Friday, June 3, 2011

Dry Store No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum

originally written 07/10/2010

I have to admit, it’s a challenge not to read books about London while I’m in London. This is another one, albeit about an area which I could stand to learn more about, biology. Reading it was mostly a low-key experience; however, parts of it did become quite technical, especially the bits about taxonomy, and being a moron I found it difficult to follow.

Nevertheless, my long-standing if handicapped interest in natural history meant that some parts of the book were familiar and remembered with fondness. For example, the author, Richard Fortey, is a specialist on trilobites. He was at pains to describe them to the readership at large, but I have known what trilobites are since I was . . . well, since I was in middle school at least. Probably earlier . So I was pleased when he mentioned Archaeopteryx (again, whose name I have known about for many years, though perhaps not as long an acquaintance as Jamie has had with that fossil); Kenneth P. Oakley and his exposé of the Piltdown Hoax (the subject of one of my poems, if I ever get around to it); the Natural History Museum in Dublin—the Dead Zoo; and when Fortey mentioned Ken Smith’s talk which featured slides with decaying bits of anatomy, I was reminded of my physical anthropology lab and how the butchest-looking football-player got queasy at the slides of people mashed up in train accidents. I also found a resonance with what Fortey said about the old, handwritten labels on specimens that retain character: “An old label is a message from a curator whom one might never have met, but a little personal message on paper nonetheless.” I feel a bit like this regarding the many books I boxed and labelled in the Center for Southwest Research; researchers years from now will open up the card boxes and will have to read the labels I wrote.

Of course, I learned much more that I didn’t already know. For example, one-fifth of all species are probably beetles. One way to estimate average growth rate of lichen is to use graveyards. Geoffrey Tandy, a cryptogam (marine algae) expert, got drafted in the cryptogram department of the British government during World War II because someone obviously assumed the lack of “r” was a typo, and in the end it was a fortitudinous mistake because he helped save a piece of sea-wracked code that was deciphered and helped the Allies. Have you ever heard of the Cameroonian timbu fly? No, nor do you want to! It used to live in the gussets of drawers left out to dry. Its favorite habitat was somewhere dark, warm, moist and preferably the closer to urine, the better. Yikes. The largely magnified photo of the fly and its fangs completes the awful picture in your mind’s eye. Fortunately modern steam irons have eradicated them from most places, but they are still around in developing countries.

Fortey is very keen to give the ways natural history and how it relates to his beloved ex-work place and current-haven a relevance in the modern world and links studies of all kinds of organisms to how they improve the lives of man, beast, and the entire planet. “If medieval saints demonstrated selfless compassion by washing the sores of lepers, then their modern equivalents could be those who attempt to improve the lives of thousands of people whom they have never met by wading through mosquito-infested swamps crawling with infected snails.”

One hopes that people with money to invest dig deeply into their pocket after reading the book; those of us in a more modest mien can at least make donations to the Natural History Museum on our visits there. It’s important, in more ways than the obvious one.

Of course, it’s nice to see that scientists have a sense of humor. Once upon a time, someone gave a newly discovered species from the clam genus Abra the name Abra cadabra. Unfortunately, it was later discovered that it actually belonged in the genus Theora. I bet you didn’t know, either, that in 2005 Kenneth Wheeler and Kelly Miller named a series of slime-mould consuming beetles after then-Presient George W. Bush. (This was, in fact, apparently meant to honor the namesake as the scientists were self-processed longtime Republicans. But it’s still funny.) Also, I think I’ve outted Fortey as a closet Doctor Who fan. He describes some equipment as having “little automated arms like a Dalek,” and though he commits a faux pas when he says someone reminded him of William Hartnell, “the first Doctor Who,” he later makes up for it when mentioning a lab that is currently a World Health Organization reference centre. “I always hoped that the head of this laboratory would be known as Doctor WHO.”

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