Wednesday, December 19, 2007
A day at the museum
I'm having a terrible time motivating myself to do anything useful right now, especially since I feel like the only person on campus. So instead, I went to the traveling Darwin exhibit at the Field Museum. It's relevant, at least. I enjoyed the exhibit very much; it delved equally into Darwin as a person and Darwin as a scientist, and led us through his own accumulation of evidence and gradual realization that his specimens might be similar and different for a reason other than "God made them that way," which of course was the prevailing opinion of the time. The exhibit included many of his own tools and books (his annotated copy of Lyell's Principles of Geology!), items from Down House, letters written in his largely illegible handwriting, and some of his own collected beetles. There also was an iguana that opened its eye and breathed heavily at me when I approached, and some beautifully mounted skeletons from the American Natural History Museum. One case contained a written page with a list of pros and cons regarding marriage; apparently he talked himself into it because at the bottom of the page he wrote "Marry marry marry Q.E.D." There was also an amusing story of his discovery of the long-sought lesser rhea, a South American flightless bird... on his dinner plate. As a biologist, I greatly admire his persistence, his attention to detail, and his enthusiasm for his work, balanced with what was clearly a very happy family life. I am probably not alone in my wish to be like him, to revolutionize science with an argument that is so elegant and well-supported and fundamental to the field that my colleagues will kick themselves for not thinking of it first.
I wasn't sure if I was allowed to take pictures, so I snuck one of this page from one of his notebooks. Everyone in my field of study knows this image, the first known phylogenetic tree with that famously hesitant "I think" written above it: