Sunday, November 9, 2008

Museum of Natural History

See my Picasaweb album for more pictures from this trip.

I got on the train in Millburn bound for Penn Station. Khalil's mother had brought him to the East Orange train platform, so when the train stopped he jumped on and joined me. We spent the rest of the trip talking and playing a game on his phone. He told me how good the pumpkin pie was, how much his sister liked it, and how he remembered everything I showed him. That made me very happy. It's thrilling enough to me when I can share my passions with peers, but having a child reciprocate my enthusiasm is singularly gratifying.

Either the A/C wasn't running normally or I made one of my spectacularly bad logistical decisions, because I remember walking several blocks across town to get to the museum; we must have taken the 1 train. Anyhow, we made it to the museum and picked up the tickets that Larry, a museum employee I know, was kind enough to leave for us. There were a number of special events includes with admission, and Larry had recommended choosing three. Khalil chose the IMAX movie "Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure", the animal exhibit "Lizards and Snakes Alive", and the Hayden Planetarium feature "Cosmic Collisions". We had some time before the first feature so I took Khalil up to the fourth floor to see the dinosaur skeletons that have always fascinated me.

We oooohed and aaaaahed, imagining the apatosaurus, tyrannosaurus and stegosaurus lumbering around, and the pteranodon in flight. Khalil was particularly impressed with the prehistoric bear skeleton that's reared up as if to give its rival or its prey a deadly hug. I told him my favorite stories about the exhibit, such as how the armadillo-like dinosaur with pieces of bone lacing its skin gave it a sort of natural armor, and how the dimetrodon is thought to have used its fan not only for protection, but as a heat sink. The American Museum of Natural History website shows some of the skeletons we saw.

We continued on to "Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure". I was quite impressed, although I don't know enough about paleontology to know how many liberties were taken in order to tell a good story. It begins with a child who, on a camping trip, notes a bone sticking out of a recently eroded riverbank. Paleontologists come to excavate the bones. Throughout the story, the point of view jumps back and forth between these present-day investigations and the computer-generated life story of the creature to whom some of those bones belonged: Dolly, a female Dolichorhynchops. I thought it was quite an engaging story, and Khalil seemed to agree.

We grabbed some overpriced lunch and moved on to "Lizards and Snakes Alive". This was a well-arranged series of glass cases displaying a history of the Flemish wool trade. Or not. No, actually, the name of the exhibit turned out to be a clever play on words: it was live lizards and snakes. I was particularly fascinated by the geckos that could cling to sheer glass with no perceptible difficulty. Khalil loved playing with the cameras and matching monitors that were set up around some of the cases; he panned and zoomed to get a closeup look at the contents of the cases. He didn't love the big snakes so well; I held his hand as we zipped by that bit.

Our last show was quite an impressive one: "Cosmic Collisions". Up until that day I hadn't known that there was an amphitheater inside the Hayden Planetarium. We got seats near the front - or the center, as it's a circular theater with the picture projected on the entire hemispheric ceiling. The show, narrated by Robert Redford, was all about the collisions that eventually result in the formations of new planets, asteroid belts, solar systems, and galaxies. Breathtaking in scope and visually stunning, it leaves one feeling quite appropriately in awe.

Before leaving, we visited the gift shop outside the planetarium. Not thrilled with the idea of paying for a vastly overpriced hunk of plastic, but wanting to get Khalil some souvenir of our visit, I gravitated toward the display racks of educational flashcards. Thanks to my handy iPhone I found that they were no more expensive in the gift shop than on Amazon, so I asked Khalil if there was a set that he liked. He picked the rainforest animals set, just as I thought he would. As we rode the subway back to Penn Station, and the New Jersey Transit back west, Khalil organized the cards and read some of the descriptions. I helped him with some of the words. This was a good day.

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