Science After Dark (Nathan)

Trip Start Sep 03, 2010
Trip End Oct 27, 2010

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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Friday, September 24, 2010

Earlier in our journey, Glennica had picked up a newspaper and noticed an article about an event happening at the Museum of Natural History in London: Science After Dark, a night when the museum would be open late, featuring a series of interesting events, along with an opportunity to have a drink and chat with actual scientists working there. Surprisingly, we didn't need reservations or anything like that... anyone could just walk in and attend. That was our plan for the evening, but we started off our day with a little sightseeing, wandering around London and taking a long walk along the River Thames, past the London Eye and over a bridge to Big Ben (yes, I know Big Ben refers to the actual bell and not the tower, but everyone calls it that). On the way there we saw Yo! Sushi, a conveyor belt sushi restaurant chain that had been recommended in our guide. Glennica doesn't like sushi or Asian food in general, but agreed to eat there with me later. We also discovered that there was a film museum right next to the London Eye, and decided to make that a future destination as well.

The walk along the river was a lot of fun, and seeing Big Ben for the first time was pretty amazing... it's sort of become the most prominent symbol of London, and for good reason. It really does look distinctive and special, and there's just something incredibly British about it... it's hard to imagine it anywhere else, as though its very essence is tied to where it stands. Hearing its toll was less impressive, however. It rang one o' clock and I would have missed it entirely if Glennica hadn't pointed it out. We tried to get in to see Parliament in session, but they weren't going to be working for a few more weeks, so we kept exploring London. Across the street were war protesters camped out with signs, as well as the statue of Winston Churchill, rumored to be electrified to keep away pigeons. Unfortunately, the signs and fences kept me from getting a very good picture (or touching the statue, though I wouldn't have done that anyway- I didn't hear the rumor until later).

We arrived at the museum around 4:00, which is when the event officially started. I don't remember for sure, but I assume we slept in a bit, or else we wouldn't have had such a late start. Or maybe we just were walking around a lot longer than I remembered. In any case, we were right on time, but all the behind-the-scenes tours were already booked solid, so we were left with a list of events that required no reservation- just show up early enough to get in line and you can get a good seat. I wanted to go to the discussion about the purpose of stegosaurus' plates, but apparently I was struck by museum madness again, because Glennica says I said "nah" when she brought it up. We decided to go to the giant squid discussion instead, and in the meantime we went to the most modern wing of the museum.

Before I talk about that, I wanted to mention that the Natural History Museum in London is a wonderful place. When you look at the pictures I posted, examine them carefully and you'll find that there are lots of little decorative touches that evoke the museum's purpose- pillars are wrapped in vines, animals peer out from gaps in the stonework, leaves grace the ceilings, the railings are capped with small plaques of pelicans or foxes or fish... and very little of it repeats, either, reflecting the abundant variety of nature. The place is almost like a temple to natural history as much as it is a museum. I'm not sure if this is my favorite natural history museum, but it's probably the most beautiful I've seen.

The modern addition is nowhere near as elaborate, of course- it's mostly a plain, clinical white, and makes no attempt to blend in with the older sections. The central focus here was the Cocoon, a titanic... well, it's cocoon-shaped, and it's where the museum keeps its plant and insect specimens, protecting them in a climate-controlled, secure environment. Sections of it are an exhibit for visitors to walk through, and I was impressed with how they integrated the working and public areas in this whole wing of the museum. Many of the labs were visible from windows in the visitor area of the cocoon, and when we visited the Zoological Spirits Room, I could see glass-walled offices and labs towering over us, scientists wandering past on the walkways connecting them. Visitors were never so close to the scientists that they could disturb their work, but neither were the scientists hidden away behind closed doors.

The Zoological Spirits Room was incredible- a variety of preserved specimens were on display in their jars of formaldehyde, organized into different types (fish, cnidarians, mammals, lizards, etc.) and brightly lit. Even better, between the displays were tinted windows peering into the museum's vast collection of these jars, the actual archive rooms that scientists go to when they need something for research. By leaning close to the windows, you could get a good look behind the scenes and get a better appreciation of just how large the museum's collection is, and how the vast majority isn't on display. Peering through the windows, I could see a whole room full of snakes, and another, and then one of small lizards...

Eventually it was time to go to the giant squid talk, so we got in line half an hour early to get good seats. The wait was pretty boring, but the talk itself was great. Our host was Jon Ablett, curator of molluscs at the museum, who I swear bears a striking resemblance to David Tennant as the 10th Doctor. Seriously, look at my pictures of him- just photoshop a sonic screwdriver into the man's hand and there he is! Anyway, I was a little disappointed when I realized they wouldn't be dissecting the giant squid (which was far too heavy to even move into the room- it could be seen in person, but only by appointment), but the talk was so interesting that the disappointment quickly faded and the giant plush squid prop they used for demonstration was pretty awesome. He had four volunteers hold it for him while he talked about basic squid anatomy, and I was one of them. There was a rubber recreation of a giant squid's tentacle, as well as an actual preserved beak from the even-larger colossal squid, and at the end he dissected a regular-sized squid and answered questions from the audience throughout.

Afterward I asked him what was involved with becoming a curator in a museum, and he said that he sort of got apprenticed into it, but that it was rapidly becoming a more controlled field of work, with actual classes for it. He said that the best way to start is still to volunteer at a museum, though, and it's something I'm considering... one of the things that makes me hesitant to be a scientist is the amount of paperwork, writing up scientific papers and getting them published, worrying about grant money... being a curator sounds like it might be more about keeping the specimens organized and in good condition, ready for scientists to use, and while I'm sure it's not an easy task, maybe it would suit me better.

After that we found the free gin and tonic booth Glennica had heard about; give them a natural history-related riddle, joke or story and you get a free gin and tonic. She'd already gotten hers by writing down stuff about bedbugs, and asked me to get her another one by writing down something of my own. This was harder than it seemed... should I write down a story of my own? I couldn't remember any of the top of my head. A joke? I had one, but it was lame and stupid and I felt like putting some effort into this for some reason... maybe it's just that writing-related things are my only natural talent, or that I loved natural history too dearly to cheapen it, or maybe I just felt highly motivated after talking to the mollusc curator. I decided to write a riddle, basing its tone off of the riddles from The Hobbit, and after about 15 minutes, here's what I came up with:
Harmless though massive
Wild but passive
Floats without wings
Mournfully sings
Its death breaks the heart
Though you're oceans apart

It's not a very difficult riddle, and frankly kind of sappy at the end... but I was sort of running out of time and it was just for a free drink, not a competition or anything. The bartender read it aloud like he was doing with everyone else's, and gave me a gin and tonic. Some of the nearby people seemed to like it, or at least find it unusual... one said it sounded like something Roald Dahl would write. I took a sip of the drink, then gave it to Glenn, whose gratitude made the effort worth it.

Now it was time for the main event. We headed to the Science Bar to chat up a scientist, as advertised. The "bar" was really the museum's cafe, and it looked like they had one or two scientists at a time, stopping at a table to talk for a few minutes before moving on to the next one. Ours was a botanist and Darwin scholar, and we had to wait a while before she came around... two other people were at the table we sat at, and had been waiting for a long while already. They gave up before the scientist ever reached us, and were swiftly replaced by a couple British guys, and after a few minutes of small talk with them, our scientist finally arrived. We talked about Darwin and how to become a scientist, and it turned out that she was originally from Colorado too. Unfortunately, that was about the extent of our talk- she said she was being waved away and had to move on to the next group, and we got to talk to her for barely five minutes before she was gone, even though she'd spent about twenty minutes with the previous table.

We spent the rest of the time wandering the museum, seeing what was open. Unfortunately, even though the museum itself was open after hours, most of the main exhibits were closed, so all we got to see was the hall of mammals. It was still an impressive collection, though many were so old that their fur was fading. The raccoon in particular was almost unrecognizable without his mask and ringed tail, his fur a uniform pale, dusty gray. After seeing what we could, we took our leave, once again vowing to revisit another day and catch what we'd missed.
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