“Can I have your autograph? Please”. The questioner was a little blonde-haired girl, about 10 or 12, pink jacket wrapped around her like a security blanket. This was not, as you might think, backstage at a Justin Bieber concert; rather, it happened in the fossil gallery of the Canadian Museum of Nature. The young visitor wanted an autograph from palaeontologist Natalia Rybczynski, a museum researcher.
This girl had brought her own fossils—collected on a vacation in California—and she even knew what they were (sand dollars) and how old (about 2 million years). She was eager to share her new-found knowledge with a professional researcher like Natalia, who had spent the last three field seasons collecting fossils (including a 3.5 million-year-old camel) on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut.
Throughout April, the museum has been holding an Arctic festival, during which researchers like Natalia—geologists, palaeontologists, botanists and zoologists—have been spending the weekends in the galleries with temporary exhibits. They have been sharing their latest research in a direct way, hands-on. I spent the last three weekends with them and the visitors they have been interacting with. Here are a few snapshots of what I witnessed.
“I found this rock on my property and wanted to know what it is”. This time the questioner was an elderly man, peering over his glasses. He was quite willing to hobnob with geologists who could tell him what he found (schist) and how such rocks are formed. Children are not the only hobbyists who collect fossils and rocks! Even so, some children were more impressed, or grossed out, by touching minerals from the Arctic that were formed from 100 million-year-old fish doo doo.
Many visitors enjoyed and were impressed by the unique specimens. Nothing like Natalia’s 3.5 million-year-old camel-fossil shin bone has ever been found that far north before. And mineralogical researcher Ralph Rowe brought samples of a newly discovered mineral: qaqarssukite. “Yes new minerals are discovered every year”, he explained to a mother pushing her son forward. “About forty-five-hundred minerals are known, and every year we find new ones like qaqarssukite.” He helped them adjust the microscope: “It’s the orange crystals embedded in the white stuff”. (Qaqarssukite is a good word to remember for Scrabble. And bonus points if you can figure out how to pronounce it).
Another visitor wanted to know if it was really true, about the healing power of minerals. “Well the body does need some minerals like copper—but too much copper can be toxic. And most minerals are chemically inert. They would just pass right through you”.
A man, somewhat bemused, looked around at other visitors. He turned out to be an investment banker. Coming to the museum, he explained to me, was his way to unwind after a tiring and busy week at work. Looking at rocks was equivalent to spending a day at the spa with cucumbers on your eyes.
Plant mounting proved to be a similarly refreshing Zen-like activity (or non-activity). Botanists from the herbarium brought many Arctic plant specimens and they demonstrated how such specimens are preserved and mounted on paper for future scientific research.
These herbarium researchers also brought a mascot: one of their number dressed up as a common butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris)—the only carnivorous plant known from the Arctic—to entertain children.
If mounting plants is relaxing, children and the grown-ups they brought with them also learned how loud, active and exciting using an air scribe can be. This tool looks and sounds like a dental drill, but is really a miniature hammer. It is used by palaeontologists to gently remove fossils from the rocks they are embedded in. Children couldn’t line up fast enough to get their turn.
Among adults, the High Arctic camel fossil exhibit turned into a social event, sparking debate and conversation. For example, I overheard a visitor comment about how it was clear evidence of the dangers of human-caused climate change: if you raise the average temperature of Earth by just two degrees, the northernmost Canadian islands turn into boreal forest with camels. Another visitor riposted: if there were no people around 3.5 million years ago, and the climate still changed, we can hardly be responsible for it. The debate continued as they moved out of earshot.
It is a commonplace lament that there is a lot of scientific illiteracy in our society. Every so often, the press contains reports of the latest test scores in science and math, and how poor a showing we make. But science is more than just a collection of facts. It is not a means of conversational one-upmanship: I know what you don’t. It is a way of looking at the world with curiosity and scepticism, and this is just what I saw over the last couple of weekends. Lots of curiosity, enthusiasm and a thirst for knowledge.
If you missed the Arctic festival so far, not to worry. This weekend, museum zoologists will be on hand. I’m hoping they bring some nose bot flies to gross out children of all ages, like me. See you there…