Glass sea urchin at the Natural History Museum, London

This week I learned – Natural History Museum edition

Recently I was lucky enough to get a look around the Natural History Museum in London. This glorious building houses a vast collection of artefacts representing the fascinating (if deeply colonialist) history of the British exploration and developing knowledge of the natural world.

Presented with such a wealth of historical and ecological information, the challenge wasn’t learning new things, but narrowing down my choices on what to write about. Here are three that stood out: a feat of comparative anatomy, sea life recreated in glass, and the secret of the opal’s colours.

Predicting the Moa

Fragment of moa bone first discoverd by Europeans

The first superintendent of the museum that was to become, in later years, the Natural History Museum was a man named Richard Owen. An anatomist and palaeontologist, he is best remembered for coining the term “dinosaur” to describe the enormous creatures whose fossils were being uncovered in increasing numbers in the mid-19th Century. But a few years prior to this he performed a much more interesting feat.

The 18th and 19th Centuries were the peak of the British Empire’s power and, not coincidentally, of the British passion for “discovering” other countries’ natural curiosities and bringing them back home for their countrymen to wonder at. One such curiosity was an incomplete fragment of bone brought back from New Zealand by a naval surgeon, who later sold it to Owen.

The surgeon informed Owen that local Maori traditional held that the bone “belonged to a Bird of the Eagle kind”. Owen, who was a pioneer in the field of comparative anatomy, decided to perform his own investigation.

He compared the fragment with skeletons of other species with similar-sized bones, including human, kangaroo, and giant tortoise. Finally he wrote to the Zoological Society of London that:

“so far as my skill in interpreting an osseous fragment may be credited, I am willing to risk the reputation for it on the statement that there has existed, if there does not now exist, in New Zealand, a Struthious bird nearly, if not quite, equal in size to the Ostrich.”

At the time, the former existence of the already-extinct moa was entirely unknown outside of the Maori world. Owen’s prediction was based largely on the bone’s internal honeycomb structure, a strong but relatively lightweight design common to bird bones (and, we now know, some dinosaurs), combined with its size: larger than that of an ostrich.

At the time, it was such a bold claim that Zoological Society refused to publish it. It would be another three years before caches of further bones were uncovered in New Zealand, establishing the moa’s existence and vindicating Owen’s predictive abilities.

Original source: Natural History Museum, London

More info: Gowan Dawson, “On Richard Owen’s Discovery, in 1839, of the Extinct New Zealand Moa from Just a Single Bone”

Mysteries of the sea, mysteries of glass

Colourful marine invertebrate in glass

In today’s world of gorgeous nature films, it’s easy to forget that for most early nature enthusiasts, the best view they could get of mysterious and fragile marine invertebrates was as “wet specimens” – a.k.a. indistinct blobs of tissue collapsed in the bottom of jars of alcohol, their natural colours usually leached away by the preserving fluid.

All that changed in the mid-19th Century, with Bohemian glassworker Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf.

Leopold was fascinated by the natural world. After the deaths of his wife, son, and father within the space of two years, he assuaged his grief by setting out on a long sea journey. When the ship was becalmed for two weeks, Leopold became fascinated by the marine life he saw beneath the surface – in particular by the resemblance of the translucent jellyfish to glass.

Returning home to Dresden, Leopold remarried and had a son, Rudolf, who he trained in his craft. Though his bread and butter was making glass eyes, ornaments, and lab equipment, Leopold’s passion for capturing the natural world in glass gradually began receiving attention. In 1863, the director of Dresden’s Natural History Museum commissioned Leopold to produce glass sea anenomes for use in an exhibition.

That was the beginning of a lifelong career for Leopold and, later, Rudolf Blaschka: creating detailed glass replicas of real sea creatures for museums, aquariums, and private collectors.

The Blaschkas worked together to pioneer new techniques that allowed them to capture marine invertebrates in ever more scientifically-accurate detail. They never taught their techniques to anyone, and with Rudolf’s death in 1939 many of the secrets of their work were lost; modern glassworkers are still struggling to understand and replicate the techniques behind their thousands of beautiful creations.

Original source: Natural History Museum, London

More info: The Delicate Glass Sea Creatures of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka

How to make – and unmake – an opal

Head carved from precious opal

I’ve always loved the iridescent colours of opals; there’s something truly magical about them. But the science behind them is truly fascinating.

Opals are not made up of crystals, as most gemstones are, but of tiny silica spheres and water – as much as 20% of a given “stone” may in fact be water – which is why opals are technically classed as a mineraloid, not a mineral.

The rainbows in opals come about when light enters the opal and is diffracted by the structures and spaces within the stone, causing some wavelengths of light to be enhanced and others to cancel each other out.

Most intriguing of all, if you can heat an opal up to the point where the water is driven out of it, it will lose its iridescence and become a plain, opaque stone.

Original source: Natural History Museum, London

More info: Gemdat.org: Opal

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2 Replies to “This week I learned – Natural History Museum edition”

  1. I followed your link to “The Delicate Glass Sea Creatures of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka” and was in awe and amazement at the glorious examples of their work. Thank you for giving me the chance to see them. Love you lots.

  2. Aren’t they glorious? I only got to see the two pictured here in person, but the range and beauty of their work is just astounding. <3

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