Saturday, September 6, 2008

Back to the fronts.

I've been gone for a little while. I know, I'm sorry. I had to take a vacation of sorts. A very good friend came up, and I've been showing her the city for the week. I also needed a break from work. Not in an "oh, I hate my job" sort of way. I love my job. It's just, I've been going pretty much non-stop this whole year, and it was nice to sit down for a week and just have some fun.

So, basically, I took a science vacation. We went to the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium. If you're ever in Chicago, get a City Pass and visit these places. Plan on spending about a day on each. Maybe...MAYBE condense the Aquarium and the Planetarium into a single day, but definitely plan on a day (at least) for both the Museums. They're absolutely amazing. Amazing. And full of science.

I highly recommend the "Evolving Planet" exhibit at the Field...absolutely stunning. Standing among all those fossils, all those records of the past is absolutely awe-inspiring. As you hit the Cambrian and the Devonian...well, just keep in mind the accusation by Creationists that "all the major body plans and lifeforms appeared during the Cambrian explosion and haven't changed much since." And Anomalocaris saron. And Opabinia regalis. And Hallucigenia sparsa. Go check out anything on the Burgess Shale, or any other record from the Cambrian. I guess the question to keep in mind when viewing this, and say, anything like the placoderms of the Devonian is "Okay...well, where are the rabbits? Or the cows? Or the mammals? Or the birds? Or the amphibians (though, granted, by the Devonian, we begin to have ancestors of those), or the reptiles? Dinosaurs?" Nope. None of those. We don't even have tetrapods until the Sarcopterygii in the Devonian. Apparently, tetrapods are not a major body plan or grouping of animals to the more silly Creationists. Oh well. Good job, Discovery Institute.

One of the greatest things in the Evolving Planet display, though, is the hominid fossils. And very clearly, there is a large screen which shows the branching of the hominid tree. Take a glance at the chart on this article on human evolution. Note. It is a not a linear model with each species evolving into the next, as we so often see in cartoons like:

Wrong! The picture is a bit more like this:

The analogous argument of "Well, if we evolved from monkeys, why are their still monkeys around?" is defeated thusly: First, we did not evolve from modern monkeys. Rather, monkeys, apes, and humans all shared a common primate (or proto-primate) ancestor. Second, this is like saying, "If a lot of Americans are descended from Europeans, why are there still Europeans around?" Because we branched off into separate groups that have gone their own ways. Just because your grandparents had one child does not mean that they could not have had another. You can have cousins (trust me), and given enough time and differing environmental and genetic pressures, you can grow to be quite distinct families. If you have cousins, ask yourself if the question "which side of the family really carries on the family line?" makes any sense. It's the same basic story for human evolution, just on a much vaster time scale.

(Short side note - yes, evolution does require vast time scales. Many Creationists want to argue for much shorter time periods. Luckily for us, the evidence is completely against them. Any attempt to show that the universe is a mere 6,000 to 10,000 years old runs into inexplicable problems, unless the Creationist is willing to argue a few things: 1) God miracled away all the problems, which...fine, but it isn't science, and God doesn't spend much time talking about these miracles (which, believe me, would be much more fantastic than feeding a few thousand people) or 2) God is actively trying to deceive us, knowing that we would eventually discover science and reason. If you want to argue for a mischievous and deceiving God, then go right ahead, but please, take it to its logical conclusions.)

Anyway, Field Museum - highly recommended in my book. All the exhibits are fantastic.

As for the Museum of Science and Industry, I could go there every day. First off, their space exhibit is incredible. They also have the real re-entry pod for the Apollo 8 mission. I cannot describe to you the sense of awe and connection with human history that standing in front of it brings, or just touring the exhibit in general. It makes me sad that in the intervening years after the last moon mission (Apollo 17) we have yet to set foot on another world again. As Carl Sagan said, we have waded our toes out into the surf of the cosmic ocean, but have returned to our mother's apron strings and have yet to venture out again. This is not to say that we haven't done some spectacular science in the meantime, nor is it to say that I am not a fan of the robotic missions (each are fascinating and incredibly valuable). It's just...there's that sense of wonder that fills you every time you see these objects of our history and you know, that despite all the problems and dangers (there were many and they were substantial) that we did this. We, as humans, working together, made it to another world and returned safely. And we can do it again.

Another huge bump for the MSI is the U505. Again, words fail me to describe the feeling as you walk through the upper levels of the exhibit, slowly descending and learning about the history of the boat. Finally, you turn a corner into the exhibit hall and...well, there it is. The entire boat. The real thing. The real, smack-the-steel boat sitting in front of you. It's sends shivers down your spine.

Lastly, the Adler Planetarium. The shows are amazing, and the exhibits are great and very informative. If you want to know what we're learning about space, go check it out. If nothing else, go to the "Shoot for the Moon!" exhibit, which details the history of the Gemini (and a bit about the Apollo) missions. And yes, they currently have the Gemini XII re-entry module.

So, all this to say...I've been gone, but now I'm back. I feel better, rejuvenated, and I've spent a lot of time soaking up some quite wonderful science. So, to all you pseudo-scientific and woo-woo masters out there, all I have to say is: "Bring it on."

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