November 13, 2013
Over the past few years, Adam Metallo, Vince Rossi and other members of the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office have used 3D scanning to solve a century-old murder mystery, preserve a millennia-old fossil whale site threatened by highway construction in Chile and digitally capture every nook and cranny of Abraham Lincoln’s face, as represented in a plaster mask made just before his death, among other feats.
Now, they’re bringing together dozens of the world’s leading experts on 3D scanning and printing at the Smithsonian X 3D Conference. The event, held today and tomorrow at the Freer-Sackler Meyer Auditorium and simulcast above, is a celebration of the digitization work that’s occurred so far and a discussion of how such technology will transform the Smithsonian Institution—as well as the state of science, museums and education as a whole—going forward.
One of the event’s biggest announcements is the beta release of the Smithsonian X 3D Explorer—a web-based interface that allows users to explore, share and print 3D models of dozens of the Smithsonian’s most remarkable artifacts, with more to follow over the coming years. This technology will allow for all sorts of new uses of historical artifacts and scientific specimens: Researchers can share items with colleagues for analysis, teachers can use virtual objects in classroom lessons and members of the public can get unprecedented access to Smithsonian items, many of which aren’t on display due to space limitations.
The 3D data for the items shown in the Explorer will also be downloadable in full resolution, allowing anyone with a 3D printer to create replicas of these objects at any scale. As a demonstration, the Digitization Office will be creating a full-scale, 26-foot long 3D print of one of the fossil whales from Chile.
“I think 3D printing technology is a huge game changer, because you can actually replicate the three dimensional physicality of an artifact,” says Paul Debevec, a computer graphics pioneer who will be delivering a keynote at the event. “When you’re working on proposed reconstructions of what an ancient artifact might have looked like, for instance, you don’t have to actually mess with the original artifact—you can scan it without touching it, print out what you’ve got, and three different historians can come up with three different ideas how of the item may have once looked.”
The Digitization office is also pursuing plans to construct a state-of-the-art 3D scanning and printing lab at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building on the Mall, currently under renovation. “We’re basically going to bring our lab to the public,” Vince Rossi says. “Like the fishbowl at the Natural History Museum—where staff work on fossils—we’re going to bring our 3D scanning efforts out into the public eye, so people can see what we’re working on.” Additionally, in the new space, they’ll make their high-end 3D scanning and printing equipment available for public use.
The conference will feature panels and keynote addresses from dozens of leaders in 3D technology, including Saul Griffith, the inventor and founder of Otherlab, and Ping Fu, the Chief Strategy Officer of 3D Systems. Together with Rossi, Metallo and other Smithsonian staff, they’ll examine how digitization will shape the future of the Smithsonian and grapple with the challenges of effectively digitizing and making publicly available millions of artifacts and specimens.
“For a museum curator, there are scary aspects to letting collections roam digitally on the internet,” Debevec says, “but it seems that Smithsonian curators understand the potential of all this, and I think they’re going to be on the forefront of making it happen.”
Watch the livestream above for coverage of the two-day conference.
The Wright Flyer, the legendary aircraft built by the Wright Brothers and sent skyward over Kitty Hawk in 1903, was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1948. Since then, it’s been on public display nearly continuously.
Of course, visitors aren’t allowed to touch the plane, and educators teaching lessons on the Flyer have had to use models to give students the chance to handle it and see it from different positions. Engineers and historians have faced similar limitations, unable to climb inside to examine its inner machinery or take out a tape measure to assess its specs.
Now, though, anyone with an internet connection can handle a virtual 3D version of the Flyer and print a replica at any scale. The 3D model viewer above, along with 20 other 3D models released today as part of the Digitization Program Office‘s Smithsonian X 3D Conference, is the result of years of labor by Vince Rossi, Adam Metallo and other staff in the Digitization Office. As they continue their work of digitally scanning as many of the Smithsonian’s 137 million artifacts as possible, the Smithsonian X 3D Explorer is the means by which they’ll take this valuable 3D data public.
“For a while, we were able to create these incredible, high-resolution 3D models, but in terms of public access to the data, we were really limited,” says Rossi. “In developing these tools, we’re able to share our work with the world.”
Each model is a simplified version of the “point cloud“—the thousands of points that make up the contours of an item’s surface—that they collect using 3D scanning tools. Because the actual point cloud is far too large in size to make available in a web browser, some digital compression is necessary.
“If you play any video game, you’re looking at a polygonal model, and that’s also what you’re looking at in the viewer,” Rossi says. In essence, the 3D contours of an object are flattened, forming thousands of polygons (mostly triangles) that represent the surface of the object. As polygons, these triangles can be represented in two dimensions—at which point colors, shading and textures are added to the object’s surface—then contorted back into a 3D shape that captures most of the visual detail of the original but has a file size small enough to load in a web browser.
The viewer allows users to explore these models in detail—rotating the items, isolating different components of them, measuring them with built-in tools and creating specific views that can be shared over social media or embedded on a website or blog post just like a video. It also makes it possible to take a virtual guided tour of the object (by clicking on the globe icon), with text, images and video that accompany a specific set of views and let users learn historical and scientific background. “The 3D explorer allows you to tell a story,” Rossi says. “Essentially, you can use the 3D model as a scaffolding to tell the history of an object.”
The Digitization Office staff see dozens of potential uses for these models: Teachers can use them as education tools, researchers can use them to analyze their own artifacts and share them with colleagues, and most of all, they’ll allow the public to more easily appreciate millions of Smithsonian objects, both on display and hidden away in archives. Once, plaster masks—such as the mask of Abraham Lincoln made shortly after his death, above—were the height of technology used to preserve the three-dimensional shape of a specimen or artifact. Now, digital capture of an item’s contours in three-dimensions can be done with lasers and computer software.
In addition to the compressed versions of these artifacts available in the viewers, the Digitization Office has also made the full-size 3D datasets available for downloading, which will let users use 3D printers to recreate the objects in full detail at any scale. Although 3D printing at home is still in its nascency, they’re becoming increasingly economical, with base models now available for a few hundred dollars. “We think the implications of this are pretty big,” Rossi says.
So far, the Digitization Office has scanned hundreds of objects. For the first batch of viewable items, they chose a sampling that represents all of the fields of inquiry the Smithsonian is involved in—art, history and science, conveyed with priceless artifacts, ancient specimens and, in the case of an orchid, actual living organisms.
This whale fossil, for instance, was scanned when dozens of seven million-year-old whale remains were discovered in Chile, in the path of imminent Pan-American Highway construction. To preserve the specimens in their geological context, Metallo, Rossi and others scanned them in 3D. “[Paeleontologist] Nick Pyenson is already planning on using these viewers to share information with researchers in Chile,” Rossi says. “So this site no longer exists in Chile, but anyone is still able to take measurements of it and use that data.”
Scanning has also been put to use as part of internal Smithsonian projects, such as the comprehensive scanning of Dinosaur Hall to document the position of all of the hall’s specimens before it closes next year for a ground-up renovation. As part of the project, the team scanned the wooly mammoth represented above.
“This was challenging not only because of the size, but also its complexity,” Rossi says. To capture the contours of every rib bone and tusk, he and Metallo had to position their scanners in more than 60 different vantage points, then carefully knit together the data sets to yield a complete animal.
They’ve gone small, too, with specimens such as the bee above, taken from the Smithsonian’s entomology collection. In order to capture details as small as the hairs on its abdomen, Metallo and Rossi used a micro CT scanner, which is similar to a medical CT scanner, but able to capture smaller objects at high resolution.
With their scanning technique practiced and a new means of sharing their data with the public, Rossi and Metallo’s plan going forward is to increase the scale of their operation. “The next step is going big—scanning hundreds or thousands of objects per year, instead of a few dozen,” Rossi says. It might not be possible to digitally capture all 137 million of the Smithsonian’s items, but they want to scan as many as they possibly can.
For the rest of the first batch of models—including digital versions of Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, a 550 A.D. intricately carved “Cosmic Buddha” sculpture and the remnants of a distant supernova—head over to the Smithsonian X 3D site. The conference is sold out, but is being simulcast online, and an associated showcase of 3D technology is open to the public.
October 24, 2013
“You are being watched.” This warning opens every episode of the hit CBS TV series, “Person of Interest,” created by The Dark Knight screenwriter Jonathan Nolan. In the wake of recent revelations about NSA surveillance, however, those words hew closer to reality than science fiction.
The “Machine” at the center of “Person of Interest” is an all-seeing artificial intelligence that tracks the movements and communications of every person in America—not through theoretical gadgetry, but through the cell phone networks, GPS satellites and surveillance cameras we interact with every day. The show’s two main characters, ex-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) and computer genius Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), use this power for good, chasing the social security numbers the system identifies to prevent violent crimes, but they’re constantly fighting to keep the Machine out of the wrong hands.
“Person of Interest” has been ahead of the curve on government surveillance since it debuted in 2011, but showrunners Nolan and Greg Plageman (NYPD Blue, Cold Case) have been following the topic for years. Both writers will appear at the Lemelson Center symposium, “Inventing the Surveillance Society,” this Friday, October 25, at 8 p.m. We caught up with the pair to talk about the balance between privacy and security, the “black box” of Gmail and the cell phone panopticon in Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
I want to start with the elephant in the room: the NSA spying revelations. Now that we have definitive proof that the government is watching us, you guys get to say, “I told you so,” with regard to the surveillance on “Person of Interest.” How did you react when you heard about the government’s PRISM surveillance program, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden?
Jonathan Nolan: With a mixture of jubilation and horror. [laughs] “We were right, oh, dear, we were right.” Shane Harris [author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State], who’s joining us on the panel on Friday, is the one we went to again and again for research, and PRISM was really the tip of the iceberg. Not to sound snobby, but for people who were carefully reading the newspapers, they weren’t revelations at all. William Binney, another NSA whistleblower who’s not on the run, has been saying this publicly for years, which points to this other interesting aspect—the fact that the general public may not care if there’s a massive surveillance state. As the story’s developed, there’s been a slow trickle of information from Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian and the Washington Post, in terms of the documents they have from Snowden, to try to keep the story on the front burner. Clearly the story has got traction. But to what degree the public will actually put up with it is actually a question we’re trying to deal with now on the show.
Were you surprised by the public’s response, or lack thereof?
Greg Plageman: Yeah, I really think the capacity for outrage has been mollified by convenience. People love their phones, they love their Wi-Fi, they love being connected, and everything that’s wired is now being pushed into the cloud. We use it all the time, every day, and we can’t imagine our lives now without it. What the president has been saying, how we have to strike a balance between privacy and security—the problem is they don’t. They never do. And they wouldn’t have bothered even paying lip service to it if Snowden hadn’t blown the whistle. So I think now people are reeling from the “OK, so what?” When you tell them the consequence is we’ll be less secure, or you lose some convenience in your life, that’s when people tend to become placated. I think that’s a scary zone where we come in as entertainers and say, let’s present to you the hypothetical, dramatically, of why you should care. That’s the fun of our show.
How do you personally weigh in on that debate? How much liberty do you feel we can or should sacrifice for security?
Nolan: There’s a reason why people [used to] send letters with wax seals. That sense of privacy, the conflict between the state and the needs of the citizens, has been around for an awfully long time. We’re quite distrustful, at least in the writers’ room, of anyone who comes in with an over-simplistic answer to that question. It’s all terrible or, in the name of security, you can have access to all of my stuff, is an answer that is only acceptable, if possible, in the immediate short term, where we’re not at war, and there’s no widespread suspicion of the American public.
We’ve said this from the beginning, from the pilot onwards: privacy is different from what have you got in the bag. When the government takes your privacy, you don’t necessarily know that it’s been taken from you. It’s a fungible, invisible thing. That’s why this argument that has been hauled out into public view by Snowden is a very healthy one for the country to be having. If someone takes away your right to express yourself or your right to assemble or any of the rights in the Bill of Rights, you’re going to know about it. But when someone takes away your privacy, you may not have any idea until it’s far too late to do anything about it.
How did you develop the Machine in “Person of Interest”? Why did you make it work the way it does?
Nolan: We just use[d] our imagination. We did research. Aspects of the show that at first blush, when the pilot first came out, people kind of dismissed as curios—like, why don’t they find out if the person is a victim or a perpetrator, why don’t they get any more information than a social security number? It’s a great jumping-off point for a nice piece of drama, absolutely. We’re not shy about that. But actually, a lot of the mechanism of the Machine was based on Admiral [John] Poindexter and Total Information Awareness, which was the great-granddaddy of PRISM.
Poindexter is a really interesting Promethean figure who figured out a lot of what the general public is now just starting to get wind of. The tools were already here to peel back all of the layers of every person in the United States. It’s now become increasingly clear that there is no way to be sure that you’ve hidden your voice or email communications from the government. It’s almost impossible. If you want to communicate privately, it’s a person-to-person conversation and your cell phone is literally left elsewhere or broken, like we do in our show all the time, or handwritten messages. We really have stepped into that moment.
So the question was how do you go about this conscientiously? If we were to build this, how do you ensure that it can’t be used for corrupt purposes? How can you be sure that it isn’t used to eliminate political rivals or to categorize Americans according to their political profiles or their leanings, all that sort of stuff? It seemed like the simplest answer to that question was to make this thing a black box, something that absorbs all this information and spits out the right answers, which interestingly is exactly how Gmail works. That’s why we’re all willing to use Gmail—because we are promised that a human will never read our emails. A machine will read them; it will feed us ads, without invading our privacy. And that is a compromise we’ve been willing to make.
The show explicitly states that the Machine was developed in response to 9/11, that 9/11 ushered in this new era of surveillance. Right now, it seems we might be entering a new post-Snowden era, in which we, the general public, are aware that we’re being watched. How will the show respond to that new reality—our reality, outside the world of the show?
Plageman: In terms of whether or not we’re entering another era, it’s difficult to say when you realize that the assault on privacy is both public and private now. It’s Google, it’s Facebook, it’s what you voluntarily have surrendered. What Jonah and I and the writers have been talking about is: What have you personally done about it? Have you changed your surfing habits? Have you gone to a more anonymous email provider? Have any of us done any of these things? There’s a bit of a scare, and we all react and say, wait a minute, do I need to be more privacy-conscious in terms of how I operate technology? And the truth is it’s a huge pain in the ass. I’ve tried a couple of these web-surfing softwares, but it slows things down. Eventually, if you want to be a person that’s connected, if you want to stay connected to your colleagues and your family, you realize that you have to surrender a certain amount of privacy.
I also believe, just having a son who’s now entering his teens, that there’s a huge generation gap between how we view privacy. I think older generations see that as something that we’re entitled to, and I think, to a certain degree, younger generations who’ve grown up with Facebook see it as something that’s already dead or wonder if it really matters, because they don’t understand the consequences of the death of privacy.
Nolan: In terms of the narrative of our show, we’ve already started looking into the idea that there will be a backlash. Maybe this is wishful because we’ve looked at this issue for so long [and seen] the slightly underwhelming response to the revelations by Snowden. We’re certainly not looking for people to take revolution in the streets. But you feel like it would be some consolation if there was an aggressive debate about this in Congress—and quite the opposite. You had both political parties in lockstep behind this president, who didn’t initiate these policies but has benefited from the extended power of the executive, in place for generations of presidents from the postwar environment, from Hoover and the FBI onwards. There isn’t much debate on these issues, and that’s very, very frightening. We’re very close to the moment of the genie coming completely out of the bottle.
One of the questions that Shane deals with most explicitly in his book is storage. It sounds like a banality, like the least sexy aspect of this, but storage in many ways may actually be the most profound part of this. How long is the government able to hang on to this information? Maybe we trust President Obama and all the people currently in power with this information. Who knows what we’ll think of the president three presidents from now? And if he still has access to my emails from 2013, in a different political environment in which suddenly police that are mainstream now become [secret] police, or people are sorted into camps or rounded up? It sounds like tinfoil hat-wearing paranoia, but in truth, if we’re looking at history realistically, bad things happen, fairly regularly. The idea that your words, your associations, your life, to that point could be cached away somewhere and retrieved—it feels very much like a violation of the system, in terms of testifying against yourself, because in this case the process is automatic.
These issues that we’re fascinated by are one part of our show. We presented our show as science fiction in the beginning—but, it turns out, maybe not as fictional as people would hope. Another science fiction component that we’re exploring in the second half of this season is the artificial intelligence of it all. We took the position that in this headlong, post-9/11 rush to prevent terrible things from happening, the only true solution would be to develop artificial intelligence. But if you were to deduce the motives of a human being, you would need a machine at least as smart as a human being. That’s really the place in which the show remained, to our knowledge, science fiction—we’re still a long way off from that. For the second half of the season, we’re exploring the implications of humans interacting with data as the data becomes more interactive.
Jonathan, you previously explored the idea of surveillance in The Dark Knight. How did you develop the system Batman uses to tap the cell phones in Gotham?
Nolan: The thing about a cell phone is it’s incredibly simple and it’s a total Trojan horse. Consumers think of it as something that they use—their little servants. They want a piece of information, they pull it out and they ask it. They don’t think that it’s doing anything other than that; it’s simply working at their behalf. And the truth is, from the government’s perspective or from private corporations’ perspective, it’s a fantastic device to get unbeknownst to the consumer. It’s recording their velocity, their position, their attitude, even if you don’t add Twitter into the mix. It’s incredibly powerful.
In The Dark Knight, [we were] riffing off of storylines from existing Batman comic books. There’s a shifting side to [Batman] where he’s always playing on that edge of how far is too far. In the comic books, at least, he has a contingency and a plan for everyone. He knows how to destroy his friends and allies, should they turn into enemies, and he’s always one step ahead. In a couple of different storylines in the Batman comic books, they play with the idea that he would start constructing [a surveillance device]. In the comic books, it was mainly about spying on his friends and allies and the rest of the Justice League. But for us it felt more interesting to take existing technology and find a way [for] someone like Bruce Wayne, who’s this brilliant mind applied to the utility belt. There are all these gadgets and utilities around him—why should it stop there? Why wouldn’t he use his wealth, his influence and his brilliance to subvert a consumer product into something that could give him information?
In the previous incarnations of Batman on film, it was usually the bad guys doing that—rigging up some device that sits on your TV and hypnotizes you and makes you an acolyte for the Riddler or whatever. In this one, we sort of continued the idea because Batman, most interestingly, is a bit of a villain himself—or at least is a protagonist who dresses like a villain. So he creates this all-seeing eye, the panopticon, which I’ve been interested in since I was a kid growing up in England, where they had CCTV cameras everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s.
[Batman] would deploy those [cell phones] as a nuclear option in terms of trying to track down the Joker’s team, something that definitely spoke to the duality of the character. He does morally questionable things for a good end—hopefully. In The Dark Knight, as epic and long as it took us to make it, [we] really only got to scratch the surface of this issue, the devil’s bargain of: What if someone built this for a really good, really singular purpose? What level of responsibility would they feel towards it, towards what they created?
It’s something you really hope the government is sitting around agonizing over. [laughs] I hope the government spends as much time worrying about this as Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox do in The Dark Knight, but I’m not 100 percent sure that that’s the case. Certainly if you look at the history of polity and the way that government interacts with checks and balances, you kind of need a crisis, you need a scandal, you need something to prompt this self-policing.
Plageman: Are you saying that the FISA court is a joke, Jonah?
Nolan: [laughs] If it is a joke, it’s a joke on all of us. But again, we don’t want to sound unsympathetic. “Person of Interest” takes for granted the existence of this device and, potentially controversially, the idea that in the right hands, such a device could be a good thing. But I don’t think Greg and I or any of our writers are ever looking at this issue and reducing it to black and white.
We’ve occasionally read that the show is kind of an apologia for PRISM and the surveillance state, just as I had read, a few years ago, certain commentators looking at The Dark Knight and imagining that it was some kind of apologia for George Bush. All those ideas are ridiculous. We look at this show as a great mechanism for posing questions, not supplying answers. That’s where we hope it’s not didactic, and The Dark Knight was certainly not intended as didactic. I think where we were ahead of the curve when it came to “Person of Interest” was that the thing we were assuming was still a question for everyone else. We kind of started the show in the post-Snowden era, as you put it. The show’s premise is that the surveillance state is a given, and we’re not changing that, and you’re not stuffing the genie back in the bottle. So what do we do with all the other information? That I think will increasingly become the real quandary over the next 10 to 15 years.
Jonathan Nolan, Greg Plageman and Shane Harris will speak in a panel discussion on Friday, October 25, as part of the Lemelson Center symposium, “Inventing the Surveillance Society.” This event is free and open to the public. Seating is limited; first come, first seated.
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.”
April 23, 2013
Last Monday, April 15, the National Museum of Natural History actually did come to life after hours. Not with mummies or miniature armies, of course, but with a small group of volunteers, a bunch of fancy-looking equipment and two guys at the forefront of museum digitization.
Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi, of the 3D Lab in the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, work with laser scanners to create high resolution, three-dimensional digital models of objects and places around the Smithsonian Institution. Last week, they teamed up with curators at the Natural History Museum for the second of two nights of scanning the Dinosaur Hall, the museum’s iconic galleries that house prehistoric fossils from the ancient seas through the Ice Age. The hall is scheduled to close in 2014 for a ground-up, multi-year renovation, so Metallo and Rossi, dubbed the “Laser Cowboys” by their colleagues, were brought in to capture the hall’s present arrangement before all the fossils are removed.
“The main purpose of 3D scanning an exhibit like this is to have an archive of what an exhibit of this era might have looked,” Metallo says. “This is a documentation for folks in the future to know what a museum experience here was like.”
The scanning has immediate uses as well. With accurate digital 3D models of T-Rex and his friends’ skeletons, curators and designers will have a much easier time envisioning the exhibition’s future iterations and testing out ideas for optimal arrangements. Paleontologists, too, will suddenly have access to fossils anytime, anywhere. “There’s one specimen that’s on display two stories up in the air,” Metallo says. “Now, instead of a researcher having to get up on a scissor lift to look at it, we can just email him the digital model.”
And if digital models aren’t enough, 3D scanning might soon allow anyone interested in fossils to get even closer to the real thing. “We’re seeing a real democratization of 3D printing along with 3D scanning,” says Rossi. “There are apps for iPhones that allow you to use a camera as a 3D scanning device. Pretty much any museum visitor could create a pretty decent model of a museum object, and potentially take that through a 3D printer. There’s still a fair amount of expertise required at the moment, but it’s going to be a lot more user-friendly in the next two or three years.”
In other words, it’s not inconceivable that you could print out your own stegosaurus skeleton for your living room on your home 3D printer someday.
Ultimately, Rossi and Metallo dream of digitizing all 137 million of the objects in the Smithsonian’s collections. Because only two percent of the objects are displayed in the Institution’s museums at any time—and many people never have the chance to see even those in person—precise replicas could be printed and sent to local museums across the country, or viewed digitally on a computer screen anywhere in the world.
As for future of the Dino Hall, Matthew Carrano, the museum’s curator of dinosauria, says his team is still in the early stages of planning exactly how the exhibit will look when it reopens in 2019, but that it definitely will strive to incorporate humans into the dinosaurs’ story. “The biggest thing I hope for in the new hall is that a visitor comes here and is inspired, amazed and interested in the history of life on earth, and understands that this history is still relevant to them today, and to the world today,” he explains. “There are problems we face as human beings that paleontology can help address. Dinosaurs didn’t exist by themselves; they were part of environments and ecosystems just like we are today. And that connection is really important to everything we’re going to show in this hall.”
To learn more about 3D scanning and printing at Smithsonian, check out Metallo and Rossi’s Facebook page, and follow them on twitter @3D_Digi_SI. To learn more about dinosaurs, check out the Natural History Museum’s dinosaur page.