Category Archives: Have Science Will Travel

Nikko Natural Science Museum

IMG_2558A few years ago I was in Japan for a conference, and tagged on some extra days to explore a bit more of the country together with my sister. We mostly stayed in and around Tokyo, but we took a two-day trip to Nikko, further inland. Nikko is a small town with a beautiful heritage site, with lots of temples, and a famous wood carving of the original “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys.

Close to Nikko, just a 20-minute bus ride away, is a waterfall that all the guidebooks recommended, so we had to check it out. The waterfall is further uphill, at Lake Chuzenji – a lake formed after a volcanic eruption blocked off the river thousands of years ago.

Before we got on the bus, we became a bit worried by the fog we had seen creeping onto the mountain. Hoping that it would clear eventually, and with no further days left in Nikko, we decided to risk it and journeyed to Lake Chuzenji.

The further we travelled up the mountain, the thicker the fog got.

Once we got out of the bus at the top, we walked toward the waterfall, barely seeing more than about twenty or thirty feet in front of us.

In the distance, we saw what looked like a… bear?

Coming closer, the bear stayed motionless next to a sign. It was a wooden statue.


The sign was for the Nikko Natural Science Museum, but we were aiming for the falls, so we didn’t stop at the museum.

Last week, more than two years after visiting the Lake Chuzenji area, I was looking at my photos again, and decided to look into this Natural Science Museum that the bear was trying to entice us to visit.

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AMNH Shelf Life

I’ve never been to the American Museum of Natural History (it’s on the “to visit” list!) but now the museum is coming to me via the magical medium of YouTube. AMNH has launched a video series called Shelf Life, through which you can get a behind the scenes tour of parts of their collection.

The show debuted in November, with an episode on collections in general (and fish in particular). Two more episodes have since gone up, one per month. The production quality of the videos is really good, but they managed to stay within the YouTube attention span.

The most recent episode is about the coelacanth, which actually ties in nicely with my last post about the Tiktaalik, so you might want to watch that.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if they modeled it after the Field Museum’s (acquired) Brain Scoop series, but it is clearly a different concept, with different people on screen in every episode. Each episode is also accompanied by a web page with more information, so it’s more in depth than just the videos. I really liked the turtles and taxonomy episode and web page.

It’s good to see another museum embrace online video to share their collection, and I can’t wait until February’s episode, which is all about the olinguito!

Ellesmere Island


Town of Eureka, Nunavut.

Think it’s cold where you are right now? It’s not as cold as Ellesmere Island. The average temperature of its capital city Grise Fiord (population 130) is −16.5 °C (2.3 °F), according to Wikipedia. Only about 150 people (maybe even fewer) live on Ellesmere Island, and the permanent population of the town of Eureka is zero. Eureka, as you might have guessed, is predominantly a research station.

Research on Ellesmere Island in northern Nunavut (Canada) focuses largely on weather and climate research, but perhaps its most famous discovery is Tiktaalik – a fish with limbs.


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Giant Crystal Cave


In 2000, a group of Mexican miners was drilling new tunnels for the excavation of zinc, silver, and lead, when they found something even shinier than the metals they were after: an underground cave with enormous crystals, 300 meters underground.  These crystals are up to 12 meter (39 ft) high, and are the largest crystals on the planet!

The crystal cave was originally filled with water (in which the crystals were formed), but the miners pumped the water out of the space, revealing the crystals. Once they’re done mining this area, they will stop pumping, and the cave will fill up with water again. In the mean time, while the crystals are exposed to the air, they’re quite fragile and can deteriorate. Either way, the crystal cave is not a permanent space.

cavescientistsRecognizing the short-lived nature of the cave, a group of researchers and artists set up the Naica project in 2006, with the goal of documenting all aspects of the crystals before they disappear. The scientific team of the Naica project is studying the physical and geological aspects of how the crystals were formed, and looking at microbiology and fossils within the area. So far, they have published several dozen articles. Meanwhile,  the “visual rescue” team is working hard to document the caves from all angles before they’ll be lost.

robotBoth the photographers and scientists have had to deal with extreme conditions: temperatures within the cave are about 50 degrees Celcius (Over 120 Fahrenheit). Combined with 100% humidity, humans can only survive in the caves for a few hours, tops. That means the teams have had to develop techniques to take images and measurements without exposing themselves too much to the climate within the caves. The imaging team uses robots, and everyone has to wear special suits to go down there.

It’s not a place most of us will ever got to visit, so the research and documentation efforts are a great way for everyone to learn about the caves. The cave was discovered by accident, and who knows what else is hiding below the Earth’s surface?

Cave crystals – CC-BY by Alexander van Driessche, via Wikimedia. Robot and scientists images from Naica project website, copyright Naica project.

Grant Museum of Zoology

For my last science travel outing of the year, I went to the Grant Museum of Zoology, during lunch break of my last work day of 2014.

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The Grant Museum of Zoology is a natural history museum of University College London. As a university museum, it’s not very big – only spanning one room – but there is a lot to see. It has samples from 67,000 species, including one of only seven existing quagga skeletons in the world.

2014-12-19 13.40.46Elsewhere, there’s a little alcove that’s covered floor to (mirrored) ceiling in old microscope slides, which you can take a closer look at with the provided magnifying glass. It made me feel like a 19th century biologist!

The museum was founded in 1828 as a teaching museum, so some of the specimens were prepared for educational purposes, which can make them a bit creepy-looking. Monkey heads in jars, that sort of thing.

Today, the museum still has an educational purpose. It’s the only zoological university museum in London, and offers teaching support to university groups at UCL and beyond, who want to use the samples in the classroom, as well as to high school, artists, film crews, and others in need of animal anatomy samples.

The museum is currently working on continued preservation of some of its largest skeletons as part of the “Bone Idols” project. When I visited, the rhino was being worked on.

2014-12-19 13.27.38To be able to carry out this preservation task, as well as its regular maintenance, the Grant Museum is raising funds in several ways. The most visible is the “adopt-a-specimen” project, which allows you to have your name displayed next to one of the jars or skeletons, in return for a donation.

Recently, my friend Kat (who lives in Canada) received this specimen adoption as a birthday present from her other London-based friend, so I set out to find her jar. I knew it was an octopus, so that narrowed it down somewhat, but it still took me a while to find the cephalopod section. When I did, I had to search a bit among all the other adopted samples, but then I saw it, at the back!

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If you also want your name on an animal of your choice, you can adopt a specimen via the Grant Museum website. Let me know if you do, and I’ll drop by again to visit it. The museum is a stone’s throw from my office and I can’t believe I had never even been before last week!2014-12-19 13.42.47