The Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, Johannesburg

Interior, Sci-Bono Discovery Centre (photo: Nick Gray)

On my recent South African trip, I visited the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Johannesburg. This science museum is a little like Questacon in Canberra. Sci-Bono’s strengths are the large number of well-built interactive exhibits and the large number of helpful staff. Exhibits concentrate mostly on physics and technology. All ages from toddlers to adults are catered for.

Interactive electrolysis exhibit (photo: Anthony Dekker)

The Sci-Bono Discovery Centre is not free, but is value for money. I enjoyed it, and Tripadvisor gives it 4.5 stars. Sci-Bono is active on Facebook and Twitter.

Atlas Cheetah E aircraft on display (photo: Alan Wilson)

Failure to collect type specimens of new species considered harmful

A September 2016 letter to Nature defended the naming of new species without the traditional type specimen. Some months earlier, Nature had an editorial on the same subject.

A group of 493 concerned taxonomists responded by saying that type specimens were essential for objectivity and replicability. Nature would not publish their letter, and so it appeared in Zootaxa in November. And they are right, of course – even with the ability to go back and check preserved specimens (especially their DNA), taxonomy can be a tricky business. Without that ability, it would be a nightmare.

The job’s not over yet, guys

The Bible (Genesis 2:19–20) describes the first man as beginning an inventory of the world’s animal species. Bob Dylan famously set the story to music in Man Gave Names to All the Animals (1979):

Man gave names to all the animals
In the beginning, in the beginning
Man gave names to all the animals
In the beginning, long time ago

He saw an animal that liked to growl
Big furry paws and he liked to howl
Great big furry back and furry hair
‘Ah, think I’ll call it a bear’ …

In spite of all the millenia that humanity has lived on our planet, this inventory has only just begun. An estimated 8.7 million eukaryotic species exist, with about 86% still awaiting description. At the current rate of progress, finishing the job will take centuries – and during that time, many species will become extinct without ever having been inventoried. Many species have already been lost forever.

Some of the older species descriptions will also need to be re-examined. There are specimens on museum shelves which represent unrecognised species. The job’s far from over yet, guys. We obviously need substantially more resources for the task.

The Museum of Osteology, Oklahoma City

Interior of the Museum of Osteology (my photo)

The Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City is a small private museum devoted to bones and skeletons. Specimens in the museum (over 300 skeletons and 400 skulls) were collected by Jay Villemarette, a skeleton fanatic who appears to have found his niche in life during childhood. Villemarette also owns the company Skulls Unlimited, which is located next door to the museum, and which provides much of the material in the museum gift shop.

Left: human skull with bullet wound; right: Western Diamondback Rattlesnake – photos by Michael Alumbaugh (cropped)

Specimens in the Museum of Osteology are displayed well (see photos above and below), and I found the museum interesting. Tripadvisor also rates the museum highly. For admission prices and further information, see the museum website.

Left: Raccoon; centre: Northern Seahorse; right: Broad-footed mole – photos by Michael Alumbaugh

Data Sculpture

Recently I blogged about a plaster model made by James Clerk Maxwell in 1874 to visualise a relationship between volume, energy, and entropy. Follow-up discussion touched on the topic of data sculpture more generally, and I thought that such tangible three-dimensional data visualisations deserved their own post. The image below, for example, is of a spiral periodic table designed by Sir William Crookes and constructed in 1898 by his assistant:

The photograph below (courtesy of the Museum of History of Science, Oxford) shows a three-dimensional electron density map for Penicillin calculated from X-ray crystallography by Dorothy Hodgkin:

Similar transparent data sculptures are relatively easy to make. The wide availability of 3d printers also allows easy generation of data sculptures. Jeff Hemsley explains how to do this with network data using R:

Finally, several beautiful population visualisations were on display at the Tate Modern in 2007. Lorenzo G took the photograph below:

Thermodynamic visualisation

This plaster model was made by the great James Clerk Maxwell in 1874 (the photograph was by taken by James Pickands II, 1942). This historic artefact is one of three copies, held in museums around the world, including the Cavendish and the Sloane Physics Laboratory at Yale.

The model shows the relationship between volume, energy, and entropy for a fictitious water-like substance, based on theoretical work by Josiah Willard Gibbs. The lines connect points of equal pressure and of equal temperature. Maxwell found the model a useful aid in his research. The model prefigured modern visualisation techniques – today we would use computer software to visualise such surfaces, like this:


The Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

Museum exterior (Old Ashmolean Building)

The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford holds a spectacular collection of thousands of early scientific instruments, such as the microscope below. The Museum can be visited on afternoons (except Mondays) for those fortunate enough to be in Oxford, but there is an excellent virtual tour, so that people from around the world can explore what the Museum has to offer. There are also many online exhibits and several YouTube videos. Few museums have an online presence this good. Even the shop is online!

Microscope and accessories (photo by Mark Harding)

For more information, see the museum website or the Wikipedia article.