September 17, 2008

Fossilized Whale Brain!

We went to the Natural History Museum today for a behind the scenes tour. A friend of mine works there and he offered to show us some things that the general public never gets to see. We brought along Jerry's friend Finneas from the homeschool group, breezed in through the staff entrance (where we saw that when workers arrive and depart they use a hand scanner to clock in and out--how cool is that?), and then Michael asked the boys what they were interested in before taking the three of us on our own personal tour.

We started with the reptiles and bugs (went backstage where they keep the sick ones and got to pet an iguana who'd had her tail removed), then moved on to the dionsaurs for the Tomas the T. Rex exhibit which was incredibly cool. But even better we went into the room where they store all the fossils. It smelled old and musty, almost like an old library, and there were floor to ceiling metal cabinets in long rows, all of them full of bits of life from millions and millions of years ago.

At the end of this room we passed through a door that led to the area where the archeologists and volunteers work on getting the fossils free. They use a little pencil-sized object that works like a mini jackhammer, chipping away at the unwanted stuff surrounding the fossil. The woman we were watching had been working on the same fossil for over a month and very little of it was uncovered yet. It sounds so tedious but apparently you never know what you might find. Sometimes they find shark teeth and other unexpected items so that adds some excitement.

The best part about this particular room, though, was the fossilized whale brain. I should have taken a picture.* It looked like a hardened brain, kind of gray in color, but on the inside there were quarts crystals growing. It was a geode! Apparently a family in Los Olivios found this fossil inside the fossilized skull of a sperm whale. They called the museum and were told it couldn't be a whale brain fossil. It was impossible. It must be brain coral. So the family held onto it and a generation later the son of the man who found it called the museum again and was, again, told it couldn't be a whale brain. Fast forward 90 years to last June. The great grandson of the man who found the fossil called the museum again and finally someone agreed to take a look at it. The family had been right all along. It was a fossilized whale brain!

We talked to the guy that was working on the fossil for a long time but Jerry started to get bored so we headed to what my friend Michael called his laboratory. It was a big room in the basement of the museum that was full of storage stuff--including a taxidermy tiger and polar bear. This was where Michael kept his video cameras and computer equipment. He showed us how they scanned a 3-D image onto a computer, where they play video games (on breaks, of course) and then unveiled two hovercraft he and his friend had built in their spare time. They looked a little like futuristic lecterns. Unfortunately they weren't working but the boys and I thought they were extremely cool nonetheless.

The laboratory was Jerry and Finneas's favorite part of our tour. Mine was the whale brain and walking through the musty room where they kept all the fossils. All in all it was a terrific day. It makes me think we should try to meet more people that work at museums so we can get backstage tours at all of them! Oh, and not once did I hear the phrase "I'm not a museum kind of kid."

*I have photos now! Click here to see them.

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