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 [ BACK]  [NEXT]                       Issue #090 - 05/03/1998


Questions and Answers at The Smithsonian

Hello again, fellow patrons!
     The Smithsonian Institution, that vast collection of museums
in and around Washington, D.C., is a true national treasure. 
They have just about everything, from fine art to full-size
spacecraft.  Like just about everything else these days, they're
on the web, too:
Any one of the dozen or so museums under the Smithsonian 
umbrella would be world-class -- right up there with the Louvre 
or the British Museum.
     As with any large enterprise dealing with the public, they
occasionally answer some very "interesting" questions.  You just
never know what people are going to ask, which makes life much
more fun.  So this week, we're off on that classic field trip, to
take a peek at some of the more interesting stuff in the museum.
     SUNFUN Thanks -- as always -- to our friends, contributors
and other decent docents, this week including: John Adler, Libin
He, Mike Fagan & Tomoko Naito, Jerry Taff, Carol Becwar, Timothy
McChain, Nnamdi Elleh, Dale Frederickson, Laura Hong Li, Yasmin &
Meredith Leischer, Beth Butler, Peter Adler, Dale Hoefner and
John J. Wallner.  Tour forms over there on the right, next to the
mastodon.  Oh!  Sorry, Senator Helms!
     Have a Great Week!


     Most of the questions directed to the Smithsonian are
practical and well-reasoned.  And boring, like where are you
located, how do I get there, what exhibits are featured this
month, etc.  But once in a while, people call to ask the oddest
     Here is a small collection of questions that Cordelia
Benedict of the Smithsonian's telephone information services and
Marilyn London of the anthropology outreach and public
information office have gotten over the years:

   - "There's a mastodon in my back yard.  Can you send some
     scientists to dig it up?"  (Amazingly, there really was a
     mastodon buried on her ranch, so the Smithsonian sent a crew
     to dig it up.)

   - "Do you have the Original Bible?  You know, 10 Commands,
     tablets, Moses, etc?"

   - "What's the name of the guy who invented the wheel?"  ("How
     do you know it was a man?" the Smithsonian operator asked.)

   - "Where do you keep the flying saucers you've captured?"

   - "Can a small plane land on the Mall?"  The caller was sure
     it could since "all those planes in the Air and Space Museum
     had to get there somehow."

   - "Is Fawn Hall's underwear on display?"  (From two men in a
     Texas bar who obviously had a lot to drink.)

   - "Does the Smithsonian display Civil War planes?"

   - "Is the Smithsonian interested in buying the carcass of

   - "Where is the Ark of the Covenant?"  (Try Indiana Jones

   - "Will the Smithsonian sell the starship Enterprise, used for
     the popular "Star Trek" television show?"  (She only wanted
     it if the transporter was in working condition)

   - "Can the Smithsonian set up a caller with a hula teacher?" 
     (Now this is one that worked out -- the Smithsonian DID find
     the caller a hula teacher!)

   - "How do you say 'I'm thinking of you' in Apache?"

   - "Can you send 'all the information you have on human
     evolution, even the secret stuff?'  (From a grade school
     letter writer.)

   - How about the coin George Washington tossed across the
     Delaware River?

   - And one caller who offered to donate a collection of potato
     chips resembling "famous people and animals."


     With the thousands of priceless artifacts in the
Smithsonian, you'd figure that they wouldn't be all that
interested in a worn-out box of Crayola crayons.  But an original
box of 64 crayons complete with built-in sharpener was just what
they recently acquired for a display on the crayon's status as
part of American cultural history.
     Crayola crayons are still manufactured by the Binney Smith
company of Easton, Pennsylvania, just as they have been since
1903.  The big box of 64 was introduced 40 years ago this year
and is still one of the company's best sellers.  Quite an
improvement from the original box of eight colors.
     The folks at Hallmark Cards, who own Binney Smith these
days, donated the well used box of crayons to the Smithsonian's
National Museum of American History.  They also provided some
curious odds and ends about Crayolas:

   - The company makes an average of 5 million crayons each day
     and the average child in the United States will wear down
     730 crayons by his 10th birthday.

   - "Prussian blue" was changed to "midnight blue" in 1958 after
     teachers suggested children could no longer relate to
     Prussian history. 

   - In 1962 the color "flesh" was renamed "peach" to recognize
     that not everyone's flesh is the same shade.


     David Shiffler dug up a 150 million-year-old dinosaur egg --
one of the oldest ever found -- which now resides in the New
Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.  Not bad for any
amateur archaeologist, but even more amazing for David,
considering that he was three years old at the time of the
discovery and dug up the ancient egg with his toy backhoe. 
(Wires 6/97)


     There's a guy who spends most of his spare time digging
things up for the Smithsonian.  That's not so unusual, except
that this amateur archaeologist digs mostly in his own backyard
and the "archeological specimens" he sends to the museum consist
mostly of things from some landfill.  The guy obviously takes
some pleasure in labelling these with proper, "scientific" names
and sends them off to the Smithsonian for evaluation.  Here's a
letter the Smithsonian sent in reply after one such "discovery":


Paleoanthropology Division
Smithsonian Institute
207 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20078

Dear Sir:
     Thank you for your latest submission to the Institute,
labeled "211-D, layer seven, next to the clothesline post,
Hominid skull."  We have given this specimen a careful and
detailed examination, and regret to inform you that we disagree
with your theory that it represents "conclusive proof of the
presence of Early Man in Charleston County two million years
ago." Rather, it appears that what you have found is the head of
a Barbie doll, of the variety one of our staff, who has small
children, believes to be the "Malibu Barbie".  It is evident that
you have given a great deal of thought to the analysis of this
specimen, and you may be quite certain that those of us who are
familiar with your prior work in the field were loathe to come to
contradiction with your findings.  However, we do feel that there
are a number of physical attributes of the specimen which might
have tipped you off to it's modern origin:

       1. The material is molded plastic.  Ancient hominid
          remains are typically fossilized bone.

       2. The cranial capacity of the specimen is approximately 9
          cubic centimeters, well below the threshold of even the
          earliest identified proto-hominids.

       3. The dentition pattern evident on the "skull" is more
          consistent with the common domesticated dog than it is
          with the "ravenous man-eating Pliocene clams" you
          speculate roamed the wetlands during that time.  This
          latter finding is certainly one of the most intriguing
          hypotheses you have submitted in your history with this
          institution, but the evidence seems to weigh rather
          heavily against it.  Without going into too much
          detail, let us say that:

            A. The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll
               that a dog has chewed on.

            B. Clams don't have teeth.

     It is with feelings tinged with melancholy that we must deny
your request to have the specimen carbon dated.  This is
partially due to the heavy load our lab must bear in its normal
operation, and partly due to carbon dating's notorious inaccuracy
in fossils of recent geologic record.  To the best of our
knowledge, no Barbie dolls were produced prior to 1956 AD, and
carbon dating is likely to produce wildly inaccurate results.     
Sadly, we must also deny your request that we approach the
National Science Foundation's Phylogeny Department with the
concept of assigning your specimen the scientific name
"Australopithecus spiff-arino."  Speaking personally, I, for one,
fought tenaciously for the acceptance of your proposed taxonomy,
but was ultimately voted down because the species name you
selected was hyphenated, and didn't really sound like it might be
     However, we gladly accept your generous donation of this
fascinating specimen to the museum.  While it is undoubtedly not
a hominid fossil, it is, nonetheless, yet another riveting
example of the great body of work you seem to accumulate here so
effortlessly.  You should know that our Director has reserved a
special shelf in his own office for the display of the specimens
you have previously submitted to the Institution, and the entire
staff speculates daily on what you will happen upon next in your
digs at the site you have discovered in your back yard.  We
eagerly anticipate your trip to our nation's capital that you
proposed in your last letter, and several of us are pressing the
Director to pay for it.
     We are particularly interested in hearing you expand on your
theories surrounding the "transpositating fillifitation of
ferrous ions in a structural matrix" that makes the excellent
juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex femur you recently discovered take on
the deceptive appearance of a rusty 9-mm Sears Craftsman
automotive crescent wrench.
     Yours in Science,
          Harvey Rowe
          Curator, Antiquities

© 1998 by Bill Becwar. All Rights Reserved.