The Machine Inside

Let’s take a stroll through the Ontario Science Centre’s current special exhibit: Biomechanics – The Machine Inside!

A touring exhibition developed by the Field Museum and Denver Museum of Nature & Science, this is a really fun exhibit exploring all kinds of aspects of biomechanics. (But get those garbage cans away from the entrance wall, OSC, that’s terrible show and everyone wants to take pictures in front of the cheetah!)

We start off in ‘Built to Survive’, and a section on the materials and shapes that organisms have evolved for different purposes. A couple of things I liked right away: the use of both living and extinct organisms, including animals AND plants, and the abundance of real specimens throughout the exhibit. Here we get to learn why round shapes are a recurring theme.

Next up, pipes and pumps! We get to try our hand at pumping blood all the way up to the top of this sitting giraffe’s head. It’s surprisingly difficult!

And last in this section, insulation and radiators, including this delightfully creepy deer straight out of one of my old physics textbooks, which used to have problem sets that read along the lines of ‘A fully loaded penguin sled is travelling at 2 m/s…’. But I kid – it’s a nice way of visualizing the square-cube law.

Right next to the deer is an endlessly entertaining thermal camera screen where you can see your hot and cold spots. Fun things to compare: your friends with cold cold hands, your own overly hot face against everyone else’s, etc. etc. Also fun: how rad people wearing glasses look.

The next major theme we get to explore is ‘moving around’, focusing on locomotion and feeding adaptations. There are some classic examples here, like how different bird wing shapes are adapted for different flight styles and needs.

And we also get to have fun flinging fish faces around! This is the sling-jaw wrasse, and it’s a cool example of how the bones in fish skulls work together to allow many kinds of fish to protrude their jaws. This area also has lots of great slow-motion videos to help us see weird and unusual movements, and overall this section has the best ratio of hands-on interactive stuff to specimens and static displays in the whole exhibit.

A final section of the exhibit covers the biomechanics of sensing your environment, a cool part of biomechanics that’s easy to gloss over in favour of things like biting and flying but is just as important. So here we get to learn about bat echolocation, magnetic sensing in sea turtles, and how eyes evolved over and over again.

And this is a great spot for me to segue into one of my favourite parts of this whole exhibit, the incorporation of biomimicry throughout! How do morphological adaptations inform the design of human technology? I thought this example of a bat-inspired cane for people with low vision was really interesting – the cane sends out ultrasound which bounces back and make it vibrate, giving more information to the person using it compared to traditional canes. Not sure if this is widely in use, but seems interesting!

Another cool biomimicry example: the bumps on humpback whale fins are inspiring better designs for wind turbines and airplane wings, because it turns out they help increase the angle of attack without stalling, and enhance lift. Neato stuff.

 

This is a cool exhibit that was a good fit for the interactives-heavy Ontario Science Centre, and seemed to be keeping the attention of visitors big and small when we visited on a Saturday a few weeks ago. (It certainly kept a group of palaeontologists busy for several hours!) While the first and last sections could use a few more hands-on interactives compared to the excellent middle section on feeding and locomotion, that feels like a pretty minor complaint considering the variety of ways information is being communicated throughout the exhibit. One other thing that would have been cool to see would have been the biomechanics of animal combat, but I’m obviously biased in that direction. All in all, super fun and definitely worth checking out if it comes to your town! Biomechanics: The Machine Inside is at the Ontario Science Centre until May 7th.

Rhinos and dinos and whales, oh my!

A few weeks ago I took a road trip down to visit the smaller Arbour sibling who is currently based at the University of Washington, and we made a point of visiting the Burke Museum on campus. The museum is about to be on the move, so in a couple of years this post will be out of date – despite it getting some shiny new digs in the near future, it’s still a pretty impressive museum for a university campus, and it has some unique treasures! Let’s get to it!

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Heroes in a half shell

In my continued quest to betray my dinosaurian research roots, I went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York to look at turtles! And what turtles they were – this is the skull of Ninjemys (the ninja turtle!), a giant meiolaniid turtle from Australia. Meiolaniids are the best turtles you’ve never heard of and it’s a crying shame that they don’t feature more prominently in prehistoric popular media.

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Woe betide those who summon the Galactic Coelacanth

A couple of years ago I had an existential crisis when I realized that, in the time one of my papers had been in review (almost 8 months!), I could nearly have physically created an entirely new human being in my body, if I had so chosen. Thus began the saddest game in the universe that I like to play when I submit a paper: “What kind of animal could have been gestated in the time this paper has been in review?”. And this became an even better running joke when one of my colleagues had a highly unusual review experience that lasted for several years, which completely exhausted the gestation times of real animals.

My amazing and lovely sister saw us talking about this on Facebook and went ahead and wrote an R script that tells you exactly what kind of animal you could have birthed while waiting for reviewer comments. And because I am always forgetting to save this amazing piece of code, I’ve gotten permission from Jessica to post it here for posterity. My sincere apologies to anyone who gets the Space Whale, and my deepest condolences to anyone who is graced by the presence of the Galactic Coelacanth. 

Click here for the R script!

Updated 30 June 2015: If you don’t have R, you can also download a text file to see the code!