April 13, 2009
Christopher Mah provides interesting dinnertime conversation, if you’re eating starfish at least. The post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History may be the only person in the world who can name any sea star on sight. With just a low-resolution snapshot via iPhone, Mah can tell you which species are hiding in your waters.
Naming starfish is only the start of Mah’s love for the marine invertebrate. As a child, playing on the beaches near San Francisco, he discovered an appreciation for the oddly misshapen creature. “Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated by weird animals,” Mah says. “I was raised on Saturday afternoon monster movies.” As he moved through his academic training at San Francisco State University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, he eventually settled on starfish. Today he works with the Smithsonian to understand sea star evolution. His expertise has been key to identifying nearly a dozen new species and types of starfish.
Mah is also one of a growing number of scientists who are bringing their passion to the public through blogging. As part of a National Science Foundation requirement to make his research easily accessible, Mah started “The Echinoblog.” Now a year old, he has blogged on topics ranging from “Giant Green Brittle Stars of Death! When they Attack!” to “What are the World’s Largest Starfish?” Mah keeps the writing lively and includes as many pictures as possible of exotic sea stars and urchins, (another kind of marine invertebrate or echinoderm, on which the title of the blog is based.)
Mah finds writing brings its own challenges and rewards. “There are days when I don’t know what I’m going to write about tomorrow,” he says. Though that usually changes when he sits down to read the latest in invertebrate zoology. Mah believes his unique background allows him to provide the bigger picture in echinoderm biology to his readers. “I’m proud of posts that have an intellectual challenge that I don’t think anyone else could have written but me,” he says.
One example he cites is his post on the relationship between ancient Greeks and sea urchins called, “The TRUE (?) meaning of Aristotle’s Lantern??” For centuries, the term “Aristotle’s Lantern” was thought to mean the sea urchin’s mouth, a set of five calcium plates located in the center of the underside of its body. But new research on the origin of the Greek word lantern found evidence that the shape of the whole sea urchin and not its mouth more closely resembles the word’s meaning, a point Mah supports with visuals in his post.
For Mah, his blog is an important part of the scientific process. He believes the product of science is as much research as it is outreach. “Science at the Smithsonian is supported by taxpayers, and they need to be beneficiaries of that money,” he says.
April 3, 2009
Happy International Year of Astronomy! And how’s this for a celebration: A live 24-hour video Webcast called “Around the World in 80 Telescopes,” a digital travel around (and off) the globe to find out what’s happening at research observatories. The Webcast began last night and will continue through April 4th.
The Smithsonian’s Center for Astrophysics will have three of its facilities featured. The Submillimeter Array (see video above) in Hawaii, the Magellan Telescopes, (tonight, 11:00 p.m. EDT) in Chile, and the MMT Observatory (tomorrow, 2:50 a.m. EDT) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
March 24, 2009
Susan Anderson may be the first curator to star in a video game. She can’t pack heat like Lara Croft Tomb Raider, but Anderson is a different kind of heroine. Her strength is her intelligence and it comes in handy after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake devastates the fictional National Museum of History. Falling debris knocks her unconscious, and when she awakes, Anderson is alone in the midst of ruined exhibits.
This is the premise of “Escape the Museum,” by Majesco Entertainment, coming out today for the Wii system and home computers. You are in the shoes of Anderson, who must outsmart the museum security system to save art and artifacts from the now unstable displays. The game is in the “hidden object” genre, which means a heavy emphasis on puzzle solving.
I asked George Donovan, President of Gogii Games, the producers of “Escape the Museum,” whether they had the Smithsonian in mind during development.
JC: What is the National Museum of History based on? Are there any real pieces of artwork or specimens in it?
GD: We created the Museum based on a number of periods in history and research, not necessarily a certain museum. One thing that is mentioned in the game by name was [the hammer of German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann]. The player uses it to complete one of the puzzles.
JC: Video games are dominated by fantastical settings such as post-apocalyptic worlds, floating kingdoms and the stars. Why choose a museum as a game setting?
GD: In hidden object games one of the main concerns when choosing a theme is variety of locations. With a museum we were able to make every room or exhibit a unique and different experience for the player. Never the same content twice. That is why we are making the sequel now.
JC: Who is the curator heroine based on? What kind of personality does she have?
GD: She’s based on our target audience, a 35- plus year-old female puzzle solver and someone who is compassionate and uses their brain to solve complex puzzles.
JC: Do you think this game will motivate players to go to real-life museums?
GD: I hope so. Maybe they saw an exhibit or some artifacts in the game and want to get a closer look. So many topics are covered, from dinosaurs to space.
JC: Are there any surprises to making a video game like this?
GD: I’m always surprised how much I learn myself from researching scenes and ideas. Sometimes I get lost reading Wikipedia for hours on a topic.
February 26, 2009
I look at this photograph and I immediately start reminiscing about many a fun-filled afternoon playing Hungry Hungry Hippos, bopping the backsides of plastic technicolor hippopotami in an attempt to eat more white plastic marbles than my opponents. I can totally see the guy on the left going, “Hey, what’re all these marbles doing in here?”
Or can’t you just imagine these guys standing around—perhaps a little sloshed—singing, “Oh I want a hippopotamus for Christmas. Only a hippopotamus will do!”
Or, “Didn’t I see you in Fantasia?”
But there again, my ideas may be coming from FAR left field.
What words come to mind when you see this image? Create captions of your very own in the comments area below to enter in our second caption writing contest. Our first was a wild success.
Be creative! You have until noon on Wednesday, March 4 to send in your ideas.
The winner—and the original caption information for the image—will be announced here on the blog later that afternoon.
January 27, 2009
Blennies aren’t the prettiest of nature’s creatures. About as long as a roll of quarters, with big eyes and a gaping mouth, the fish are loved by scientists for their ecology more than their beauty. With over 800 species across the oceans, they are one of the world’s most diverse fish families. By studying differences in blenny color, shape, size, location and diet, scientists can theorize how and why each member of the species branched off from the rest of the group.
With so many fish in the sea, keeping track of all this information can be tricky. To help, scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute developed interactive tools to map diversity in all fishes. Their first Web-based information system, created late last year, lists the nearly 1,300 species of fish of the isolated Tropical Eastern Pacific ocean range, which extends from the coasts of Southern California to Northern Peru and as far west as the Galapagos.
“The area acts as a laboratory to study evolutionary change that we know happened, [after the formation of the isthmus of Panama divided the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans], approximately 2.8 million years ago,” says Smithsonian scientist D. Ross Robertson, who co-created the research tool with Gerald Allen of Conservation International.
Robertson and Allen, who in 1992 first described the twin-spot triplefin blenny, (pictured above), are now diving in the waters around the Caribbean to collect and photograph local fish for their next Website. “Photographs of live or freshly collected fishes are important aids for identification,” Robertson says. “And systems such as this can incorporate far more than a book can.”
Although the website is designed to help scientists identify fish species, spot patterns of diversity and plan conservation efforts, anyone can enjoy the ‘Random Images‘ tab, which cycles through the over 2,800 pictures of tropical fish found on the site. If a flounder or eel catches your eye, more general reader information can be found at the Encyclopedia of Life or Wikipedia.