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Scientists let loose at the Natural History Museum

By Jack Ashby, on 24 September 2011

Last night I was at the Natural History Museum’s Science Uncovered event and these are some things I learnt*:

  • Female paper natuiluses have been known to leave their shells to climb into ones covered in glitter.
  • The NHM has the youngest skin prepratation of a thylacine.
  • Slipper limpets mate for life, and do so permanently sat on top of each other.
  • Black smokers are mostly made of metal (well, rich ores).
  • There probably aren’t any soft tissue samples of Stella’s sea cow.
  • A virus has been¬†physically reconstitued from its genetic code in a lab.
  • Volcanic Kimberlites have brought diamonds to the surface at tens of kilometres an hour from the mantle.

It was an absolutely fantastic night because it was a unique opportuntity (apart from the same night last year) for the Museum to turn itself inside out: to bring the thing that is best about our national natural history collection – the back of house scientists and collections – out into the galleries.

I have written before for the New Scientist about the nature of a zoologist. They are passionate excitable specialists who were born that way, and that would be equally true of the mineralogists, palaeontologists and botanists too. This chance to see them in the limelight for the night, along with their raison d’etres – their specimens – is in my opinion the best thing the NHM could ever show you.

To be honest, given that the first specimen I saw was a three month old thylacine joey meant that I was (still am) on a geek high for the whole night might have made me a bit excitable.

The NHM has 70 million objects, and the scientific staff to care for them. Most museums, unsurprisingly, don’t have curatorial teams allocated to highly specific animal groups, but the NHM has, for example, a Curator of Non-Marine Molluscs and Cephalopods; a Curator of Phthiraptera, Thysanoptera, Collembola, Protura, Diplura and Thysanura; a Curator of Trilobites; many Curators of Beetles; a Curator Nematocera and Orthorrhaphous Brachycera, and so on. Last night was a chance for them to come front of house en masse and convey their passion, expertise and obsessions with the wider world. The NHM has a large band of scientists who are regularly used in public events – they are skilled communicators, but this event cast the net wider and I think every one of the curators (and learning and exhibitions staff and librarians) I know was out there, doing a fantastic job of enthusing the masses.

Conveying the critical and world-leading work that goes on behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum is a key message that they want to spread, and last night they got it absolutely right. Natural history is a subject that deserves as many “wows”, “oohs” and “ahs” as fireworks night, and the way to evoke these responses is to let the people who wow the loudest, who have done since they were kids, show people their passion. It can’t fail to work.

*Apologies if they aren’t quite right – it was a frantic evening of information overloading and there were several bars, plus the post-thylacine excitement.

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