Science & Environment

A night at the museum

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Image caption Science Uncovered is about connecting...

In a modern white laboratory far removed from the famous Diplodocus skeleton that greets visitors to London's Natural History Museum, Alex Aitken is liquidising part of a dead wasp.

"We'll squash it, we'll extract the DNA, and that can tell us perhaps the species - it can tell us about population genetics, and perhaps about evolution," she says.

Other samples awaiting their turn include mosquitoes, bluebells, ivy and scorpions, sitting in test tubes.

This is part of the museum that few visitors ever see - certainly not any of the clamorous holidaymakers and school parties that throng the exhibition halls.

For one evening - Friday 23 September - that will all change.

In a venture that the museum calls Science Uncovered, visitors will be able to access some of these hidden nooks and crannies where science goes on - to tour places like Ms Aitken's molecular laboratory, and talk to some of the 300-plus researchers about what they do and why, and how it fits in with the specimens that are on display.

Part of the rationale is that very few of those specimens are on display - hardly surprising, since the museum holds about 70 million of them.

But it's also seen as a chance to show that museums are not only about old dead things, but also about live researchers making the same kind of scientific contributions as their peers in universities.

And it's about showing people that scientific research consists of much more than putting a Diplodocus skeleton back together.

Window into history

The whale hall, for example, is festooned with skeletons, cheek by jowl - a gray whale, a sperm whale, a right whale, and soaring over everything, the world's largest mammal, the blue.

To make sense of it, panels next to the specimens tell visitors about the whales' habitat and diet, and the threats the animals have faced down the years - most notably, the era of rampant commercial whaling that brought several species to the brink of extinction.

For Science Uncovered, senior curator Richard Sabin is bringing out specimens that put some historical flesh on the bones of the whaling era.

These specimens are huge whale vertebrae, some bearing notches and scars that definitely came from encounters with something metallic, wielded by human hand.

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Media captionThree NHM researchers describe the work they do "behind the scenes"

He tells me about the phone call he received last year from archaeologists monitoring a huge building project in Greenwich, and the photos they sent.

"All I saw were huge bones scattered across the mud on the foreshore; I was very excited because it was obviously a large whale," he says.

The bones were taken back to the museum, and Dr Sabin identified it as a North Atlantic right whale - a species that has not been seen on the eastern side of the Atlantic for decades, probably centuries, and whose numbers remain perilously low on the west side.

All that was missing was the head, which had presumably been removed to extract the valuable baleen.

But why were the bones lying on the Greenwich mud?

Image caption Richard Sabin's whale vertebrae have an extraordinary tale to tell about bygone Greenwich life

Clues emerged from written records unearthed in the museum's archives, which tell the story of a whale caught at Greenwich in 1658.

Several features of the skeleton tally very well with the written description.

"There's a huge amount of information [in the records] about how this large, slow-moving animal was hooked and harpooned and dragged by its tail onto the foreshore," he says.

"The orientation on the foreshore was exactly right - it was headless, with its tail facing up the slope.

"We're not saying this definitely is the animal from 1658, but we're going to do some carbon-dating [to find out]."

Although this is a particularly exciting find because of the links it gives to a Britain of the past, it also illustrates how research behind the scenes at this or any other museum complements the public displays.

"[At Science Uncovered], people can come along to the whale hall and see the [Greenwich] specimen laid out on a table with two scientists to talk to, and it'll be underneath the display skeleton of the North Atlantic right whale so people can make a direct comparison between the two," says Dr Sabin.

But it also illustrates the divide that has to be maintained.

"A research specimen is designed exactly for that - we can take samples from the bones, it'll never be wired and hung from the ceiling, it's available for researchers around the world to study."

Naming game

The vast majority of dead whales end up not on a beach near a capital city, but at the bottom of the ocean.

Adrian Glover from the museum's zoology department was one of the scientists who discovered that tiny polychaete worms were living on these carcasses - a rare feast in the middle of a largely barren ocean floor.

Now, he has five new species of these tiny worms, discovered around Antarctica, just a couple of millimetres long.

The problem is, they do not yet have names; and he is running out of ideas.

Visitors to Science Uncovered will be able to see the worms under a microscope and look at the startling scanning electron microscope photos of their mouths - and will be invited to contribute names.

Image caption A scanning electron microscope reveals the scraping mouth parts of the tiny worms in incredible detail

"Naming things in science is quite fun," says Dr Glover.

"There was an animal called Osedax mucofloris, which we translated literally as 'bone-eating snot flower', and we named it that because it looked like a flower emerging out of a mucus tube on these whale bones on the ocean floor," he says with a smirk.

"And there was another example of a polychaete that was forming carpet-like mats on the sea floor, about 2,000m deep, and we named it flokati after the Greek shag pile carpet."

The winning suggestions for the five new species, in Latin or Greek forms, will enter the formal scientific literature - enshrined in perpetuity.

Myth-busting

Science Uncovered is something new for the scientists too.

And rather than being concerned about having hundreds of visitors traipsing through their labs and offices, they appear to be looking forward to it.

"People may think about this as a 'dinosaur place', but that couldn't be further from the truth," says Adrian Glover.

"We have hundreds of researchers here, many of them actively engaged in exploring remote, poorly known environments including the deep sea, and we're really excited to introduce people to that."

Alex Aitken sees it as a "wonderful opportunity" to show people what DNA is and what it can tell you.

"It's great that we can show people what we do and make people aware of some of our projects - how we help in the medical field and with important issues like climate change," she says.

"We're ordinary people doing ordinary jobs, and we can try and dispel the myth a little bit."

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