Archive for the ‘Chicago’ Category

By Ruthanna Gordon

There’s not necessarily a lot of art, or a lot of science, in moving.  Possibly the science of calculating exactly how many boxes it will take to hold a book collection, or the art of packing everything neatly enough that it won’t collapse in transit.

Hi.  My house is full of bubble wrap, my e-mail is full of well-meant advice about DC area housing, and I’m trying to figure out how to say goodbye to the Chicago science scene.

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, and unwilling to settle on just one of Chicago’s many bits of scientific coolness to write about, so I’m going to mention a few favorites.  Whether you live here and haven’t seen everything yet, or are just thinking you might visit some day, these are my recommended highlights from seven years of sporadic sampling:

The Field’s Evolving Planet is, bar none, the best museum exhibit I’ve ever visited.  The visitor walks through the history of life on earth, from the first organic compounds to modern Homo sapiens, all illustrated by selections from the Field’s massive fossil collection.  At intervals, floor-to-ceiling red slashes mark mass extinctions and tell you about their possible causes.  Fossils are supplemented with models and multimedia—I’ve linked in the past to their amazing Burgess Shale aquarium.  There’s also a mock-up Carboniferous forest with giant dragonflies.  The fossils themselves are impressive.  I’m particularly fond of the Tully Monster, which is Illinois’s state fossil for the simple reason that it’s never been found anywhere else.  (And there’s a Sesame Street pun that I missed entirely when I was a kid!)

Also in the Field: the unpresupposing Rocks & Minerals exhibit includes a sheet of fossilized rain.

On my last visit to the Shedd Aquarium, I discovered something that I’d somehow managed to miss previously: the Wild Reef exhibit.  The Caribean Reef, just behind the entry hall, gives the impression that reefs are mostly about fish.  The larger downstairs exhibit, by contrast, shows off their full diversity.  I found these guys the coolest, and creepiest:

They’re called garden eels.

The Notebaert Nature Museum is smaller than the Field or MSI, and aimed largely at kids.  But unlike the Field or MSI, it has a butterfly house.  And it has a window where you can watch the cocoons that will eventually produce new butterflies.  Usually, one or two are in the process of hatching.

Beyond museums, there are many places in Chicago that get at the joy of discovery that’s at the heart of science.  The North Park Village Nature Center is a great place to learn about, and observe, the local ecology.  They hold regular events and classes, and in the Spring they have a maple syrup festival.  Much like butterflies, maple syrup is something that I appreciated for years without ever getting to see it produced.  At the nature center I got to see all the steps of the process, and taste the very faintly flavored, almost rainy sap as it came out of the tree.

You wouldn’t think a giant ferris wheel had a lot to do with science—careful calculations are needed to keep it from falling over, of course, but they don’t really enter into your experience riding it.  The ten-story wheel at Navy Pier, though, is one of many leftovers from the 1893 World’s Fair, a hugely optimistic celebration of scientific potential that still permeates the city’s culture.  Like many of the fair leftovers, this wheel is not the original, having been rebuilt 100 years later along stronger, more modern, and more corporately sponsored lines—as well as smaller ones.  Similarly, several of the city’s museums are modeled on fair buildings, but made from more durable materials.  Although 21st century Chicagoans are more aware of technology’s pitfalls, we haven’t let go of the hope that science can still create a better world.


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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

In 1934, a zoo was a place you went to see animals.  Period.  Small cages were the norm, ensuring that no visitor would be disappointed by missing their favorite creature.  A lucky animal might have a few bars to swing from or a platform to climb; unlucky ones had little to do except pace.

The Brookfield Zoo, when it opened that year, was one of the first to break the pattern.  They built naturalistic habitats, blocked off by ditches and moats.  The richer environment meant that a visitor might not see every animal—but the ones they did see would be happier.  And the visitor would learn more by watching the animals’ natural behaviors.

Rhinoceros at the Brookfield Zoo

Over the decades, the zoo, and its organizers at the Chicago Zoological Society, have built on this early attentiveness, even as their early practices have become the norm.  The modern zoo is still a place to see animals, but it’s also an organization dedicated to conservation, education, and research.  Brookfield, for example, is heavily involved in breeding programs for endangered species, including black rhinos, Balisian Mynah birds, and cotton-top tamarins.

Perhaps the biggest change from the older style of zoo is the emphasis on ecologies rather than species.  Brookfield, over the years, has increasingly emphasized the different types of habitats, often grouping animals by where they live rather than species similarity.  While they still maintain a reptile house and a collection of pachyderms, they also have exhibits devoted to rainforests, deserts, and swamps.

Possibly the most impressive of their exhibits combines the two forms.  Tropic World might, in other times, have been called the monkey house.  It contains several of the largest indoor animal habitats on the planet.  Just inside is the South American exhibit.  Humans walk past a waterfall and find themselves overlooking several stories of trees, rocks, and streams.  Callimicos and spider monkeys climb as high as they can for the chance to peer back at the primates on the walkway.  Come in at the right time, and you can also catch a glimpse of a giant anteater shuffling below.  Further along, in the African tropics, a troop of Western Lowland Gorillas largely ignore the crowd, looking fascinatingly familiar as they socialize and keep their children out of trouble.

Western Lowland Gorillas at the Tropic World exhibit. Image from http://www.brookfieldzoo.org

Throughout these exhibits, signs and videos tell visitors much more than the name of what they’re looking at.  In addition to habits and habitats, you also get the latest tidbits from the zoological society’s researchers—and a little about how humans are impacting life in the wild.  Many of these species are endangered, or live in threatened areas.  Outside the zoo, these problems can seem too distant and abstract to do much about.  Face-to-face with our closest relatives, though, they feel more immediate.  People leave the zoo with a sense of their place in the larger world—and of how they might change it.

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What are you looking for in an art/science organization? What information or services would you like to see, that no one is providing?

Give us your input here, or join the conversation on Facebook.

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On Wednesday, we asked about examples for teaching evolution.  Confusedious talked about the lineage of whales–a wonderful illustration of the way evolution is not necessarily linear.  The pressures of survival can encourage adaptations that bring a species out of the water, and then eventually send them back again.  Some of the interim forms are… startling.  The alligator-like Ambulocetus natans doesn’t look like anything you’d want to get close to, even with binoculars.

MASI’s own Henderson linked to a piece on the rapid evolution of a lizard species, after being transplanted to a new environment.  Although evolution can also take place gradually, punctuated equilibrium suggests that faster change isn’t at all uncommon.

J. B. S. Haldane (he of the pre-Cambrian rabbits) was once asked what his studies of evolution had taught him about the Creator. Haldane gave the question due consideration, then announced: “He has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”  They make up about a quarter of all the species on Earth, so he had a point.  An Inordinate Fondness is a monthly blog carnival that covers beetles in all their glorious variation. Unrelated to the blog, there is also a book and a Flickr set. Researchers at Harvard are working on putting together the full beetle family tree–click through for the stunning photos on the first page, if nothing else.

The Evolving Planet Exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum is one of the best places to get a feel for the scale and pattern of evolution.  It’s set up as a story, walking you from the origin of life through its many eras and extinction events, all the way up to the development of modern humans.  The Burgess Shale animation in Thursday’s post is from that exhibit.  The whole thing starts with this plaque:

That would make a great business card, convenient for handing out to people who think “theory” means “vague hunch.”  Or maybe it belongs on stickers, for putting inside the covers of high school biology texts.

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Post by Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman

We started this week with a tour of public art in Chicago.  It’s easy enough to find art, walking along the city streets, but what about science?  Often the combination is what draws people in.

Above, Buckminster Fuller poses with students in his geodesic dome at Chicago’s Institute of Design.  You can find a similar structure on the museum campus, just past the Field Museum, in a very science-influenced playground.  The C60 molecule shares the shape of Fuller’s dome, and is often called a Buckminister Fullerene or Buckyball. So children playing around on an odd-shaped jungle gym are also getting a feel for chemistry and design.

The Sears (now Willis) Tower is the second tallest building in the world! Architecture is a form of art that depends heavily on physics, and more so with such a large and impressive structure.  But the tower is perhaps best appreciated from inside, through the view from the top.  Science contributes to this as well.  A pilot project on the 56th floor will replace the windows with a special type of transparent photovoltaic glass. Their diffused light will increase the building’s energy efficiency, at the same time providing a clearer view out. The whole floor will be powered by solar generated electricity from the windows. How cool is that?

There are also many projects around the city that deliberately combine art and science. For example, in recent years, the Art Institute of Chicago has been working with Northwestern University to explore and conserve art through science.

Where else do art and science meet in the city?  What are your favorite examples?

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Post by Henderson

Chicago is a beautiful city.

Most notably, and almost inconspicuously, this beauty resides in the public works of art that hang in our libraries, beckon us from the sides of buildings, and greet us along the streets that we walk every day.

Say what you want about our fair city, but when it comes to public art, Chicago is one of the best, with a long history of incorporating it into the ethos of the city.  Its humble beginnings are found in the WPA and pre-WPA murals that are currently in restoration in many public schools.

Do you notice them?  Do they cause you to stop and think, or feel?

To whet your appetites and get your motors running for some spring and summer sightseeing, here are a few links to get out there and explore.  You can find more information on Chicago’s Public Art Collection website.

The city of Chicago is having a series of meetings to plan several new public art projects under their Percent for Arts program.  They’ve got money to spend, ranging from $28,000 – $67,000, so if you’re a budding or established artist in almost any medium, the city is encouraging you to apply.

Hubertus von der Goltz’s Crossing
334 N LaSalle St.
Chicago, IL 60654
Conceived by Hubertus von der Goltz as a gateway between the Loop and River North, Crossing symbolizes the delicate balance of the commercial and cultural districts that converge along the LaSalle Street corridor.

Crossing by Hubertus von der Goltz. @ 334 N LaSalle Street

Barbara Cooper’s Current
8148 S. Stony Island Ave.
Chicago, IL 60617
Barbara Cooper’s Current fills the 30-foot tall atrium of the Avalon Branch Library.  Made of wood and glue, the 20-foot long sculpture hangs from the ceiling.  Current represents the ripple effect of the library on the community, through reading, learning and discovering.

Current by Barbara Cooper. @ the Avalon Branch Library

Ellen Harvey’s Carpet
Brown Line – Francisco Station
N. Francisco Ave. & Eastwood Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625
The Chicago Transit Authority commissioned Ellen Harvey to create this 300 square foot mosaic for the Brown Line Francisco station.  The mosaic spans the wall of the station and depicts the Chicago skyline.

Carpet by Ellen Harvey. @ the Brown Lines Francisco Station

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