Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Griffins and Rocs and Cyclopes, oh my! at the Field Museum

This past weekend I went to see the Mythic Creatures exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago. My first thought when I was invited to see the exhibit was to wonder what the heck fantasy animals had to do with natural history, but as I'm a big fan of mythology and the Field Museum so I decided to go along to see it. What a delight it was to see the perspective that the curators had brought to the exhibit. Rather than a simple recitation of the historical references to such creatures alone, the curators firmly placed the ideation of such creatures as part of a very human attempt to make sense of the world and our place in it - particularly, to make sense of the colossal bones and fossils that surfaced even in ancient times. Early civilizations had no idea that they were looking at the remains of dinosaurs or mammoths; instead, they imagined these bones as forming the skeletons of extraordinarily well thought out creatures. I'd previously thought of mythical creatures as particularly well-inspired flights of fancy by bored shepherds seeking to entertain one another with fantastic games of celestial connect-the-dots. This exhibit provided me with a new understanding of these ancient peoples, who were not merely seeking to entertain with a gift for gab, but also to explain the physical evidence they found in abundance in their environments.

Many mythic creatures reflect attempts to describe the natural world. Mythic creatures can offer perspective on how scientific discovery changes over time. Before formal scientific methods came about, a fleeting glimpse of an animal or finding of unfamiliar bones was often enough to confirm a being’s existence. Indeed, many mythic creatures are bizarre assemblages of parts of real animals. As methods for scientific observation and interpretation evolved, it became clearer which animals exist in nature—and which are mythical.

A few examples suffice to explain. Ancient Scythian gold miners encountered what are now known to be protoceratops skulls in their search for gold. How to explain the large, beaky structure in the skull presented to them, and the birdlike quality of the dinosaur bones? The curators present a theory that those ancients came up with stories of the Griffin - a winged, lionlike creature that protected the gold in its domain (I'm sure tales of fearsome creatures guarding treasure could have kept out other treasure seekers as well. Similarly, early elephant ancestor's remains were likely interpreted by ancient Greek naturalists as Cyclopes - how else to explain that big gap in the center of the skull? Further, in one part of the exhibit a scientist demonstrates how these early elephant predecessors' bones could be rearranged into bipedal humanity. As mammals, there are certain commonalities of physiognomy. It would have been the rarest insight to conclude that the central skull hole was the sinus cavity for the trunk of the elephant. The Roc - a giant, predatory bird that plays a featured role in the Sinbad stories by dropping house-sized boulders on ships - was the explanation arrived at by people considering the evidence of Aepyornis eggs found on Madagascar. These enormous, 2-gallon capacity eggs surely hatched into some horrific monster.

dragonAside from the familiar Western fantasy creatures - the aforementioned as well as krakens, mermaids, dragons, unicorns and pegasi - the exhibit covers the myths of other cultures, including Nagas and Tengu. The small display dedicated to a new-found myth - the Chupacabra - pays tribute to the Urban (or Rural) Legend and reframed my skepticism with more sympathy for a newborn folktale.

One criticism I would recommend that the Field consider for future exhibits would be to change the lighting and/or the placement of the texts explaining the exhibit pieces. In many places, there was no way to read the signage without having to compete with one's own shadow for light. Where there were crowds, the line of readers would back up waiting for shadows to clear on the boards so that they could be read.

If you are in Chicago before the exhibit closes September 1, 2008, I'd really recommend a trip to the museum and to the Mythical Creatures exhibit. I can't imagine a better location in which to see this display, except juxtaposed by the massive skeleton of Sue, the massive T-Rex, and the other dinosaurs on display. Take the kids around to the fossils and ask them: if you saw this outside of a museum, how would you explain it??

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dentistry and Earthquakes

I have to have a tooth crowned, one of my molars has fractured beneath the filling along the side of the tooth. I am not handling this well. I scheduled the appointment for next week, but did my usual call-me-if-there's-an-earlier-opening bit with the appointment setter. She did, so I got moved up to today.

I know I should feel lucky. They found it while I have dental insurance, the tooth is salvageable, I don't have any big events or travel coming up that this will interfere with, I've got the money for my co-pay available without a problem, and I don't have an emergency situation here where I've actually cracked a chunk off my tooth. But I just hate the procedures; I had a really, really bad time with my wisdom teeth extraction and I can feel panic rising. My boy's daycare provider said if she had it done, she'd have them do it under general anesthetic - not an option for me since the multi-day hangover/reaction I get from anesthesia is awful.
Update: I've got the temporary crown on now, after 2 hours in the dentist's chair. Ow. They took out 3/4 of the tooth, left most of the exterior surface but I lost a lot of the interior surface, due to where the crack was. I feel like I'm in mourning for my lost tooth. ETA is the first week of May for the permanent crown. I'm sore, and am taking Ibuprofen to help with that. Also - I remembered to bring my ipod to listen to during the process, but forgot to charge it up beforehand so basically it was just a token comfort item only. They had to stop 2 times during the procedure when I asked them to; also the Novocaine kept wearing off, which is normal for me, so they stopped to reinject me too. The dentist said that happens sometimes with nervous patients; the heartrate increases and adrenaline rush contributes to a faster metabolic rate for processing the Novocaine.

Oh - and on an (hopefully) unrelated note, I experienced my first earthquake today. I woke up thinking that the dogs were bouncing around on the bed, and then noticed the dogs were already on bed next to me and were alert. Also the noisy birdsong of the morning had stopped and it was deathly quiet out - very spooky. Bo was up and noticed some things moving around in the house, e.g. the towels were swaying on the towel bar and the house made a creaky-shuddery noise too. the boys slept through it. The epicenter was over the border in IL about 160 miles away, and was a magnitude 5.4 - from here the USGS estimates the effect would be about a 3. Wild! Ok, you Californians may laugh about this tiny quake if you like. I can't believe you deal with these regularly; they are freaky.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Congratulations Dewey!

Our foster pup Dewey found a new home this past weekend with lovely new dog-mom Rhydonna and her husband. But don't fret if you were thinking of taking Dewey home and are now feeling disappointed - there are still many wonderful dogs available at HSI and other shelters in your area too. Good luck Dewey!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The foster pup is ready for adoption

Dewey the pup is now available from the Humane Society of Indianapolis. Dewey's profile is also available on Indypaws!

He is still staying with us for a bit until he finds his forever family.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

I want my $3 back.

I still hate daylight saving time. Although I'm finally starting to adjust, now I can see daylight creeping later and later past my kid's bedtimes. Pretty soon it will be light as late as 10 pm. Grr.

Oh, and to add insult to injury, a new study calculates that Hoosier Households are spending $3 more on energy per year Study: Daylight saving boosts energy use - USATODAY.com. Too bad there is no money back guarantee if satisfaction wasn't assured with the time change -I'd be up at the statehouse asking for my $3 back so I could go get a Latte.

For more info about daylight saving time, check out my previous post I hate daylight savings time, where I reviewed an excellent book on the topic by David Prerau.

Sigh. It seems as though daylight saving time is as phony as... well, a $3 bill.