A day at the Field Museum! (updated)

Dec 31 2007 Published by under Science news, Travel

I'm in Chicago, visiting family for the holidays with my girlfriend, and we decided to hit the Field Museum of Natural History, one of my childhood haunts. I thought I'd do a little 'photo highlights' post about the things that I found most intriguing this time around...

The museum was quite crowded, as it always is for the holidays:

In the background, you can see the Field's most famous resident! No trip to the Field would be complete without saying hello to Sue:

Sue is the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found. The skeleton, once found, ended up being the center of a big custody battle, which was chronicled in a book by Steve Fiffer. The head on the display model is a reproduction, as the actual fossilized skull was too heavy to mount on the skeleton. The real head is in a display upstairs.

The exhibit I was most intrigued by was the special Darwin exhibit:

I was delighted to see the exhibit crowded with the curious! It is masterfully done, taking the visitor through a chronological tour of Darwin's life. The exhibit demonstrates how Darwin's theory 'evolved' naturally from his observations and experiences, not only making it natural, but inevitable. It takes a strong and unambiguous stand against intelligent design and creationism, as well. To quote from a couple of informational signs (surreptitiously photographed on a camera phone),

How old is Earth?

Could life on Earth have evolved? Before 1850, only a handful of naturalists in England and France had given this idea serious consideration. And even they couldn't see how there could be enough time for evolution to occur.

Relying on interpretations of the Bible, most people in England believed that Earth was only 6,000 years old -- not nearly old enough for countless species to have evolved.

Today, we know from radiometric dating that Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Had naturalists in the 1700s and 1800s known Earth's true age, early ideas about evolution might have been taken more seriously.


In everyday use, the word "theory" often means an untested hunch, or a guess without supporting evidence. But for scientists, a theory has nearly the opposite meaning. A THEORY IS A WELL-SUBSTANTIATED EXPLANATION OF AN ASPECT OF THE NATURAL WORLD THAT CAN INCORPORATE LAWS, HYPOTHESES AND FACTS. The theory of gravitation, for instance, explains why apples fall from trees and astronauts float in space. Similarly, the theory of evolution explains why so many plants and animals -- some very similar and some very different -- exist on Earth now and have existed in the past, as revealed by the fossil record.

A theory not only explains known facts; it also allows scientists to make predictions of what they should observe if a theory is true. SCIENTIFIC THEORIES ARE TESTABLE. New evidence should be compatible with a theory. If it isn't, the theory is refined or rejected. The longer the central elements of a theory hold --the more observations it predicts, the more tests it passes, the more facts it explains -- the stronger the theory.

Many advances in science -- the development of genetics after Darwin's death, for example -- have greatly advanced evolutionary thinking. Yet even with these new advances, THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION STILL PERSISTS TODAY, MUCH AS DARWIN FIRST DESCRIBED IT, AND IS UNIVERSALLY ACCEPTED BY SCIENTISTS.

Emphasis and coloration theirs. There was also a sign bashing intelligent design, but I didn't get a record of it! The highlight of the exhibit for me was Darwin's 'b' notebook, turned to the page where he first sketched a rough picture of an evolutionary tree. Though many of the manuscripts in the exhibit were facsimiles, the 'b' notebook is evidently the real thing. It was quite awe-inspiring to be in its presence.

One of the museum highlights for me is their wonderful giant squid model, now prominently displayed in the main hall as part of their "What is an animal?" exhibit:

This model, like many of the old giant squid models, was probably constructed by a company in Rochester, NY (where I did my grad work).

The most intriguing thing at the museum this trip was its exhibits on man-eating lions! The not-bad 1996 movie The Ghost and the Darkness is based on the real-life story of a pair of lions who in 1898 brought to a halt the building of a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Africa. The lions killed some 130 people before being killed. The lions were sold to the Field Museum in 1924, and this is mentioned in the movie.

I was surprised at the time that the museum didn't take advantage of the movie publicity and make a bigger exhibit focusing on the lions. This oversight has been corrected:

The popularity of the Tsavo lions was probably boosted by a 2004 book about the event and its implications, written by a Field researcher.

The Tsavo lions are not the only man-eating lions at the Field Museum; they also have an exhibit of a more recent terror, the man-eater of Mfuwe:

This lion is the largest man-eater on record, which terrorized the residents of Zambia's Luangwa River Valley in 1991! To quote the informational sign, "After devouring its sixth known victim, this lion paraded through the streets, roaring and carrying a clothes bag that it had taken from the victim's home. This behavior convinced the local residents that the lion was a demon or sorceror." A former Chicagoan killed the lion on a safari, which is presumably how the specimen came to Chicago. The Field Museum is working with the Kenya Wildlife Service through the Tsavo Research Program to better understand human-wildlife relations and prevent more horrifying attacks.

No trip to the Field Museum would be complete without a visit to the Ancient Egypt exhibit! I studied Egyptian history and hieroglyphs as an undergraduate, so I never pass on a chance to try and read some authentic writing. The exhibit hasn't changed too much since I was last there, but I was amused to see the following:

If you can't make out the images, or are just hopelessly naive, these are small Egyptian statuettes sporting enormous phalluses. It's interesting to see that museums are now willing to openly acknowledge the sexual history of ancient civilizations.

I'll end this mini tour with one of my favorite statues at the museum, that of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, the warrior goddess of Upper Egypt and protector of the pharaohs:

This 5,000 year old statue is decidedly creepy! I expect it comes alive at night and chases the security staff around the museum!

Update: One thing I forgot to mention about the Tsavo exhibit: the museum sells cute plush versions of the lions of Tsavo!  I found this quite amusing:  "Aw, lookit the little man-eater!  Isn't he cute?"  I would have bought them right there in the store if I didn't have to carry them back home.  By the way, anyone wanting to get PZ Myers a cute gift should look at this, though he probably already has them...

2 responses so far

  • Blake Stacey says:

    Sekhmet coming to life would not be a pleasant experience. As I recall, when Ra and company had second thoughts about unleashing her on humankind, the only way they could stop her was by flooding Egypt with blood-colored beer, which she drank until she fell into a stupor.

    (I still try and read the hieroglyphs in the museums, too.)

  • "...the only way they could stop her was by flooding Egypt with blood-colored beer, which she drank until she fell into a stupor."

    It's remarkable how many ancient deities were depicted as, essentially, mean drunks!

    "(I still try and read the hieroglyphs in the museums, too.)"

    And I thought I was the only one who wanted to be Thomas Young! I hope you have better luck than I did; this trip, I barely managed to decipher a few names and a few choice phrases.