Over the weekend, Whitney and I took a trip to the American Museum of Natural History. I had been to other science museums before and had a decently fun time. But I had no idea that this time I’d be brought back to a place of absolute childlike wonder and excitement, culminating in tearful speechlessness at the awesome grandness of the universe.
We began with the Creatures of Light exhibition, which was – I’m gonna be brutally honest here – a huge let down. The majority of the exhibit consisted of plaster models of mushrooms and fish with Christmas lights embedded inside. Near the end we finally saw a dark tank that housed some kind of bioluminescent Flashlight fish, but it was nowhere to be seen due to the kids shining their cell phones all over the tank, perhaps taking their cue from the large sign that read “PLEASE DO NOT SHINE LIGHT FROM CELL PHONES INTO TANK. IT SCARES THE FISH.” After being a grumpy old man and scolding the kids, we finally got a few brief glimpses at the subtle flashes of light from the Flashlight fish.
Following that exhibit we had about an hour to kill before our next scheduled exhibit began. Luckily, there were fossil specimens of pretty much every dinosaur, every early mammal, and every human ancestor you’d ever want to see! The entire fourth floor of the museum is dedicated to fossils! Beginning with the hall of vertebrate origins, we saw how ancient fish developed the first hints and skeletal systems we’re familiar with today, not to mention many not-so-familiar adaptations that fell to the prehistoric wayside like the armor-skinned placoderms.
Moving into the hall of Saurischian dinosaurs we saw specimens of proper dinosaurs like the stegosaurus, the triceratops, the tyrannosaurus, the duck-billed hadrosaurids, moving toward the raptors until we reached the adjoining hall of Ornithischian – or bird-like – dinosaurs. Whitney was surprised at how short the raptors were, most standing only about four or five feet tall. I was amused at how big they all were by pigeon standards. Seeing so many of their skeletons next to those of modern birds, I couldn’t help but wonder what took scientists so long in finally deciding that those dinosaurs evolved into modern birds. It seemed like a no-brainer, and yet that debate wasn’t even settled until roughly the last 20 years.
Next we checked out my favorite part of the evolutionary timeline, the primitive mammals! I just love seeing how the early synapsids like the pelycosaurs, with those odd sails on their backs gave rise to other, more recognizably mammalian creatures like the cynodonts. Looking at something so lizard-like and realizing that these things are part of the direct lineage of all mammals and humans… it makes me feel small and huge at the same time in a way that’s very hard for me to describe.
Then, moving into the Milstein Hall of Advanced Mammals, I was stunned at the similarity between ancient cats and dogs. Aside from the teeth I really couldn’t tell the difference! Near the cats and dogs there was an arrangement of specimens representing the progression of early horses showing how the little three-toed guys like the Eohippus gradually morphed into the one-toed varieties we see today. And there were other kinds of ungulates like tiny pet-sized camels and gigantic rhino-like things with names I don’t remember but they were SO COOL! As we reached the end of the fourth-floor loop, back at the Wallach Orientation Center I was struck with a wave of gratitude for being able to see and conceive of such an amazing summary of what was basically the entirety of life on Earth and its many transitions. Physically being in the same room with so many ancient creatures was such an incredible feeling! My cheeks ached from grinning so widely.
We still had about 20 minutes to go before we needed to be at the next scheduled exhibit, so Whitney and I rushed down to the first floor to soak up as much of the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins as we possibly could. There, we saw the 3.2 million year old Australophitecus named Lucy, the Peking man Homo Erectus, Turkana Boy, Cro-Magnons, Neanderthals, and so many others! As a kid, raised in a Christian household, I was constantly presented with Creationist ideas that feebly attempted to poke holes in evolution. I was taught that there was some ‘missing link’ that kept scientists just short of proving the progression from ape to man. But there is no missing link because there is nothing missing. There are representations of hundreds of kinds of primate that flawlessly run the gamut between the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans all the way up to modern humans. Not to mention the other human-like or near-human primates that branched off and either went extinct (like the tiny Flores man) or were reabsorbed back into the human bloodline through interbreeding, as is the case of Neanderthals. Alongside the skeletal remains we saw other artifacts, like intricately carved animals dating back tens of thousands of years. Seeing such highly-detailed works of art and knowing that they predated what we think of as civilization gave me such an appreciation for the human mind.
But before we had a chance to see the entire hall, it was nearly time to head up to the Rose Center for Earth and Space to watch Journey to the Stars, a beautiful, immersive presentation on the life cycles of stars projected onto a domed ceiling. At first, I thought the projection looked a little dim, but I suspect this was intentional, meant to mimic the subtlety of the night sky. Then, when the supernovas exploded in blindly bright flashes, I realized there was nothing wrong with the brightness. Flying through the stars and witnessing their lifecycles, all while thinking about the progression of life on Earth that I had just seen, I got dizzy. It was a good thing I was seated or I would have fell on my ass. Here on our tiny little planet in some distant armpit of the universe, all of this life had grown into so many diverse shapes! And it all came from stardust. And it will all return to stardust. And it’s all probably, almost definitely, happening on other planets around other stars too! We might not ever see it ourselves, and that’s all right because being here to witness and understand even such a small sliver of it is more than I could have ever asked for. At one point the Sun drew close to the end of its lifecycle, and the narrator reminded us that by that point humanity will have either moved on or evolved into something we can only imagine. And again, I felt incredibly tiny, but immensely fortunate for being able to hold onto that concept for that moment. And I felt my lip tremble and tears began to drip down my face. How fortunate we are to have such a great understanding of so much outside of our every day experience!
Feeling dizzy and slightly overwhelmed, I walked back out of the planetarium and into the hallway. I was reminded again of how, as a child, I was presented with Creationism as “an equally valid theory” next to science. I felt cheated. I felt lied to. But I understood that my parents didn’t know better. This was just the unfortunate result of the traditions they were raised under. I had the benefit of being able to reject those traditions and think critically. And now that I’m able to think for myself, I can appreciate the amazing, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring wonder that is everything we know about the natural world. I have a lot of catching up to do, but the rest of my life to do it.