July 19, 2011
Any other day I would have been thrilled to take time off to go see a movie for work, but the Natural History Museum’s IMAX film Tornado Alley had me a little hesitant. I live in the area of northern Georgia that was hit hard by tornadoes in April. Seeing the destruction so close to my hometown was devastating. Driving through the ruins of Ringgold, GA, the town that once held my pre-school, nearly brought me to tears and I did not know how seeing more devastation would affect me.
Luckily for the other viewers in the theater I felt little anxiety, but Tornado Alley did give me goosebumps from start to finish.
Narrated by Bill Paxton, star of the 1996 film Twister, the new IMAX film Tornado Alley chronicles the lives of those who chase storms for either scientific data or cinematic gold. The destination for these storm chasers is Tornado Alley, a group of Midwestern states that stretches from South Dakota down to Texas, where 80 percent of the world’s most violent tornadoes are born.
The first of the storm chasers, Sean Casey, has had a mission for the past eight years: to get inside a tornado and film the perfect shot. This crazy idea banded together with an even crazier vehicle—the TIV-2—couples with the more studious antics of the scientific program called VORTEX 2, the mission for these scientific storm chasers is to make visible the unseen architecture of a tornado. Their goal: to determine which storms produce tornadoes and which do not, so that an earlier and more accurate warning can be provided to those in harm’s way.
I spoke with Casey shortly after watching the film and achieved a better understanding of his motivations for filming Tornado Alley. Casey says he discovered his interest in storm chasing oddly enough, while filming the mating season of migrating red crabs on Christmas Island. He told me in an attempt to avoid island fever, he checked out a book on storm chasing from the local public library and found his passion.
“The first chase I went on I fell instantly head over heels in love with the whole environment, the whole activity of chasing these storms and being very active and always trying to stay with these things, waiting for that magical moment when they would produce these tornadoes,” said Casey. “Every year I got more comfortable with chasing tornadoes and every year I had the desire to get closer so I came up with the idea of building a vehicle that we could actually drive into a tornado. With the TIV we could film action up close in the relative safety of an armored car.”
As the name TIV-2 implies there was once a TIV-1. Made on the frame of an Ford F-450 pickup truck, TIV-1 weighed 15,000 pounds, had a 60-gallon gas tank, bullet proof windows and a top speed of 80 miles-per-hour. But 80 mph was just not fast enough to outrun a tornado. TIV-2 first made its appearance in 2008 weighing in a tiny bit less at 14,000 pounds, with a 92-gallon gas tank, a roof mounted, bullet-proof-glass turret and this vehicle topped out at more than 100 miles-per-hour. The only thing missing were cup holders and Casey says it was a deliberate act. As the storm chaser explains on the official Tornado Alley Website, less comforts mean that the team is more willing to brave the dangers of driving into a supercell storm to get the perfect shot of a tornado’s beauty and its destructive power.
With the addition of TIV-2 to the team, Casey and crew were ready to set out in search of the one-in-a-million shot of tornado genesis.
“This has been my life for the last eight years. I don’t want to spend time in the field and bring back an ordinary image,” said Casey during the film.
VORTEX 2, on the other hand, is not a one vehicle team. It is the largest tornado research project in history. Deploying more than 40 cars and trucks, V2 sends out mobile weather detecting vehicles, Dopplers on Wheels, storm pods, ariel crafts and more, into the path of oncoming tornadoes hoping to surround the supercell storms in order to document the formation of a tornado.
As a fully nomadic program, V2 has no home base but instead travels from state to state within Tornado Alley following severe weather outbreaks. With a staff of more than 100 researchers and scientists, V2 almost doubled the size of some small towns along their journey. During the filming period V2 witnessed 25 tornadoes and obtained 30 terabytes—or one trillion bytes—of data which is now being processed.
In the film, Don Burgess, chief scientist on one of V2’s mobile radars, is seen climbing into a weather detecting vehicle. “I relish the excitement,” he says with a boyish grin, “and the chance to do this one more time.”
The film has plenty of footage of people waiting. Casey and team wait for the perfect storm to emerge. V2 waits for a blown-out tire to be changed. When the drama finally unfolds as a tornado takes shape, both teams hit the ground sprinting as they venture into the heart of the supercell. The tornado touches down sending 55-gallon oil barrels flying like leaves on a windy day, only to be gone the next minute. The V2 researchers surround the massive supercell hoping to collect the severe weather data that will make this mission a success. Casey and TIV-2 drive into the tornado staring in awe as the massive supercell engulfs the TIV and viewers stare in wonderment into the heart of a tornado. It is amazing, breathtaking and horrific.
“It’s really scary; it’s terrifying you really never know whats going to happen,” Casey told me. “It’s those moments when you lose control and you have a tornado catching you, those are the most terrifying moments. When you decide that you can’t out run it anymore, and you stop and you see trees snapping behind you—those are really the only times in my life when I’ve felt that sensation of death perched on [my] back. That dark pressure just at the base of [my] spine.”
The screen goes dark as the audience is left wondering what happened? The film skips to the aftermath. Homes were ripped apart, trees down all around, families looking devastated at the wreckages that were once their neighborhoods. Children darting through a maze of tree branches. A heart-breaking sight.
“These families were saved because they had enough time to get to safety,” Paxton narrates.
I was shocked. The excitement of the hunt was so quickly destroyed by the severity of the aftermath. Then it all made sense and the entire film was put into perspective. I thought the storm-chasers were crazy, that no sane person would risk his life for the glory of capturing a tornado on film or to collect data instrumental to understanding the power of tornadoes. But these storm-chasers spend years trying to collect data that will take even more time to analyze. V2’s work is pushing meteorological boundaries in hopes of saving lives and Casey is bringing attention to one of the world’s deadliest natural disasters.
“It is a life changing experience,” said Casey. “It’s life in Tornado Alley and its got me.”
Tornado Alley plays at 2:20, 4:15 and 6:10 PM. Admission prices for Members is $6.00, $9.00 for Adults, $8.00 for Seniors and $7.50 for Children.
July 18, 2011
Monday July 18 Star Light, Star Bright
Take a trip to the outer limits this Monday by visiting the Air and Space Museum‘s Albert Einstein Planetarium to see Journey to the Stars and learn about the history of our universe. Do you know how a star is made? Now find out as the film shows the birth of a star from hydrogen, helium gas and dark matter. Then learn about the formation of star clusters and how the planets were formed. Watch million-degree corona blasts and the fusion of atomic nuclei. The film plays Monday at 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 1:30. 2:30, 3:30 and 4:30. Tickets start at $7 and can be purchased before the show at the box office or online.
Tuesday July 19 Drawing Workshop African Art Style
Get the creative juices flowing this Tuesday. Meet at the Information Desk in the Pavilion of the African Art Museum at 1 to participate in Come Draw With Us, a demonstration and drawing workshop. Visitors ages 12 and up are invited to engage in the senses by trading in keypads for pencils. A docent will give a brief introduction to the arts and culture of African peoples then visitors can set out into the galleries to sketch, draw, and create other works of art. Afterwards join other artists in a gentle critique of the works. This two-hour event is free but reservations are required so call 202-633-4632 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. All materials are provided and all levels of experience are welcome to participate.
Wednesday July 20 Celebration at the National Zoo
It’s National Zoo Keeper Week and the National Zoo is celebrating with a behind-the-scenes look into the lives of Zoo Keepers this Wednesday night from 6:30 to 7:30. Join a group of panelists as they discuss what Zoo Keepers really do and explain the ins and outs of the work behind-the-scenes that keeps the Zoo running smooth. Listen as the panelists describe research and data findings and hear about the stories of what it really takes to monitor the health and behavior of the animals. Then discover how Zoo Keepers create enriching opportunities for both animals and visitors. After, stick around to meet the Keepers in a special meet-and-greet. The panel will be headed by Brandie Smith—the National Zoo’s curator of the Asia Trail and giant pandas—and will feature the keepers for the primates, pandas, great cats and reptiles. This event is free and is open to all ages.
Thursday July 21 Funk Art!
Spice up Thursday night with a trip to the Kogod Courtyard of the American Art Museum for Take 5!, the museum’s summer concert series. Come to the courtyard at 5 and visit the cafe or borrow a board game to play as you wait for the band to begin. This week, D.C.’s own Funk Art will be performing their soulful music into the night. Led by keyboardist Will Rast, Funk Art’s music draws on the influences of African and Latin dance music scenes of the 1960s and 1970s, including horns and a dynamic rhythm section. Feeling the creative spirit? ArtJamz is setting up a studio during the concerts and registered participants are invited to paint during the show. The concert is a free event lasting until 8, ArtJamz has a registration fee of $40 payable online.
Friday July 22 Mars Day!
This Friday is Mars Day so celebrate the day in style by coming to the Air and Space Museum between 10 and 3. Celebrate the Red Planet with educational and fun family activities. Talk to museum scientists, NASA scientists and Natural History scientists as they speak about their work in Mars research and learn about current and future missions. See a meteorite that fell from Mars and learn what it really takes to plan a mission to the Red Planet. Explore images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter then view a 3D model of the surface of Mars. Afterwards learn about the geologic features of of the planet (Did you know there are volcanoes on Mars?). Head outside to the Public Observatory on the museum’s east courtyard to check out the skies through the telescope. This event is free and happening throughout the museum so visit the information desk or check out the detailed schedule of Mars Day activities.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian Institution events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Online Visitors Guide.
July 14, 2011
Friday July 15 Discover the Inca Road
This Friday the American Indian Museum is offering an inside look into the Inca Road, the most extensive and advanced system of transportation in pre-Columbian South America. Extending from modern-day Ecuador to Argentina, the road covered an estimated 25,000 miles and now visitors can learn about the historical trail. Come to suite 4018 on the 4th level of the museum at 12:30 to take part in a series of realtime discussions with members of a multinational research team of engineers and archeologists located in the city of Cusco and the Ancash region of Peru, where they study the construction of the ancient South American highway. Listen as members of the team detail experiences and discoveries from their work. The two-hour event is free and is one of four broadcasts that make up the series.
Saturday July 16 Scavenger Hunt at American Art
Have a little fun this Saturday by going to the American Art Museum to play the scavenger hunt game, Pheon. Sign up at the Luce Foundation Center, 3rd Floor west wing of the museum, between 2:30 and 4. Work as a team as you try to navigate your way through this multimedia scavenger hunt. Test your ingenuity as you explore the collections, create objects and use your cell phone to text answers to clues that lead you to the finish line. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and come prepared with a sense of adventure and a text messaging enabled cell phone. This event is free and is fun for the whole family so take part in Pheon between 2:30 and 6 Saturday afternoon.
Sunday July 17 Explore the New American History Exhibit
There is a new exhibit at the American History Museum, join staff this Sunday as they provide an introduction and overview of For All the World to See, Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Come to African American History and Culture gallery located on the East Wing of the second floor of the museum between 10:30 and 1:45. Discover the way visual images shaped and influenced the Civil Rights movement, transforming the fight for racial equality and justice. Listen as museum facilitators explain the framework of the exhibit and answer visitors’ questions. This is a free event and is appropriate for all ages.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian Institution events and exhibits see the GoSmithsonian Visitors Guide.
Race and racism are complex subjects, but the Natural History Museum takes them on with energy and zeal in a new exhibition, Race: Are We So Different? The show is the first national exhibition to spell out the construct of “race” and all that it encompasses from a biological, cultural and historical point of view.
Race acknowledges the fact that people are different and seeks to examine the historical consequences of the idea of “race.” Visitors can participate in a number of activities and view different materials that help show the impact of race and explain the history of race as a biological concept. The exhibit is staffed with volunteers trained to encourage dialog and reflection. One of the volunteers, Caitlyn Harkin, explained some of the more complex ideas behind the exhibit.
Harkin, who is completing an undergraduate degree in American Studies at George Washington University, underwent up to 30 hours of training to staff the exhibit, learning about the content of the show, strategies for engaging visitors and addressing various race-related issues.
Race: Are We So Different? tackles the issue of race and racism, which can be tricky subjects sometimes. What have been your experiences with race thus far in the exhibit?
There have been some guests that felt objection to certain parts of the exhibit, particularly in the science content, but overall I would say that the reception from the public has been enormously positive. I have talked to many families in the exhibit who have faced, in their lives, many of the issues the content covers, and who have been happy to see such issues addressed in such a prominent forum. And they too have added a great deal to the exhibition. Through their willingness to engage with facilitators and museums guests their own diverse and unique stories have greatly enhanced what Race is trying to do.
Race and racism are important issues in society but are often overlooked, why address them?
Problems never get solved by ignoring them; great social change is never the product of complacency. By bringing the issues that come along with race to the forefront, we are providing an opportunity for people to better understand not only the history and sociology of race, but each other. I truly believe that it is that understanding that is fundamental to human progress in terms of race relations.
The exhibit seeks to show that race is not rooted in biology. Why is this an important fact for people to know and understand?
By discussing the genetics—or lack thereof—of race, we eliminate the argument that there is something fundamentally, on a molecular level, different about people. We are then left to explore what those other social and historical factors are that lead to the development of race as we know it today.
There have been visitors of all ethnicities viewing the exhibition. Does that emphasize the point of the exhibit at all?
While the exhibition is designed to enrich even the most homogenous of audiences, the diversity within the exhibit was excellent, and in many ways it does highlight the undercurrent that runs under everything in the exhibit, which is that race is still a very present and very important thing in this country.
If there was one thing that every exhibit visitor should take away, what would that be?
That race is not inherent in our genetics, but rather a social construct developed over time, which continues to be a strong and ever present force in our country and in our lives.
Race: Are We So Different? will run until January 2, 2012. Volunteers are in the exhibit most days engaging visitors, answering questions and encouraging thoughtful conversation about the question of why people are different, as well as helping visitors explore the exhibit.
July 13, 2011
The Smithsonian Institution Archives is celebrating the 86th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey Trial this month with the release of 25 newly digitized photographs from the trial. The images depict the scientists who served as evolution experts in defense of teacher John T. Scopes. The cache of images were discovered in the archives in 2005 by independent researcher Marcel C. LaFollette among papers and files donated to the Smithsonian in 1971. This marks the first time the photos have been assembled together on the web and have been added to the Smithsonian Flickr page.
The photographs were taken by Watson Davis, the managing editor of Science Service, an Associated Press-like news organization that produced and published science and technology stories from 1920 to 1963. “Watson Davis and Frank Thone, a writer for Science Service stayed in the “Defense Mansion”—an antebellum home on the outskirts of Dayton used as headquarters by Scopes’ defense team—with the prospective expert witnesses. They took photos of the group as well as individual portraits. This addition to our Scopes Trial set on Flickr represents a rare, complete, grouping of images of the witnesses in one place. We are always looking to add more of our great collections online and the anniversary of the trial offered an occasion to highlight more from the material in our collections documenting the events of July 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee,” says Tammy Peters, Supervisory Archivist with SIA, via e-mail.
July 21, 1925, marked the announcement of the verdict of “The Trial of the Century,” The State of Tennessee vs. Scopes, also referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial, and the subject of the famous play and film Inherit the Wind. Set in the small Tennessee town located a few miles outside of Chattanooga, high school teacher John T. Scopes was tried for breaking a law that banned the teaching of evolution in the state’s public schools. The arrest and prosecution of the teacher brought fame to Dayton, attracting the attention of lawyer Clarence Darrow and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.
Darrow was chosen as lead defense attorney for Scopes with Bryan heading up the prosecution. The result was an eleven-day trial beginning on July 10, that saw the defense team call as witnesses a panel of scholars of the day, including geologist Wilbur Armistead Nelson, anthropologist Fay-Cooper Cole, zoologist Horatio Hackett Newman and zoologist Winterton Conway Curtis.
Curtis, (left) a professor from the University of Missouri and a trustee of the Marine Biological laboratory at Woods Hole, MA, testified on day seven.
On July 21, Scopes was convicted of violating the Tennessee law, a big win for pro-creationist Bryan, who died 5 days later, but the decision would not stand for long as the anti-evolution law was later repealed.
During the trial, Watson Davis, photographed the proceedings while serving as a reporter for the Science Service. Nearly 80 years later Davis’s nitrate negatives were found by LaFollette, who has meticulously worked to identify the subjects and date each of the images. Her 2008 book Reframing Scopes: Journalists, Scientists, and Lost Photographs from the Trial of the Century, highlights these and other images from the trial.
Additionally, the Smithsonian Archives needs your help. A number of the subjects in the photographs are as yet unidentified — can you help them figure out why they are and what their involvement in the trial was? Leave your comments on the “Unidentifed-Scopes Trial” Flickr set with your insight.