A Day at the Museum

I took advantage of a short trip to New York to visit the American Museum of Natural History. Now, before you yawn, this is the same museum that was featured in the comedy film Night at the Museum, starring Ben Stiller, a few years back. He is hired as the night watchman, not knowing that, due to a spell, all of the animals, statues, and dioramas come alive at night. “Where history comes alive” is the tagline of the movie.

Luckily, I was in the company of an astrophysicist and a meteorologist, so I was looking forward to an enlightening visit. We entered the loggia where an introductory inscription quoting Theodore Roosevelt is displayed and then proceeded to the Asian mammals hall. The astrophysicist said he lived too much with dioramas and requested that we go immediately to the Ross Hall of Meteorites in the basement. Arriving at the first floor, we walked through the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, with its skulls and jawbones, to the meteorites.

I marveled at the meteorites and the gems and minerals in the adjacent Guggenheim and Morgan Halls. A display tracked the birth and growth of crystals and another one showed the growth of amino acids, the precursors of life, within meteorites. The strange hunks of metal that had fallen onto Earth displayed odd striations that are unique to space-born objects. They also displayed unique “thumbprints” where their pocked surfaces had partially melted on the journey into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Inside meteorites, iron and nickel crystals grow in a unique pattern called “Widmanst├Ątten”. I studied this display curiously because I had never thought of “rocks” as growing. From Ross Hall, I went out to the hall of man’s origins, and was confronted by a “family tree” of skulls. All of the skulls were unknown to me except for those on the top row: the largest skull belonged to Neanderthal man, and homo sapiens was in the top right corner. On the next row down from modern man, a replica of the skull of “Lucy” appeared. A volunteer said that she represented the genus Australopithecus afarensis, which was half humanoid and half primate. I must have gasped because she further explained that this had recently been confirmed by DNA testing. I gazed with wonder at the diorama of Lucy, a surviving vestige of the first humanoid to walk upright through life. Why was she named Lucy? Because the crew that found the bones listened to the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” as they celebrated that evening.

We left the first floor and climbed to the Lefrak IMAX Theater, where we had tickets to see “Tornado Alley”. This exciting show follows two crews of storm chasers who finally converge in Colorado as supercells begin to develop into tornadoes. I watched in amazement the birth of a tornado from a collision of wind, water, heat and cold. Its life was spent in fury until it ran itself out and collapsed in a sodden heap. From there, we passed into the Rose Center for Earth and Space, where I was now beginning to experience a cosmic overload.

We started with the space show Journey to the Stars, going back in time 13 billion years to the beginning of the universe. Somehow it was comforting to hear Whoopi Goldberg tell me about “space stuff” that coalesced back in that time to create the Big Bang that started everything in motion. There is an invisible substance called Dark Matter, she said, that is all around us and makes up most of the universe. But we can’t see it or study it and we know nothing about it except that it has gravity. That gravity brought everything together and formed the gases into all the elements that currently exist. Moving forward to just 4.5 billion years ago, a large cluster of stars existed, many of which became supernovae. In the process of exploding, they ejected into the universe all the more complex molecules they had created within their cores through nuclear fusion, including the substances that became the building blocks of life. Today, our bodies each contain about a teaspoon of this “space stuff” Whoopi said.

The show not only presented the birth of the universe but also how the lives of the stars played out and what happened to them in their old age, death as a dwarf star, and their occasional resurrection as supernovae. With stars in my eyes, I exited the theater and traveled around and down the Cosmic Pathway that winds around the spherical Hayden Planetarium. On the ground level, I paused for the last time in the Hall of the Universe, learning more about Dark Matter and the lives of galaxies and the universe.

The last exhibit I gazed upon was a 3-D video of the collision of two galaxies. Spinning through black space, they each formed classic disc shapes with two trailing arms, but when the galaxies collided, they pulsed and contorted, spinning away from each other but coming back to collide again and again until, their explosive energy played out, they finally merged but slowed, locked in a death spiral.

It was something of a relief to walk outside into the crisp fall air. I was overwhelmed by all the teeming life I had seen in the rocks, air, water, and energy of the universe. It was a good way to spend September 12, 2011, in New York City, celebrating life wherever it occurs in the void of space, and marveling at its ubiquity and tenacity.


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