Before I begin this post, I have an announcement to make. It is the end of March and two things have happened.
1. I finally took my Christmas tree down. I put it up in December before I left for China and was too lazy to take it down when I got back. Eventually, I grew so used to seeing it that it blended in with the rest of the furniture until mum came to me and reminded me that it was there. Epic fail!
2. My Teen Vogue horoscope did not come true. I have no idea how I got a subscription to it. One day in the mail I got a sample issue and one of those little cards to fill out to get a subscription and… I didn’t fill it out and Teen Vogues kept coming. I usually just flip through it to laugh at the horoscopes and the last one said that the end of March would be the most romantic time for me the whole year. Well, I’m still boyfriendless. Epic fail!
And now onto more profound news…
I apologize for making such a long blog post that probably doesn’t look like it’s worth reading. I imagine that as you scroll down your attention is already slipping from fear of having to read all that junk. If you do read all of that, all the better, but at the very least watch the video at the bottom. It will most likely anger you without my profound explanation of why it so deeply pains me.
In Break the Science Barrier, Richard Dawkins filmed a scene in the Oxford Museum in a room filled with fossils and other treasures of science. He called the museum a “spiritual home” for him, saying that it was a wonderful place where you could find fascinating things and expand your mind.
Indeed, I as well have a bit of my own “spiritual home” in a museum. Every other weekend, I volunteer in the Space Odyssey exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. You know what? I love that museum with a passion, and not just for the free food that they occasionally leave in the volunteer lounge. Every time I go there, I have an absolutely splendid time.
The moment you walk in the door, the first thing you see are plesiosaur fossils hanging from the ceiling, and a T-Rex. Upstairs, they have even more fossils in Prehistoric Journey. Further into the museum, they have another ancient creature hanging from the ceiling, this time a fin whale. There’s a small mummy exhibit, a gems and minerals hall filled with shiny crystals and eye candy, an IMAX theater, and the Space Odyssey exhibit and planetarium where I volunteer, but most of the rest of the museum is devoted to diorama halls with taxidermied animals. It’s great fun just to walk through it.
But, I gain even more enjoyment out of volunteering there. DMNS is unique in that it has a small army of volunteers to keep the place from dying with the salaries of staff members. But also, the volunteers function as educators in the exhibits. It provides visitors with a much more interactive visit having an actual person to learn from. Sometimes, I’ll put things in vacuum chambers for them. Other times, I’ll give them a short tour of the Solar System using a computer program that has pictures of all the planets and some of their moons in three dimensions.
It really is quite a wonderful feeling sharing knowledge with other people. Occasionally, I’ll take out the spectroscopy cart. Some people may remember their Chemistry classes when the teacher sent electrical charges through little gas tubes and then gave you a spectroscope or little glasses. In case anybody needs a refresher, what happens is that when you have a lot of energy the electrons in the atoms will jump to a higher level of orbit, and when they come back down they release photons of light at different wavelengths depending on how far the electron fell. The spectroscope or little glasses function as a prism and break down the light released into the wavelengths which it is being released at. If you have, say, Helium, you’ll see two red bars, a yellow bar, a turquiose bar, a blue bar, and an indigo bar. Every element has a different pattern of bars.
I like to start by asking them if they’ve ever wondered how we know what the stars are made of. Of course they wonder how we know. You can’t exactly go to one… they’re millions of light years away! But, if you look at the light they’re emitting through a spectroscope, you can look at the pattern of bars and tell what is inside. I’ll explain this to them, and turn on a hydrogen or helium gas tube and hold up a short chart of elements and their patterns to let them try to guess. With younger children, it’s pretty much just pretty lights and that’s fine, but older children, even adults, will often have sudden moments of understanding.
“That’s so cool…” they say, and they don’t just say it the way you say “that’s so cool” when your friend gets a new cell phone. When they say “that’s so cool” it’s almost as if there’s an entirely different definition because their voices are so saturated with awe and wonder. I suspect that they’re not just saying it because of the pretty lights, but as a way of remarking about how amazed they are that they can understand it. I think that they’re remarking about how simple spectroscopy really is, and how cool science is when you understand it with little effort.
I absolutely love hearing them say it and seeing their eyes light up. It feels like I should be thanking them as they walk away to their planetarium show.
Another wonderful feeling I get is when I go up to Prehistoric Journey. I’ve heard that in some museums, they show dinosaur fossils with little or no mention of evolution. That’s not the case in DMNS. Evolution is everywhere in that exhibit. I love seeing families take their children there. After watching parents turn to their children and say that the universe is 6,000 years old every time I show them a 4.6 billion year old meteorite far too many times, it is deeply refreshing to see them turn to their children at a model of Lucy and say “did you know that humans used to look like that?”
Well, actually that statement is slightly scientifically inaccurate… but I won’t be too nit-picky. I love that exhibit because it educates people about evolution, the true story of how life got on Earth. But… then I saw this video on YouTube.
After watching that, do you feel angry? Annoyed? I assure you, it’s probably nothing compared to what I feel. Those poor children… those cute, poor children… You can tell that they are genuinely interested in science, but they’re having one of the greatest scientific truths kept from them.
I walked through Prehistoric Journey yesterday, recognizing all those places where those poor, poor, sweet children were being lied to and… it honestly brought tears to my eyes. Like I said, DMNS is for me as the Oxford Museum is for Richard Dawkins… a spiritual home. Mine has been invaded and is being tarnished by lying bigots.
We (the volunteers) are told that if somebody ever tries to argue with us about the age of the Earth, we are never going to get anywhere and should therefore get out of the argument as quickly as possible. The next time a parent turns to their child and say “the Earth is 6,000 years old!” I will do that, but not before I make this statement:
It is certainly your right to believe that, and it’s certainly your right to teach your child whatever you want, but I think that it ought to be your child’s right to know the truth, and at the very least it ought to be your child’s right to know that when I say that the Solar System is 4.6 billion years old it’s not a statement of faith but a statement backed up by evidence. Now, if you’re interested in knowing how I know that…
And in case anybody else decided to infer from my post that I am somehow a fascist, you can see the e-mail I sent to James Randi.
The Denver Museum is NOT ignorant of the BC tours, nor is it choosing to remain ignorant. I took the opportunity to ask about BC tours after I saw the video and blogged about it (http://splendidelles.wordpress.com/2008/03/31/creationists-are-pure-evil/). They are very aware of BC Tours and they despise them very much. I once asked one of the staff members what I should do if a visitor insisted on saying the Earth is 6,000 years old. That's when he first told me about BC Tours, and how when they showed up, everybody would say "they're here" in a spiteful manner. Unfortunately, there is nothing they can do. The museum is a public institution and people can go there and have their own tours if they wish, so long as they don't harass anybody in the exhibit. That's the only time when they're allowed to kick the creationists out. They were able to get them to stop putting the museum logo on their website, and got one of the "tour guides" to stop wearing a lab coat because they want to make it clear that BC Tours do not represent the museum. If there was anything more the museum could do, they would... But, to protect our freedom of speech, we have to protect theirs.