A visit to the Natural History Museum of Utah

May 29th, 2013

NHMU052913SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH–On the last full day of our Utah trip, we toured the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City. It is in a spectacular place against the red rocks of the Wasatch Mountains and looking over the Salt Lake Valley. This museum has only been open since November 2011. Its exhibits are very up-to-date and modern.  (My test for recent accuracy is whether birds are acknowledged as dinosaurs and if Australopithecus sediba is in the human evolution section.) I’d like to just share some images from the museum and encourage anyone in Salt Lake City to visit it.

EoceneLake052913Dr. Judge will be impressed with the attention paid to exhibits on the Green River Formation (Eocene). This tableau is designed to show animals in the water (below) and on the beach (above). Note the stromatolites on the shoreline representing some of the features she and her students have worked on in the Green River Formation.

585_Deinosuchus_hatcheri_052913Utah is extremely rich in Mesozoic vertebrate fossils. Here is an impressive skeleton of Deinosuchus hatcheri from the Cretaceous.

CeratopsianWall052913The dinosaur exhibit is world-class. Here is a wall of ceratopsian dinosaur skulls showing evolutionary relationships.

DinoPelvis1_052913My History of Life students are well trained in sorting out major dinosaur groups by their pelvic bones. They could tell you, for example, if this is an ornithischian or a saurischian dinosaur.

DinoPelvis2_052913And this set is of the other group. Can you see the differences?

dinohead052913It appears this dinosaur had barnacles for eyes!

PaleontologistsBehindGlass052913Here is the classic paleontologists-behind-glass exhibit of a working laboratory. (I wonder why they never put working petrologists on display?)

NHMUview052913The architects knew exactly what they were doing when it came to designing the building to take full advantage of the setting. The Salt Lake Valley is fully visible from every floor.

What a great place to end our little Utah excursion this year. The real Team Utah of Wooster Geology will be back in the state next month.

Wooster Geologists Visit the Miller Oil and Gas Museum in Shreve, Ohio

February 21st, 2012

Geology 350 - The Oil and Gas of Geology spending a beautiful day in Shreve.

Drs. Judge and Wiles are teaching a half credit course in The Geology of Oil and Gas. After weeks of well log interpretation, rock core description and interpretive contour mapping exercises the class caught a break and traveled to the Miller Oil and Gas Museum on a beautiful February day in Shreve Ohio. We are grateful to the Raymond’s for showing us around the museum and explaining the use of the some of the equipment.


Picking out a plug for an abandoned well.


Fishing tools for when there is a problem or a lost drill string downhole.

A proponent of the health benefits of oil.

A class cube - the small class size at Wooster is measured in a cube cell.

One of the old rigs of the oilfields.

A question that commonly comes up is "what would an oilfield geologist do with a cannon?" (see below)

A creative solution to the problem of managing a flaming oil well.

Looking over a field rig.

Destined for law school this geologist models next to a drill string tamper.



A Tale of Two Museums: Part 2 — The Creation Museum

December 7th, 2011

The Creation Museum

This past Saturday Elizabeth Schiltz of the Philosophy Department and I took our First-Year Seminar students on a long drive to the infamous Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. It was a beautiful day and we had a good time, if you set aside the intellectual travesties and pseudoscientific contradictions of the place. Our Wooster students were very polite and inquisitive, and they had many observations after we left the premises. The museum is uber-slick and the staff extremely helpful and friendly. We were on their property and grateful that they are willing to share their story and facilities with anyone who pays admission and follows the rules. Still, we felt both astonished and oppressed by the place.

The scene above is just inside the entrance of the museum. The juxtaposition of an animatronic dinosaur and a happy child tell us much about the philosophy and science of the organization: this is not a museum in the traditional sense. Dinosaurs with people is one thing — the dinosaur not eating the child is another!

Elizabeth’s First-Year Seminar section is titled “On the Meaning of Life“. Her students have been working through worldviews and why people hold them, so this trip was most appropriate. My First-Year Seminar is on “Nonsense and Why it is so Popular“. It is obvious why we were here!

The Creation Museum has been reviewed many times by scientists and other skeptics. (Here is a detailed account of a visit.) I am just presenting our impressions here with a few photographs.

One of the first displays in the Creation Museum is this life-sized diorama of two paleontologists excavating a dinosaur skeleton. (Geologists should note how important they are to the creationist worldview.) The scientist on the right is a traditional evolutionist; the older man on the left is a heroic scientific creationist we meet several times later in displays and videos. Both are looking “at the same facts”, but they have different “perspectives” and reach wildly different conclusions. From the start we saw a surprisingly post-modern view of science — it is all in the presuppositions of the observer with the “facts” as just a text for subjective analysis.

Especially to a geologist, the time scale of creationists is bizarre. At the Creation Museum the old Archbishop Ussher chronology is used, giving the first year of the Universe as 4004 BC. Here you see the timeline combined with the “7 C’s of History“. A literal reading of Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) is essential to the Young Earth Creationist view of Christian salvation.

An irony much noted by our students is that throughout the Creation Museum the displays denigrate “human reason” and elevate “God’s Word”, yet they appeal to human reasoning in every display of “evidence” and argument. Here we see the peculiar creationist view of “evolution within kinds” which allows for “microevolution” but not the appearance of new kinds of life. (Yes, there is a very fuzzy definition for “kind”.)

We all agreed that the models for Adam and Eve were … well … hot. They were so well done that, in this case especially, we felt like we were intruding on intimate moments. Just above this happy pair, out of view, the snake awaits with his temptation.

After their disobedience to God and their Fall, Eve and Adam look far less babelicious. Here they are making a bloody sacrifice for their Original Sin. Lots more blood and angst follows.

The Flood of Noah gets a lot of attention, of course, at the Creation Museum. Among many other things, it is used to explain the fossil record and the current distribution of life. I suspect the museum designers also derive a bit of pleasure from the idea of sinners dying in misery and despair as a small remnant of the righteous survives.

A critical part of the message in this museum is that the “evolutionary worldview” has brought much pain and destruction to our civilization. This elaborate and rather odd display shows the concept of “millions of years” destroying a church building. (Just think what billions of years would do!) Again, note the threat of modern geology to the fabric of God-fearing society.

Dinosaurs are a huge part of the Creation Museum’s program. Because kids love them so much, the Answers in Genesis people call them “missionary lizards“. (I don’t know which is most offensive: calling them missionaries … or calling them lizards!) The dinosaur models are, like their human equivalents, spectacular. Their star T. rex looks a bit overweight, but otherwise the reconstructions would pass in a real museum. The information on the signs, of course, is another story. Note the approximate date for the Upper Jurassic and that they ate meat only after the Fall. (Before that there was no death on Earth and thus no predation.)

Most disturbing is the effect of an institution like the Creation Museum on the education of children. This display makes sure you get the point that kids are at last hearing the real story outside of their corrupting public schools. The museum caters to home-schooled children for their “science” components, as well as to many private Christian schools. We often overheard parents and teachers telling their students “what we believe”. I caught a couple conversations describing a fallacious view of evolution (using the classic “I don’t know why there are still monkeys if we evolved from them” argument) that will likely go unchallenged in that child’s life. Very sad.

At the end of our experience we visited the outdoor portion of the museum with beautiful gardens and, to our delight, a petting zoo! This was the best way to discharge the tension built up during our visit: playing with innocent goats, feeding llamas, and watching albino peacocks display. All products of a long evolutionary history despite whatever stories we tell.






A Tale of Two Museums: Part 1 — The Cleveland Museum of Natural History

December 6th, 2011

Last week I had the marvelous opportunity to visit two very different museums with Wooster Geologists. This is the first of two posts with short vignettes of the memorable sights and sounds.

The first museum was the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Greg Wiles and his Climate Change class invited me to accompany them to see the visiting climate change exhibit. It was an excellent display of the latest ideas about changing climates, including accurate accounts of the evidence, controversies and possible solutions to the problem of anthropogenic global warming and its associated troubles. It was a pleasure to see this presentation with Greg because of his deep and very current knowledge of the science and politics.

Since the above links give plenty of information about the museum and climate change exhibit, I’ll just highlight two features in front of the museum I found very interesting:

The large sundial above represents the history of life by geological periods. Note the beautiful ammonite fossil model as part of the gnomon (the portion that casts the shadow).

Each segment of the horizontal portion of the sundial is a geological period. Can you tell which periods are shown here?

Finally, I think this sculpture in the front garden entitled “Venus From The Ice Field” by Charles Herndon is ingenious. It is carved from a granite boulder found in the local glacial till.

My next post will be about the second museum — a very different place!

Exploring the Silurian at the Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet in Stockholm: Last day of work for the Wooster Geology Estonia Team

July 12th, 2011

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN–No paleontological expedition is complete until it includes time in the collections of a museum. No single sampling trip like ours can describe the full diversity of a fossil site, no matter how many days we spend scouring the rocks. A traditional museum will combine the finds of hundreds of scientists over two centuries or more. The very best natural history museums, such as the Natural History Museum in London, the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, and, of course, the Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet in Stockholm (shown above), have international collections from around the world. They set global standards for the documentation of living and extinct biodiversity. They are cathedrals of science to which we make regular pilgrimages, with all the awe and obligation that word includes.

The Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet (Royal Museum of Natural History; NRM) has the best collection of Silurian fossils in northern Europe, so we were anxious to go through the drawers and learn what we could about our own Silurian observations in Estonia. Thanks to Jonas Hagström, Senior Assistant Palaeontologist, we were given full access to the Silurian paleontology section.

Rachel Matt investigating the contents of a drawer in the NRM Silurian collections. Note the proper way of pulling open a specimen drawer: always have the drawer beneath partly open in case you accidentally pull the top drawer out too far!

The specimen drawers typically contain fossils in little cardboard trays with paper labels and a variety of stickers and numbers. Half the fun in a museum is figuring out what the organizational system is, then reading labels written in 19th Century cursive. (And in this case, in Swedish!)

Rachel making a simple photographic record of those fossils she finds that are similar to ours or should otherwise be documented for our work. Note that she has her computer open so that she can compare our field images to the museum specimens.

Nick found an excellent collection of eurypterids from the Rootsiküla Formation (Wenlock) in Estonia. He worked with these rocks in the field, but did not find any recognizable eurypterid fossils. Now he has a nice photographic collection of those in the NRM Silurian section.

After we finished our work in the collections, we toured the public displays in the NRM main building. They are fantastic. One of the highlights was this Silurian diorama showing many of our favorite extinct animals. By now you should be able to identify most of them!

Our final portrait of the trip: Nick Fedorchuk and Rachel Matt with an appropriately menacing Tyrannosaurus rex in the background. Tomorrow we leave for home! It has been an exciting adventure of science and culture.

A rainy day in the Mainz Basin

August 12th, 2010

View of the vineyards near Wöllstein, Germany.

View of the vineyards near Wöllstein, Germany.

OPPENHEIM, GERMANY–I want this termed Wilson’s Law: “The amount of mud encountered at an outcrop is inversely proportional to the quality of the fossils found.” Maybe it is my desert heritage, but I absolutely detest mud on my boots. Especially deep sticky quarry mud that grips lug soles and builds a progressively larger glob with every step. I try very hard to avoid slogs through it, but I’ve been spectacularly unable to avoid it in some places. Far too often I’ve slipped and slid through the glutinous stuff to find the rocks at the end to be distinctly unfossiliferous. Well mudded for little reward. Such was the case at the Rüssingen Limestone Quarry pictured below:

Today was a wet one in the Mainz Basin, and my fossil bag remained relatively empty except for some mollusk shells with borings (many of which are well described on this amateur’s page). Still, the geology was very interesting. The Mainz Basin is not a true basin in the geological sense. It is better described as a fracture zone at the western border of the Upper Rhine Graben. We were most interested in the shallow marine and brackish water Oligocene sediments deposited within these boundaries. Some of the sediments rested directly on sea cliffs of Permian rhyolite which was spectacular (but alas, not photogenic).

Clasts in the Alzey Formation (Oligocene, Rupelian) exposed near Wöllstein, Germany. The large pebble by the two-Euro coin is a Permian rhyolite; the white pebbles are from quartz veins in metamorphic rock. Both clast types were derived from nearby rocky cliffs during deposition.

Our last stop of the day was the Naturhistorisches Museum Mainz (Mainz Natural History Museum). This was much fun, especially since we had a special dinner with the director and staff in the galleries. The collection and displays are very good. I could have the usual photo of some vertebrate fossil in a case, but instead I was taken with a humble drawer of fossil snails packed in cotton so that they appeared to be floating in clouds:

Wooster Geologists at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

February 21st, 2010

CLEVELAND, OHIO–Yesterday the Wooster Geology Club, under the able direction of Dr. Meagen Pollock, visited the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for a behind-the-scenes geological (and, it turned out, biological) tour. The weather was fantastic for the drive north as we broke free from the snowy confines of campus.  We were met by Dr. David Saja, the CMNH mineralogy curator, and Dr. Joe Hannibal, the CMNH invertebrate paleontology curator.  The public galleries were crowded with families since it was “Scout Day”, so we were happy to be plucked from the long entrance line and taken to the quiet laboratories downstairs.  Dr. Saja and Dr. Hannibal spent hours with us showing the collections and equipment, and we came away with new ideas for collaborative research, student opportunities, and our own specimen displays. It was a delightful day.

Dr. Saja showing us the CMNH mineralogy collections and research facilities.

Dr. Saja showing us the CMNH mineralogy collections and research facilities.

Dr. Hannibal discussing a beautiful skeleton of a Devonian fish from the Cleveland Shale.

Dr. Hannibal discussing the beautiful skeleton of a Devonian fish from the Cleveland Shale.

Geology Club president Rob Lydell tests the reactions of a Devonian Dunkleosteus fish. They were very slow.

Geology Club president Rob Lydell tests the reaction speed of a Devonian Dunkleosteus fish. Very slow, it turns out.

The irrepressible Dr. Hannibal reveals a secret fossil reconstruction.  (Oh no -- now he must publish it!)

The irrepressible Dr. Hannibal reveals a secret fossil reconstruction. (Oh no -- now he must publish it!)

The wonder of natural history museums

July 9th, 2009

TALLINN, ESTONIA–Scientific museums preserve specimens and information from generations of researchers, collectors and students. The interiors of a typical paleontological museum contains windowless rooms filled almost to the ceiling with cabinets, each with dozens of drawers containing carefully labeled and cataloged specimens. Because information grows rapidly in science, the most important information on those labels is not the identity of the fossils but where they were found. The names and even systematic categories often change over the years as we learn new characteristics of particular groups, but the location information will always be critical for the value of the specimen for future researchers.

Today we visited the Institute of Geology at the Tallinn University of Technology. We were hosted by Dr. Helje Pärnaste, a paleontologist who specializes in Ordovician trilobites. She generously spent the day with us going through the collections. Using one of the best electronic cataloging systems we have ever seen, she was able to take us to drawers containing specimens from our study localities. We were able to add to our faunal lists and see better preserved fossils which will help in our future identifications. We concentrated on crinoids, of course, and were able to calibrate what we found which was truly new and see many other examples.

The Estonia Geology Research crew examining specimens in the Institute of Geology collections (left); a typical museum drawer (right).

The Estonia Geology Research crew examining specimens in the Institute of Geology collections (left); a typical museum drawer (right).

Much of our work involves finding specimens from our study locations and making quick and simple photographs for later reference.

Much of our work involves finding specimens from our study locations and making quick and simple photographs for later reference.

Again another scientific colleague we did not know before this trip helped us immensely and has become a friend. It is a remarkable universal fellowship. I hope we are able to return many such favors back in the United States.