Reviews

Tuesday, February 01, 2000
A River Runs Through It

Collectors of all ages can get their feet wet in St. Paul’s new science center

MUSEUM

Poised on a bluff above the Mississippi River, the new home of the Science Museum of Minnesota showers visitors with gifts of light, air, and space—as well as a chance to explore the river’s geology and ecology. Patrons enter the museum through the Mississippi River Gallery, which leads to huge windows overlooking the river. Along the way they can inspect a diorama of the river’s headwaters, finger examples of the region’s prevailing rocks, and heft accurately weighted models of bass to judge the true size of the one that got away. Especially delightful is the mini floodplain—a glass-topped table filled with sand and silt, shaped by an adjustable stream of water. It’s reset every morning to show how the course of the river shifts with time. On the balcony sits child heaven: an authentic, 13-ton towboat, scarred from its 50 years on the river. Climb into the pilot house and take the helm, making sure you steer clear of the other towboats passing on the river below.

When the museum opened the doors of its new building in downtown St. Paul two months ago, it not only added a pair of theaters and doubled its exhibition space, it also expanded science education. What started in 1907 as a natural history museum is now a sparkling science center, with new displays of technological art, demonstrations of physical sciences, and interactivity everywhere.

Just beyond the entry gallery is a central atrium lined with hands-on sculptures that combine science with art. Particularly intriguing is a vast, chiming object suspended from the ceiling. It may look like a cross between a roller coaster and a xylophone, but it’s really the world’s largest seismophone—an instrument for registering seismic activity. Hooked up to the Internet, it collects earthquake data, then plays melodies that correspond to the location of the activity. Asian earthquakes, for example, get pentatonic tunes; Africa is more percussive. The music’s peaceful, New-Age sound meshes oddly with the violent potential of the data represented. Did Nero’s fiddle sound this serene while Rome burned?

The nearby Paleontology Gallery makes the most of one of the museum’s strongest collections. Visitors can move a lever up and down to make a cast of a tyrannosaurus skull gnash its teeth, or use a laser to illuminate the scar where the museum’s triceratops was gored in battle. Kids love the dinocam, a video camera mounted level with the diplodocus head, 20 feet up. Turning a handle to swivel the camera, they can see themselves through this former earthshaker’s eyes. In the background, through a glass wall, volunteers and staff can be seen cleaning dinosaur bones, evidence that this is a research institution.

Staff members here have solved a tricky problem: how to display the mummies, stuffed tigers, and so forth that have delighted museum goers for generations without seeming to disregard current ethics. The Collections Gallery mounts the specimens, then uses labels to discuss the museum’s changing vision and collection practices. Cases full of butterflies or hats address the question Why collect multiple specimens? In a nearby room, children can bring in their own collections of, say, rocks or snakeskins to learn more about their treasures and trade them with other youngsters. It’s a perfect place for the next generation of curators to get its start.—Polly Shulman


COMICS

If words on paper are literature and drawings on paper are art, why is the combination of the two considered lowly when it results in comic books? Although years of rock ’em, sock ’em adventures have branded comic books as lightweight entertainment for children, Jay Hosler and Jim Ottaviani have staged a valiant defense of the medium. In their hands, cartooning becomes exciting education.

CLAN APIS, Jay Hosler active synapse comics, $15.

Clan Apis, originally published as a  five-part series, ingeniously reworks the plot conventions of the musty old action comic. Starring Nyuki—a real honey of a heroine—the series opens solemnly with the tale of her origins, mirthfully chronicles her bumbling discovery of her own powers, and reaches its stinging climax as she battles powerful enemies while trying to establish a new colony. Obviously, Nyuki isn’t exactly human: She is a honeybee—Apis mellifera. Nyuki is Swahili for “bee.”

That is no surprise considering that Clan Apis’s creator is entomologist Jay Hosler of Ohio State University. Hosler, a cartoonist since his college days, sneaks  alot of lessons about bee anatomy, behavior, and ecology into his brisk story. As a newly hatched larva, Nyuki listens while her mentor, Dvorah (“bee” in Hebrew), gently explains her impending transformation: A group of cells in her larval body will turn active, consume her from the inside out, and rebuild her as a mature bee during her imprisonment in the cocoon. Later, while hunting for a place to establish another hive, Nyuki becomes separated from the swarm and learns about mantises and other bee predators. In a moving conclusion, she comes to terms with the metabolic and physical breakdowns that occur at the end of a bee’s brief life.

Dignifying Science, Jim Ottaviani, et al. g.t. labs, $16.95.

Like comic books, women in science have suffered from a chronic lack of respect. Jim Ottaviani, a nuclear physicist by training, tries to settle both scores in Dignifying Science, a volume of illustrated essays depicting key events in the lives of six pioneering female researchers. He has selected a diverse crew, from Marie Curie to Hedy Lamarr. The sultry film actress was also a gifted engineer who during World War II worked on developing a secure way to guide torpedoes using encrypted radio signals. Ottaviani hands off the artwork to a group of illustrators—women all—drawing in a variety of mildly avant-garde but accessible styles.

The standout piece is Ottaviani’s biography of crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, who nearly figured out the structure of DNA and made possible Francis Crick and James Watson’s discovery of the double helix. Four artists collaborate to breathe life into that difficult research and twisting narrative. Franklin was a meticulous researcher held back by her stubborn individualism, which led her down blind scientific paths and intensified her handicap as a woman barging into the men’s club of 1950s science.

Other sections of Dignifying Science suffer from their brevity. Ottaviani compresses physicist Lise Meitner’s contributions to nuclear fission theory, German university politics, and the rise of Nazism into 10 illustrated pages. It is an absurdly ambitious task, but at least the author knows it. Flip to the end of the book, and you’ll find notes that address most of the story’s unanswered questions, as well as pointers to further reading. It’s a tribute to Ottaviani’s breezy style that one wants to dig into those references and learn a little nuclear physics. Now that is a superheroic achievement. —Corey S. Powell


BOOKS

WORDS AND RULES:

The Ingredients of Language, Steven Pinker basic books, $26.

Most of us don’t dwell on irregular verbs, except when they torment us in a foreign-language class. But for Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of two best-sellers about thinking, they provide a window into the basic mental mechanisms underlying our capacity for language. In his new book, Words and Rules, he uses regular and irregular verbs, as well as other parts of speech, to tackle one of linguistics’ key issues.

Back in the 1960s, mit linguist Noam Chomsky offered a revolutionary theory of how we produce language. He argued that a set of innate rules in the human mind allows us to mix and match words to form sentences that make sense. He called this somewhat mystical rule book “deep structure,” and he used it to explain how language permits us to make “infinite use of finite media”—as one linguist has put it. While most linguists accept Chomsky’s theory, his critics hold an alternate view: that we learn to speak merely by trial and error, building up from memory the information and associations we need to assemble words into meaningful sentences.

Pinker bridges these two concepts, in part by softening Chomsky’s hypothesis. As children, he contends, we learn rules that allow us to form endings to regular verbs. To support his point, Pinker cites common mistakes youngsters make in applying these rules to irregular verbs, such as “they goed to the store.” For him, that’s the Chomskian deep structure at work in our brains. Now, what about irregular verbs? Well, this is where the memory part of language learning comes in. Irregular verbs such as be, have, do, say, make, and go, says Pinker, tend to be the most frequently used. We learn to use irregular forms correctly by sheer force of repeated example. So, too, with recognizing families of other irregular verbs with similar conjugations,  such as sing, sang, sung, or drink, drank, drunk. The resonance of these patterns in our memory allows us to assign the right endings to the right verbs. But when verbs fade out of usage, we forget their irregular formation. Who, for instance, recalls that the past tense of heave is hove?

To further his case, Pinker points out that different kinds of brain damage tamper with specific language-processing skills. People with Alzheimer’s tend to have trouble recalling irregular verb forms. And those with Parkinson’s, who suffer impairment of procedural brain operations, often cannot form complex grammatical sentences.

Pinker’s argument is appealing, and Words and Rules brims with delightful data. Word-lovers may find themselves skimming the book for clever bits: reflections on why we refer to lowlifes, but not lowlives, tenderfoots instead of tenderfeet, or why a baseball player flied out instead of flew out. Still, much of his most convincing material is based on intuition and anecdote rather than overwhelming scientific evidence. What critics like English linguist Geoffrey Sampson, author of Educating Eve: The “Language Instinct” Debate, seem to find most irksome is Pinker’s wholehearted promotion of a linguistic model that views the human capacity for learning language as distinct from other abilities, such as building bridges or writing symphonies.

To Sampson, the very notion of “mental machinery” for language—a term Pinker throws around a lot—turns us all into unimaginative robots. Still, when Pinker says that English speakers can construct one hundred trillion different 20-word sentences, should anyone feel diminished?

—Sarah Richardson

VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY:

Three Centuries of Natural History Exploration, Tony Rice, Ph.D. clarkson-potter, $60.

In 1689, botany enthusiast Hans Sloane sailed home to England, bringing with him hundreds of natural curiosities from his 15-month stay on a largely unexamined island called Jamaica. Not all made it to England alive: A crocodile expired from undetermined causes, an iguana “inadvertently” jumped overboard and drowned, and a seven-foot-long snake was shot to death after escaping from its jar and frightening a passenger.

Fortunately, the voyage’s nonliving cargo, Jamaican plants that Sloane had preserved by drying, survived the trip and the subsequent three centuries in remarkably good shape. Today the Natural History Museum in London houses the specimens—along with finely detailed drawings of them made by artists who had accompanied Sloane to Jamaica.

Many of these renderings are reproduced in Voyages of Discovery, by Tony Rice, a former curator of the museum. Recounted are 10 revelatory natural history expeditions that took place between 1687 and 1876, including Sloane’s to Jamaica, James Cook’s to the South Seas, and Charles Darwin’s to the Galápagos Islands. Visual records from each trip are included.

Some of these meticulous images not only enthralled a nature-curious public more than 100 years ago but also instigated a taxonomic revolution by the great eighteenth-century botanist Carl Linnaeus. Previously, scientists wrote up cumbersome Latin descriptions for each specimen without necessarily checking to see whether a previous, more appropriate appellation existed. Linnaeus compared the drawings of different types of plants and animals and recognized that certain flora and fauna shared characteristics. He assigned each such grouping a genus, as well as a species name to distinguish it from other members of its genus.

Rice documents the voyages’ serendipitous consequences, such as Sloane’s first encounter with a cacao tree, the mother of chocolate. “The nuts themselves are made up of several parts like an ox’s kidney, some lines being visible on it before broken, and is hollow within,” he wrote. “Its pulp is oyly [sic] and bitterish to the taste.” Sloane went on to patent a formula that combined chocolate with milk and sugar, thus making it palatable to Europeans.

Overall, though, Voyages’s dry prose fails to impart the exhilaration of exploration. It is the glorious drawings that help readers imagine an explorer’s awe and wonder.

—Rebecca Reisner


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