Reviews

Thursday, June 01, 2000
More than a century ago, Andrew Carnegie, flush with cash from his giant steelworks, commissioned a museum to astound and edify the Pittsburgh public. His minions snapped up Egyptian relics, bagged swarms of South American butterflies, and tapped through Mesozoic Utah rocks to secure the first specimens of the giant dinosaurs Diplodocus and Apatosaurus. But over the years, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History itself became a dinosaur, a sober collection of industrial-revolution-era trophies in an age of restless multimedia.

Now the museum is recasting itself in a more modern mold with high-tech flourishes and fresh takes on old installations, often reconfigured to address issues of global ecology. But the updates don't always mesh well with the stately grandeur that made the museum famous. Where curators have tried hardest to be hip, the results are vaguely embarrassing, like seeing your father in baggy jeans and a backward baseball cap. At their best, however, the museum's exhibits provoke perceptual leaps that make the hairs stick up on the back of your neck.

T. Rex stands in an old-fashioned, tail-dash-on-the-ground pose (above) in the Carnegie's grand but dated dinosaur hall. Rhodochrosite (below) shines among the museum's lovely gems.
Courtesy Carnegie Museum of Natural History


Two showpiece exhibits introduced under the tenure of former space-shuttle astronaut Jay Apt, who served as director from 1997 until recently, are unfortunate duds. Wild Blue Planet, a panoply of photos taken by shuttle crew members, shows how seemingly minor human actions can trigger vast environmental damage. For example, a Soviet irrigation project has transformed much of the Aral Sea into a salt desert. But there is hardly any text to help explain the images; surrounding computer monitors offer only limited interactive tutorials and confusing games. In the nearby What's New on the Earth exhibit, rows of shiny iMacs call up a handful of science news stories from major media outlets. You could learn more by Web-surfing at home.

Among the new attractions, there is one unalloyed success. The Earth Theater, featuring a digital wide-screen projection system (one of just two in the nation), runs a superb 22-minute program called The Millennium Show. Stirring computer animation mingles with drawings, astronomical images, and nature footage to tell the story of our planet's evolution in a succinct and original way.

In its classic areas of strength, the Carnegie proves impressively capable of modernization with tact. The halls of African and North American wildlife seamlessly incorporate meticulous dioramas into a contemporary environmental message. Amid a wonderland of mirrors and spare Plexiglas-and-chrome cases in the hall of minerals and gems, rhodochrosite crystals gleam like electrified rubies, and fluorite emits a ghoulish indigo glow under an ultraviolet light. Hinting at the museum's substantial behind-the-scenes fossil research, curators have set up the Bonehunters Quarry, where children can use paleontologists' tools to "unearth" fossil casts buried under a layer of fake stone--actually a mix of paraffin and sand.

But the museum's uncontested centerpiece, its Dinosaur Hall, cannot disguise the dreary fiscal realities facing the Carnegie. Unlike the skeletons in most museums, those featured here are the genuine article, not cast replicas. In addition to Apatosaurus (the proper name for Brontosaurus), the stunners include a towering T. rex and the uniquely complete remains of a juvenile Camarasaurus, already larger than a horse. All the beasts drag their tails on the ground, however, because the museum hasn't yet mustered the resources to remount the bones into tail-in-the-air poses in accordance with the latest thinking. As an interim distraction, the exhibit has been tarted up with a sound-and-light show and a gimmicky robotic tour guide. All of which makes one hope a latter-day Carnegie, perhaps a dot-com billionaire, will come along to rejuvenate the steel magnate's bold vision of educational spectacle for the masses.


Games

Predator: The Forest Food Chain Game
AC/DC: The Exciting Electric Circuits Game


both by ampersand press, $9.95 each (www.ampersandpress.com; 800-624-4263).

"I want your fruit card, and I'm taking it with my deer card!" my opponent gleefully cries. I reluctantly hand it over; plants lose to herbivores. "Now I want your rabbit card, and I'm taking it with my fox," he declares. But my rabbit has run off: It's now part of a complete food chain, sitting between the grass that it eats and the hawks that eat it. The fox will have to go hungry.
M, Z & D


 

My friend and I are engrossed in Predator, one of an assortment of science card games for ages 8 and up from Ampersand Press. Predator and its cousins, Krill and Onto the Desert, award players points for correctly sequencing natural food relationships. In the next round, for example, my rival flips over a bobcat card, almost a sure winner. In the temperate forest ecosystem that Predator simulates, the wild feline is practically at the top of the food chain. But lo, my top card shows an animal skeleton, indicating death and decay. If instead of the bobcat my challenger had flipped over a lowly fungus, which eats decaying material, he would have at least tied my card.

Inspired, we turn our attention to the more challenging AC/DC. The idea is to complete an electric circuit. I draw a 110-volt wall plug and lightbulb, then quickly add a fuse so a "short" card can't destroy my nascent effort. My challenger soon puts together a six-volt battery, fuse, and electric motor. We both need switches to complete our circuits. I don't have enough straight lengths of wire to connect back to my plug, so I demand one from my adversary. Countering, he uses a "shock" card to make off with a piece of corner wire from my hand.

M, Z & D


He has opted for a simple series circuit, where there is only one path for the electricity to take. He completes it in record time and moves on to his next circuit. I have decided on a more difficult and higher point-rewarding course: to make a parallel circuit, with several different branches and multiple components. I now have the lightbulb on the main part of the circuit, with a bell and an extra switch on the parallel branch. When the circuit is completed, my score rockets me ahead. My rival is only half done with his second circuit.

Perhaps he will be inspired to learn more about electricity before our rematch. In the meantime, I'll be playing Predator in solitaire format, brushing up on who eats whom. In both these games, it's survival of the fittest. --Fenella Saunders


Books

The Astonishing Elephant
Shana Alexander
Random House, $25.95.

In 1961, journalist Shana Alexander, on assignment for Life, descended along with hundreds of other reporters on the zoo in Portland, Oregon, to witness a stupendous first: the birth of an elephant in captivity. It proved to be a false alarm. Not surprising, because the basics of elephant reproduction, including the gestation period, were murky to everyone, including zoo personnel. It was another four months until, with Alexander in attendance, the expectant mother bore her 225-pound bundle of joy, whom Portland children named Packy.

For Alexander, the experience began a decades-long pachyderm passion that has culminated in her new book. The biological facts she relates deserve the modifier "amazing"--an elephant's heart can weigh 28.5 pounds, a testicle 5.5 pounds--but what makes these behemoths more remarkable is their continued survival despite more than a century of human predation. In Africa and Asia, hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered for ivory, and it may shock readers to learn that in the United States, dozens of healthy elephants were butchered in the years between the Civil War and World War I. At least once a year, adult males go into musth, an imperfectly understood phenomenon that is marked by aggressive behavior. Rampaging males sometimes destroyed property and even killed people. In retaliation, elephants were put to death, many in lurid public executions by firing squads and hanging. By the late 1930s, not a single male of breeding age remained available, Alexander notes.

The dearth of elephants brought a flurry of research into artificial insemination. The first successful insemination took place in late 1997. Alexander details the process: To collect sperm, "two strong, well-muscled men palpate the bull's accessory glands through the rectal wall, while two young women crouch under his belly and stimulate his three-to-four-foot penis by massage. When he reaches the point of ejaculation, which may take up to thirty minutes' stimulation by both teams, the girls will be ready to catch his ejaculate in a long, narrow bag of clear plastic." Introducing the sperm into the female is equally arduous: Zoo personnel use ultrasound, a balloon catheter, and six feet of tubing.

Will artificial insemination and other efforts by dedicated scientists and conservationists save the elephant? Perhaps not--Alexander fears her tribute may be an elegy. --Margaret Foley

Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud
Robert L. Park
Oxford University Press, $25.

When London physician Robert Fludd proposed in 1618 that a flour mill could run indefinitely on its reservoir of water, he gave birth to the idea of a perpetual motion machine--and a perpetual scam. Since then, self-styled inventors and even misguided scientists have come up with numerous free-energy schemes. That these inventions defy the laws of thermodynamics doesn't keep them from drawing the attention of the media, the public, and government officials.

Why are we so willing to accept fraudulent claims, inventions, and theories--what physics professor Robert L. Park in a witty, trenchant new book calls "voodoo science"? Scientific shams gain such a strong hold, says Park, partly because we have a natural tendency to make causal connections between events. But while this kind of reasoning may once have helped humans survive, it works to our detriment today. Compounding our innate tendencies is the influence of a media that judges stories more for their entertainment value than their credibility, politicians who latch onto high-profile projects, and scientists who skirt the traditional peer-review process in search of funding and celebrity.

Park offers numerous and often hilarious examples of foolish science. There is Joe Newman's Energy Machine, a contraption that was reported uncritically by CBS journalists and discussed seriously by a Senate committee. There is "Vitamin O," billed as a supplement that "maximizes your nutrients, purifies your bloodstream, and eliminates toxins and poisons--in other words, all the processes necessary to prevent disease and promote health." Park exposes it as nothing more than salt water.

The penalty for voodoo science is not only billions of dollars squandered but a rash of unfounded anxieties and fears. Fighting belief in fake science doesn't require that all Americans acquire Ph.D.'s in physics or biology, says Park. What's needed instead is a scientific worldview--"an understanding that we live in an orderly universe, governed by physical laws that cannot be circumvented." --Michele Kogon
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