Posts Tagged ‘smithsonian’

Human Origins: Misconceptions about Evolution

Monday, June 7th, 2010
Starting with a cast skull, artist John Gurche builds layers of muscle, fat, and skin to create hyper-realistic busts of human ancestors featured in the new David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Pictured: Homo neanderthalensis

Starting with a cast skull, artist John Gurche builds layers of muscle, fat, and skin to create hyper-realistic busts of human ancestors featured in the new David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Pictured: Homo neanderthalensis

Here at the Smithsonian, we’ve been very excited about our new Human Origins exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History. The exhibit mixes research, technology, and new developments in the field of anthropology in a way that isn’t intimidating, even though the idea of humans being around millions of years ago can seem overwhelming. With current research being done places such as Kenya and China, and discoveries that have been made in Iraq and Indonesia, evidence of our origins span the globe.

Yet, there are some common misconceptions that have been made about evolution that are worth clarifying. For example, it is commonly believed that evolution is about progress and that each living thing is changing for the better. The reality is that some organisms don’t change over time—including some mosses, fungi, opossums and crayfish. They are a great fit in their current habitat, so there is no need for them to change. Others, such as beetles, need to change in order to survive due to changing climates or new competitors. Humans weren’t the first or last organism to change or evolve on planet Earth.

Another misconception is that humans are no longer evolving, so we can’t observe evolution in action. Plus, humans seem far too complex to have evolved in the first place. The reality is that evolution takes places over a large span of time, and human evolution occurs over so many generations that we can’t observe it in one lifetime. Evolution occurs to populations and species, not necessarily individuals. For example, a giraffe may not grow a longer neck during its lifetime, but over time a community of giraffes with longer necks will survive while the ones with shorter necks will die out. As a result, longer-necked giraffes will mate with each other over many generations, creating a noticeable difference over a long period of time.

To relate this to a human change, most adult mammals (including humans) are lactose intolerant and cannot digest milk. But 80% of adults of European ancestry do have a gene that allows them to consume milk. Why? About 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, dairy farming became a part of European life, and there was a genetic response to this change in diet. We see this evolutionary response when we drink milk today.

There are so many ideas to explore in the Human Origins exhibit, including the big question—What does it mean to be human? Is it how we care for each other? Is it our belief system? Is it biological unity? These are some pretty big questions.

What does it mean to be human? Share your ideas below.

Experience the Human Origins exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History (now celebrating its 100th year!) Also, enjoy a exclusive reception at the museum on our Celebrate Smithsonian tour.  Want to see what you might have looked like as a Neanderthal? Check our our new mobile app, MEanderthal.

Smithsonian Institution: Our Top Five Picks

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010
The Smithsonian Castle

The Smithsonian Castle

There are millions of objects in our collection, so picking only five isn’t really fair. But each of us has our own personal favorite that might be off the beaten path. That’s why we have Celebrate Smithsonian, the tour that takes you behind-the-scenes to see objects you might not have noticed.

  1. Let’s face it, Americans love their television. From 1971 to 1979, “All in the Family” was one of the most popular and influential TV shows in the United States. It addressed blatant bigotry and self-righteousnes in our culture, while actually finding the humor in its absurdity. Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, spouted his opinions while sitting in his chair — which is now on display at the National Museum of American History.
  2. Military history fans and aviation nuts love the Curtiss P-40E. Also known as the Warhawk, Tomahawk, or Kittyhawk, this plane was incredibly versatile during World War II. But the Smithsonian has an even deeper connection to this plane. It was flown by the former Deputy Director of the National Air and Space Museum, Donald S. Lopez, who passed away in March 2008. Before it was hoisted to the ceiling trusses for permanent display, Mr. Lopez sat in the cockpit and posed in front of the airplane in the exact same position as a photo taken of him in China.  ”It was wonderful,” Lopez said about that day. “I am proud to have a P-40 here. It felt good to sit in the cockpit – I’d have no trouble flying it today.”
  3. For the kid in all of us, our next pick comes from the National Museum of the American Indian. As an incredible mix of tradition and modern life, Kiowa artist Teri Greeves decided to take her Converse sneakers and beaded them into a work of art. They are now on display on the third floor in the Our Lives gallery.
  4. We have all made a mistake, an oops, or maybe even a “whoopsie daisy”. Well, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing had their turn during the week of May 6- 13, 1918 when one sheet of one hundred stamps with an inverted image of a blue airplane escaped detection. After a series of purchases, the sheet has been broken into individual stamps, creating the legendary “Inverted Jenny” stamps. It’s now the most requested object to see at the National Postal Museum.
  5. For the true music fan, it doesn’t matter if it’s a harpsichord from the 1700s or Prince’s guitar. All of it is fascinating. The National Museum of American History’s music and musical instrument collection ranges from Dizzy Gillespie’s B-flat Trumpet to the Servais Cello, created by Antonio Stradivari (b. 1644). There are even early sound recordings of Elvis in this collection.

What’s your favorite object in the Smithsonian collection? Share Below.

Celebrate Smithsonian with us this October and explore the Smithsonian Institution’s  Museum Support Center made famous in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol!

The Laboratory on the Ocean Floor

Monday, April 19th, 2010

We’ve mentioned before that Smithsonian scientists love studying extremes. But how about living in extreme conditions? To study the bottom of the ocean properly, you would actually have to live down there.

What do you eat? How do make your meals? Where do you get fresh water? Just as astronauts have made adjustments to their lifestyles while they are in space, scientists studying the ocean are pretty adaptable as well.

Paula Lemyre, reporting from Smithsonian Channel’s SciQ, visited the ocean floor (63 feet down) and had 30 minutes to interview and record this story. Any more time on the bottom, and Paula and her crew would face a very painful experience called “the bends” due to the reduction in pressure as they returned to sea level. Also known as decompression sickness, during the bends the body releases dissolved gas (mostly nitrogen) from the tissues and blood. As a result, bubbles are created within the circulation system and create disruptions throughout the human body. Symptoms can range from mild, dull toothache-like pain to the more serious including shock and seizures. Luckily, today we know the gradual ascension steps to avoid these kinds of situations.

Learn more about living underwater on the Smithsonian Channel’s SciQ.

Experience the Ocean Hall at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Would you want to live underwater? Share Below.

Who Was Eliot Elisofon?

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

There are few photographers who can even say they captured Africa quite the way Eliot Elisofon did during his lifetime. His legacy of photography and filmmaking provides ethnologists, photographers, and historians a fantastic visual record of African life from 1947 to 1973. When Eliot passed away in 1973, he bequeathed to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art  his materials from his experiences living on the continent, including 50,000 black-and-white photographs and 30,000 color transparencies.

What is most notable about Elisofon is at a time when outside cultures were viewing Africa through stereotypes and misconceptions, his photography was always grounded in humanity and respect. You can learn more about Eliot Elisofon on the Smithsonian Channel.

Create your own photography portfolio of South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, and Botswana on our Grand Safari  private jet tour.

Who is your favorite photographer? Share Below.

It’s Cherry Blossom Season!

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

Cherry blossoms frame the Jefferson Memorial in spring. Photo by Laura Campbell

There is nothing like walking around near the Jefferson Memorial when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. The entire area is coated in various shades of pink, giving everyone in Washington, D.C. the sense that spring has finally arrived. But how many trees are there? Where did they come from? These are the kinds of questions that kids tend to ask their parents every year. Again, we’re here to provide you with the important fun facts that satisfy your child (or grandchild’s) thirst for knowledge.

1. In Japan, the flowering cherry tree, or “Sakura,” is an exalted flowering plant. The beauty of the cherry blossom epitomizes the transformation of Japanese culture throughout the ages, as well as being symbolic of the constant transition of human life.

2. The original 3,000 cherry blossom trees were a gift from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo in 1912 as a symbol of the longstanding friendship between Japan and the United States.

3. The First Lady at the time was Helen Herron Taft. She and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two trees from Japan on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park on March 27, 1912. These two original trees still stand several hundred yards west of the John Paul Jones Memorial, located at the terminus of 17th Street, SW. Situated near the bases of the trees is a large bronze plaque which commemorates the occasion.

4. Three years later, in 1915, the United States reciprocated the gift of the cherry trees by sending flowering dogwoods to the people of Japan.

5. In 1965, the Japanese Government donates 3,800 more trees. These are American-grown and the 1912 ceremony reenacted this time by Lady Bird Johnson and Mrs. Ryuji Takeuchi, wife of Japan’s Ambassador.

Visit the original homeland of the trees on Insider’s Japan.

Have you seen the cherry blossoms in full bloom in Washington, D.C.? Share below.