Thursday, March 31, 2011

Yet Another Peabody Blog

Ariel Revan, a senior major in the Geology and Geophysics Department, recently retuned from a week long trip to Switzerland, where she was looking at the skeletal anatomy of Stegosaurus. Her work will feed into the remounting of our stegosaur skeleton at the Peabody, which we're hoping to do as part of the fossil hall renovations. You can read about her trip here. Do you think there's nothing more to learn about such a familiar dinosaur? Well, read on....

All The Rest

Here's all the other cool stuff that I might have blogged about if I hadn't been setting up our digitization meeting in Chicago. The Peabody Museum collections were featured in a very nice article by Suzanne Taylor Muzzin for the Yale Daily Bulletin - if you have Flash, you can also take at the slideshow, which features my hands in slides 5 and 6. Speaking of university museums, Sally MacDonald and Jack Ashby talk about the importance of university science collections in this Nature article (pdf), while over at TREE Adrian Lister reports on the importance of natural history collections as sources of long-term datasets (Lister & CCRG, 2011. TREE, 26(4): 153-154), which is a good thing given the growing emphasis on data mining as a source of novel research. A couple of weeks back, an international group of eight research funders, including our old friends IMLS and NSF, announced the second round of the Digging into Data Challenge, which is intended to spur cutting edge research in the humanities and social sciences - you can read more about this here. The Independent published another depressing article on the decline of taxonomy as an academic discipline, which would be welcome if it made a difference (sadly I fear it won't). But the winner as far as this month's news is concerned was the widely reported discovery of Nuralagus rex, a giant rabbit from the Pliocene of Minorca, which is described by Meike Kohler and Salvador Moya-Sola in a paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Popular press accounts tend to dwell on the fact that Nuralagus was "six times the size of most rabbits today." Note that they say "most" rabbits - as the proud owner of a 20lb bunny, I can testify that most does not equal all.


Yale's School of Management is situated just across Sachem Avenue from the Peabody. To walk there from my office takes only a few minutes, but I always thought the mental journey would be a lot longer. For me, the gulf between museum and management was perfectly illustrated by the Nissan GT-R that is often parked on Hillhouse outside the SoM. I don't know whether it belongs to a member of the Management faculty, but that is not beyond the bounds of possibility. On the other hand, I can be absolutely sure that it doesn't belong to anyone from Peabody. We're not really a GT-R sort of place.

Having spent some time over the past few weeks talking to management researchers, I'm thinking it's high time I revised my impressions. No doubt there are some aspects of management theory that are quite esoteric, and others that are quite lucrative, but the people I've met seem eminantly sensible and quite down to earth. But that may be because they are also engineers.

Time to back up a little. The regular reader of this blog (and yes, there is one) will be aware of the ongoing efforts to digitize biological collections across the USA. If you're not and you're interested, click on the tag marked "digitization" at the bottom of this post and you'll find out more than you ever wanted to know. One of the major challenges to mobilizing the mountain of collections data is the sheer size of the task. No-one really knows how many natural history specimens there are in American collections, but 1 billion is probably the right order of magnitude. Museum workers have been databasing their collections for over 20 years now and have captured less than 10 percent of this material; there's not much evidence to show that the rate of capture has improved significantly, so clearly some new insights are needed.

Last week, I got to go to a meeting in Chicago where we brought together a group of collection managers, curators, software designers, and - yes - management scientists, to look at what we might do to improve matters. There will, in due course, be a report (which I will post here for those who are interested) but for now I will offer up a simple explanation of why we need help.

Part of the reason for holding the meeting in Chicago last week was the presence of Automate 2011, the largest trade show for industrial robotics. My colleagues and I tend to get quite excited by robotics, because of our touching faith that machines may replace the staff that we can no longer afford to employ. Going to shows like Automate tends to reinforce that impression, as you watch robots manipulate tiny and often very fragile objects at blinding speed, using machine vision to identify, sort, and process. Then you ask the sales guy and find that you can apparently purchase one of these babies for less than a Toyota Camry (I don't know what's going on with the car analogies today - sorry). There were those among us who were already reaching for our checkbooks.

This is why you need to go to tradeshows with an industrial engineer. "Not so fast," says my new friend Brian from MIT. Installing a robot in your collection is not so easy. First, they're not plug and play. Each unit requires a bunch of operating software and support hardware that costs as much, if not more, than the robot itself. Even if you have all of the pieces, setting it up can be a considerable challenge - a whole masters thesis can be written on the process of simply delivering the object to the robot, which is different for each application. Most of these robots are designed for dealing with industrial components, which are generally highly consistent in size, shape, etc. Even the wrinkled corner of a herbarium sheet would be sufficient to shut them down. Robots can deal with variation, but it massively increases the cost. And when they break down (which happens not infrequently) you need a trained operator onsite to deal with the problems. And robot specialists are not cheap.

Consider Amazon. You might assume that a massive company like this, with a pretty standard operating model (they have big warehouses full of books that they need to deliver to buyers) would be highly automated. "Not so," says another new friend, Don from the University of Chicago's School of Management. Amazon has people pushing carts up and down the aisles of its warehouses. The reason why is that books are highly variable - in size, shape, and weight. By the time you've factored all of this into your the design of your robot, it ends up being cheaper to employ people to do the job. If this is a problem for Amazon, how much more of a problem will it be for us.

So what can we do? Well, I'm not going to tell you everything now, otherwise you'll never read the report, but here's one lesson we learnt. In any workflow, including specimen digitization, there are a number of stages. Each of those stages will have a maximum rate - the fastest speed at which an object can pass through it. The stage with the slowest rate is the bottleneck and it will determine the overall speed of the process - however much you increase the speed of the other stages, you can never go faster than the speed of the bottleneck. For this reason, all of the rest of your workflow should be designed to feed the bottleneck - it should never be idle. Bottlenecks are usually the most expensive part of the workflow - in digitization, for example, it might be the camera or a scanner. So in designing any project, the first task is to find the bottleneck.

This is process management 101. But how many of us sit down and model workflows when we start a collections project? And how many of us write these up and publish them so that, as a community, we don't reinvent the wheel for every new project we start? Technology - software and hardware - will undoubtably provide some of the answers to the challenge of collections digitization. But the best start might be to get a more structured understanding of what we actually do.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hot Stuff

It's been a while since I last posted on the subject of the Peabody fossil halls project, which is not to say that we've been doing nothing - architects have been engaged, designers are being interviewed, and generally the planning process grinds ahead. There's still the question of the money of course.... but let's not dwell on that. Neither will I dwell on the seemingly endless process of figuring out where we will store all the specimens involved, or the amount of space that they will take up (currently estimated at over 4 times the floor area of my house). I am heartily sick of spreadsheets.

On the plus side, however, we do get to do a lot fun stuff as well. Some of this involves figuring out the underlying narrative, which as you may recall is one of changing environments through time. For most people, "environmental change" conjures up images of drowning polar bears and a bald Mount Kilimanjaro, or - if you have an alternative political mindset - no-good socialist tree huggers and their mendacious scientific fellow travellers. Trying to get across the point that global climate is a fluid system that has always been changing is a challenge, not least because one side sees this as a reason why they shouldn't lose any sleep over driving to the mall in their Hummer.

This is why we've been talking to a man called Tony Leiserowitz. Tony is the Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Tony and his co-workers developed the concept of the Six Americas for undertsanding public perceptions of climate change, a fascinating study that should be required reading for anyone working in informal science education, especially in a natural history museum. Among the most interesting facts that I gleaned from the study is that climate change skeptics actually have a better understanding of the Greenhouse Effect than people that are passionate activists for change, who tend to get all confused about ozone holes and aerosols.

Plainly the redesign of our fossil halls with an environmental theme represents a teachable moment for public understanding of climate change. But what do we actually tell them. One school of thought within our group is all for pushing anthropogenic climate change hard - cue pictures of drowning polar bears, dried up lake beds, and the bald Mount Kilimanjaro, together with a strong message about sustainability, recycling, reduction of carbon emissions, Toyata Priuses, etc. Another line of thought runs that we are talking about Earth history and we should actively avoid trying to tackle the future, leaving our visitors to draw their own conclusions from what they've seen.

My sense is that we'll probably chart some sort of middle course. There is no way that one could emerge from our planned fossil galleries without a sense that the Earth has changed over time - in a very real sense the world of the Silurian, for example, was a different planet to the one we live on today, with a different atmosphere, different day lengths, and devoid of almost all terrestrial life. It's a sobering thought that, while Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years, the achievements that make us what we are - agriculture, domestication, civilization, technology - have all occurred in the last 10,000 years, a period of great climatic stability. When the climate does change, the impact on civilization can be dramatic - consider the Maya of Central America, the Pueblo cultures of the American Southwest, or the effects of the Little Ice Age in Europe. On a geological scale these changes are no more than blips, but their effects on us have been profound. This is something that we will need to explore and it naturally leads to the question of what will happen to our world given the global warming trend.

So one way forward might be to have visitors add the last chapter of our story themselves, by exploring their world (as represented by New Haven) under a series of different climate scenarios. Trying to show what the world will look like 100 years from now is a tricky exercise. The Museum of London tried to do this in a recent exhibition and attracted considerable flak from an unlikely coaltion of critics including both climate change skeptics and refugee rights advocates (quite an achievement to unite those guys under the same banner). This was understandable, because they were dumb. Showing the Household Cavalry mounted on camels and paddyfields in Parliament square might look cool, but these visions are not based on scientific projections or rooted in reality and because of this they are unconvincing for the bulk of the population.

Making sensible projections is important, not least because the work by Leiserowitz and his colleagues show that museums are still one of the most trusted sources of information on climate change. If we don't want our audience to decamp to Fox News, we need to be careful not to abuse that trust.

Saving America's Treasures

I'm not one to blow my own horn, but as this was a collaborative project, co-written with my colleague Marilyn Fox and with help from a small army of Peabody and Yale staff - I think I can get away with it. A couple of weeks ago, we found out that we had been awarded a large grant by IMLS under the Save America's Treasures program - you can read more about the project here. The award of this grant sends an important message that O.C. Marsh's fossil collections are a national treasure, part of America's heritage.  

This may seem obvious, but as we seek to emphasize the scientific importance and utility of the collections, it's important not to overlook their historical significance. Yale's scientific expeditions were part of the opening of the American West, with all the good and bad (in some cases very bad) that was attendant on that. The fossil deposits at Como Bluff, Wyoming, the source of some of the Peabody's most spectacular specimens, were discovered by workers on the transcontinental railroad. Without the spread of the railroads, it wouldn't have been possible to transport those huge bones back East.

Marsh was one of the first American scientists to accept Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection and his fossils were acknowledged by Darwin as providing critical support for his ideas. And beyond that, there are the names - Allosaurus, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops - familiar to generations of American children and deeply engrained into popular culture. Those names are anchored to the type specimens in the Yale collections, specimens whose long-term well-being and accessibility has been guaranteed by those IMLS funds.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Further Reading

If you don't have time to write your own blog posts, you might as well highlight great posts by other bloggers. Here are a couple to be going on with: Bruce Quiller writes on the demise of the museum bookstore, while New Light on Old Bones explores the issue of what's real about taxidermy.

Earth Shaking

Two weeks after the disasterous earthquake in Canterbury, NZ, the situation at the Canterbury Museum is still unclear. Various reports floating around the web suggest that the sprinkler system triggered, but that this affected only a small area, although the collections haven't been fully inspected. The director, Anthony Wright, has apparently said that the building is structurally sound, but staff are unlikely to be allowed in for several weeks (if you haven't developed a business continuity plan for your institution yet, take note - things like this do actually happen).

Thankfully, although some lost their homes, none of the Museum's staff were hurt. This was a close run thing - at least one curator avoided being crushed by a large bookshelf only because he'd got up to answer the phone.

Black Hole

Today I realized that it has been an extremely long time since I last posted anything on this blog. 16 days to be precise. I also noticed that I only managed 3 posts last month, a record low. The alert amongst you will recall that back at the beginning of February, I proudly stated that I had emerged from under a big pile of grant applications and was about to start blogging again with a vengeance. How was I to know that I'd have to provide a bunch of supplementary evidence for one of the proposals? And I guess I kinda ignored the fact that the workshop meeting on collections digitization that got funded through one of the earlier proposals wouldn't organize itself. Fortunately some very nice people at the Field Museum's Biodiversity Synthesis Center stepped in to help, which greatly reduced the pain. Anyway, I was going to apologize for the low frequency of posts. Then I thought "who cares?" So I'm not.