Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hall of human origins at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Last week's Nature had an editorial (you may need subscription to access the full article) that brought up the importance of learning science in informal settings, such as museums, planetaria, documentaries, etc. I remember going to the Planetarium in Karachi when I was in my 9th grade and it was a very cool experience. But such educational opportunities are relatively rare in much of the Muslim world. In fact, the planetarium in Karachi kept on showing the same show for years to come. There was later even an effort to close it down in favor of some commercial buildings, but it was fought-off successfully by local astronomy enthusiasts and other concerned citizens. There is clearly much interest in the general public. Just look at the tremendous response that Khwarizmi Science Society got when they arranged a series of star-gazing night for the general public (see an earlier post: Pakistani astronomers shine during the International Year of Astronomy). But how fantastic would it be if Dubai was known for the world's most amazing science museum - instead of the world's tallest building (or may be it can host the science museum in The Burj Khalifa - that would be okay).

In any case, this is what Nature has to say about the research into learning science via informal settings:
Their evidence strongly suggests that most of what the general public knows about science is picked up outside school, through things such as television programmes, websites, magazine articles, visits to zoos and museums — and even through hobbies such as gardening and birdwatching. This process of 'informal science education' is patchy, ad hoc and at the mercy of individual whim, all of which makes it much more difficult to measure than formal instruction. But it is also pervasive, cumulative and often much more effective at getting people excited about science — and an individual's realization that he or she can work things out unaided promotes a profoundly motivating sense of empowerment.

This suggests that policy-makers who focus exclusively on the classroom are missing an opportunity: even modest investment in informal science education could help to make the very large investment in formal instruction considerably more effective. Most of the necessary infrastructure is already in place: museums and zoos, for example, have been around for generations. Likewise, government funding mechanisms — agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) — have been funding science exhibits, television specials and other informal science-education projects for many years.
Well, apropos of that, here is a review of a new permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. The exhibit is about human origins and it looks fantastic! You can check out its multimedia, interactive website here:
A permanent exhibition exploring what it means to be human opened last month at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. The US$20.7-million David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins depicts how human traits evolved out of our ancestors' struggle to survive changes in climate over the past 6 million years.

The exhibit focuses on six evolutionary milestones of early humans: walking upright, experimenting with new tools and foods, changing body sizes and shapes, developing bigger brains, increasing social networks and communicating using symbols.

Visitors can compare their stride to the 3.6-million-year-old footsteps of Australopithecus afarensis. This species of hominin, which includes the fossilized partial skeleton named Lucy, walked upright and climbed trees, adapting as climate fluctuated between wet and dry, cool and warm. Walking on two legs helped A. afarensis to pick fruit and left their hands free to carry babies. In a striking comparison of body size, a child skeleton of Homo erectus named Turkana Boy stands next to the adult composite skeleton of Homo neanderthalensis, which is only marginally taller. Whereas H. erectus was adapted to hot climates, having a long, narrow body for dissipating heat, H. neanderthalensis had a shorter, wider body to conserve heat in colder European climes.

I haven't been to the exhibit, but from the review it seems that it provides an intimate look at our ancestors. In fact, it seems that the most popular segment is "also the least scientific: a photo booth that transforms your picture into a portrait of your prehistoric ancestor." I think it is a cool idea. But they also tried something interesting with smiles also:

Seven reconstructed busts — including that of a 1-metre-tall female 'hobbit', Homo floresiensis, from Indonesia and a male H. neanderthalensis — allow a more personal connection than the blank gazes offered by their skulls, 76 of which are bolted to a huge wall display, representing 15 species. To determine whether they could turn up the corners of the mouth like modern humans, “we looked at where smile muscles attach”, says Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program. “Their smiles look different from ours and are more like the grimace of a chimpanzee.”

And there is a constant reminder that our species may have survived, but there is no guarantee for the future. Just ask any neanderthal:

Above the skulls, a label reads: “Fossils of more than 6,000 individuals discovered so far. More than a dozen species identified. Only our species, Homo sapiens, remains.” The exhibition gives constant reminders that life is precarious — whether through suspenseful music, in a short video playing the chimp-like squeals of an early human attacked by a leopard or in displays of hominin bones etched by crocodile teeth or eagle talons. Although we have survived, “our species has also been fragile”, says Potts. H. sapiens almost became extinct 70,000 years ago when vast swings in climate reduced the population to a few thousand breeding adults. Potts adds: “Our intentions, the decisions we make, make a difference.”

The exhibit looks great! Read the full review here (you may need subscription to access the full article).

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