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

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Dinosaur Comprehensive, Darwin Interrupted: The Second Annual Nerdlingers on the Town

So, my sister is in town from the frontier, which means that her spawn are, likewise, in from the frontier. The elder of the two, C, and I were scheduled for a repeat Nerd Day on the 5th. This had to be moved to the 6th to accommodate my making my third trip to Indiana this week (I'm not teaching at the moment) to argue that, yes, given that it's 6 months into my grant, I really should be getting some fucking salary, thank you very much.

Nerdlinger's comment on the rescheduling: "I like things annually, and I don't like change."

I guess I'll take that over nephew A's comment (I went with him, my mother, and my younger brother to the Field a few weeks ago): "Aunt Matilda, sometimes you sound confused. And sometimes you confuse people." But this was nothing to the line of the week, which won him the "Arguing from the Weakest Position Possible" Award: "It wasn't even on fire!" Out, as they say, of the mouths of babes.

Despite the fact that I kept the youngster up until all hours watching Justice League episodes and cheerful, bloody Nova special on the Great Inca Rebellion, the child was awake at 7:45. He did have the good grace to apologize for this, however, saying he'd woken up and light was coming in the room, and he can't sleep when it's light. We'll pass over the question of him not having closed the blinds before he went to sleep.

We walked over to Dunkin' Donuts (his choice) for breakfast (a single powdered-sugar donut and 2% milk: he has the liminal metabolism of an adolescent boy and subsists on strange things). From there, we hit the ATM so I could deposit some checks and so he could laugh at Og as Og continually answered the backwards-masked questions the stupid, chatty WaMu ATMs asked: "I can't give you a receipt! Do you want me to cancel this transaction?" Og hit yes at least three times, prompting the ATM to spit out hir card and say, "I have canceled your last request!" Which struck us as both ominous and hilarious.

Even with Auntie Og's very-nearly-violent encounter with the ATM, we realized we could still make the 9:16 train. We gathered our needments (me: ASHG nerd wallet in lieu of purse, it being too hot even to wear clothing, let alone accessorize, him: backpack and Mythbusters T-Shirt because we were meeting up with his mother who would hie him back to the suburbs at the end of nerd day [it is worth clarifying that we were, in fact, wearing clothes, despite its being too hot to do so]). We had ample time to make the train, which further amplified that amplitude by being 8, 10, 9, 8, 7, no 8 minutes behind schedule according to the PA woman (I think they must have just gotten a multi-station PA system and someone was just a little too enamored of the new toy).

From the train we got on a trolley to the museum campus, sadly by way of Old Navy (this is a stop on a tourist trolley? Bitch, please.) and the equally evil Taste. (Truth be told, we got on two wrong trolleys first, then the right trolley: What can we say? Shapes and primary colors are not in the nerd core competency suite.) As we passed by the Chicago HIlton, C had a pop culture epiphany: "Does Paris Hilton's dad own the Hilton hotels?" Truthfully, I told him I didn't know who, specifically, owned them in relation to her skankness, but that she was of that family.

Not soon enough, we were in the cool halls of nerdom, buying our tickets for Dinosaurs (sadly sans exclamation point) and Darwin. We had also determined to do Evolving Planet again. I let C determine the order of events, and he, perhaps unsurprisingly, went for new Dinos first.

I'd been through the exhibit with the other nephew and his entourage a few weeks before and thought it was a bit small. I think Tut must have either had the generous space now devoted to Darwin, or possibly even the Darwin and Dino spaces combined. As a result, I was surprised by how little floor space seemed to be devoted to the exhibit that merits the banner on the north face of the museum.

The subtitle of the Dinosaur exhibit, Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries, is pretty apt. When you walk in, there is a slightly scaled down T. rex surrounded by a metal railing with a few computer screens mounted on it. This first room also contains a smallish free-standing case containing a very complete Bambiraptor feinbergorom, a T. Rex femur (with a "touch a fossil" hole on which I have no comment), and a larger TV screen in the corner showing a short video.

The Bambiraptor display case was a good encapsulation of the exhibit. On the base's face nearest the door, it talked about the discovery of the highly complete specimen by a 14-year-old boy in Montana, emphasizing first that we're far from having exhausted the supply of fossils still in the ground, second that although modern technologies greatly enhance our ability to discover material, good old walking survey techniques endure, and third that our notions about dinosaurs are constantly evolving along with our analysis, as is appropriate to science. The other faces talked about how technology like CAT scans allow for more fine-grained analysis and hypothesis testing as well as the significance of Bambiraptor in general and the specimen in particular.

The rest of the room was devoted to biomechanics. The isolated femur gave the opportunity to examine a single, structurally critical element on its own and drew attention to the rugged areas of muscle attachment (I think the point could have been underscored with, perhaps, another femur from either a smaller dinosaur or even a human to emphasize that, to some extent, bones are bones, mechanically speaking). Just beyond the femur, the video covered how we know what we know about T. rex posture, gait, speed, and so on, interspersing the science with the required footage from Jurassic Park.

Although I'm sure that Spielberg gets to punch paleontologists in the 'nads if they discuss their research without bringing up JP,in this case, they actually made a point from the opposite angle: When they first show the T. rex chasing the jeep (in the "objects in mirror . . ." scene) and had him moving at 60ish MPH, it looked wholly unrealistic. They had to slow him down to about 25 MPH and speed up the scenery behind him.

The touch-screen computers on the railings surrounding the assembled T. rex really tied the room together, man. At them, you could use slider bars to alter the posture, center of gravity, and muscle mass of T. rex to see the impact on its movement. It was a nice interactive (and it seemed to be in much better working order this week than when I tried it out a few weeks ago) made the hypothesis testing outlined in the video tangible. In addition to just messing with the T. rex specs, there were pop-ups on each of the variables with basic information and comparative data in other organisms.

Moving into the next room, to the left, up against the wall was a case that I fear gets overlooked as the result of its placement. It was a subadult T. rex that had been naturally buried with its neck curved and the head doubled back under its own shoulder. The process of fossilization eroded the neck and shoulder bones, leaving the tip of the snout, a part often missing, was preserved. In addition, the ribs were quite well preserved, allowing for the ages of this comparatively small beastie to be estimated from the growth rings. It's specimens like these that have allowed inferences about T. rex's developmental cycle leading to the conclusion that they added much of their adult size and weight in a relatively short period between ages 14 and 18.

More than the subadult just being tucked away, it suffered from being opposite from (and to the left of: everyone goes right. always) the ubercool, albeit miniature, ambulatory T. rex model. Again, the cool visual is supplemented with readable information on testing hypotheses with biomechanics models. Some of it—gasp—repeating and reinforcing previously stated ideas.

As entirely cool as the moving model is, the second room is really dominated by the shiny metal Apatosaurus. The central question addressed in this part of the exhibit was sauropod biomechanics. The metal monster was surrounded by cases of smaller, focal fossils (mostly neck vertebrae in this case), video interviews (with the required Spielbergian content). It had the added shiny of a series of videoscreens dividing it from the footprint-centric material further on in the exhibit.

Like the section on theropod biomechanics, the pieces were well chosen to illustrate the marriage of a long history of fossil finding with new technologies that enhance what we can do with previously discovered material. The metal model is, in fact, an outgrowth of a software program called DinoMorph that enables a lot of hypothesis-driven research not possible with the fossils themselves. The signage, specimens, and video were clear, concise, and compelling.

The sore thumb here though, were the big videoscreens. The length of the Apatosaurus spine was projected across them, starting with the sketch of the bones (made directly from fossil measurements and tracings), proceeding to a view of the metal model, then progressively adding layers of muscle with dissection-esque cutaways. But there's no accompanying text, narration, or anything else explanatory. I assume it's taken more or less directly from DinoMorph, but given that it's the culmination of their case for a completely different posture and mode of feeding and movement among sauropods than previously assumed, there's no reason they couldn't have given a little more biomechanical narration on the roles played by the different layers of muscles, ligaments, tendons, and so on, in the new model.

Stepping around the screens, we were in dino-track land. The major piece in this section is a reproduction of the Davenport Ranch Tracksite. The reproduction is set nearly vertically so that the tracks can clearly be seen, and pushing a button lights up the tracks in different colors so that individual trails can be distinguished. There's also some good text on how tracksites, including this one, were used to construct an argument for herd behavior in dinosaurs and to dispel the image of them as tail draggers.

Although these issues are the main thrust of this section, they make the most of it. The text emphasizes the fact that connecting tracks to bones is often difficult, given that tracks represent the foot of the animals in life. Other material focused on the information that can be gleaned from footprints, including walking speed and diet. As elsewhere, the signage hearkens back to issues of a development, stressing that estimation of height and weight from tracks is complicated by the fact that foot size varies both among individuals of the same species and does not scale linearly throughout an individual's life (i.e., the puppy paw phenomenon).

But possibly my favorite item in the exhibit was a video about "deep tracks." These were considered to be distortions of the real tracks left until they performed some experimental paleontology with turkeys that they "just happened to have in the lab." Any job that involves making turkeys run through squishy clay gets my seal of approval.

Beyond the tracks section was the Lionang Diorama. I think it's possible that I am just not a diorama girl. I really do appreciate what they are trying to do in putting all the animals together in a complete ecosystem. And certainly, this open plan, with all its good documentation is a far cry from the dead animals and dead animals followed by yet more dead animals (or worse, the attempts at recreating Native American cultures). Still, it's constantly clogged up (supporting the "Not a Diorama Girl" theory, I suppose), and the text is extremely poorly placed at knee level. In nearly 30 minutes of trying, I never did get to read it all. However, when I did try to answer a question of C's about the identity of a particular specimen, I found the labels confusing and poorly done. It's a shame, given that so much of the diorama and the important findings shown therein is based on the work of Peter Makovicky, one of the Field's own, but color me unimpressed.

But speaking of impressions, it would be sillyness to argue that the "trophy wall" of ceratopsian skulls doesn't make one. And, yes, I know I am a skull girl, but still. The juvenile-to-adult comparisons, the analogies to pachycephalosaurs, and the text and video showing how horns and other seemingly odd features are used in extant animals made a good case for their use in mating competition and identification of other individuals of the same species.

The story, of course, has a sad end. The "extinction nook" (© Sarah Vowell) is small and a little busy. It's basically the backside of the cyc behind the metal Apatosaurus, and it's crowded with small cases of fossils and dominated by a video screen showing images of the K-T apocalypse. It does get across the point that this is an extinction event that is hard on a lot of species, including the marsupials (which I kind of knew, but didn't really know, you know?).

So that's my incredibly wordy impression of it all, but I know you all want to know what the mininerd thought. He moved through it much more quickly than I was inclined to do, and given that he's older, taller, and deeper of voice this year than he was last, I was inclined to let him be more independent about that. He kept coming back toward me, but he seemed doggedly opposed to reading much of anything.

This seems to be a regrettable quirk that he's developed as he hurtles toward his teen years. In fact, we had a discussion the night before at dinner about the necessity of being a well-rounded nerd when he proved unable to remember the name "Desdemona." He waved my objections about his missing out on all the hot hypothesis testing by saying, "I'm a 'read a little, get a general impression' kinda guy." I told him that we call that "half-assed" in my country, and I think I detected some much-needed sheepishness. That was probably helped along by his out-loud think-o.

C: "Photo" is light and "graphic" is writing, so what is photographic reproduction?
Og: [perplexed grunt] Light writing, it's how photos get imprinted on the special paper . . . . ?
C: OH! Like photograph. I thought it was some way that plants reproduced.
Og: [falls over laughing, retells story to mother, aunt, and cousin]
C: [chagrin ensues]

After the Dinos, we decided to fortify with some lunch. Neither the Corner Bakery nor the McDonald's held much appeal, so we went outside to the food stand. We were waylaid by a global warming group with a giant vinyl map of the US and puzzle-piece states.

C: They're doing the Pangea thing out here!
Og: With just the US? Not a very super continent.
C: Oh.

This conversation, which could have been averted by reading, gave the woman with the laminated "Global Warming Questions," time and opportunity to approach us. C burned through his questions and snatched mine out of my hand, chucking states behind him as he searched for the ones he wanted. At one point, I was a little worried that he was going to roll a toddler who was hogging Alabama, but the incident was concluded without violence. Like a thing obsessed, he went through all 5 sets of questions and placed all 20 states.

C: Don't you have questions for all 50?
Global Warming Lady: Uh . . . no, just 20.
C: But you have to have 50.
GWL: Uh . . . I like your shirt.
Og: Truth in advertising. Let's go eat, Adrian.
C: Who's Adrian?
Og: An obsessive-compulsive TV character apparently modeled after you.
C: What's obsessive-compulsive?
Og: You're soaking in it. Hot dogs. Now.

I regret to say that a blood relative of mine had a plain hot dog (rather than a Chicago style) and that he put ketchup on it, but 'tis pity 'tis true (not that he'd know where that comes from). Having eaten the whole dog, he still had some bun left over. He tore off a small piece and before Og (who, really, had only had one cup of D&D coffee, so sie was worse than useless) could advise against it, he'd tossed it to a lurking seagull.

Immediately after Og managed to comment that he probably didn't want to do that, the seagull ran (ran, not flew) away at top speed, honking aggressively. Minutes later, we saw the same seagull being chased by two youngsters who were yelling, "Hey! Give it back! He stole it!" So, armed with nothing more than a bit of hot dog bun, we seem to have planted the seeds of the superintelligent seagull army that will help to bring about Nerd Revolution. Go us!

After lunch, C decided on another run through Evolving Planet before hitting Darwin. As we were making our way in, the "wheel of extinction" caught his eye. Although I thought it was pretty self-explanatory, at least if one had deployed the awesome power of reading, C wanted to know "what it was," and there were some teenaged docents standing around in shirts that urged us to ask them questions.

So C did. One of the two girls planted her palms on her thighs and crouched a bit (despite the fact that C in his current incarnation easily has about 2 inches on her) and said, "Well! This is demonstration of Maaaaaasss Extinctions! Do you know anything about those?" C, oozing contempt, said, "I've only memorized them." Her eyes glazed over as he started rattling off facts, and one of her compatriots stepped in front of the wheel to block it.

Og: I can assure you that he doesn't need to cheat off your dumbed-down text.
C: Let's go.

We didn't spend nearly as much time inside EP this time, but even still some of the improvements were noticeable. There's a great video bit that quite concisely explains radiometric dating right at the beginning of the exhibit. I also had a feeling that they'd finessed some of the continuities that cross the boundaries of the extinctions, which had been one of my main criticisms last year. We also got a picture immortalizing C pumping the bellows on the resonating chambers of Parasaurolophus, and we didn't even have to bust a cap in the ass of two 6-year-old girls in trashy camo-patterned skirts, but it was a near thing. We also got a picture of me posing near the Gil skeleton Giant Ground Sloth, and we contemplated which Pleistocene megafauna best represent the other dogs we know.

At about 3:30, we finally started down to Darwin. The video outside the exhibit is admirable for the variety of people who give soundbytes, but it's a touch overlong, and I think some are allowed to speak definitively on matters of opinion and perception (e.g., I can't remember who it is, but a punctuated equilibrium proponent is vehement enough that one could be left with the impression that small-step evolution never occurs).

We only made it through half the exhibit because of the late hour and the need to Shop! But I am positively itching to get back based on what I did see. It's text heavy and was probably too irretrievably dry for Captain Dinobigot, but for my flavor of Nerditute, it's ideal.

It starts pre-Darwin, with a number of skeletal specimens surrounded by excerpts of writing espousing the view that even if humans shared characteristics with nonhumans (and they, like, sooooo totally don't!), we were still securely ensconced above and wholly apart from the rest of nature. Slowly, the writings of those like Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin begin to bleed in, and the exhibit gives way to a brief history of the Darwins, the Wedgewoods, and their worlds.

There's ample representation of Charles as a budding naturalist and continually failing student. This section also manages to convey the importance of the company in which Darwin was immersed during his schooldays and does a better job of it than any book I've found. I wished most sincerely that I could use the text of the exhibit for the evolutionary theory portion of my class.

As much text as there was and needed to be (much of the story told is based on letters and other documents), there are also delicious artifacts: A hand lens from Down House, many of Darwin's very own specimens of beetles and other insects, a vase by Josiah Wedgewood. As much as I think of myself as being rather ooked out by the cult of relics, there is something about those simple things.

Like the section on Darwin's education, the material on the Beagle voyage is top notch, beginning with the short film narrated by Randal Keynes. One slightly odd thing is the full-wall map diagramming its route. It begins, of course, in England, and it goes from right to left, rather than left to right, I guess to hold Westness sacred or something.

Although the education and the facts leading up to Darwin's Beagle stint are in the same room, the specimens, the experiences, and the inferences gleaned from the voyage are physically separated in their own "island' room. At the beginning, near the live iguana, the signage lays out the three lines of evidence that ultimately led Darwin to his thoughts on "transmutation" as he would call it for 20+ years to come: Shared characteristics from fossils to extant forms, shared characteristics among geographically neighboring populations, and shared characteristics between mainland species and those on isolated islands.

The specimens displayed are well chosen to get those main points across, and it's all embedded in delightfully chatty trivia about Darwin-as-adventurer. For example, I'd no idea about hijinx like the hazing to which he was subjected by the crew upon crossing the equator and the fact that he belonged to a slightly macabre Cambridge group dedicated to eating things at which Victorian England turned up its collective nose or that he continued their mission statement all through the voyage.

Although I technically made it into the first gallery concerning his work after he returned to England and married Emma, my brain was pretty well full up. I experienced a frisson or two at seeing the actual transmutation notebooks and the very first branching tree drawing, but beyond that I wasn't taking much more in, knowing I'd have to come back to do the exhibit right.

For balance, we met up with my sisters and my niece after the museum and did some extremely low-brow shopping and dining downtown. I am bemused, repulsed, and more than a little titillated to report that the Disney Store carries a "Jack Sparrow" pillow with Johnny Depp's extremely beautiful face on it, and, probably not coincidentally, the pirates play kit boasts a collapsible sword and "real, functional shackles!

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