Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dry Storeroom No. 1


I recently read Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey. A strange title, but the subtitle tells you what it is about – The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. The Natural History Museum in question is the one in London. This museum has been busy collecting stuff since 1753, when it was part of the venerable British Museum. It outgrew its “mother institution” and went off on its own in 1883.

I love old museums, so the only thing better than a book about an old museum would be one that brings you behind the scenes. Fortey narrates a fun trip through the offices and labs of quirky scientists, and storerooms full of dried, pickled and fossilized specimens from around the world. The only thing drier than the mounted insects is Fortey’s sense of humor, which I suppose is a requirement for someone who spent his working life in this museum studying trilobites.

One of the primary missions of any natural history museum is taxonomy, that is, helping to name the millions of extant and extinct species of animals, vegetables and minerals here on earth and in the cosmos. Naming things might not seem like the most interesting part of science, but it is the critical first step to studying and understanding nature. Tens of thousands of new species are discovered every year. Many of these are now identified through “shotgun sequencing” of the DNA of millions of microbes scooped up in soil or seawater, but many new insects and even larger animals are still discovered. Discovering and naming something new, no matter how small its physical dimensions, is always exciting.

Having worked at the Natural History Museum for 35 years, Fortey saw many changes in museum life. One of the biggest was surely technology. Scientists have moved from a reliance on the visible differences between species (“counting hairs on legs” as he puts it), to an analysis of the differences between their DNA. Giving names to new species now seems like an antiquated formality – what matters is the species’ “DNA barcode”. This is published along with the physical description, so that other researchers can compare the DNA sequence of an unknown species to the database of barcodes to make an identification.

Fortey prefers to be “Sepia Man with his microscope and library” rather than “Barcode Man with his primers and his white coat”, but he acknowledges that both are needed. One change where he does not see an upside is the decreasing support for basic research. Preference is given to new projects and grant proposals with known practical applications. The future applications of basic research may be unknown, but often turn out to be just as practical.

Fortey tells the story of one researcher at the museum who was a cryptogamist – a specialist in cryptogams. Cryptogam comes from the Greek for “hidden marriage”, and it refers to plants that reproduce via spores (whose function was “hidden” from scientists until they discovered it under the microscope). This man devoted his life to studying seaweed, a type of cryptogam.

When World War II broke out, the draft board assigned the museum’s specialist in cryptogams to the intelligence agency responsible for decoding Nazi cryptograms. Although only one letter different, cryptogram is from the Greek for “hidden writing”. So the seaweed expert was assigned to break codes.

Fortunately, the importance of basic research was proven again, when a captured German U-boat was found to contain vital code books. Although our hero didn’t know much about breaking codes, he knew a lot about preserving organic matter that has been pulled from the sea. The rescued code books helped break a highly secure version of the Enigma Code being used by the U-boat fleet, allowing Allied supply ships to avoid torpedo attacks and ensuring victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.

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