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I haven't had time to update in a while, and no wonder...

But our organisms lectures were rescheduled due to illness, so I have the whole day off today. And I was able to have a bit of a lie-in. Shocking. But it's given me the opportunity to update here a little.

Okay, Saturday's trip to London was amazing. Getting myself to and from London wasn't that big of a deal; I'm so used to traveling between continents, this was a cinch. So we arrived at the Museum of Natural History, and I have the say, the building itself was incredible. It was built during the Victorian era for the sole purpose of being a science museum, so the outside of the building (as well are the inside) was covered in carvings of various animals. I'm so glad that I thought to bring my camera with me on this trip...

I could easily spend a couple weeks looking around the whole building. Floors and floors, filled with various exhibits...The place was huge, and a person could easily get lost in there. Lost in science. Hey, I wouldn't mind...

Then it was time for our behind-the-scenes tour of the Darwin Centre (the area of the museum devoted to current research and storage of specimens). We were given special lab coats to wear, and our guide unlocked the door to the research facilities. You have to understand that this museum is special; when a new species is discovered, it's sent here to be recorded and officially classified. There are only three that officially do this; the Smithsonian, a museum in Paris, and the Darwin Centre. So they have several floors devoted to the storage of these key specimens (the first of their kind known to science). There are always two sets of automatic doors; you have to unlock the first with a remote control (looks like a small garage door-opener on a key chain) and step inside. The next set of doors won't open until the first set have closed and sealed; this is all to help maintain the temperature and humidity in the storage rooms. Everything is controlled: temperature, humidity, light, air pressure....

They do everything they can to ensure that these specimens are protected. The guide (who had a accent that sounded Eastern-european; maybe Russian?) lead us around, showing us various jars and their contents. Some of the labels had mold spots on them, and she explained that these jars had to be hidden in caves during World War II to keep them safe during the German bombing of London. And she showed us that the ones with red around the seals meant that they were special in some way.

"Red means 'be careful with me'. Sometimes it means that they're especially fragile or old specimens. Sometimes it's because they were the first individual of their species to be identified. And some are from special expeditions. If you can please look at this one...The labels show the year they were entered into the museum here, who collected them here, the classification here...And if they were from a scientific expedition, then the ship's name is here. Can you read it?"

We all gathered around and peered into the jar.

"The HMS Endeavor?"

"Yes. This one is from Captain Cook's famous journey on the Endeavor."

Woah. That voyage was from 1768 to 1771, guys. These were brought back and added to the museum before we had even declared our American independence. So we went from room to room, floor to floor, as she told us stories about various specimens and the explorers/scientists that had brought them in; each jar has its own special story, and I wish I could have heard them all. (Though that would've been impossible; they have more than 70 million specimens...) She showed us the tanks were they kept the bigger creatures; they have the only complete giant squid in the world, and its tank is longer than a London bus. It was so impressive. She showed us the cranes mounted on the ceiling that are used to lift the lids of the tanks, and showed where an artist from the BBC had come to do some sketches; apparently they want to do a television program on a certain fish species, so they came to the museum to look at some of the specimens there. She said that even art students come here, to sketch the jars (since each of them are so different).

And then she stopped beside a barrier that said "no visitors beyond this point" and gave our little group a long, hard look.

"Well, I'm not supposed to let you past here, but I know that you'll be able to appreciate seeing this. Just be very careful."

So she moved it aside and led us to a shelf with several old jars.

"Can you read these labels?"

We all crowded around again and squinted at the labels. They were more than a hundred and fifty years old, and then we noticed the ship's name in the bottom right corner. 'Beagle'.

"These...These are from the Beagle?!"

"Yes. These were specimens that Darwin himself collected when he was a young man, on a world-wide expedition on the HMS Beagle."

O.o

Guh. Chills, people; it gave me chills. They were right there. I was breathing on them...

So yes; my trip to the museum was amazing, incredible, and I'm going back as soon as I can.

The rest of my week has been fairly routine so far. Monday afternoon was spent running around our own Museum of Natural History in a strange parody of a scavenger hunt. We couldn't dissect any reptiles, so our reptile lab consisted of wandering around the museum and doing things like comparing the hip joint of a crocodile to the hip joint of the Tyrannosaurus. Looking at the fossil skull of an early mammal-like reptile and trying to figure out what it might have eaten while it was alive. (It was an omnivore; its teeth showed the differentiation that's so classic in mammals, but so revolutionary to reptiles.)

It's kind of funny; I'm not very artistic, but a major portion of our organisms labs is drawing. We have to cut things open, and then draw them; look at various muscles, and draw them; look at the guts and draw them. Look at the skeletons in the museum and draw them. And yes, they do have to look like the real thing. And we really don't have much time to spend on it. So I've actually been developing drawing skills during my biology studies. Who would have thought?

It makes sense, though. A scientist has to be able to describe what they see, and sometimes words just aren't enough. Quick (but stunningly accurate) sketches are extremely important in fieldwork. You could be the first person to ever see this or that animal, and it's not going to sit still and let you take your time with its portrait.

Yesterday's dissection was the one on birds, and Ada's been dreading it since we first learned that we would be dissecting things. She wants to be an ornithologist and study birds for a living; and since she loves them so much, it was terrible for her. So I was the one doing all the actual cutting. And plucking. So I had to sit there and pluck the poor thing, which had been shot so I got its blood on my hands. Yes, that really bothered Ada; and to tell the truth, it kind of bothered me too. I can do these gory sorts of things, no problem, but it doesn't mean I'm going to enjoy it.

But we got through it all right, and were able to study all the muscles involved in flight. That was really cool. So now I've seen the inside of a bird's wing; add that to the list of odd things I've done in my life. Next Monday is a mouse, by the way.

In the meantime, Ada and I spent last night relaxing in my room again, and watching some movies and FMA. I finally saw Pulp Fiction (it was funny because she had to turn off the Polish subtitles), and now I know where she learned her "more interesting" English phrases...Heh, and she now has ten more episodes of FMA under her belt. We have so much fun watching it; she always asks what's going to happen, and I always refuse to tell her. We joke around about how Maes Hughes reminds us of our genetics tutor. ^.^

So yeah; life is definitely good.

Pictures! )
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Yes, I was right. I walked into our afternoon lab today; the image on the display monitor? A dead frog.

If only one of you had taken me up on that bet...

Ah, the many joys of dissection. It just never gets old. Of course, I always shock Ada with my lively commentary.

"I wonder what would happen if it were still alive?" "Woah, feel his skin..." "He looks like he's screaming." "How soon do you think we'll be doing people? What? Don't give me that look....I would donate my body to science..."

She jokes around with me a lot more now, so the hours pass by much quicker. Our sarcastic quips and bored jabber are priceless sometimes.

All of the professors decided to take a coffee break at once, so all of us with questions had to stand around and wait in the meantime. We were supposed to be drawing the major veins and arteries around the heart, but ours were covered in a kind of dried-blood paste; we tried to scrape away as much of the gunk as we could, but the cardiac arches just weren't visible. We wanted to get out of there before it got dark, but there was no one around to ask about it. So Ada and I entertained ourselves.

Me: *stares listlessly down at my drawing of the frog's internal anatomy* My frog is too fat. And it doesn't have enough guts.
Ada: *leans over to look at my diagram* I think it should be fine.
Me: *draws a tongue sticking out of my frog's mouth, in a parody of death* OMG DED!
Ada: *reaches over with a probe and pulls the real frog's tongue out of its mouth* Now your drawing is scientifically accurate.
Me: Ha! "I swear, Professor Martin! I was just drawing how the frog looked!"
Ada: *reaches over and draws a crown on the head of my frog* Give him a kiss!

(Disclaimer: This in no way is meant to be disrespectful to the animals that give their lives and bodies to science. We are all living things, and even in death, we deserve dignity. Unless our legs are sticking straight out and our tongues are lolling out of our heads. Then that's just funny.)

(Additional Disclaimer: The above was a joke. Don't be offended; I know the importance of respect for all life, probably better than anyone. But I'd also like to think I have a sense of humor, too.)

(Overkill Disclaimer: If you're still offended, then you should either get a sense of humor, or read something else. Sheesh...)

The beauty of having really long labs is that you get out after the Zoology building has officially closed. And that's when they feed the snakes. For those of you that don't know, our building has a special cafe for biologists. (Yes, the building's real name is "The Department of Zoology and Experimental Psychology", so the psychologists have their own cafe/lounge too. But we don't generally go there. Unless we want to lay down on their couches. Heh, yeah...I go there to take naps. Those couches really are comfortable. It figures, I suppose...)

Well, anyway, we all like to hang out in Darwin's Cafe when we have a free hour between lectures and nothing else to do. One of the walls is covered in glass windows; each one contains an aquarium or tank of some sort. You name it, they've got it; and beside each is a poster describing all the animals inside. It's really entertaining to sit there while you're eating.

I'll be there with my bag of chips, staring down a crab the size of my head through the glass. He'll reach down and strip the seaweed, and then quickly shove his claw to his mouth; I'll reach down and grab a chip, and then quickly shove it into my mouth. He'll reach down and munch, then I'll reach down and munch, then he'll reach down...And then I'll run out of chips, and he'll reach down again. I stand up to throw my trash away, and give him a long, silent look.

"Okay, Sebastion...You win this time."

He twiddles his eye-stalks at me, and reaches down again. Yeah, rub it in, why don'tcha...

Well, anyway, they were feeding the corn snakes that live in the very last tank by our laboratory door. There are two of them; one is the wild type orange and black, while the other is an albino. (I wrote an essay about their gene expression pathways yesterday, actually. Mutations in epistatic genes are so cool...If you have red hair, by the way, then you're a mutant for the same reasons that some mice or dogs have yellow fur.) I tell you, watching those snakes eat is better than TV. Seriously. As more and more people finished up the lab, the audience grew. We were all crowding around, peering through the glass like delighted toddlers. The wild type snake was hesitating near the mouse it was supposed to eat, no matter how much the grad student wiggled it. One of the professors mentioned that they usually don't like to eat if they're about to shed their skin, so that could be the cause.

Girl from St. Anne's College: It kind of looks confused...
Me: I don't know...I don't think I would be too confused if someone dangled a steak in front of me...
Guy from Christ Church College: Yeah, but what if someone was dangling a whole cow?

God, I love this school...

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May 2008

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