A Day at the American Museum of Natural History
The highlight of the morning and perhaps the whole day was when astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson came out to say hello to all of us. He is everything I need my children to know about: an African-American scientist, a product of the NYC public schools, charming, a good speaker, a populizer of science, funny. I think I may invite him to be a science expo judge. He will probably say no, but maybe he will know of other people who are less famous and, therefore, have more time to spend visiting schools. Then again, you never know. The one thing I have learned is that people find it hard to say no to helping teachers, if you just ask them the right way.
He also told us about the asteroid that will pass very close to Earth in 2029, called Apophis after the Egyptian god of destruction. They know for sure that it won't hit Earth, and they can approximate its path. What they've discovered is that if the path passes through a certain area, nicknamed the "keyhole," then the next time the asteroid passes close to Earth it will definitely hit us, somewhere in the Pacific!. Apparently this is not bigger news because they discovered it right at the time of the tsunami, so it got buried. Anyway, the chances are still fairly small, but if it does hit, it could make the tsunami look like no big deal. Needless to say, they are monitoring the situation very closely, trying to make better and better predictions about where the asteroid is going to be on the first pass by Earth, and what the options are if it is in the keyhole. Curiously, my googling turns up articles from early September reassuring us that the asteroid poses no threat. So, perhaps today's news was really breaking news and the astronomers have refined their understanding of the asteroid's orbit once again?
The other highlight was a presentation on the dinosaurs exhibit. There is some amazing work being done in paleontology, and it is truly bringing together so many fields - geology, evolutionary biology, physics, you name it. The exhibit apparently has a model of a dinosaur skeleton on a treadmill, designed to show how dinosaurs might have moved. The fact that dinosaurs evolved into birds and first developed feathers for warmth, not flight, is old news, but did you know that they have found fossils of dinosaurs sitting on their eggs, brooding just like birds do? And if you saw the photographs of fossils showing the curled-up skeletons of young dinosaurs, it is just incredible how bird-like they are. Wow. Finally, scans of tyrannosaurus rex's brain - from fossils - show that T. rex had extremely large olfactory lobes, meaning that they probably hunted mostly by smell, not by sight as previously theorized.
We saw the Galapagos IMAX, although we saw it on a large screen but not in an IMAX theater. I love everything to do with the Galapagos, but this movie was a little disappointing. It touched on a lot of things but didn't go into depth on any, and while there were some fun shots of sea lion pups cavorting and schools of colorful fish, which would have looked fabulous on IMAX, overall the visuals didn't blow me away. It was very simple and straightforward, didn't make a lot of assumptions about the viewer's prior knowledge or vocabulary, so it might be quite good for middle schoolers.
I selected a workshop on celestial navigation, which was fun but didn't actually teach me much about celestial navigation. Whenever educators are looking for ways for SS and Science teachers to collaborate, celestial navigation is often suggested, but what most people don't realize is that actually navigating by the stars is hard, and not something you're going to be able to teach most kids to do with any kind of precision. You'd spend a lot of time fussing over details that might not necessarily add to their knowledge of science. If you stick to the basics and just introduce a few of the celestial objects used for navigation - Polaris, for example - you can stay focused on important concepts but I think it leaves people feeling like they still don't really know how to get anywhere, and wasn't that the point?
Overall, a good day.