Can really smart scientists come down to earth?
Two major Chicago museums now give the general public the chance to observe working scientists in their natural habitat. The Adler Planetarium’s Space Visualization Lab launched in November, and the Field Museum’s DNA Discovery Center debuted last week. But when the last Bunsen burner is turned off for the evening, will regular folks come away comprehending the complicated projects under way? We spend a few minutes with two scientists to see if they can make us—Joe Blow English Majors—understand their project, or if they’ll be blinding us with science.
Doug Roberts, of Adler Planetarium’s Space Visualization Lab
You’re creating a World Wide Telescope. How does that work?
It’s a computer-based program that looks at real imagery from telescopes but allows you to interact with it as you would if you were just looking with your naked eye. It allows you to zoom in to really tiny, tiny scales that are way beyond what the eye can see. I’m contributing content for tours-—stories told visually within this interactive environment.
Can we use it to zoom in on Dick Cheney’s undisclosed location?
Earth data is in the system. I’d have to look [at the data] to see if his house is in there. My research is on the super-massive black hole at the center of the galaxy.
Do you ever worry about accidentally coming across a wormhole?
If I came across a wormhole it would be great, because you could travel through it or sample something from a totally different part of the universe. But the bigger thing to get worried about is getting wiped out by an asteroid.
Do you scare the shit out of kids this way?
Oh, they love it. If kids are in the mind to hear about catastrophes coming from space, we feel like it’s our obligation to give it to them.
It would be really cool to have a music soundtrack.
No. Robert Fripp from King Crimson.
Is it pretty trippy?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s part of what makes my tour so cool.
Kevin Feldheim, of the Field Museum’s DNA Discovery Center
You study the reproductive patterns of lemon sharks. Is that awkward for the sharks?
The good news for the sharks is we don’t actually watch them having sex. But we can infer what’s going on based on what we find in the DNA.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered about how lemon sharks do it?
DNA tells us that a female will mate with anywhere from two to four males. There could be a couple things going on. [Another study] found that male sharks help each other mate with the female. They basically take turns. We don’t know if that’s happening with lemon sharks, but it’s possible. Another confounding effect is that female sharks can actually store sperm and combine sperm from many males to fertilize her eggs.
Like a sperm cocktail?
Right. Yes. Sperm cocktail is a good way to say that.
How do you use DNA in your research at the museum?
Since DNA is the thread that connects all life, we can look at the relationship between individuals, between populations, all the way to relationships between different phyla. I’m using the exact same sort of genetic marker that forensic scientists use when they try to identify criminals. These [genetic markers] are extremely variable between individuals, and we can essentially get a genetic fingerprint of every individual we capture.
You mean each individual shark?
That’s right. I’m doing the “Who’s the shark’s daddy?” kind of thing. You could say I’m the Maury Povich of sharks.