Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Speaking of Science: Dinosaurs, welcome to the Anthropocene

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

Skip Hommer, 10, with flag in hand, kicked off the official opening of Fossil Hall at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., on June 8. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

There were mere minutes until the grand opening of the new fossil hall, and the atmosphere in the rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History was electric.

Kids bounced on the tips of their toes and begged to be lifted onto their parents' shoulders. A boy in a dinosaur-print button-down kept tugging on his father's wrist to check his watch.

"It's going to open soon," the man reassured his son.

"How soon?" the boy wanted to know.

So many of them had already been waiting so long. Ed Schudel, who works for a real estate firm in Reston, Va., said his whole family had been bereft when the old fossil hall closed five years ago. He was alone when he returned for the unveiling of the new dinosaurs; his elderly parents couldn't handle the crowds. But he was taking pictures for them.

"They brought me here as a little boy," he said. "Now I'm coming back as a man."

But this is not the fossil hall that Schudel — or most of us — grew up with. "Deep Time," as the exhibit is known, is a dinosaur display for the Anthropocene. Every specimen, every caption, every interactive is aimed at illuminating Earth's past climates and emphasizing our present crisis.

I attended the grand opening of the hall Saturday to see how visitors responded to this forceful environmental message.

Along the "age of humans" ramp, Tammy Thueringer pointed out moments of mass death in Earth's history: 251 million years ago, when climate change caused by volcanic eruptions caused 96 percent of all species to go extinct. Sixty-six million years ago, when an asteroid wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs.

"All this stuff is different times when everything was so bad there would be a mass extinction and everything died," she said.

Four-year-old Noah Katz, the son of a friend, looked up at her, wide-eyed. "That's bad."

"I know," she said. "But they come back again."

"I think they're trying to send a message about science and life overall," Thueringer said. Reading about past extinctions, she saw a link between the demise of ancient species and "our time of global warming and climate change now."

"We're terrified," said John Robinson, a grandfather from Washington state who was visiting the exhibit with his wife, Mallow. They had just read a display about the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, a time 50 million years ago when Earth warmed almost as rapidly as it is now.

"Putting [climate change] in perspective of deep time is really eye-opening," Mallow said.

John noted that the theme seemed woven throughout the exhibit. "I'm glad it's here in many places," he said. "It needs to be a big billboard with flashing lights."

But elsewhere in the exhibit, I saw parents and children having conversations that might give the Robinsons hope.

Jack Burke-Miller, 12, was rapt at a video about the impact of climate change on a Pacific island. He and his twin brother, Max, were visiting from Wisconsin with their moms, and arrived at the museum early to ensure that they would be admitted to the exhibit.

Jack said he felt badly for people whose homes were being harmed as a result of carbon emissions by people thousands of miles away.

"It didn't say we're the bad people," he says. "I mean, we are the bad people. But we can't have our mindsets like that, because then nothing will change."

"One person can make a difference," said his mom, Patty Miller. "Where we live, what can we do?"

"Clean the lakes," Max offered.

"Plant trees," Jack said.

By 1 p.m., NMNH paleontologist Scott Wing, one of the lead curators for the exhibit, was exhausted. But he couldn't tear himself away from the chaotic, cheerful scene. Here was a kid sitting on the floor in front of a video screen, captivated by a video about the carbon cycle Wing helped create. There were a boy and his dad leaning over a model of a tree stump, the same rapt expression on both their faces. Here was a little girl walking along a display about extinctions, explaining to her uncle how humans played a role.

"Someone said [at the opening], 'We're done,' " Wing said. Then he shook his head. "It's like, we built the ship, and now it's sailing, and it looks like the waters are warm, but who knows?"

After all, this was only day one.

— Sarah Kaplan

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