February 13th, 2013

krazy koati

And we'd be so happy in my apeman world

The museum promised cake. It was part of a celebration of Darwin's birthday, after all, so why not cake? We didn't expect much since, well, my brother's comments about breakfast with Santa. Clearly Charles Darwin would be the attraction. And yet we were wrong. Not that they didn't have a Darwin --- they had a fellow with a tolerable physical resemblance and no attempt at doing any kind of accent --- but one of the event sponsors was Bake N Cakes, a local and really good bakery, so, the cake was really good. We had two slices, at the slicer's invitation, each, while looking at the elephant skeletons and considering just how really large elephants get to be.

Some of the special exhibits showed off how evolutionary theory is tested --- one Michigan State University special experiment has been to breed different populations from the same E coli starter, and compare how wildly different they've gotten in 50,000 E coli generations (including at least one that mutated to eat a new food source); samples of the results were put on display by MSU's very own version of skylerbunny --- or used --- as for creating X-band antennas or programming robots for complicated behaviors. I felt bad listening to the guy explaining how evolutionary methods could be used for programming, because I knew just what he was talking about (it's pretty close to my own mathematical specialization) but couldn't think of any nontrivial questions to offer, so I just stood there looking nervous.

Hyenas were also a point of special pride, apparently based on their bone-crushing jaw abilities, although here the only question I could think was to wonder why the hyena teeth (and the teeth in other of the many skulls) were darker than those of the rest of the skull. Different calcium concentrations was their consensus. They also had a piece of giraffe leg bone to demonstrate the sorts of bones hyenas might chew. It was about the length of my upper arm, and I wondered which part of the giraffe leg it was. They had apparently been discussing that all afternoon too and nobody had a sure answer.

As referenced they had a Charles Darwin actor present, who gave a couple of talks through the day. We missed the first go to poking around the working museum areas, but we happened to be in the right spot at the right time to hear him reading about Darwin's observations of reptile, bird, and amphibian distribution in the Galapagos Islands compared to South America (and the geologically similar but ecologically different Cape Verde islands compared to Africa). He was a somewhat hesitant reader, but did better when he set the script down, as will often happen.

The questions were a fairly good set, I thought, though one did turn on the question of whether a turtle that Darwin had himself brought back from the islands had recently died. The answer, found after one of the museum people remembered she had an iPhone, was: a turtle so attributed died in Australia a few years ago, but the documentary evidence to when it was brought out of the Galapagos Islands is too weak to support the claim that the Beagle retrieved it. The actor's pre-Google instinct was to say that if the Beagle did capture any Galapagos Island turtles it was probably for food, so, there we are. His answer feels pretty right to me.

Trivia: The word ``scrutiny'' entered English around 1450, as a technical term for a formal vote to elect a church or municipal officer by writing his name on a secret ballot. Source: Semantic Antics: How And Why Words Change Meaning, Sol Steinmetz.

Currently Reading: Oxygen: The Molecule That Made The World, Nick Lane.