July 22, 2010
In 2009, nearly 6,700 volunteers labored for well over half a million hours for the Smithsonian Institution. “I feel pretty confident in saying the Smithsonian has one of the largest (if not THE largest) volunteer base of any cultural organization in the world,” Amy Lemon, coordinator of Smithsonian’s Behind-the-Scenes Volunteer Program (BVP) told me. “Anything a paid staff person would do at Smithsonian, a volunteer could be found doing the same thing.”
Including oodles of science.
It would be impossible to do justice to every volunteer’s work—each volunteer at Smithsonian does something especially fascinating—but here is a list of 10 of the top science-based volunteer gigs around the Mall and beyond:
Volunteer Forensic Anthropologist
After working in the department of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History under forensic anthropologist and division head Doug Owsley, Sarah Spatz Schlachtmeyer wrote a book about her activities. A Death Decoded: Robert Kennicott and the Alaska Telegraph untangles the mystery of young scientist Robert Kennicott’s death as he was exploring the Yukon River more than 150 years ago. No bones about it, volunteering time to fiddle around with human skeletal remains is definitely one of the more fascinating opportunities at the Smithsonian.
Volunteer Amphibian Research Biologist
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama offers opportunities for aspiring (and veteran) biologists. For example, Roberto Ibanez, STRI’s leading amphibian research biologist, runs the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation project, which rescues and establishes captive colonies of threatened and endangered amphibian species. Volunteers help to feed and house the amphibians. The project is just one of many programs at STRI actively seeking a large volunteer base. The 40 permanent scientists at STRI host nearly 1,000 visiting scientists every year and have projects in more than 40 tropical countries, with massive potential for anyone interested in volunteering.
Volunteer Entomologist and Tarantula Handler (Arachnologist)
Volunteers with the National Museum of Natural History’s O. Orkin Insect Zoo (no it’s not an attempt at irony, the extermination company contributed funds to the bug menagerie) regale visitors with insect factoids and, yes, put on live shows with the zoo’s many tarantula residents. These volunteers attempt to “make connections between visitors and these seemingly alien creatures,” says Bridget McGee-Sullivan NMNH volunteer manager. It’s certainly not the volunteer position for me, though (I kept my distance from the eight-legged monsters, even with a quarter-inch pane of glass in between us); I would much prefer the Butterfly Pavilion.
One of the many behind-the-scenes volunteer positions at the National Zoological Park—jobs that include collecting panda dung for study and keeping tabs on the intricacies of flamingo behavior—is golden lion tamarin monitor. Though the tamarins have not been ranging free this summer across the grounds of the zoo, usually they are tracked by a dedicated corps of volunteers who take notes on the Brazilian primates and explain to visitors their endangered status, part of the zoo’s nearly 40-year project of golden lion tamarin conservation.
Each month more than 450 people volunteer through Friends of the National Zoo, says Mike Frick, who manages FONZ’s Behavior Watch program. They donate their time and energy to help zoo staff care for and collect scientific data on the animals exhibited at the zoo and those located at the zoo’s Front Royal, Virginia campus, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Data collected by volunteers is used for national conservation efforts, monitoring breeding behavior of the zoo’s animals, helping zoo keepers prepare diets for the animals and “research into the life history of animals that are either so rare or elusive in the wild that studies on captive individuals are the only means by which scientists have to understand them,” Frick says.
Amateur gardeners, retired botanists and other interested individuals can find a place to call home among the fecund gardens of the National Zoo. The Pollinarium, Heritage Gardens and Butterfly Garden are home to a vast array of wild and rare plants and flowers that all need gardening and care. Volunteer horticulturalists can also be found beyond the zoo’s grounds; eight Smithsonian gardens are located around the National Mall, all requiring dedicated volunteers to tend.
Volunteer Forest Ecology Researcher
At the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on the Chesapeake Bay, bank executives and other volunteers gather data from Maryland’s forests on how it is being affected by logging and climate change. There are 18 research laboratories at SERC studying topics that range from earthworms to native orchids to forest ecosystems, says SERC outreach coordinator Karen McDonald. SERC usually hosts 60 to 90 volunteers, depending on the season, who take part in tasks that include tagging blue crabs and building fences to limit deer movement for studying the effects they have on their ecosystem.
Volunteer Planetary Geologist
Throughout the National Air and Space Museum, volunteers are strategically placed with 12 “Discovery Carts” giving demonstrations on all manner of topics, such as aviation and astrophysics, allowing visitors to interact with items that relate to the collection. One standout is the falling-stars cart, which lets visitors touch pieces of meteorite that have made their way to Earth from around the solar system. Visitors learn from the cart’s volunteer planetary geologists about these meteorites and what their different properties and chemical make-ups can tell us about our solar system. “There’s something magical about handing someone a rock that looks like a piece of coal then seeing their face when you tell them that it’s as old as the solar system,” Tom Hill, an NASM volunteer, told discovery station program coordinator Beth Wilson.
Volunteer Chemist and Innovation Facilitator
At the National Museum of American History’s Spark!Lab, volunteers encourage the young and young-at-heart to express their own inventiveness. Volunteers and staff facilitate interactive experiments in chemistry, physics and genetics. It’s just the place for a volunteer mad scientist.
Around the Mall talked to Spark!Lab’s “Resident Eccentric,” Steven Madwell, a couple of years ago.
Volunteers at the Smithsonian’s Naturalist Center in Leesburg, Virginia, spend their days answering questions of inquisitive minds, from kindergartners to high school seniors. “Every day is an adventure for Naturalist Center volunteers,” NMNH’s McGee-Sullivan says. “You never know who will walk in the door and what type of question will be asked of a volunteer.” One five-year-old girl brought in a partial skull from the playground, McGee-Sullivan says. The volunteers at the Naturalist Center helped her discover that it was the skull of a cottontail rabbit.
Within the walls of the National Museum of Natural History’s Discovery Room, volunteers interact with visitors as they examine fossils, skulls, shells and other objects from the museum’s collection. These volunteers have one of the most important jobs of all: inspiring scientific curiosity in Smithsonian visitors and honing the visitors’skills in observation and inquiry, giving them the tools they need to answer all their questions about the natural world.
Outside of Smithsonian Institution and Washington, D.C. there are an abundance of opportunities for citizen scientists to get their volunteer on. Behind-the-Scenes Volunteer Program’s Lemon says rough estimates indicate there are more than a million volunteers at America’s 17,000-plus museums.
Michael Gold and the rest of the staff at ScienceForCitizens.net have developed an entire online community for citizen scientists. The Web site allows those wishing to volunteer for science to connect with real volunteer projects and research opportunities in their area to match their interests.
July 7, 2010
Let’s face it. Centaurs, chimeras, griffins, the Little Mermaid, the Thunder Cats and all those cool hybrid creatures from Avatar: The Last Airbender are just legends and fantasies. And Peter Parker remains the only human, as of yet, to gain super-powers from a radioactive spider. Sigh.
But human fascination with animal hybrids, as hyperbolic as it is, has some basis in reality. Here are a few of the most interesting animal hybrids that actually exist. Move over mules, there are much more interesting characters in the mixed animal game.
Ligers and Tigons (and Jaguleps and Leopons)
Remember Napoleon Dynamite from a few years ago?
Deb: What are you drawing
Napoleon: A liger.
Deb: What’s a liger?
Napoleon: It’s pretty much my favorite animal. It’s like a lion and a tiger mixed … bred for its skills in magic.
Well, ligers do, actually, exist. Minus their skill in magic … as far as we know. When a male lion and a female tiger fall in love (yes, I just anthropomorphized them) and their cross-species relationship results in cubs, those cubs are called ligers. Switch the genders and you have tigons. Add a jaguar or leopard to the mix (any of the four species of the big-cat genus, Panthera, can interbreed) and you get all sorts of crazy combinations. Though many hybrid animals are infertile, ligers and tigons are not. They are perfectly capable of breeding and producing Li-Tigons, Ti-Ligers and other such amalgamations.
Savannah cats are hybrids of domestic house cats and African servals, similar to the wolf-dogs in the canine world. Though illegal in some cities and states, the hybrid cats have been described as more dog-like in their behavior than cat-like. They like swimming, walking on a leash and even playing fetch on occasion. Breeding domesticated pets with their wild cousins seems to be a new trend in pet rearing. Don’t get me started on Toygers or Cheetohs.
Yeah, that’s right, spider goats. No, you didn’t read it wrong. They exist. Honest-to-god spider goats.
They’re not horror-movie quality (they don’t have eight legs with eight little hoofs or eight eyes). But, with spider genes implanted in them when they were just a fertilized egg, these chimera-goats are one seventy-thousandth arachnid.
What could possibly compel a scientist to create such a creature? You know, besides the obvious pre-human testing for a real-life Spider Man? The genes specially selected from the spiders are the silk-making genes. When the spider goats reach maturity, silk proteins appear in their mammary glands.
Milk the goat, extract silk proteins and vóila, you’ve manufactured spider-silk fibers.
Spider silk is one of the strongest materials in the world and these scientists are hoping to manufacture it in bulk (something you can’t do by farming spiders) for commercial use.
Don’t be surprised if you see spider-silk protective vests replace Kevlar in the near future.
Zorses, Zonkeys, Zonys, Zetlands, Zedonks, and, of course, Zebrasses. Zany, right? Breeders have been crossing zebras with other equines for some time. The point, other than general curiosity, was to create a beast of burden that could work harder under hot weather than traditional mules, horses or donkeys.
Not quite a grizzly, not quite Klondike the polar bear, they’re pizzlies (sometimes known as the grolar bear). Like the big cats, species in the Ursidae family can interbreed. Though most commonly found as the result of captive breeding, they also appear on rare occasions in the wild. Some scientists believe that the natural occurrence of these hybrids might be explained by climate change. As ice barriers melt, species that have been separated for millennia can comingle once again. While other ursine hybrids known to occur in the wild, such as mixes between black bears and grizzlies, are infertile, the grizzly and the polar bear are so close genetically that they are likely capable of reproducing.
The spider goats may be providing us with ultra-strong spider silk, but the beefalo—the result of breeding buffalo with cattle—is a hybrid engineered and raised to eat. There’s a long tradition of ranching beefalo in the United States, so long that we have an entire organization dedicated to its advocacy, the American Beefalo Association. Though early incarnations of the beefalo were sickly and infertile, in recent decades, the crossbreed has become more robust. With the genetic hardiness of buffaloes and the tastiness of beef, the beefalo provides the best of both animals. At least … that’s what the ABA tells me.
June 23, 2010
Apollo with his famous lyre is the Greek god of music. This son of Zeus was also closely associated with the Sun and is often assumed to be the Sun god Helios by a different name. In other polytheistic circles, none of the gods of music in Hindu, Norse, Japanese or Egyptian mythologies were associated with celestial bodies. But the Greeks, at least, made the connection between music and the cosmos.
Yesterday, part one of “Music of the Heavenly Spheres,” traversed the world of modern music honoring the planets, stars, novas, quasars and other astrophysical objects that make up our universe. Today we look at the music of centuries past and modern orchestral pieces that were inspired by the vast vacuum of space.
Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (“Thus Spoke Zarathustra”) was an homage to Friedrich Nietzche’s famous book of the same name, which had nothing to do with astronomy. But it became one of the most recognized songs to be associated with the cosmos after its use as the opening theme for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Zarathustra” is probably the soundtrack that first comes to mind when daydreaming whimsically of the Milky Way, perhaps mingled with Alexander Courage’s theme to Star Trek, or John Williams’ award-winning scores to the Star Wars films.
But these modern composers had nothing on their brethren from the last four centuries.
Gustav Holst’s gorgeous 1918 suite “The Planets” is likely the most compelling tribute to Earth’s stellar brethren of the last millennium. There is a caveat. Holst drew his inspiration less from the planets themselves than from the Roman deities for which they are named. But the suite does evoke a certain understanding of the dyadic nature of the cosmos, simultaneously filled with chaos and beauty.
From the clashing tumult of “Mars: The Bringer of War” (clearly influential in the scores by Hans Zimmer in countless historical action flicks from Gladiator to The Last Samurai) to the rich, flowing melodies of “Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity.” From the light, lilting airs of “Venus: Bringer of Peace” to the boisterous crescendos of “Uranus: The Magician,” Holst scores the soundtrack to our solar system’s cosmic dance magnificently.
Only Pluto was left out. Perhaps Holst foresaw Pluto’s coming loss of status as a planet; more likely, he just didn’t have time. Even though it was discovered four years prior to his death, that was over a decade after he had completed “The Planets.”
Luckily for Pluto, in 2000 the Berlin Philharmonic commissioned British composer Colin Matthews to write a movement to round out the suite. Pluto was demoted from planet status soon after its completion. The Philharmonic also commissioned movements for four asteroids, including Ceres, the largest in the asteroid belt, and recently dubbed “dwarf planet” alongside Pluto.
But Holst wasn’t the first to include odes to the heavenly spheres in his oeuvre.
Franz Joseph Haydn’s 1777 opera “Il Mondo Della Luna” tells the story of a devious astronomer who cons a nobleman into believing there is a society on the moon. George Frideric Handel’s “Total Eclipse,” an aria from the opera “Samson,” compares a solar eclipse to the protagonist’s loss of sight.
The Jupiter Symphony, Mozart’s final work, was not named as such until after Mozart’s death and, in fact, it has nothing to do with the planet Jupiter at all. It is named such by those who thought that the final minutes of the symphony were so complex they could only be understood by the Roman god-king Jupiter.
Bach never wrote about his inspiration from the stars, but when some of his most famous pieces are blended with recordings of wind from Mars, as Kelvin Miller did in 1998, it becomes a cosmic hit. Miller transformed wind measurements from the Pathfinder probe into sounds and weaved them through some of Bach’s more memorable pieces in the album “Winds of Mars.”
Several other modern composers have built on the legacy of these giants of classical music in paying tribute to astronomy. Peter Eotvos composed the erratic and sinister, yet strangely compelling, symphony “The Cosmos.” And Cornell professor Roberto Sierra wrote a full-orchestral piece inspired by Saturn entitled “Anillos,” which means rings in Spanish.
June 22, 2010
From time immemorial, humans have looked in wonder at the cosmos and attempted to express their awe through art. Astronomers, from Ptolemy to Kepler, commented on the great dance of the heavenly spheres and the harmonies of the celestial bodies of Sun, Moon and Earth. Musicians and composers have simultaneously endeavored to compose a soundtrack to this cosmic dance.
Brian May: Rock icon, lead shredder of the infamous glam-rock quartet Queen, hailed as one of the best guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. But that’s Doctor May to you.
In 2007, May completed the PhD in astrophysics he began 36 years earlier before ditching the ivory tower for a career in rock. He was subsequently named chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University (an honorary role previously held by Cherie Blair, wife of former British prime minister).
But, Dr. May is not the only shining example of a marriage between music and astronomy. Modern acts have taken to expressing their celestial influences.
The moody, contemplative indie act Muse is just one of the latest to be inspired by the skies. The group picked up on the space rock sub-genre of fellow Brit acts David Bowie and Pink Floyd, whose psychedelic synth sounds and slow, drawling melodies spoke to a generation of youth dropping acid and looking at the stars. Muse is now bringing space rock back into vogue by blending the sounds of their predecessors with their own edgy brand of alternative rock.
Dr. May (who wrote several space-themed ditties for Queen including the kooky tale of interstellar travel, “39”) has praised their work and noted the stylistic similarities to Queen. “I like the way they let their madness show through, always a good thing in an artist,” May told the BBC.
Muse’s front man and conspiracy theorist Matt Bellamy scored an entire album based on his fascination with astronomy and obsession with science fiction. The album “Black Holes and Revelations” included an eerie tribute to the immense black holes at the center of galaxies aptly named “Supermassive Black Hole,” and the more light-hearted ballad “Knights of Cydonia” references a region in the northern hemisphere of Mars, home of the infamous “face” optical illusion.
One of Muse’s newest singles, “Neutron Star Collision (Love is Forever),” is a reference to the extremely rare event of two neutron stars spiraling desperately toward one another over the course of millions of years, climaxing in an explosion that can be seen for billions of miles. It is sure to be a big hit with the tweens when it debuts on the soundtrack for the latest in the Twilight saga, Eclipse.
But Muse is not the first pop act, nor the last, to express their fascination by all things Copernican. Lady Gaga’s “Starstruck” features the futuristic sounds of DJ/collaborator Space Cowboy. The Killers “Spaceman” provides a similar sound.
Sam Sparro wrote his contemplative electropop/funk-nouveau hit “Black and Gold” after looking into the night sky one night, feeling lonely and pondering the nature of the universe and the existence of the divine. “I was thinking about where we come from and where we’re going–is there a God? Is He there? And black and gold was the color of the universe,” Sparro told Pop Justice.
The Aquabats’ pop-ska ballad “Martian Girl” speaks to human fascination with extraterrestrial life. The MC Bat Commander, a.k.a. Aquabats front man Christian Jacobs, croons to the object of his affections, a visiting “Martian girl from Planet V” with a taste for human flesh. The song is a reference to a fifth inner planet, Planet V, that some astronomers think may or may not have existed between Mars and the asteroid belt.
Rockers have been expressing cosmic fascinations in their music for decades.
David Bowie asked if there was “Life on Mars?” but his incomprehensible lyrics didn’t seem to have anything to do with space, much less the red planet. However, his magnum opus, “Space Oddity,” a paean to the fictional astronaut Major Tom, is one of the world’s most well-known cultural odes to astronomy. The BBC even played the song during its coverage of the moon landing. “Oddity” is perhaps rivaled only by Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” which lamented that “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids.”
A young Neil Peart’s love of science fiction led Rush to produce several songs speculating on the mysteries of the universe, the most popular being Rush’s futuristic heroic epic “2112” which tells the story of inter-galactic conflict 100 years in the future.
And Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova,” which had nothing to do with the actual phenomena of a massive stellar explosion, actually led to the naming of supernova SNLS-03D3bb after the song. When asked in an interview with the Times of London about what his astrological lyrics meant, Noel Gallagher of Oasis replied, “I don’t f***ing know. But are you telling me, when you’ve got 60,000 people singing it, they don’t know what it means? It means something different to every one of them.”
Tomorrow, Part Two will chronicle the influence of astronomy on classical and instrumental pieces.