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

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The 28-foot rear section of the 94-foot model of the blue whale being raised to join the front section in the Hall of Ocean Life in 1969. The two sections will be locked together. Photo courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

Read Part I—about the difficulties of procuring the largest animal on Earth and an inconvenient string ban—here.

Tensions at the American Museum of Natural History ran high as the design for the whale was being finalized in 1966. Richard Van Gelder—the museum’s chairman of the Department of Mammalogy, the whale’s chief designer and the hero of our story—almost quit after the museum's director, Dr. James Oliver, asked him to revise the model so that its mouth was open. This ran contrary to what was known about whales and the plans for the model: Whales were thought to feed in a horizontal position, and the model whale was semi-vertical and poised to dive.

Van Gelder responded with a two-page memo that argued the change would not only delay construction and invite “potential basketball stars armed with garbage” to vandalize the model—it would also be scientifically inaccurate. The director stood down; Van Gelder won the argument and kept his job.

Outsourcing Leviathan

With the design done, it was finally time to start bringing the whale to life, or as close to it as possible. Displayers, Inc., a  firm that specialized in producing museum exhibits; StructoFab, a manufacturing company in Georgia; and Svedrup & Parcel, the civil-engineering firm that designed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, were tasked with turning Van Gelder’s design into something material. He provided them with detailed instructions—Remember to double check the number of ventral grooves!—and then waited, hoping for the best.

In late 1967, huge hunks of steel and blocks of molded polyurethane began arriving at the museum and piling up on the floor. Workers from StructoFab followed, and began to piece the whale together in the Hall of Ocean Life. They attached the exterior pieces to the steel frame and then covered the whole thing in fiberglass for painting.

Between the paint that was absorbed by the whale’s “skin” and the lighting in the hall, the whale came out looking the same shade of gray as a naval battleship. “Even with my lack of knowledge of blue whales, I knew that this was wrong,” Van Gelder wrote. A whale expert from the Canadian Bureau of Fisheries was brought in to supervise the paint job and consult on the color scheme for both the flesh and the eyes. Leaving things in capable hands, Van Gelder went off to Africa on other business.

Heavy As A Whale (Almost)

When Gelder got back home, the whale was supposed to have been already raised to the ceiling, painted and ready to go. But it was still on the floor, still gray and still not finished, and there were less than three months before the refurbished hall was to be unveiled.

The issue was weight. Plans called for a four-ton whale, but the finished product was 10 tons. A heavier-weight polyurethane, a little extra paint, and a number of other changes had all added up, and no one was sure if the whale could be mounted to the ceiling. Instead of simply painting over the gray like they’d originally planned, the museum sanded the first coat of paint off to shave six hundred pounds. Two different teams of engineers were then brought in to assure them that the ceiling would hold the whale at its current weight.

By the end of 1968, the whale was ready to get off the floor. This was maybe the only step of the whole project that went off without a hitch. “[It] went like clockwork,” Van Gelder wrote. “It was slow, it took all day, but nothing went wrong.” The painters finished up the detail work and Van Gelder had one finishing touch: placing and attaching 28 fine hairs to the whale’s chin. A decade after planning first began, the whale was ready for display in February 1969.

The Whale Evolves


Prior to the reopening of the renovated Irma and Paul Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life on May 17, 2003, the plastic wrapping was stripped away to reveal the remade and repainted 94-foot-long great blue whale model. Photo courtesy of AMNH/M.Carlough.

In the early 2000s, the Hall of Ocean Life went through 16 months of renovations and exhibit updates, including some 600 new animal models and some touchups to the whale that brought it up to speed with the latest cetacean research. The eyes were made less bulgy, a few spots were repainted and the jawline was reshaped. A new blowhole was made, since the old one was in the wrong spot—they’d simply guessed on the placement in the 60s, since the photos they could find didn’t show one. The whale also finally got an anus, which it had been lacking for 34 years, again meeting a standard of scientific accuracy that would have made Van Gelder, who died of cancer in 1994, very proud.


The whale under construction. Photo Courtesy of AMNH/D. Finnin.

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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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science
11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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