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How to Build a Blue Whale Without Having Seen One: Part I

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The Museum’s first whale model went on exhibit in 1908 and was 76 feet long. The model was located in the Hall of the Biology of Mammals, which closed when the Hall of Ocean Life opened. Made of plaster, the model was not salvageable. Photo courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

“Not too long ago a colleague in Canada called and told me that his museum was planning to build a whale and did I have any suggestions? I had only one—resign now and get yourself a nice university job.” - Richard Van Gelder

In 1959, with its centennial looming ten years down the road, the American Museum of Natural History decided to complete its Hall of Ocean Life, which had been neglected and left dormant like a “sleeping giant,” museum employees said, for many of the years it had been open.

One of the finishing touches they wanted was a new blue whale model to replace the current one, which was made of wood covered in papier?mâché and had been around since 1908. After almost ten years of aesthetic arguments, technical hurdles and construction delays—and Richard Van Gelder, the museum’s chairman of the Department of Mammalogy and the whale’s chief designer, resigning from the Ocean Life Committee twice, from the Museum once and nearly getting fired three times (the last time being just the day before the official unveiling of the whale)—they finally got one.

Plus-Size Model

The problems started with the fact that, when the museum first began planning the model in 1959, very few people had ever actually laid eyes on a live blue whale, or even a photo of a whole one; most pictures gave just a glimpse of some small portion of the animal—part of a back or a tail or a fin poking out from the ocean—and the first full-body, underwater live shots wouldn’t be taken until the mid-1970s. This included some of the men tasked with designing the model. “So far as accuracy was concerned, I couldn’t see much wrong with [the old model],” Van Gelder wrote in Whale on my Back, a recollection of the project, “mainly because I had never seen a blue whale.”

Faced with the same problem at the beginning of the century, both the AMNH and the Smithsonian Institution had sent teams to go see some whales. Both went to whaling stations in Newfoundland, Canada, waiting days or weeks before the whalers landed anything. Van Gelder’s whale-making predecessor merely took measurements and made his model off of those, but the Smithsonian team had spent several more weeks making plaster molds of the huge decomposing whale, cutting away the flesh and dismantling the skeleton. The results of their labor, more than 26,000 pounds of bone and plaster casts, were then shipped to Washington to be assembled.

For the new project, casting was deemed too expensive and impractical for the AMNH, and a replica seemed to be the better way to go once again. Rather than send someone back to Canada to find another whale and take new measurements, Van Gelder and his team used the whale at the British Museum—built on-site in 1938 out of wood, going off measurements taken from “whale #112,” a whalers’ catch that a museum expedition had seen in the Antarctic—as a template.

Van Gelder and his team consulted both the British whale and and the new Smithsonian whale, which was also based off the British one, frequently over the next few years for inspiration and accuracy. Using the British Museum's model as a guide, they settled on a design and decided that the model would hang from the hall’s ceiling, posed as if it were in a dive.

Don’t Leave Me Hanging

Problems started again soon after.

“Nothing must hang from the ceiling,” a museum higher-up told Van Gelder. “I don’t like things hanging on strings.”

Van Gelder tried to explain it would actually hang on wires, but it didn’t matter. Hanging the whale from anything was out of the question.

Van Gelder went back to his office and thought about how else they could display the whale. He wrote: “‘Make it out of rubber and fill it with helium,’ I thought, but put the idea aside. Too much like the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Besides, we would probably have to anchor it with strings, and I didn’t know how far the string-ban went.”

Another museum higher-up approached him with a stringless plan. He suggested they build a pedestal in the middle of the hall, with a “gleaming chromium rod” jutting from it, and mount the whale on that. Van Gelder was not impressed with what he called the “lolly-pop concept,” and the other museum brass didn’t like it, either.

The Smithsonian had attached their whale directly to the wall, but Van Gelder, despite his interest in the model, called the display technique a “disgrace to the profession.” That the Smithsonian staff came in one morning to find that the whale’s head had detached from the body and fallen off the wall in the night did nothing to improve his opinion.

Van Gelder began to think about how one normally sees a whale: “Nothing more than a bit of fin, a puff of vapor, or a pair of flukes.” People didn’t see whole whales that often, and if they did, the whales were usually dead. To point out how few display options were available and highlight the absurdity of the string ban, Van Gelder half-jokingly proposed displaying the whale as if it were beached.

“I was shocked to learn,” he wrote, "that not only was the dead whale idea accepted, it was received enthusiastically.”

He’d made the mistake of presenting a plan that would cost the museum next to nothing, and soon found himself having to run with the idea and defend it from his heckling colleagues.

Van Gelder couldn’t bear to actually go through with the plan, but wasn’t sure how to get out of it. When another staffer suggested that it might be nice to add some models and recordings of the birds that would pick at a real whale carcass, a light bulb went off and Van Gelder knew how he’d undo the dead whale.

Not long after, it was Van Gelder’s turn to babysit a group of visiting museum donors. Over lunch, he explained to the Women’s Committee how the beached whale would look, sound and … smell.

“We are even planning something never done before,” he said. “A gentle breeze will waft the odor of the sea toward the visitors, to complete the attack on all the senses, and we are even going to try to simulate the odor of the decomposing whale, so that all can share in this wonderful experience in totality.”

After word of this got back to the bosses, the dead whale was out and Van Gelder was back to square one. The head of the Exhibition Department eventually saved him with a suggestion that had been sitting right under his nose. Van Gelder was “so brainwashed about anything hanging,” he wrote, that he would “never in a million years” have come up with the new idea. If they couldn’t hang the whale from the ceiling with strings, the exhibitor thought, they should just skip the strings and attach the whale directly to the ceiling.

And that's what they did.

Stay tuned for Part II, about the construction of the whale and the anus that wasn’t there.

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Words
15 Subatomic Word Origins
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In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.

2. ELECTRON

George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.

3. PROTON

The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.

4. NEUTRON

Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.

5. QUARK

Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.

6. MESON

Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”

7., 8., AND 9. BOSON, PHOTON, AND GLUON

Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.

10. HADRON

In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.

11. LEPTON

Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.

12. BARYON

Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].

13. AXION

Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].

14. TACHYON

In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.

15. CHAMELEON

In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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