Sunday, June 27, 2004


Cabinets of Curious Creatures

Lord Walter Rothschild assembled the largest—and weirdest—menagerie ever collected by one man

By Josie Glausiusz

The Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum

Akeman Street

Tring, Hertfordshire, U.K.


Photograph by Peter Fraser

One case in Rothschild’s museum houses a  ponderous mix of hoofed grazing mammals, among them small, swamp-dwelling African bushbuck (left, seated on shelf and floor), a large dark-brown fruit-eating Indian nilgai (center, seated), a four-horned antelope (center, standing), as well as bison and buffalo heads.

Lionel Walter Rothschild, scion of the famous banking family, was exceedingly fond of zebras. In 1894 he harnessed three to a carriage and drove them through the streets of London and on to the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. He was also an exceptionally keen ornithologist. In 1931, in order to pay off a debt to a blackmailing peeress, he sold his collection of 280,000 bird skins to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He also amassed a collection of 2.25 million moths and butterflies, which, upon his death in 1937 at age 69, was bequeathed to the Natural History Museum in London. The insects now lie pinned in glass-bottomed drawers within tall wooden cabinets in the bowels of the museum, their wings still shimmering in glorious shades of green, orange, and purple.

Lord Rothschild was, in fact, fascinated by any animal that ever walked, crawled, swam, or flew upon the face of the earth. In his lifetime he assembled the largest collection of fauna ever accumulated by one man. His menagerie included a flock of flightless kiwis from New Zealand (which accompanied him to Cambridge when he arrived as a university student in 1887), 144 giant tortoises imported from the Galápagos Islands, a sheep-size South American rodent called a capybara, as well as wild asses, spiny and scaly anteaters, emus, and kangaroos. All these animals were allowed to roam freely around his Tring Park estate in Hertfordshire, 33 miles north of London. Thousands of others were stuffed and placed in a nearby museum, which has changed little since Rothschild’s time. In variety of species and sheer, enchanting eccentricity, this collection has no peer.

Housed in a gabled Victorian mansion, the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum is divided into sections devoted to marine and terrestrial mammals, birds, insects, fish, crustaceans, and reptiles, but it is often hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. In the ground floor gallery, for example, the turquoise-browed motmot and the iridescent green, feathery-tailed quetzal, both birds from Central America, share a glass-faced wooden cabinet with lions and leopards. In the same crowded room, one case is filled with all forms of pigeons, from the green-winged Southeast Asian emerald dove to the big, blue-black Victoria crowned pigeon from New Guinea. Others house a motley array of primates, including a dusky titi from Brazil, a long-fingered aye-aye from the forests of Madagascar, and a rat-size Southeast Asian slow loris.

Photograph by Peter Fraser

The polar bear is a powerful predator, but the Victorian taxidermists who stuffed this specimen endowed it with a benevolent smile. Human expressions grace many of the animals in the Rothschild Museum.

The eclectic collection ranges from the extinct to the extant to the extremely rare. Rothschild sent explorers to five continents, and one cartographer described the map dotted with sites sampled by his collectors as “the world with a severe attack of measles.” In the museum one can find a dusty white-striped beige-brown quagga—a subspecies of zebra hunted to extinction in South Africa more than a century ago—as well as a blue-speckled scaly coelacanth, an ancient fish thought extinct until one was hauled up off the eastern coast of South Africa in 1938. Duck-billed platypuses jostle with all kinds of marsupials, including koalas and bandicoots and a greater gliding possum, which looks like a squirrel that has been flayed and ironed. One display case is filled only with different breeds of dog, among them a Great Dane and a dachshund with considerably longer legs than those seen on its descendants.

Gazing at this great profusion of beasts, one begins to wonder whether Lord Rothschild was eccentric, obsessive-compulsive, or slightly insane. Certainly the collecting mania seemed to run in the family. His younger brother Charles was a noted flea expert: He discovered Xenopsylla cheopis, the notorious plague vector, on an expedition to Egypt. Or maybe Rothschild’s zeal was simply an extreme form of that peculiar Victorian passion for plundering the world of its then-abundant natural riches, an ardor that was abetted in part by access to a British empire that stretched across vast swaths of Africa, India, and Australia.

Rothschild was no mere hobbyist, however,  but rather a keen scientist who with his curators and collaborators described 5,000 new species and published over 1,700 books and papers based on his collections. (He was also a member of Parliament and, as the de facto head of the Jewish community, the addressee of the British government’s 1917 Balfour Declaration, which viewed “with favour” the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.) Some 250 species are named in his honor, including a Rothschild’s giraffe, a Rothschild’s elephant, a bird of paradise, a porcupine, and a Galápagos finch. Indeed, a key study of the beaks of these birds, which Charles Darwin so famously described in The Voyage of the Beagle, was carried out in 1938 by careful examination of the New York bird collection. 

Still, not everyone shared Rothschild’s Victorian penchant for stuffing dead animals. In a letter dated December 16, 1891, his enlightened Cambridge mentor Alfred Newton argued that it was far better to examine birds alive than to extirpate an already expiring fauna. “I can’t agree with you in thinking that Zoology is best advanced by collectors of the kind you employ,” he wrote. “No doubt they answer admirably the purpose of stocking a Museum; but they unstock the world—and that is a terrible consideration.”


The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor

By Ken Silverstein

Random House, $22.95

The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor
The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor

Entombed within a highly restricted Superfund dump in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert, alongside several tons of radioactive residue from atomic bomb factories and uranium mines, is a small chemistry experiment constructed in 1995 by an aspiring Eagle Scout from suburban Detroit. David Hahn, nicknamed Glow Boy by his high school friends, tried to build a nuclear reactor in a potting shed in his backyard—and came shockingly close to succeeding.

Even more alarming, however, is the fact that Hahn collected the radioactive ingredients for his project from relatively common sources. With the aid of nuclear industry promotional pamphlets and detailed advice he obtained from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (to which he misrepresented himself as a physics professor), Hahn removed radium from old clocks, extracted americium from smoke detectors, stole tritium from borrowed night-vision equipment, and even ordered a sample of uranium-bearing ore from a company in the Czech Republic. He encased his makeshift reactor core in foil-wrapped cubes of radioactive thorium, 9,000 times purer than what is normally found in nature, which he had made using lithium batteries and thorium dioxide from gas-lantern mantles. Although the do-it-yourself contraption never produced a chain reaction, it did emit enough radiation to be detected down the block. Eventually, it brought men in moon suits prowling across the lawns of Hahn’s otherwise sleepy neighborhood.

Hahn’s feat raises chilling questions about the ease with which terrorists could acquire the components for a radioactive “dirty bomb”—questions that Silverstein, an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, inexplicably fails to explore. Instead, he sees the Boy Scout’s tabletop science project as a kind of parable for the reckless ambitions of 20th-century atomic science. Hahn pursued his nuclear dream with the same disregard for danger that led to the disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. As Silverstein writes, “He may have been naïve … but he was no more starry-eyed and arrogant than the scientists, businessmen, and government officials who came before him.”

Alex Stone


Meltdown in Baked Alaska

Climatologists could learn a few things from the Eskimo, who don’t need supercomputers to tell them the Arctic is turning to slush

By Joseph D’Agnese

The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change

By Charles Wohlforth

North Point Press, $25

The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change
The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change

A team of scientists studying global warming in Alaska hire an Eskimo to lead them into the Arctic wilderness. Each day during breakfast, their guide leaves the main tent and returns with a weather forecast, ostensibly after studying the skies. Day after day, his predictions prove unerringly accurate. Finally, one of the scientists asks to accompany the Eskimo in order to learn his arcane method for divining the weather. “Sure,” he replies, “I’m just going over to my tent to listen to the seven o’clock forecast on KBRW.”

The story may be apocryphal, but to Charles Wohlforth it carries a ring of truth: For the lowdown on climate in the Arctic, he argues, it often makes more sense to consult the plainspoken wisdom of the indigenous Alaskans rather than rely exclusively on abstruse data gathered by well-meaning but often clueless scientists. After all, the Arctic natives have spent the past few decades watching the climate warm before their eyes. Since the 1950s, the average winter temperature of Alaska’s interior has risen by 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Precipitation increased by almost a third between 1968 and 1990, and entire villages have been relocated due to rising water levels. Meanwhile, as homes sink into the muddy, melting earth, insects such as the spruce bark beetle, whose numbers were once kept in check by cold weather, have been decimating forests. Staying alive as this once-frozen world turns to slush means keeping your wits about you and gleaning information about the environment from every available source, including the radio, the retreating ice, or your whaler uncle, Joe.

Wohlforth, a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News who followed climatologists across Alaska, doesn’t dismiss the scientific data they have meticulously collected. But he does suggest that the scientists’ ability to understand climate change—whose impact is far more pronounced in the Arctic—is hampered by their tendency to sneer at  anecdotal evidence. Huddled close to their $40 million supercomputers, climatologists can’t even correctly model Arctic snow cover, despite the critical importance of understanding the stuff. The Arctic’s blanket of whiteness reflects 80 percent of the sun’s warmth. Lose snow and we absorb sunlight, at our peril. As for this research team’s Holy Grail—predicting the change in average global temperature—it begins to look more and more like an unreachable, even meaningless, goal. As Gerard Roe, a modeler at the University of Washington, confides, “At some point someone is going to ask, ‘What have you got to show for 40 years of research?’ And I’m afraid the answer will be, ‘Not that much.’ ”

Meanwhile, the native Iñupiat congregate in community centers and homes, swapping stories over pots of boiling walrus meat and functioning like a living, breathing supercomputer. Several times, we learn, indigenous knowledge has surpassed that of the scientists: In 1977 the International Whaling Commission ordered whaling stopped, saying bowhead whale numbers were alarmingly low. The Iñupiat insisted that the figures were wrong. In the 1990s, oil industry spokesmen claimed that their deep-sea soundings would not unduly disturb whales. The Iñupiat dissented. Both times, scientists redesigned their studies to incorporate indigenous knowledge; both times they found that native hunches had been correct.

Despite this, the scientific establishment still finds it hard to blend native understanding into its work. In one scene, a climatologist seeks to make the Iñupiat partners in his research, but his superiors deem the plan “bad science.” Shame on them. If the geniuses hope to get us out of this mess, they must learn to embrace indigenous insight. As one researcher admits, if you’re heading for thin ice, you want a native elder, not an ice scientist, at your side.



Colors of the World: The Geography of Color

By Jean-Philippe Lenclos and

Dominique Lenclos

W. W. Norton, $49.95

Colors of the World: A Geography of Color
Colors of the World: A Geography of Color

Photograph by Jean-Philippe Lenclos

A hypnotic shade of blue envelops much of the architecture in the Indian city of Jodhpur. The color is not merely decorative: Blue reflects less of the region’s intense sunlight than white. In fact, the predominant palette in any one place is heavily influenced by such factors as climate, geology, environment, and light, argue Jean-Philippe Lenclos and Dominique Lenclos. The husband-and-wife team traveled to 12 countries around the world, documenting with bold and brilliant photographs the rich colors that distinguish different human cultures. They include the bright yellow sandstone of the buildings in Jodhpur’s desert neighbor, the “golden city” of Jaisalmer, as well as the earthen-hued masonry of a modest hut in Lesotho and gravestones painted blue green—a symbol of fertility—in a hillside Mayan cemetery.

Anne Haas


Super Size Me: A Film of Epic Portions

Roadside Attractions/ Samuel Goldwyn Films

Courtesy of Julie Soefer

With a gleeful chomp into an Egg McMuffin, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock begins an on-camera experiment on himself. For an entire month he eats nothing but meals from McDonald’s, three times a day. By day 6, Spurlock complains of “chest pressure,” and by day 12, his girlfriend grouses that he’s too out of shape for sex. Ultimately, Spurlock gains 25 pounds and learns that the experiment has wreaked internal damage. “Your liver is now like pâté,” his doctor tells him.

Unfortunately, this is no laughing matter. Spurlock’s binge placed him at risk for developing a syndrome called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH. According to Munsey Wheby, president of the American College of Physicians, excess fat deposited in the liver is thought to trigger the production of inflammatory molecules that damage cells and ultimately—if left unchecked—lead to cirrhosis. For his part, Spurlock makes a convincing argument that a fast-food diet is literally addicting. Toward the end of his experiment, he struggles to fight off depression and says he feels good only when he’s eating. Apparently, he’s not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that 64 percent of American adults—129.6 million people—are overweight or obese. Moreover, the health effects of eating too much may soon supplant another dangerous addiction—smoking—as the number one preventable cause of death in the United States.

Michael Abrams


1. THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

By Brian Greene, Alfred A. Knopf

2. THE GREAT INFLUENZA: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History

By John M. Barry, Viking Press

3. LAB 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory

By Michael Christopher Carroll, William Morrow

4. THE ANATOMY OF HOPE: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness

By Jerome Groopman, Random House

5. MIND WIDE OPEN: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

By Steven Johnson, Scribner

6. A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING                                  

By Bill Bryson, Broadway Books

7. THE BIG YEAR: A Tale of Man, Nature, and a Fowl Obsession

By Mark Obmascik, Free Press

8. THE SCIENCE OF GOOD AND EVIL: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule

By Michael Shermer, Times Books

9. OUT OF GAS: The End of the Age of Oil

By David Goodstein, W. W. Norton

10. THE NEW HUMANISTS: Science at the Edge

Edited by John Brockman, Barnes & Noble Books

Source: Barnes & Noble Booksellers

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