Monday, October 20, 2008

Washington D.C. Pics Of The Day--Day 6

Well, we have finally come to the end of our journey (not the trip to Washington D.C.--that ended months ago--but the long journey of photo-blogging the adventure). We have made it at last to the Museum of Natural History. This will be the grand finale of my journal, both because it was my favorite day (or at least in a pitched battle for the honor with the day at Air and Space) and because I have so many pictures to show you that Blogger could well decide to kick me off the Internet forever due to the amount of server memory I'll be consuming as I bring you my favorites. This day was chock full of amazing discoveries. If you've ever been to this museum, you already know that its treasures range from exotic rocks to enormous dinosaurs, from ancient cultures to adorable animals and creepy crawly critters. If ever there was a museum with something for everyone, this is it.

The first place Ked and I headed was our favorite spot of all. We did not save the best for last. We went straight for the gems and minerals section and spent hours exploring its glories. In reality we shorted the museum's other wonders quite substantially, because we couldn't drag ourselves away from the odd formations, sparkling facets and myriad colors until we had seen every last thing in every last case. We read pretty much every last informational sign, too. For example, did you know that the National Gem Collection contains "more than 7,500 individual gemstones, ranging from a half-carat to almost 23,000 carats?" All those gems are cut from mineral crystals that formed within the Earth. So what's a mineral? Well, it's "a solid, inorganic, chemical compound that forms naturally." And a crystal? That's "a solid with an orderly, repeating internal pattern of atoms." The handy signs go on to tell us that, "Mineral crystals that grow under ideal conditions have geometric shapes with smooth faces..." and "a gem is a mineral crystal that has been cut and polished." Scientists have identified about 4,000 different minerals so far, and the discoveries continue apace. Some are common; some are rare. Some minerals always come in the same colors, and some have a rainbow of potential for their hue. Some are soft; some are hard like diamonds, and as Ked and I saw firsthand, most are beautiful in their own ways.

We got to explore the wonderful world of metal ores, as well, and learned some of their secrets. We're all so dependent upon the metals of the Earth, and our lives are so enhanced by their many uses that it's easy to lose track of how much they affect our lives, because they are so very common. I got the ins and outs of the stuff-from-the-Earth hierarchy a little more solidly in my head from this trip to Gem and Mineral World. Metals come from minerals, and ores are minerals or rock that can be mined for a profit. A metal is "an element with particular properties, such as malleability and the ability to conduct heat and electricity." Another one of those handy signs remind us that every time we use the phone, take our temperature, listen to the radio, get an x-ray, fly in a plane, or have surgery, we're using the bounty of the Earth to make it happen.

What would we do without metals? Our history has been shaped by how far we've come down the path of mineral exploitation. Take lead for an example. Its chemical symbol is Pb, from the Roman word for lead, which is plumbum. That's where we get our word "plumber," and it's used in everything from radiation shields to batteries. Could we live without lead? Maybe. We've certainly replaced lead as a plumbing aid, for the most part, but there'd be a whole lot of history to rewrite if the Romans hadn't found how well that nice malleable plumbum worked for channeling water! Almost everything in our history, from our use of swords to plowshares, from iPods to space stations and communicating on this little thing we call the Internet is directly influenced by our understanding and use of the fruits of a miner's labor.

Of course, we didn't stop with the gems and minerals, and as we wandered from place to place, seeing the birds, beasts and bugs, pottery and ancient coins, Egyptian mummies and towering Tyrannosaurus, we learned and gaped and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We saw creatures that I never could have imagined without the stuffed visual aids that were right before my eyes, and were reminded anew of the immense variety and creativity in nature. God is AMAZING, and the things people have done with the raw materials God has provided for us absolutely astound me. I came away admiring the pioneer inventors of old so much. If I were living in ancient times, would I have ever figured out how to extract metals from the ores of the Earth and pound them into useful shapes? I doubt it. Would I have figured out how to domesticate animals, or cultivate grains, or cut diamonds? Not remotely likely. Would I even have survived? Who knows? (Most people in ancient times didn't live much beyond thirty anyway, so what they had to do, they had to do quickly!) All these discoveries slowly laid the foundation for our modern life, and what the Smart People of our age are building on top of those foundations is mind boggling, and moving so rapidly that no museum could possibly keep up. I wonder what the future will hold...

Well, I know what the immediate future holds: pictures of some of the things we saw in the Museum of Natural History. Ready? Let's have a look.

The first thing that greets you as you enter the main hall is this huge bull elephant. Greet is too mild a word, actually. This fellow looms over you with the intensity and intimidation of final exams before graduation.

Here's Ked in front of a sheet of almost pure copper. The dark bits are shale that's still clinging to the metal from its former residence in a shale bed. Click on the photo to see the water ripples in the metal.

Okay, these Topaz crystals may not look that impressive, if you aren't there in person, although the color is awfully pretty, but it's the sheer size that makes them worth a look. These babies weigh 70 lbs. and 111 lbs. respectively. Take a gander of the kid reflected in the glass beside them and you might get a little bit of perspective...

This pillar of Beryl looked like a fancy candle to me, the kind you buy in an upscale home decor shop and never burn because it costs too much money. The nice thing about decorating with this pretty "faux candle" instead of the wax variety, though, is that it's unlikely that any evil perfume manufacturer has found a way to inject that nasty fake vanilla smell into the mineral. It's all natural, fragrance free and hypoallergenic!

Aren't these Pyrite chunks fascinating? It's so funny to see this average-looking hunk of rock with these perfect cubes jutting out like something out of a lab in Silicon Valley. I guess they did come out of a lab of sorts, just not one that mere mortals can access.

This sample of Mesolite reminds me of something out of the original Star Trek. It looks like a tribble convention being held on a rock candy island--really, really dangerous, hard, poky tribbles that tinkle instead of purring.

Isn't this Variscite pretty? That piece is quite large, if memory serves, maybe 16-18 inches across. Not just a little pebble to slip in your pocket.

The colors in this Corundum are wild, doncha think? That big one in the back would make a nice psychedelic 70's style dress. Wear your sunglasses...

Moving on to the sparklies, these gemstones are all Beryl, and soooo beautiful. Lest you think these are ordinary little gems, like you'd find at the mall, take a look at the size of these things--235.5 carats ain't no little bauble. You'd get a significant crick in your neck if you tried to wear one of these as a pendant.

Such a gorgeous piece for such a gross name. Who made that call?

The large gem in this piece is called Spodumene. It's really a stunning bit of neck decoration, although, as with the Beryl above, I wouldn't try to wear it if I were you. We're talking 396.3 carats of neck-bending dead weight. I've heard of sacrificing comfort for beauty, but that's ridiculous.

Speaking of over-sized crystals, how's this for embracing the huge? This giant slab from Arkansas weighs 880 pounds, and "contains about a thousand crystals." Can you say Big?

Kedley absolutely loves opals, and these are so fiery. This picture is worth a click to catch a little more of the brilliance.

These blue Topaz have been irradiated to deepen their color. That's some serious blue. What was equally impressive though, was, again, the size. That gem in the upper left is over 7,000 carats. Yes, that's thousand. It was easily bigger than my hand, and ever so shimmery and sparkly. Mmm, sparkly.

Okay, I couldn't make up my mind whether these examples of Malachite and Goethite looked more alien, or intestinal. You decide.

I mentioned that eventually we dragged ourselves out of the gems and minerals section, right? The brilliant colors seem to have followed us out of the rock zone, though. We stumbled upon these butterflies soon after.

Jay, here, was one of many birds that have found a place to "live" forever (or at least a good long while) and be admired by the multitudes thronging the bird display in the lower halls of the museum. These birds may have sacrificed their lives for science, but their beauty endures.

Nice Kitty.

Anybody know what species this armor-plated tail-hanger is? Let's start with the basics--is it reptile, mammal, amphibian, dragon, military assault vehicle... other? Anybody want the answer? Okay, okay, I'll tell you. It's a Chinese Pangolin, and it's a funky-looking type of mammal that eats bugs. See the hair that's sticking out from under some of the scales? That's a dead giveaway that a mammal is on the loose. This guy can curl himself up into a tight, tight ball when he's scared, although, if you ask me, what's he got to be scared of? Did you get a load of those claws?

Heh. I knew giraffes had long necks, but check out that tongue!! Trees and shrubs beware!

All I can think of when I see this little fennec (a type of fox) is, "Oh Hai." Maybe I've been reading too many lolcats.

Do you suppose I'd look that cheerful if the glass wasn't there and that bear wasn't stuffed?

Here's your chance to play Where's Waldo? This little snow fox has quite the camouflage ability, wouldn't you say? Click on this one to see the detail they put into the display. The tiny snow flakes are so cute.

Ked is standing here beside a capybara, a specimen of the world's largest living rodents. Is anyone else thinking Princess Bride...?

We eventually worked our way around to the civilization-related displays, full of evidence of ancient culture. These Greek pots were really quite stunning. I would love to be able to create something this lovely, that endures over the ages the way these have.

Here's an example of Roman glass. The Syrians invented glass blowing in about 50 B.C. and the industry spread rapidly, facilitated by the elaborate transportation system established by Rome.

This mosaic was amazing, and is about 2,000 years old. Click to enlarge.

Eventually we made our way to the bug displays. They were all extremely interesting, and some of these beetles were gorgeously colored. I would not want to run into that big guy in a dark alley, though. Come to think of it, I wouldn't want to run into him in a lighted alley, either. Look at the size of that thing next to Ked's hand. He's a monster!

Speaking of monsters, there's one now. Do you suppose T-Rex is scared?

There you have it. That's the last of my Washington D.C. pics-of-the-day. Honestly, I could have posted at least a hundred more photos from this trip. There were so many things of beauty, and things of interest, and things of inspiration that there's only one thing to be done. We must go back and start the whole process over again. We missed more than we saw, and we saw more than we could absorb. We need another round. At least one more. Two would be nice. At least.

You should go there too!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pumpkin Surprise

Ked and I were driving to church this morning when we noticed a local produce stand had put out their seasonal pumpkins. Nothing remarkable there, of course. Halloween is almost upon us. The kids are planning their costumes. The grownups are hanging their cobwebs, and the Sci Fi channel is showing nothing but an endless stream of horror films. (Yuck, but that's another post altogether.) We can all expect to start seeing creatively carved orange faces appearing on porches any moment now. Funny thing was, though, some of the pumpkins at this local produce stand were decidedly not orange. They were quite definitely grey. Haven't ever seen grey pumpkins before. Have you? It was a bit disconcerting. Genetic engineering at work, perhaps? Anyway, Ked mentioned that they looked dead, and then, in the spirit of the jack-o'-lantern-related holiday, we decided they looked undead. Finally, in the tradition of Dave Barry, we determined that The Undead Pumpkins would make an excellent name for a rock band.

That's all. Just had to share The Undead Pumpkins with you.