolley turned on to Roosevelt Road and the Brachiosaurus skeleton on the northwest terrace of the museum, his eyes widened and intoned, "Yes, dinomaster. What shall I do for you, dinomaster?" Zombie jokes + dino love. Diagnosis: Nerd.

As we stood in line for tickets, we tossed around the question: To Tut or not to tut. I mean, obviously, I was pro-Tutting. Tut early, Tut often, sez the Anthropologist, but this was C's day. When we got up to the register, the cashier told us that if we wanted to see Tut, we'd have to buy tickets there and then. I left it up to C. He looked across the hall to Sue and quietly said, "The Evolving Planet has a hall of dinosaurs, right?" All dinos, all the time, it was.

Evolving Planet comes with the basic admission price, but they give you tickets with an entry time imprinted on them. Ours were for 12:15 PM (we entered at about 11:45 AM), but the cashier assured us that we could go in whenever. I'm not sure what that means for the success of the exhibit or their perception of its success.

In case you're wondering, it is not physically possible for a 10-year-old boy to walk past Sue without stopping to pay homage. This breed is also hard pressed to refrain from loudly and publicly correcting docents who talk crap while leading around tour groups. I believe I made my point for pairing politeness and with accuracy as we wrote a note concerning the spurious information and dropped it immediately in the suggestion box.

The Sue that's mounted in the North part of the Grainger Gallery is, of course, only mostly sue. Readers of Jim Butcher's Dead Beat, know that Sue's can look down on the mounting of the rest of her skeleton, because her 600-lb head is on the balcony above, overlooking it. On our way up to Evolving Planet, we visited the skull and its newish CAT scans, as well as a few pieces of video on theory and hypothesis. I sat down to see how they got the job done on this score, and C rolled his eyes, "Don't you KNOW the difference?" he wanted to know.

The basic framework for the exhibit is halls filled with evoltionary phases divided by passageways featuring information on the six mass extinction events that have occurred since the beginning of life on Earth. I'm inclined to think it overall a good one, having now been through it with a budding young scientist. However, having only been through it with a budding young scientist, I have to admit that my review consists of big-picture impressions, rather than of full absorbtion of layout and text.

The Early Earth hall is appropriately dark, thunderous, and appropriately spooky, as C astutely observed on the train home. To his comments, I would add that they made interesting work of it in this hall by spacing the exhibits in such a way that there seemed to be more space between them than elsewhere. First of all, this spatial trick worked to convey the geological pace of pre-Cambrian developments. But from a practical point of view, it also gave the visitor the opportunity to take in each station without pressure to get to the next shiny thing over, given that the next shiny thing was tucked some way on.

This worked well given the technical, potentially dry nature of some of the information in this section. Furthermore, the physical layout went a long way toward making up for the craptastic timelines, which really did nothing to convey the sense of geological time. (Basically, they used slight modifications of the timeline you see on the right.)

At least these things worked well for my personal dynamic duo. I did have to keep calling C back because I wanted a closer look at something. He was not immediately inclined to linger at most of these points (which probably speaks in equal parts to some shortcomings of the exhibit and his inherent dinonerditude), but to his credit, he always circled back to me and was willing to listen to my natterings. (Skipping ahead to my mini-lecture on taphonomy of the Burgess Shale, he looked at me solemnly, bless his heart, and said, "I'm glad I got to come here with an anthropologist.")

I know it's one of my personal hobbyhorses, but I just don't think you can ever have enough hooters, and I know you can never have enough genetics. Evolving Planet is woefully low on both, but especially on genetics. Don't get me wrong: They choose their point of attack well, folding it into the discussion of the evolution of sex, and what they have is succinct and easy to understand. Unfortunately, what they have is just so minimal that it doesn't carry through the rest of the exhibit.

Without any fear of bragging I can say that C is a smart kid. Two years ago, when he was 8, I explained what a fossil is and why DNA recovery from one borders on the impossible. I've explained that to hundreds of students and probably a handful of them picked it up as quickly as he did. So when he kept "forgetting" about the relationships among genes, traits, and adaptation as we went through the exhibit, I have to think that the point wasn't made as clearly and lastingly as it ought to have been.

It's a shame that genetics was given short shrift given what a great job they did explaining taxonomy, phylogeny, and cladistics. As sharp as C's mind is, he's somewhat undirected in what he's been learning about paleontology so far. This has turned him into a descriptivist who obsesses over whether something is 32 feet long or 37 feet long. As we made our way through the Permian exhibit and got a load of their crazy synapsids, he started to get more of the big picture.

Yes, I'd love to think that my impassioned discourse on the branchial arches and the ancestral reptiliform jaw are solely responsible for that, but I think I probably have to give some credit to the cool interactive video stuff that connected group names and ancestral and derived features to one another. I just wish that more of a genetic bedrock had been the underpinning of that section.

On a different note, the Permian hall will also live on in our memories and, I'm sure, the memories of many, many other scarred Chicagoans who witnessed the birth of our body language for "lizard hips" (saurischia) vs. "bird hips" (ornithischia), which we did all. damned. day. Also, if you're looking to build street cred. on the nerdy side of the pre-adolescent tracks, casually deploy the terms saurischia and ornithischia when you're not too busy explaining the Marvel/DC divide.

C. needed to take a moment before he was ready to head into the "">Genius Hall of dinosaurs. I mean, really, the dude was getting a little misty eyed at the mere thought of an entire HALL of DINOSAURS. As we lingered at the threshold of the hall, he said in hushed, reverent tones, "I hope they have something on the resonating chambers of Parasaurolophus." That, ladies and gentlement, is a nerd. A much bigger nerd than I could ever hope to produce directly from my own loins. Gotta love him.

We spent a good hour in the hall checking out the lizard hips and the bird hips. We batted around theories about spikes on the stegosaurians. Being an unimaginative mammal apologist, I always come down on the side of heat dissipation. C, being a bloodthirsty 10-year-old favors theories regarding self-defense. Moving on to that wacky Apatosaurus, we chuckled over the "wrong head, wrong name, wrong habitat" interactive about it and shook our fists in a Flintstoneward direction for their role in perpetuating the wrong, wrong, wrongitty wrong wrong wrong Brontosaurus name. This particular interactive was well underneath the (diplodocus-like) head of the adult beast, in easy view of the juvenile skeleton assembled nearby.

Looking up at the head of the adult, C said, "How could they ever have thought this was aquatic? I mean, look at the kid! If they were standing in water, they'd have to be far away from the parents!" Have you ever HEARD such an opening for a discussion about brains, learning, reproductive patterns, and overall adaptive strategies? me neither, but it was HOT, I can tell you that. But it did lead me to another shortcoming in the overall exhibit.

Yeah, the whole thing is based around the idea of mass extinctions being biological/geological crossroads---one group and its strategies give way to new forms and new ways. I guess they wanted to play up the discontinuities from age to age; however, my teaching experience tells me that one important message that we need to communicate is heads/tails nature of these events. When it becomes bad to be a dinosaur, it's great to be a mammal. The reasons behind that tended to be explained (to the extent that they were) in sit-down films that were, frankly, talky, boring, and not especially clear.

As you probably know by now, the dinoboy was in the driver's seat, so frankly, we didn't spend as much time in the Tertiary giving proper respect to mammals. In fact, I have to say that the Tertiary hall doesn't stick in my mind at all. I did try to use the spurs on the hominid hall, but C was a little euphoric and punchy by then. He kept sticking his fingers in the mouths of the repros (every fossil case had repro head and hand) and pretending that they were biting him. My overall impression of the hominid Hall was "small" and "cramped." Not incomplete, by any means, and I suppose it gets the point of pacing across well. Still, we feel somewhat snubbed.

Having regrouped at lunch, C decided he wanted to do the "Underground" exhibit, so we backtracked and bought tickets for it. It was quite disappointing to both of us, I think. The shrinking gag was silly and babyish. The most excitement had in there came from the sudden movement of some of the animatronics. It was good for a few laughs and "a ha" moments, but definitely not worth the additional admission price. The Fossil Prep lab was also not all it promised to be, but then again, we headed back late in the day.

After taking in some jade and thoroughly scoping out the rest of the gift shops (C was intent on a small something for himself [he has a trip to the Lego store for new Bionicles coming up] and he was shopping for a friend back on the frontier), we decided that we needed one more look at those dinos before we left. We went in through the out door (we're rebel nerds, I tell you), and had another round of fun with the bellows demosntrating the calls of Parasaurolophus. (Yes, Virginia, they did have something on the resonating chambers of Parasaurolophus.)

On our second trip, we paid a bit more homage to the ancestors and I noted that in a central display that I'd missed (it is interesting and heartening to note that this was definitely the part of the exhibit that was mobbed) they included Sahelanthropus (sooooo very not a hominid) and casts of the Laetoli footprints on the floor. C, still unschooled in what we do and do not ask an anthropologist asked what the big deal was about them. And so we finished the museum portion of our day with a great talk about relative vs. absolute dating.

My inner culture whore regrets having not seen Tut (he'll be around, though, and I'll see him yet), but I certainly had a great day, and it seems like C did, too, based on the number of times on the way home that he spontaneously thanked me for taking him. Cool.

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