Reviews

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

MUSEUMS

Mammoth Creatures The most compelling characters in Movie Town are not on the silver screen—they’re in the ooze at the La Brea Tar Pits

By Brad Lemley

The Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits 

5801 Wilshire Boulevard 

Los Angeles, California 

(323) 934-7243 

www.tarpits.org 

En route to the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, I encountered the featured attraction trying to escape. At the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Curson Avenue, about 100 yards from the museum’s entrance, I was amazed to see a fresh, four-foot-wide patch of goo bubbling out of the sidewalk. Several people had stepped in it, tracking black footprints in all directions. As it turns out, the stuff can erupt almost anywhere within a two-mile radius of the museum—a hefty chunk of greater L.A. “We’ve had people call us and say, ‘Your tar is coming up in our basement! What are you going to do about it?’” says John Harris, the chief curator of the museum.

Harris might well suggest that the callers count their blessings. While a soupçon of naturally occurring asphalt on a sidewalk or in a wine cellar is annoying, the substance meant slow, agonizing death for millions of Ice Age creatures. Here, just a five-minute limo ride from Beverly Hills, paleontologists have over the last century removed some 3.5 million fossilized animals and plants from the La Brea “matrix”—scientists’ term for the asphalt, clay, and sand mix in which the old bones are found. Most of the fossils are of predators who attacked asphalt-trapped herbivores and became stuck themselves, creating an ossified tableau of nature, red in tooth and claw. Aside from an open casting call, the museum is the best demonstration extant that modern Los Angeles is a thin veneer of civilization overlying a sea of brutality.

Just past the sidewalk eruption, I entered the museum grounds and came to the Lake Pit. Actually a quarry from which asphalt was mined in the 19th century, it is now full of water covered with asphalt slicks. Fifteen feet offshore, a life-size fiberglass representation of a female Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) appears to be struggling in the ooze as her baby and mate watch helplessly from the bank.

It’s creepy, but as Harris explains, something similar actually happened here countless times over the last 40,000 years as animals found themselves glued to the ground in midstride. “The asphalt seeps are like little volcanoes, oozing up from the North Salt Lake oil field,” which is just a few blocks north and about 1,000 feet underground. “They get covered with leaves. An herbivore—a camel, a bison, a ground sloth—unwittingly walks in and gets stuck; it can happen in as little as two inches of asphalt. Then the predators attack, then the vultures, then the flies. All of them get stuck and die.” That’s why the fossil collection is carnivore-centric:

The most common large-mammal find is the powerfully built and fiercely fanged dire wolf (Canis dirus), with 4,000 individuals in the collection, followed by the saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis), with over 2,000 individuals. Recognizing the richness of the fossil hoard, businessman George Allan Hancock donated the 23 acres of park grounds to Los Angeles County in 1924. The museum was dedicated in 1977, and Hancock Park underwent a $10 million renovation in 1999.

Inside the airy, attractive museum itself are plenty of the requisite skeleton constructions, but one of the cleverest exhibits illustrates how the animals met their awful fates. Pairs of steel rods—one fat, one thin, representing the legs of small and large creatures—are sunk several inches into a vat of asphalt. Visitors can push and pull the rods and get a vivid sense of just how inescapable the stuff is; think of viscous molasses at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Indeed, says Harris, animals get caught even now: Squirrels, pigeons, ducks, storks, and hawks have become contemporary victims. During the major park renovation in the late 1990s, “we took the fence down around Pit 9, and two dogs got stuck. We salvaged them with a backhoe.”

Once the Ice Age animals succumbed to predation or starvation, they keeled over and were buried by more asphalt and sediment. Today museumgoers can see the results from an observation platform above Pit 91, the deposit that the museum has been excavating since 1969. “It’s a surprise every time,” says senior excavator Karine Pezeril, who supervises a mostly volunteer crew. Standing 14 feet below the surface, where the fossils are about 40,000 years old, she waves a hand at the riot of bones. The spine of a bison, the pelvis of a dire wolf, and the scapula of a ground sloth all protrude from the matrix, which has the consistency of grainy fudge.        

“It’s an embarrassment of riches,” says Harris.

BOOKS

The Improbable Weirdness of Being

Quantum jitters, warped space-time, subatomic vibrating strings—it’s a mad universe out there

By Tim Folger

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

By Brian Greene

Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

Is the universe a hologram and three-dimensional space nothing more than a compelling illusion? Of the myriad fascinating ideas Brian Greene presents in his new book, he singles out this as the one most likely to play a dominant role in the ongoing quest to understand the cosmos. It’s an outlandish proposal, one that Greene dwells on only briefly. But it’s also a benchmark of sorts, a measure of the sheer strangeness of reality as revealed by the discoveries of modern physics, discoveries that Greene chronicles with brilliant clarity.

Greene, a physicist at Columbia University and author of the best seller The Elegant Universe, begins his latest tale with Sir Isaac Newton, who saw space and time much as most of us still do today. For Newton, space was an empty three-dimensional arena in which events unfold; time ticked away in the background at the same eternally even rate throughout the universe. Albert Einstein demolished that eminently reasonable viewpoint when he merged space and time into one malleable four-dimensional fabric. He theorized that space, far from being the shapeless void that Newton imagined, has curves and ripples; time can flow at different rates or even stop completely if you happen to be traveling at the speed of light.

But what is space-time? Does it have a fine-scale structure, the way matter is made of atoms? If so, what could space-time possibly consist of? And where would its components exist, if not in space and time? Is Einstein’s the final word on the subject? To explore these questions Greene needs nearly 500 pages, not including a 39-page appendix of notes for the terminally curious. But don’t let the length put you off. There is simply no better introduction to the strange wonders of general relativity and quantum mechanics, the fields of knowledge essential for any real understanding of space and time. Greene’s writing is highly informed, lucid, and witty.

“Electric and magnetic fields are as entwined as the fibers in a Rastafarian’s dreadlocks,” he writes in one passage. In others he uses seemingly mundane events to convey the excitement of exploring the limits of what we know about the universe. For example, Greene explains why time flows forward—but never backward—by a careful look at what happens when an egg rolls off a counter and splatters on a floor. His explanation winds all the way back to the Big Bang. Simply put, eggs don’t “un-splatter” because it’s more likely that eggs—and everything else—will evolve from a highly ordered arrangement of matter into something much less orderly. Or as a physicist would say, entropy, or disorder, tends to increase and has ever since the very beginning of time.

Reading Greene’s account of subjects like quantum teleportation or of the simultaneous, eternal coexistence of the past, present, and future, it barely seems possible that any forthcoming discoveries could make the universe seem any stranger than physics has already revealed it to be. But in later chapters Greene describes theories that may lie beyond quantum mechanics and relativity. He personally favors string theory as a likely successor, which holds that the universe consists of 11 dimensions. We’re aware of only four of them (three of space and one of time) because the other seven are curled up on scales too tiny for us to notice. Then again, if the holographic theory of the universe turns out to be true, our 11-dimensional cosmos may be merely an ephemeral projection from a two-dimensional surface beyond all space, time, and strings.

The wonder Greene evokes throughout the book brings to mind a striking admission Newton made late in life. The man who limned the laws that guide the paths of stars, planets, and falling apples had this to say about the universe: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Physics has come a long way since then, but as Greene reminds us, in many ways the profound mystery of the universe remains undiminished.

Brother Aliens: What life-forms lie yonder? Newly sensitive probes may soon tell

By Lawrence Marshall

Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life

By David Grinspoon

HarperCollins, $29.95

Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life

Johannes Kepler, the German mathematician who formulated the basic laws of planetary motion, penned a short essay in 1593 in which he postulated that a herd of monstrous winged amphibians roamed the moon’s mountains and seas. A decade and a half later, when Galileo trained his first telescope upon the moon and brought into focus canyons and plains that looked remarkably Earth-like, the scientific search for alien life in the cosmos began in earnest.

Science Best Sellers

1. A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING, By Bill Bryson, Broadway Books

2. STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, By Mary Roach, W. W. Norton

3. THE ANATOMY OF HOPE: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness, By Jerome Groopman, Random House

4. THE NEW HUMANISTS: Science at the Edge, Edited by John Brockman, Barnes & Noble Books

5. THE UNIVERSE IN A NUTSHELL, By Stephen Hawking, Bantam

6. GORGON: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History, By Peter Ward, Viking

7. THE SCIENCE OF GOOD AND EVIL: Why People Cheat, Share, Gossip, and Follow the Golden Rule, By Michael Shermer, Times Books

8. DREAMS OF IRON AND STEEL: Seven Wonders of the Nineteenth Century, From the Building of the London Sewers to the Panama Canal, By Deborah Cadbury, Fourth Estate

9. MIND WIDE OPEN: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, By Steven Johnson, Scribner

10. LOST IN SPACE: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age, By Greg Klerkx, Pantheon Books

DVD

Three Tales: A Digital Documentary Video Opera

By Steve Reich (music) and Beryl Korot (video)

DVD/CD, $19.98

“The Hindenburg has gone,” intones a sonorous voice. “She was the largest thing that ever flew...her tragedy will not halt the march of progress.” Indeed, the march of progress following the fiery crash of the hydrogen-filled airship in 1937—as portrayed in dramatic detail in Steve Reich and Beryl Korot’s video opera—has included the creation of nuclear bombs, Dolly the cloned sheep, and robots that express human emotions. Now available on DVD, this epic musical tale of 20th-century technology depicts the destruction and death that arose out of man’s obsession with machines. Paradoxically, it also inspires deep admiration for the grandeur of the human imagination.

Three Tales has three chapters: Hindenburg (reviewed in Discover in December 2000), Bikini (the bombed Pacific atoll, not the swimsuit), and Dolly. Viewed with post-9/11 eyes, the roaring flames of the downed dirigible seem both eerily familiar and horribly compelling to watch. Yet there is, of course, worse to come. As the natives of Bikini atoll clutch their worldly goods and flee, tenor voices sing of “a gigantic shimmering mushroom, ever changing its form and color.” The island, a site of U.S. atomic testing in the 1940s and 1950s, is still off-limits to its original inhabitants. Dolly touches on obsessions that are already shaping scientific debate in the early 21st century: the dangers of genetic engineering, the conflict between religion and science, and the dim possibility that we will create a race of intelligent robots that will replace us. Featuring a panoply of talking heads that includes a loop of zoologist Richard Dawkins repeating the words, “We, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes,” this chapter verges on scare mongering.

Yet there is a strange and terrible beauty in the opera’s imagery: the balletic movements of the construction workers as they tiptoe over the partially built Hindenburg; the twisted girders of the crumpled zeppelin; palm trees on Bikini staggering sideways in the yellow atomic wind; and a robot named Kismet singing poignantly of a garden created by God. Three Tales is a work of extraordinary power, one that will no doubt long stand as a testament to the grand mistakes—and awe-inspiring creations—of our time.

Josie Glausiusz


Gizmos

Digital Sundial

Digital Sundials International, $89

www.digitalsundial.com

Sundials are so 1500 B.C. Their design has remained virtually unchanged since the Egyptians first plunked down a post and watched its shadow sweep out the hours as the sun crossed the sky. That simple principle applies even to the exotic sundials carried on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Those instruments not only show the slightly longer Martian hours but also use colored blocks to calibrate the robots’ cameras so that the Red Planet’s stark terrain can be seen in its true colors.

The digital sundial, invented by Hans and Daniel Scharstein and Werner Krotz-Vogel, is the first real innovation in solar timekeeping in more than three millennia. It consists of two photographic masks separated by a thin sheet of Plexiglas and mounted on a three-inch-wide oval plastic plate, which is reflected in a mirror. On the first mask is an evenly spaced array of thin vertical slits, which, like venetian blinds in a sunlit room, cast a series of shadows on a series of 10 numbers on the second mask. Each number—the morning hours of 8 through 12 and the afternoon hours of 1 through 5 (typical daylight hours)—is cut into dozens of tiny vertical slices and interwoven in such a way that at any one time only a single number’s stripes are illuminated by the sun as it crosses the sky. To one side are thinner strips indicating 10-minute intervals.

When the sundial is oriented correctly on a south-facing window or on a nearby desk, light streams through the slits on the first mask to illuminate the correct hour on the second mask. First-time observers typically mistake the instrument for an elegantly designed solar-powered digital clock. But unlike a clock, the digital sundial has no electronics or moving parts and never needs winding or batteries. It is the most foolproof and reliable timepiece imaginable—weather permitting, of course.

William Jacobs

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