October 9, 2013
As we reach day nine of the federal shutdown, it’s widely known that all 19 of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums are closed to the public due to the furloughs of all non-essential federal employees.
What’s less often discussed, though, is the fact that the Smithsonian is also an international research organization that employs hundreds of scientists—and consequently, the shutdown has impacted dozens of scientific projects across the U.S. and in far-flung locations around the world. Interrupting this work for even a short-term period, scientists say, can have lasting effects down the road, as in many cases, projects may have to be started anew due to gaps in data.
Because of the furloughs, many researchers and other personnel are unreachable (some may even face penalties for merely checking their e-mail), so collecting information is difficult. But here’s a partial list of Smithsonian research projects interrupted by the ongoing shutdown:
Nick Pyenson of the Natural History Museum has conducted fieldwork on every continent except Antarctica, excavating ancient fossils to understand the evolution of modern marine mammals. As part of his team’s current project, in Chile, they’re 3D scanning a particularly rich site that includes whale, penguin and seal fossils so scientists worldwide can study the digital data.
But last week, that work was abruptly halted. “The Smithsonian is closed, due to a federal government #shutdown. All Pyenson Lab social media, including coverage of the ongoing joint UChile expedition, will be suspended starting 12 pm EST (noon) today (1 Oct),” Pyenson wrote on Facebook. “Also, all federally funded Smithsonian employees are forbidden, under penalty of a $5,000.00 fine and up to 2 years in a federal prison, from logging into their SI email accounts. I will be out of contact until the federal government reopens.”
In 2011, Pyenson’s crew discovered a set of ancient whale fossils in the path of the Pan-American Highway and excavated them just in time. There might not be any looming highway projects currently, but leaving these precious fossils exposed to the elements still poses an enormous risk to their scientific value.
The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which partners with Harvard to operate and analyze data from dozens of astronomical telescopes, located both on the ground and in space, has managed to keep most of its facilities operating thus far. “You have to shutter federal buildings, but some of these aren’t technically federal buildings,” says David Aguilar, an SAO spokesman, noting that many telescopes, such as those at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona, are shared with local universities and are still staffed by skeleton crews comprised mostly of non-federal employees.
Many SAO researchers, though, depend on data that comes from a range of non-Smithsonian telescopes that have already been shut down. This group includes radio astronomer Mark Reid, who conducts research with the Very Long Baseline Array, a group of telescopes operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory that stretches all the way from Hawaii to New England and was closed last week. “This is really bad,” he told Science. “If they don’t operate the telescopes, it could mean a year’s worth of data becomes useless.”
At the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, and various research sites around the world, staff has been stripped down to the minimum level necessary to care for animals—and that means all of the research into how these animals behave and how their bodies function has been shut down.
“All of the scientists, with very few exceptions, have been furloughed,” says Steve Monfort, director of the SCBI. “So everything is shut down. All of our labs are closed, and dozens of projects have been put on hold.” This includes the Zoo’s endocrinology lab (which provides crucial services to dozens of zoos across the country to help them breed elephants and other animals) and the genetics lab (which analyzes biodiversity to sustain severely endangered species on the brink of extinction). “We’re pretty much dead in the water, as far as ongoing science work,” he says.
Additionally, some of these projects are conducted in some 35 different countries annually, so travel arrangements and international collaborations—such as a trip to China to study pandas and a Zoo team’s research into emerging infectious animal diseases in Uganda—have been delayed or cancelled.
“What the public sees when we put on displays is only the tip of the iceberg,” says David Ward, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, which opened the (briefly) acclaimed exhibition “Dancing the Dream” the day before the shutdown. “There’s a tremendous amount of day-to-day work and research necessary to keep everything going, and we can’t do it right now. It’s very frustrating.”
Apart from designing exhibitions—a whole host of which will likely be delayed in opening, including the Sackler Museum’s exhibit on yoga in historic Asian art, the Hirshhorn’s “Damage Control,” a much-anticipated exhibition on the theme of destruction in contemporary at, and the American Art Museum’s “Our America” exhibition on Latino art—curators conduct research to expand knowledge in their fields. This work, too, has been interrupted by the shutdown.
Kristopher Helgen, the Natural History Museum curator and biologist who announced the discovery of the olinguito species to great fanfare in August, announced on Twitter today that he “had to turn away mammalogists from Oz, NZ, S Africa, Brazil, etc. Long way to come to find the collections closed.”
Because the majority of Smithsonian researchers and curators are furloughed and out of contact, what we currently know about interrupted science is only a small measure of the total effects of the shutdown. “I don’t have much information because, scientists are largely furloughed and silent,” says Kirk Johnson, director of the Natural History Museum. “The real impact of this will emerge once the lights are back on.”
September 17, 2013
The Natural History Museum’s Sant Ocean Hall is getting another makeover today, unveiling three new exhibitions to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the hall’s renovation. The 23,000-square-foot space, recognizable for its giant suspended whale replica, now features two temporary exhibitions combining art and science, as well as a revamped permanent gallery exhibition highlighting the intimate connection between humans and the ocean.
According to Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Natural History Museum, the hall was designed to present a “wide-ranging vision of the ocean,” encompassing biology, history and conservation. “One of the primary goals was to strengthen the messages that all humans are connected to the ocean, that everything we do affects the ocean and that the ocean essentially needs our help,” she says.
“Portraits of Planet Ocean: The Photography of Brian Skerry,” one of the hall’s two temporary exhibitions, features 20 poignant images of life under the sea. Brian Skerry, an award-winning National Geographic photographer, has spent the last 30 years documenting the world’s most beautiful—and most imperiled—marine environments. Five of the photos in the exhibition (including the harp seal image below) were crowd-curated by visitors to Ocean Portal, Smithsonian’s online hub for ocean information.
The other temporary exhibition, “Fragile Beauty: The Art & Science of Sea Butterflies,” represents the collaboration of artist Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh (left) and biological oceanographer Gareth Lawson. “Fragile Beauty” features ethereal, larger-than-life sculptures of ocean pteropods, or “sea butterflies,” which are threatened by ocean acidification. These organisms have extremely delicate shells, which dissolve as the ocean becomes more acidic.
The Sant Ocean Hall’s permanent gallery was overhauled to emphasize humans’ ties to the ocean. The new exhibition, “Living on an Ocean Planet,” focuses on the six major threats to marine ecosystems—climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, habitat destruction, overfishing and invasive species—and what societies and individuals can do to address those threats. One section illustrates the concept of “shifting baselines” in ocean conservation: studies show that humans have lost sight of what is “natural” over time, as each successive generation lowers its standards for measuring the health of the world’s oceans. The centerpiece of “Living on an Ocean Planet” is a large-scale sculpture composed of trash collected on a remote Pacific atoll in a matter of hours.
But the narrative is not all negative. For each threat to marine life, the exhibition enumerates specific actions that ordinary people can take to protect and conserve the world’s oceans. ”We’ve learned that doom and gloom doesn’t work very well to motivate people,” says Knowlton. “It’s not hopeless. The whole idea is that we have time to address these problems.”
August 28, 2013
Last Friday evening, the world watched in wonder and anticipation as the giant panda Mei Xiang gave birth to a healthy panda cub at the National Zoo. As zoo keepers work to monitor the health of mother and cub, we were able to speak with panda keeper Juan Rodriguez about looking after the pandas, a recent trip to the Panda Base in Bifengxia, China and what the birth of the new cub means for a continued collaboration between the two facilities.
I understand that Mei was very protective of her cub yesterday, and that she didn’t want to surrender her for any check-ups.
She was doing what a mom should be doing; she’s being very protective of her cub. Every once in a while, she’s re-adjusting to make sure the cub was in a good spot to be able to nurse, and slightly moving away from us in the process. We had to be very careful, and finally, since so much time was going by and we didn’t want to push the envelope, we decided to leave her alone to be able to nurse her cub in a nice quiet spot.
If she continues to be unwilling to surrender the cub for checkups, what will you do?
Right now, we’re just going to stay back and let her do her thing, and keep an eye on the cameras and listen in. We’re also going to have the opportunity to offer her a few different food choices in the next few days, so that will give us a better idea. Basically, we’re just playing it by ear on a daily basis.
Tell me about your recent trip to China.
That was an amazing learning experience on all levels. My colleague Marty Dearie and I had the opportunity to work with our panda colleagues at Bifengxia, at the Panda Base in Ya’an, China. They are the group that actually has loaned us our current giant pandas Tian Tian and Mei Xiang. The folks out there have years and years of knowledge working with pandas both in captivity and in their wild habitat. First and foremost, we had an opportunity to see the facility first hand. It’s located high up in the mountains of Ya’an, in a very forested area, so even though they are in a captive setting they do have a lot of natural environment around them. We got a chance to work with our Chinese colleagues who have worked with giant pandas in captivity for many years. We also saw a total of three cub births, one of which was a set of twins. We also had a chance to see how the nursery staff cares for the neonatal cubs, ranging from birth to two weeks of age, and some other cubs who were a month or two months old. We also had a chance to see one cub that was almost a year old, and a set of twins a little older than a year. There were a lot of age groups, pandas at different life stages, and seeing it all at once was an invaluable learning experience.
In addition to that, we had three different places where we worked. One was a birthing station, where there were several females—some that were pregnant, some that had already given birth. [Another] location had been specifically set aside—from what we understand, for the first time ever—for six females that were completely isolated from the public. It’s kind of a prelude to a wildlife setting. They are enclosed, but they have outdoor dens, so they could give birth outdoors and potentially raise their cub outdoors. In fact, there were two of them that had already given birth and were raising their cubs outdoors [rather than in] an indoor enclosure. So that’s going to give them a better feeling for whether or not, when the cubs get older, if they’re going to be different behaviorally, or in terms of their health; it’s real on-the-ground work that they’re doing with the giant pandas. The last place we would see is the nursery, to see how they nursed and cared for the neonatal and one-month-plus old cubs. We actually got a chance to get hands-on, being able to feed and or stimulate the cubs to help them defecate. At that age, they can’t defecate or urinate on their own, so there are several techniques that they showed us to help the baby pandas do that, in order to care for the cubs at that stage of their lives.
I heard you picked up some new techniques for handling the mother and her cub.
Most definitely. The husbandry techniques are slightly different in China, because they do have a different relationship with their pandas: they go into the enclosures with their pandas. So there is no protective contact. For us, our protocols don’t allow that; there must always be some kind of protection. That being said, we did get a chance to see how the Chinese animal caretaker staff behaves around the pandas while they are in such close proximity.
Have you heard from your Chinese colleagues on the birth of the new panda? What do they have to say?
We had a few—through translations—all congratulating us. A few have texted us a sort of congratulatory e-mail in Chinese. They’re certainly all excited for us.
What has been the most exciting part of this process?
Being able to see the fact that she gave birth; we’re all very happy, but we’re all also very guarded in our optimism, because of what happened last year. The analogy that I like to give is that it’s like that moment on a roller coaster, where you’re going up that roller coaster and anticipating going over the hill. It’s sort of like that—you’re girding yourself for going over the hill, so that is kind of where we’re at right now. . . I think that we’ll have a slight sigh of relief maybe a month from now, and then I don’t think anyone will be completely, totally, excited until after a year to two years, in terms of being confident that the cub is going to grow into adulthood.
And what has been the most unsettling?
I wouldn’t consider it unsettling, just more of a concern for Mei Xiang’s well being. During the cub’s first check up, I was one of the staff members that stayed behind with Mei Xiang to see how she was behaving, and also [to] console her while the cub was away. So I think at that stage, it was just a mom who was searching for her cub—. . .“Where’s my cub? I hear it but I don’t see it.”
She was actually scrounging in her nest to see if she had misplaced it somewhere in her nesting material. It’s a good example of how good of a mother she is. She wants to care for her young and always be attentive to it, especially when it’s vocalizing. It was mostly about keeping her calm and collected, and we were able to provide her with some fluids. We had a squirt bottle filled with honey water and would squirt it on her tongue, and she was taking that a few times while the cub was away. I think that helped to distract her for a few seconds, just enough to let her settle down. Of course, since this is a new thing we have done with her at this stage, the return of the cub was a crucial moment. She was very excited to have the cub back and we wanted to make sure we could get the cub back safely into her possession. Anticipating what she was going to do at that point was something that was heavily on our minds. And she did everything perfectly. She picked it up very gently with her mouth and put it back on her chest and presumably the cub started nursing again, so within five minutes, or less, she was calm and collected in her corner nursing her cub.
Why does it matter who the father of the cub is?
It matters on a lot of levels. I think first and foremost, because there’s such a small population of giant pandas. It’s important for genetic diversity. Knowing who the father is will determine the level of related-ness that the cub has to the overall population, which has future effects in determining who this cub, potentially when they reach adulthood, can mate with. That’s the primary level. The secondary level is because we know that the second cub that was born was malformed, it would give us a better idea to know if the fathers were the same, or if one was from one father and one from the other. And, again, keeping in mind I’m not a reproductive physiologist, but I think understanding which type of sperm sample was used—one that was fresh versus one that was frozen—would have an effect on which one was able to survive and be healthy.
Do we know how the cub will be named?
The tradition that our Chinese colleagues [follow] and we do too, is to wait until day 100. And at that point the cub can be named.
Apart from the cub’s birth, what other strategies for panda care did you take up with your Chinese colleagues on your visit?
I picked up a little Chinese, so maybe now I can talk to them a little. I’m sure Tian Tian and Mei Xiang remember a little of it, since they were born in China.
In all seriousness, I think that everything from the nursery and just being able to be prepared, if it came to hand rearing the cub. We now have experience with that. Getting our hands on a cub from a few days old to a few months old, knowing how much pressure and how to hold them properly, those are all important things to know. It’s also important knowing what are some of the cues that Mei Xiang might give us if something is not right with the cub. And also to know certain vocalizations from the cub, to know that the cub is doing well.
I understand you’ve been studying different types of bamboo and their effect on a panda’s welfare.
I can’t say much in too much detail, because I’m not a bamboo specialist. But in China, they have other varieties of bamboo, and though they feed them just about the same as we do, they have different varieties. They are fortunate that their bamboo growing season is about 10 months out of the year, whereas our growing season for bamboo shoots is about two, maximum three months, out of the year. So they have greater access to bamboo shoots than we do. We supplement with other foods, offering apples, pears, sweet potatoes and liquids such as honey water and apple juice.
What was the highlight of your China trip?
I think it was great to be able to meet our colleagues in China. Going over to China helps to reaffirm our commitment with our colleagues there and helps to give us a better understanding of the kind of work they do both in captivity and in the wild. They currently have one male that they have reintroduced into the wild, so ultimately those are the kinds of stories we want to be a part of and hear about. It’s not just reproducing cubs, it’s also about making sure that the species can exist in the wild. This is a very serious goal that we’re both committed to, and working together as one group, that synergy is great.
August 8, 2013
You’ve heard of the “Mona Lisa”, “The Last Supper” and “Vitruvian Man,” but did you know that Leonardo da Vinci was also an early innovator in the science of aviation? Between 1505 and 1506, the legendary polymath created his “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” an 18-page notebook containing detailed observations on aerodynamics. A digitized version of the d0cument went to Mars on the Curiosity Rover in 2011. This September, the original codex comes to the National Air and Space Museum.
From September 12 to October 22, 2013, ”Codex on the Flight of Birds” will be displayed in the gallery that houses the 1903 Wright flyer—though Leonardo preceded the Kitty Hawk pair by four centuries. According to Peter Jakab, chief curator of the Air and Space Museum, the codex contains the “seeds of the ideas that would lead to humans spreading their wings. . . . In aeronautics, as with so many of the subjects he studied, he strode where no one had before.” Leonardo’s notes even “hinted at the force Newton would later define as gravity.”
The exhibition will feature “interactive stations” allowing visitors to flip through the pages of the codex. This landmark work, which has rarely left Italy, is on loan from the Royal Library of Turin as part of the Year of Italian Culture in the United States.
July 29, 2013
Smithsonian’s traveling exhibition “Suited for Space” came home last week, joining two art shows, “High Art: A Decade of Collecting” and “Searching for Goldilocks,” in the Air and Space Museum’s Flight and the Arts Gallery. “Suited for Space,” which has been touring the country with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) since 2011, illustrates the evolution of spacesuit technology from the early 20th century until the dawn of the shuttle era.
The exhibit features large-scale photographs of spacesuits through the ages, conveying a “visual timeline” of their development in addition to each suit’s unique “personality,” according to curator Cathy Lewis. X-ray footage reveals the suits’ internal intricacy, including numerous joints, rings and ball bearings for flexibility.
Visitors will discover a remarkable range of designs, from the famous suits of Alan Bean and Buzz Aldrin to experimental prototypes that look straight out of science fiction. Lewis considers the suits works of art. “They’re creative products,” she says. “When you’re talking about spacesuits, you have certain principles and functions that you have to follow, and the artistry is in the varying and divergent ways that engineers have approached the same problems.” Spacesuits must strike a balance between providing airtight protection—against radiation, extreme temperatures, contamination and more—and providing maximum mobility for the wearer.
Spacesuits are not, however, built to last. Designed to withstand extreme conditions for short periods of time, these “wearable spacecraft” are too fragile to travel. While “Suited for Space” features no real spacesuits, it does contain a replica Apollo suit and several spacesuit accessories from the Air and Space Museum’s collection, including a glove, a boot and a “fecal collection assembly,” answering the perennial question of how astronauts go to the bathroom in space.