Skepticism

Forget Rent… I'm Moving to the Smithsonian

There is nothing better than having an empty museum all to yourself. If I ever become wealthy, I think that I’ll rent out the great museums of the world at odd hours so that I can quietly appreciate them. Or maybe I’ll just hone my burglary skills and sneak it at night. I’m not interested in stealing anything, just enjoying the richness of the exhibits without all the lines, tourists, and misbehaving toddlers.

One of my favorite books from childhood is From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a book about a little girl and her brother who run away from home and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a week or so. After all of the tourists go home for the day, the two children have the run of the museum, bathing in the public fountain, sleeping in an antique bed in one of the exhibits, and generally having a good time with all of the artwork and artifacts. After reading this book, I nearly packed a bag and ran away to the nearest big museum, which fortunately was several hours away. Running away from home is not easily accomplished by an eight-year-old stuck in rural New Hampshire with no public transportation.

Just over a year ago, I was again ready to run away from home (well, from my apartment, I guess…) and move into a museum. More specifically, I was ready to move into the Smithsonian Department of Mineral Sciences, the behind-the-scenes home of the thousands of rocks, minerals, and gems which are not on public display. Far less than 1% of the Smithsonians mineral collection is on display for the public. The reason there is so little on display relates to space constraints, not to lack of impressive specimens.

There are hundreds upon hundreds of more minerals and gems that should be on public display but which are instead tucked away in storage. Yes, I’m quite willing to take sponge baths in the department bathroom and roll out my sleeping bag in one of the labs or collection rooms. So many beautiful samples to appreciate, so little time. I really must move in there.

As part of a summer internship in geochemistry, I went to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum to pick up some volcanic glass samples. Really, the samples could have been fed-exed to the lab where I was working, but I was so excited about the prospect of intereacting with the curators of the Smithsonian that my summer boss surprised me with a ticket to Washington and meetings with several of the curators.

At couple of weeks later, I flew up to Washington and took the subway to the museum. I went in the public entrance and found the special office where I was signed in as a visitor. Tim, a researcher in the volcanology and petrology division, came down and brought me up to the department. I felt very cool and professional as I was led upstairs– not everyone gets to go behind-the-scenes at the Smithsonian! I was also very curious. Tim led me by doors that had very interesting signs, such as “meteorite collection” and “time-of-flight mass spectrometer” and by laboratories that had intriguing-looking machines and chemicals. I didn’t realize that the Smithsonian did so much research. In addition to taking care of the thousands upon thousands of mineral, gem, and rock samples in their collection, they also actively conduct research on many of the samples.

Within about five minutes of arriving at Tim’s office, my “work” for going up to the Smithsonian was done. Tim had already organized, photographed, and documented the samples I was taking, so all he had to do was hand me the envelope, really. There was an awkward moment or two, then finally I asked somewhat sheepishly and also as politely as possible, “So, could I please see some of your rocks?”

Tim generously indulged my interest, showing me bits and pieces of the volcanological reference collection, the seafloor collection, and the ultramafic xenolith collection. We chatted about rocks and petrology as he browsed for interesting samples. I asked him if there were any fulgurites in the collection, and he showed me several. I’d never seen a fulgurite before, and I was impressed.

After showing me through the rock collections, Tim arranged for me to be shown some of the mineral, gem, and meteorite collections. For the rest of the afternoon, I was given attention by various middle-aged, male curators who clearly don’t see too many pretty, young females in their day-to-day work. They easily impressed me. The mineral collection took my breath away. There were a few particularly impressive samples on display in large glass cases, and the rest were neatly filed away in dozens upon dozens of large, metal cabinets.

The curator of the mineral collection knew the place by heart and was a walking encyclopdia of mineral knowledge. He kept trying to find unusual specimens to impress me. At one point, he told me to close my eyes and hold out my hands. He filled my hands with what felt like many crystals, maybe a half-inch in diameter. After a few seconds, my hands become very cold. I felt as if the crystals were sucking all the heat out of my hands. The mineral curator told me to open my eyes, and when I did I saw that there were about two dozen large, raw diamonds in my hands. A single one of those diamond crystals would probably have paid for my college education…

I was able to see only a couple of pieces in the gem collection, which has somewhat tigther security than the rest of the exhibit. However, who needs gems when you can see meteorites? The meteorite samples are kept in a large, room-sized vault. Another Tim, who I’ll refer to as “Meteorite Tim” showed me the collection. There were many impressive samples, but I think I enjoyed looking at the tektites most. Filed away with the tektites were several samples of Libyan Desert Glass, a beautiful yellow-green glass that is actually impact glass created when a meteorite hit the desert sands millions of years ago.

I became so interested in this glass that I wrote an article about it for Skeptic Report shortly after my trip to the Smithsonian. I’m pleased to say that Dr. Farouk al-Baz recently discovered Kabira Crater, the crater formed by the meteorite that almost certainly formed this desert glass. Note that I made a mistake in this article, a small one but one I think I should point out. Cristobalite is a high-temperature polymorph of quartz, not a high-pressure one. The high-pressure polymorph of quartz is actually sitshovite. You can find both cristobalite and stishovite in the desert glass, I believe, but I’d double-check with Meteorite Tim on that.

Anyway, after showing me many wonderful tektites and meteorites, Meteorite Tim pointed to a very special-looking meteorite sitting in a fancy, round glass case.

“Do you know what that is?” he asked.

I didn’t have a clue. I peered at the rock and guessed, “a moon rock?”

Meteorite Tim picked up the sample, case and all, and put it under a nearby microscope.

“Look there,” he said.

I looked at the microscope, adjusting the focus slightly and trying to look all professional. I saw a few reddish-brown little patches on the rock surface. I still had no idea what I was looking at.

Finally, Meteorite Tim said, “This is ALH 84001.”

I jumped, saying, “really?” I eagerly peered back through the microscope.

“Is that…?” I couldn’t even finish my question.

“Yes, that’s the little bit of rock that caused the big ‘life on Mars’ debate.”

I didn’t see a view of the meteorite that was this close-up, but this gives you a sense of what I was looking at… possible traces of fossil life from another planet. Now, that’s a cool rock.

Honestly, I think that the recent images from Mars showing evidence that water is actively transforming the planet are far more compelling evidence for the potential for life on Mars than some possible little fossilized traces of life in a single Mars meteorite. Still, seeing a rock from Mars– any rock from Mars, since there’s only thirty or so identified Mars rocks here on Earth– is a neat thing to see. I was definitely ready to move into the meteorite vault at that point.

Finally, after several hours of showing me around, I decided that I had taken up enough time of the generous curators and scientists in the Mineral Science Department. I was impressed with how they treated me. I was just an undergraduate student at the time, but they treated me with great respect. Of course, they tried to impress me by showing off their best samples, but in their conversation they engaged me as if I were a colleague of theirs. In a way, I guess I was. After all, I was taking some of their precious rocks away with me.

I think that this story highlights one of the biggest perks of being a scientific researcher: access to all kinds of neat museums and the knowledgable researchers and curators who work there. Scientists maybe don’t get paid a lot, but who would begrudge, say, The Bad Astronomer a behind-the-scenes tour of a meteorite collection? Maybe my friends with consulting and finance jobs make far more money than I ever will as a scientist, but how many behind-the-scenes tours of the Smithsonian’s Mineral Department have they had? Yes, there are definitely perks to being a scientist.

At the end of my afternoon visit, I walked out the front door of the Smithsonian with three dozen volcanic glass samples in my purse. Security didn’t even check my bag… I should have palmed one of those diamonds. Or, better yet, a meteorite.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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19 Comments

  1. That's a wonderful story!

    I've had a few behind-the-scenes tours, as you mentioned. One was at the meteorite collection at Texas Christian University, where they have the most beautiful pallasite I have ever seen. It was worth $100k easily, and it was stunning. I also got a backstage tour at the Museum of the Rockies, where I watched people very carefully chiseling T Rex teeth and Diplodocus shoulder blades from the rock.

    There aren't a lot of perks of being a skeptic, but that one is worth all the time, effort, sweat, and angst. Seeing real science getting done, and holding it in your hands… you just know what you're doing is all part of The Big Picture.

  2. Hey Dr. BA, what about that time you got to sit in the Captain's Chair of the USS Enterprise?

    (makes noises of Trekkie jealousy)

    Of the many science books I read while "growing up", I have a special place in my heart for The Amazing Brain, by Robert Ornstein and Richard Thompson. The illustrations were done by David Macauley, who also did The Way Things Work (the book full of mammoths) and the Castle, Cathedral, Pyramid, etc. series. The final chapter is an illustrated essay on how to build a museum which is a replica of the human brain, scaled up to be about 300 meters from prefrontal end to occipital end. Now that is a museum where I would like to live.

    Falling short of that, I think haunting the British Museum or the London Science Museum like the Phantom of the Opera would also be a good lifestyle — as long as Andrew Lloyd Weber doesn't do the music. . . .

  3. "as long as Andrew Lloyd Weber doesn’t do the music. . ."

    Ha! However, I view "Jesus Christ Superstar" as one of the most amazingly good musicals ever. It's SO 70s!
    And from a skeptical point of view… a few years ago it occurred to me that nowhere in the whole production is the so-called divinity of the lead character shown. In other words, it could easily be about just some ordinary guy and how he's caught up in a situation that's gotten so out of his control. Even when confronted with this claim of specialness, he denies it and refuses to perform. It's a very "from a mortal human's point of view" telling of the story.

  4. So basically what you're saying here is that you spent a whole day with a bunch of middle-aged men while they showed you their "rocks"?

    Hmmm…

    And here I thought geology was more laid back.

    (wait, that didn't sound right either)

  5. I miss my rock collection now. It was very tiny, just a dozen or so samples from, well, basically just my county, but I also had some really neat trillobite and bivalve fossils. I found them in the Vikersund ski-flying hill, where they were fairly abundant. The coolest were the ones where I had both "sides" of the fossil, having cracked open a chunk of shale myself to find it.

  6. Bad Astronomer, I'm very jealous. Pallasites are gorgeous!

    Steve, geology puns are endless… pick-up lines are even worse.

    The geochronologist:
    "You should see all the dates I have… rock dates, that is…"

    The tectonic geologist:
    "Hey, I'm an expert in orogeny."

    The volcanologist:
    "So, how about coming back to my place and learning a little more about eruptions?"

    I could go on, but I'd rather not.

  7. Oh don't get me started on the puns! I think I have some kind of brain disease that causes puns to just pop out of my mouth unexpectedly. It's like some kind of verbal tic. A polite form of Tourette's, if you will.

    Just tonight, my daughter showed me a new stuffed sheep our nanny gave her for Christmas, and asked what she should name it. Without pause, I replied "Fleece Navidad!" It fits both the type of animal AND the season! What more could you possibly want? Sheer brilliance, I tell you! As she is only nine, she gave me one of those looks that she usually gives me whenever I say something stupid or incomprehensible ( I get that look a LOT!)

    At least my wife thought it was funny! You know that when someone laughs at a pun like that, they're with you for life.

  8. Behind-the-scenes tours are always more interesting than the "regular" tours. Expecially because you get the input from the people behind the scene, instead of the tourguide who may not really know that much about it, or the little explanatory blurb accompanying the thing on display.

  9. I admit I was salivating at the thought of seeing behind the scenes at the Smithsonian. Most museums only have only about 20% of their collections on display for the public.
    For those of us who love science but didn't major in it I would like to point out that many science museums have volunteer opportunities. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has a fantastic volunteer program that allows many hands on opportunities. I have seen and learned incredible things from this. I would recommend checking out your local museum to see what they have to do. It is a great way to prompt science to the public.

  10. Being in Cambridge have you been to the Harvard Museum of Natural History (http://www.hmnh.harvard.edu/index.html)? While I am sure it would not compare to you backstage tour of the Smithsonian mineralogical samples it does, to my recollection, have a great mineralogical collection of its own (http://www.fas.harvard.edu/%7egeomus/).

    Also I recall the Boston Museum of Science having quite the impressive specimen of fulgurite on display in its Theater of Electricity.

    -PT

  11. PT, I actually haven't been to the Harvard Museum yet despite living a short 15 minute walk from Harvard! I've heard wonderful things about it, though.

    I am planning to go in January when I have some time off from classes and will have time to enjoy the exhibits.

  12. Evelyn,
    Good Boston museum advice.
    The best times to go to museums in Boston are September after Labor Day and the first two weeks of January (may extend further if you are lucky) during the normal work week (M-F).

    Since grade schools have just recently started up again at these times there is very low likely hood of running into a field trip and, for the most part, you end up sharing the museum with a fairly small number of other visitors.

    -PT

  13. I did the science museum in Boston in January this year. Well, part of it anyway. Although it was unfortunate that a number of the interactive and "moving" exhibits were broken.

    I loved the "Star Wars" exhibit though. But I'm nerdy that way …

  14. I also went to the Star Wars exhibit, and thought it was fantastic. But the previous year, the Lord of the Rings exhibit was far better in my opinion. Less scientific, I suppose, and therefore less justified in being in a SCIENCE museum, but it was an excellent exhibit, regardless.

    My only other complaint about the MOS in Boston is that the rest of the galleries really don't change a lot. I'd have gone a lot more frequently if it weren't for that huge Big Dig bit that's been there for ages and the rest…it was all the same as when my father and I drove up from CT when I was a kid. But as long as the kids still get something out of it, even this stasis is understandable :)

  15. The Science Museum does, unfortunately, show it's age. But they still have the worlds largest air insulated Van de Graaff generator. That baby will wake up dreams of mad scientist glory in pretty much anybody who isn't dead.

    -PT

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