Cool Summer Science
The halls of the Texas Memorial Museum make a cool place to hang out on a hot summer day; they’re not only marble-floored and air conditioned, but also filled with fossils, animal specimens and sparkling rocks. On top of that, this week (and two weeks later this summer), you can play amateur scientific curator and preview an upcoming exhibit on evolution.
“Evolution in Action” will ultimately include multiple sections, about how evolutionary principles keep us safe, keep us fed, help us fight disease and fuel the future. Through Thursday, June 13, you can critique mock-ups of two sections, Evolution Helps us Fight Disease and Evolution Keeps us Fed. You can either record your thoughts on a comment sheet, or share them aloud with a member of the museum staff.
The "Evolution Keeps us Fed" section covers the process of domesticating cattle, and includes the evolution of the Texas Longhorn, which is essentially, um, a mutt. An interactive element lets you play cattle breeder, selecting various traits such as horns or no horns and hardiness versus better meat, depending on the characteristics of your imaginary ranch. The final version will include a full-sized cow skeleton — something you don’t see every day.
The lengthy process of how humans ended up with our current body illuminates why we can choke so easily, why our backs hurt so much, and rare tidbits like whether or not your dog could give you the flu. This section, How Evolution Helps us Fight Disease, includes an interactive map for tracking flu epidemics and a great deal of lift-and-see flaps.
Previewing this exhibit won’t take long, but the museum offers plenty of other reasons linger in the cool. Fossils and bones fill the bottom floor, which features a number of complete dinosaur skeletons; a paleontologist frequently mans a desk in the back corner, ready to answer questions; and two sets of fossil drawers — Indiana Jones-ish banks of narrow wooden drawers — walk you through the entire process of discovering and identifying fossils, with samples from various areas of Texas.
Quetzalcoatalus northropi, aka the Texas Pterosaur, a flying reptile with a 40-foot wingspan unearthed in West Texas by UT scientists, hangs from the ceiling of the first floor, over cases of sparkling rocks and gems, including a topaz worthy of Elizabeth Taylor. Specimens are rotated periodically through the year, offering visitors a chance to see more of the university’s vast collection.
The next floor up contains a hall of native Texas animals, stuffed specimens of the real thing, including a family of bison, bear, otter, fox, coati and a number of birds. A row of cases in the hall contain specimens of common Texas snakes, a good opportunity to learn to distinguish venomous from harmless. One darkened side room showcases nocturnal animals, and another, a multi-media exhibit on Texas fishes.
The top floor, the smallest exhibit space, covers the evolution of whales, finches, monkeys and apes, ants and viruses. A combination of photos, diagrams, models and more make this engaging as well as informative (and did I mention that it’s nice and cool?).
The Texas Memorial Museum is the educational facility of The Texas Natural Science Center, which also has laboratories and collections at the Pickle Research Campus, including the nationally ranked Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory, non-vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory (the sixth largest collection in the U.S.), and the Texas Natural History Collections. These aren’t open to the general public. But the Museum is, every day of the week — and it’s even free.
That’s pretty cool, too.
Additional mock-ups will be available for preview later this summer. Check the TMM Facebook page for an announcement of dates.