Canadian Museum of Nature

Today, I visited the Canadian Museum of Nature. I continue to find some place new and interesting to visit each month if I can.

The collection of the Museum of Nature first started as the collection of the Geological Survey of Canada in 1856 when Canada was being explored scientifically. The current building, known as the Victoria Memorial Museum Building, was completed in 1912. At one point Parliament was using some of the rooms after the Centre Block burnt down in 1916.

The building recently completed an extensive renovation. I wanted to visit after the re-opening, but I read that they would have a temporary photography exhibit opening this month, so I waited until today.

Chasmosaurus Irvinensis
Chasmosaurus Irvinensis

Before entering the museum, I took some pictures of the life-sized Chasmosaurus Irvinensis on the lawn outside. This dinosaur is very interesting for having over 20 horns – one on the nose, two on the sides of the head and the rest around the top of the frill. I thought originally that the horns on the periphery of the frill were flaps of skin not bones until I read more. Imagine how hard it would be to find a hat that fits!

When I entered the museum, the first place I went was the art gallery. The current photography exhibit is about Northern Canada. There were beautiful landscapes, some nature photos and many photos of the people who live in our far north. I was very glad I waited before visiting the museum – the photos were amazing.

After the gallery, I thought I would start at the top of the building and work my way downward. The fourth floor contains the Bird Gallery. Not much to see there. I mean, lots of birds of course, but I am mostly interested in birds of prey, and there were not many on display. There was not even a bald eagle. When I lived in Port Williams, we had Bald Eagles roost in the pines trees behind our house. I always loved to hear their calls and watched in awe as they leapt into the air.

The third floor had the Vale Earth Gallery. The collection is surprisingly large and varied. I was very interested in the examples of very ancient stones, some of which date back billions of years to when the earth was first cooling. There was also a small collection of meteors. Looking at a 4.55 billion year old meteor is to imagine the fiery birth of our solar system.

The gallery of crystals was also very interesting. There are so many shapes of crystals. However, I found that some of the displays were too low (presumably for young viewers); it was too hard for me to stoop down to see the displays with a camera and heavy camera bag around my neck.

Blue whale skeleton
Blue whale skeleton

The second floor houses the RBC Blue Water Gallery. The highlight is the extraordinary blue whale skeleton in the centre of the gallery. It is so massive – 19 metres long. And imagine that it was not close to being full-grown – blue whales can each 33 metres in length and weigh more than 180 tonnes. That’s as much as a fully-loaded Boeing 767-300ER! Blue whales are the largest animals that have ever lived.

Also on this floor was the Mammal Gallery. They had some large dioramas with stuffed bears (polar and brown), moose, Dall sheep (thinhorn sheep), cougars, beavers, and some smaller animals. I finished this section quickly, taking in each of the dioramas and moving on.

The ground floor housed the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery. This is what I really came for. I’m not a fanatic about dinosaurs like some, but I do find that entire extinct ecosystem fascinating.

When first entering the Fossil Gallery, you are greeted by a Daspletosaurus torosus towering over everyone. These carnivorous dinosaurs were between 2 and 4 tonnes and could be 9 metres (30 feet) in length. They lived between 77 and 74 million years ago. They had about 6-dozen teeth!

Carnotaurus Sastrei
Carnotaurus Sastrei

The other meat-eating dinosaur on display was the Carnotaurus Sastrei, which was as long as the Daspletosaurus, but thinner and less massive.

The museum has a connection with the Chasmosaurus Irvinensis, as the museum staff did some of the original research. There are skeletons in the Fossil Gallery, plus the diorama I saw outside the museum, and another diorama of a family of Chasmosaurus Irvinensis being hunted by an unidentified family of Theropod.

Other horned dinosaurs were also on display, such as the well-known Triceratops. Where were some aquatic skeletons mounted along the ceiling, such as the biggest damn turtle I could ever imagine (Archelon) and an Elasmosaur.

Behind the dinosaurs were some extinct mammal exhibits. A diorama of a family of Megacerops was interesting. They are distantly related to rhinoceroses and lived 38-33.9 million years ago here in North America.

Evolution of the whale
Evolution of the whale

For me, the most fascinating exhibit in the entire museum is the evolution of the whale. There were three skeletons mounted in succession – the Pakicetus, Ambulocetus and Dorudon. The Pakicetus lived 55.8-40 million years ago and was a terrestrial carnivore. The Ambulocetus is also known as the ‘walking whale’. It is larger than Pakicetus and looked more like a crocodile with a long head like a whale. You can see the enlargement of the legs as one step in the evolution to flippers. It lived 50-49 million years ago and would have been a branch off the Pakicetus family tree. The final specimen is the Dorudon. It was entirely aquatic and lived 41 to 33 million years ago. It is obviously related to the whale at this point. It was fantastic to see these three specimens lined up showing how the species changed over tens of millions of years from a land animal to a fully-aquatic animal with whale-like body structures. It’s a great example of evolution that is easy to see and comprehend.

Another fossil that was very cool was the skull of a Parasaurolophus. This dinosaur has a long cranial crest that contained air tubes. It seems that it would be used for producing sound. Next to the skull were a pump handle and a long metal tube. Pushing the plunger forced air through the tube and created a sound similar to what the Parasaurolophus. Imagine – hearing a long extinct animal call, the sound of a dinosaur.

In the basement was the Animalium. There were many terrariums with various insects, spiders and small mammals. By far the creepiest were the Giant Spiny Stick Insects (Eurycantha calcarata). They are from New Guinea and can grow to about 6 inches in length. They look like H.R. Giger designed them.

The entire photo set from my visit to the museum is available on my gallery:

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine media still
Blue Valentine media still

Rosa and I saw the movie ‘Blue Valentine‘ at the Bytowne Theatre this afternoon.

It was an interesting film set tightly around a young married couple. It used flashbacks to show how their relationship built up and how it was slowly tearing apart. The flashbacks captured those wonderful moments when the two begin to fall in love. The falling apart, mostly due to communication issues, was also well played. It was well written and accurately acted. It really seemed more like a hidden camera capturing a real couple – a high complement for the actors Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

It felt me thinking a lot about the evolution of relationships. In some cases, the break is understood. People do fall out of love. People cheat. I understand that. But the couple in ‘Blue Valentine’ genuinely seemed to still be in love. I’m sure it’s common but it is such a shame that people in love can have so many problems when they genuinely want to be together.

I was also reminded of an incident when Rosa and travelled to Rome.
We were in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican. The weather was great, and we were a week before our wedding day. A man and woman walked by yelling at each other.

“You’re so stupid,” she yelled at him.

“That’s right I am stupid. I married you!” he retorted.

Their teenaged son followed ten feet behind them, staring at the ground.
And I remember thinking, ‘how could anyone end up like that?’ How can two people who must have once loved each other enough to get married and have a family then deteriorate into that kind of caustic, hateful relationship?

I am so grateful for my relationship with Rosa. Everyday we find new ways to renew our relationship. Not a day goes by were we do not express our love for each other.

Happy Anniversary Yuri & Columbia

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, and marks the 30th anniversary of the first flight of the Space Shuttle, STS-1.

It is remarkable that only 20 years separated the two events, and that so little has changed in the most recent 30 years. In that short initial span of time, space technology advanced at an incredible pace.

Yuri Garagin flew one orbit of the earth on April 12, 1961 (Vostok-1). So little was known about space at the time that the controls of his capsule were locked to prevent him from operating them – it was thought that zero-G would induce madness.

About three weeks later, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, although with a sub-orbital, 486 km flight (Mercury-Redstone 3 aka Freedom 7). Less than three weeks later, US President John F. Kennedy publicly set the goal to putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. It was an incredible challenge. The US had less than 16 minutes of manned space flight experience at the time of the speech.

Mercury 12B (boilerplate spacecraft)
Mercury 12B (boilerplate spacecraft)

The American manned space programs moved at a breakneck pace. The Mercury program completed 2 years later. There was a 2-year gap before the first Gemini flights, which saw the first American two-man crews, the first American space walk, the first spacecraft rendezvous and docking, and much longer flights (Gemini VII was 13 days, 18 hours). The Gemini program wrapped up at the end of 1966, making way for the Apollo program.

The first manned Apollo flight, Apollo 7, was 2 years after the end of the Gemini program. Part of the reason for the gap was the deadly cabin fire on Apollo 1 in January 1967, which was being tested for a possible first flight in February. The fire and investigation, combined with program challenges for the Apollo CSM and LM landers, led to the delay. Boldly, the Apollo 8 mission actually reached moon orbit – a daring objective for only the second manned flight of the program.

With the goal of a manned landing on and returning from the moon accomplished on July 16, 1969, winning the moon-landing race against the Soviets, the funding for Apollo was drawn down. It was only 8 years and 3 months from Gagarin’s flight to the touchdown of Apollo 11 in the Sea of Tranquility on the moon.

Apollo 14 Command Module
Apollo 14 Command Module

The final flight to the moon was Apollo 17 at the end of 1972. Some of the Apollo equipment was used for the Skylab space station, manned for 171 days in 1973 and 1974, followed by the mid-decade Apollo-Soyuz flight. From that point, there were no manned American space flights until STS-1 on April 12, 1981.

The early designs of the Space Shuttle systems date back even before the moon landing. President Nixon approved the program in 1971. It took 10 years to build and test the first two Shuttles – Enterprise, which was only used for approach and landing tests from a converted Boeing 747, and Columbia which was a fully functional orbiter. It looks less time to move from the first manned suborbital space flight to landing on the moon.

STS-132 Atlantis
STS-132 Atlantis

Since the start of the Shuttle era, I feel the US manned space program has stagnated. For 30 years, the US has entirely depended on the shuttle for all manned flights. Again, that’s three times longer than it took to go from Yuri’s flight to landing on the moon. I feel that the US should have been spending more on trying out new technologies.

While I am fully supportive of the International Space Station, and feel that it should be the springboard for any future above-low-orbit manned missions, it hasn’t really pushed forward the manned program. It has provided a workspace for research of course, but it’s not about manned flight really. It’s about a zero-G research facility. It’s also not the first space station – it’s been done before.

Without producing any new vehicles for the past 30 years, it would be like the aviation industry stopping creating new planes with the Boeing 707, or if computer science stopped once IBM created the System/360.

In the future, I would like to see the US exploring new ways and new vehicles for its manned program. Allowing private space companies to provide services is an interesting direction but I am concerned that NASA would be without any space program, should these private companies (who are doing it for a profit) either fail or decide that it is not financially viable for them to continue. Then what will NASA do? It seems directionless at the moment.

I have some strong opinions and I’m working on an essay about the future of NASA.

Ignorance has its costs

I wonder how well the pastor in Florida sleeps at night? When, against all good sense, he went ahead with the burning of the Muslim holy book, it sparked a series of protests that cost the lives of many innocent people?

In the book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People“, Stephen Covey used the phrase “when you pick up one end of the stick, you pick up the other”. This suggests being prepared for the consequences of your actions.

In this case, the pastor’s ill-thought-out project triggered violence in Afghanistan that killed more than 30 people. If he had been clear-headed about what he was doing, he should have understood that there would be consequences and that others could use his actions for their own purposes.

In this case, it appears that the protests started peacefully, as people expressed their outrage that someone would attack their religion. Then the Taliban may have become involved and escalated the protests into their violent peak. They used the protests to advance their own political goals, much like the Florida pastor used the media to advance his own agenda and bigotry.

Now, 30 people are dead.