Wednesday, February 23, 2011

You Suddenly Realize the World is Not Static

What exactly are earth tones again?
I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that have I visited the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, four times. During the first visit I wandered around with my new friend, Esteban, overwhelmed and exhausted but on a mission to learn. We started at The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals and meandered through The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. We found our way to The Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals and drifted through a room full of shiny and polished rocks. I heard an older man say, "Look at these jewels! Do you think mommy would wear these?" They were striking but it was the minerals of the exhibit that enticed me to back for more visits.

This section meticulously describes crystal shape, color and diversity; amazing gems; the building blocks of rocks; and pegmatites. While I discovered each specimen and read every plaque, my mind soared. The time I have spent here has made me think about our earth in a serious way. Somehow these beautiful and weird things have been created on our planet using a combination of elements, pressure, heat, time, and moisture. They've been collected, excavated, or discovered in a cave, and luckily, this has occurred during my lifetime and within proximity to me, a wisp of time and space in the continuum of the universe. These specimens have traveled across the globe to be put on display for me to see! How did I get so lucky to be in the presence of these wondrous things? On a more trivial level, I wonder who defined earth tones. Every color on the spectrum was on display--from vibrant fuchsia to glittering pewter to glowing yellow to deep and mysterious black.

During my final visit, I spent some time talking with Anne, a knowledgable and approachable docent. She pointed out malachite, Cu2CO3(OH)2, the color of which varies from spearmint green to navy blue with the presence or absence of iron during growth. She showed me the case containing corundum,  Al2O3, which experiences red hues when presented with chromium (Cr) and blue hues with iron (Fe) or titanium (Ti).  I browsed the vast collection of quartz, SiO2: smoky, amethysts, rose, aventurine, citrine hematite, and milky. Quartz is one of the earth's most common minerals and the array of specimens created with these elements were striking and incredibly diverse.
Okenite: Fuzzy and shiny!

Then things got weird. Unbelievably weird. As one teenager so aptly put it, "It's fuzzy and shiny!" She bounded back to the display case, following her outstretched hand. "It's fuzzy and shiny!" she squealed, jumping and tugging on the sleeve of another teenager. Dragging out each vowel, she breathed, "Look! Fuzzy! Shiny!" In another case, crystals looked were swirled and layered and others looked like wood (quartz, again). One looked like a twisted, white celery stick. See the photos at my flickr account.

Chatting with Anne, I realized I had previously breezed over the most thought-provoking portion of the exhibit: Plate Tectonics and Volcanoes as well as Rocks and Mining. When I asked Anne what she liked so much about it, she said slowly, embroidering these words on the spot, "You suddenly realize the world is not static." There was a huge rock that had been cored by a stream and a weathered rock shaped like a handful of uncooked spaghetti. "People make a business of replacing weathered buildings in DC," she pointed out. Things change. These buildings are not static. Nothing is forever. Not even diamonds. Especially not diamonds. Diamonds can revert back to coal over time because they are not presented with pressure, according to this docent.

As we sauntered through the final portion of the exhibit, I had a vision of the Earth's core, melting and swirling in on itself. Surrounding that were the layers of elements that create the plates--the solid land masses we live on and the ones that make up the sea floor. The plates are mobile and overlap each other, while edges are nicked and sucked into the liquid center. In some areas volcanoes allow magma to reach the outer layer and cool. In between those plates water fills all the cracks. On top of the plates, creatures throw rocks and wind diminishes them to sand.

Then, I got to touch a piece of Mars.

When I was visiting with Esteban, finding this exhibit was like stumbling upon a mirage. We had elbowed our way through crying toddlers and swerved around packs of teenagers. After squeezing through the first room of jewels, the crystals were like an oasis of knowledge and quietness. During my visits alone, I enjoyed the sanctity and soaked up as much science as my brain would allow. Meeting Anne, I was able to visualize the geographic reality our world. I'm sure I will be back to ogle before I leave DC.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. Last time i was on mars they made me wear a space suit so i never actually got to touch a piece of it.

    My friend Nick has been complaining that his students don't quite get the whole transfer of energy concept as it applies to hot and cold (eg. cold is the absence of heat and when you put something like ice in your drink "cold" does not go out from the ice to chill your drink.)