Rather than the more familiar milk, half-eaten pizza and take-away leftovers, there were scorpions floating in test tubes, boxes of iridescent weevils and a cricket still clinging to its blade of grass.
The fridge of a molecular biology laboratory is not a conventional museum exhibit, but on Friday evening the Natural History Museum in London held Science Uncovered, an event where both scientists and their specimens emerged from hidden corners and were put on display.
In the molecular lab with its creepy-crawly fridge, museum scientists showed our tour how to extract DNA from an insect. The uncluttered white surfaces and whirring machinery of the laboratory were in marked contrast to the carvings and stained glass windows that characterise the rest of the building. In a small glass vial a wasp was slowly being dissolved by enzymes, while at the bottom of other test tubes floated clouds of DNA.
The whole process looked impressively complicated, but Alex Aitken, the lab manager, assured me that if I could cook then I could extract DNA.
Aitken’s explanations reminded me that the Natural History Museum is more than just a tourist attraction. For one night only at Science Uncovered, “science stations” lined the corridors showcasing the cutting-edge research that goes on behind the scenes.
At the palaeontology station, under the gaze of a stuffed giant sloth, volunteers took turns cleaning a mass of dusty white rock. At the zoology station, where tables were laden with jars of pickled specimens, I was drawn irresistibly to a crab wearing gloves. The animal had soft grey bristles covering its claws and is called a Chinese mitten crab, an invasive species whose spread museum scientists are monitoring.
They’re also testing whether the species is safe to eat. If so, then selling the crabs as food could help prevent them taking over UK rivers.
At the other end of the museum, the entomology station was drawing the largest crowd. People jostled to see species of tortoise beetles with their carapaces of polished gold.
At the field station a battered Indiana Jones style hat sat in pride of place amid moths the size of small birds. The hat apparently qualifies as protective gear for collecting insects in rainforests.
I spotted a box filled with “insect soup” and picked up a green beetle. Having ignored the tweezers I spent the rest of the evening pursued by the smell of formaldehyde.
My clumsiness continued in the museum’s gardens where I managed to step on a dismembered foot. Also lying on the museum’s immaculate lawn was a rubber arm and next to that lay a torso lavishly covered in blood. The scientists of Crime Scene Live had certainly tried to make the area look authentically grisly. The head partially submerged in the grass even had matted hair.
Petri dish in hand I joined the other white-suited figures digging for maggots. Once I had successfully captured a few I took them to the waiting forensic anthropologists who explained how time of death could be estimated from the wriggling insects.
Assessing the developmental stages of maggots turned out to be one of the highlights of the evening. Another was the “science fight club”, where scientists fought to win votes on controversial issues. In the debate entitled “should we save the giant panda” the audience was persuaded that the animals should be allowed to lumber on towards extinction.
Most of the researchers involved in the debates wore badges proclaiming “I’m a scientist … talk to me”. Back in the molecular lab, one researcher told me he would wear his badge on the commute to work and although I’m fairly sure he was joking, it shows just how much these scientists want to talk about their work.
For once, the main attraction at the Natural History Museum was not the life-sized blue whale or the animated Tyrannosaurus rex, but the scientists who work there.
Categories: Science Thoughts