As a parent of two young children, I find myself spending a lot of time lately in zoos, museums, and aquaria. Being a visitor is a strange experience, because I've been involved with these places for decades, working in museum collections and even helping to prepare exhibits on occasion. During family trips, I've come to realize how much my vocation can make me numb to the beauty and sublime complexity of our world and our bodies. I teach and write about millions of years of history and about bizarre ancient worlds, and usually my interest is detached and analytic. Now I'm experiencing science with my children—in the kinds of places where I discovered my love for it in the first place.
One special moment happened recently with my son at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. We've gone there regularly over the past three years because of his love of trains and the fact that there is a huge model railroad smack in the center of the place. I've spent countless hours at that one exhibit tracing model locomotives on their little trek from Chicago to Seattle. After a number of weekly visits to this shrine for the train-obsessed, Nathaniel and I walked to corners of the museum we had failed to visit during our train-watching ventures or occasional forays to the full-size tractors and planes. In the back of the museum, in the Henry Crown Space Center, model planets hang from the ceiling and space suits lie in cases together with other memorabilia of the space program of the 1960s and 1970s. I was under the presumption that in the back of the museum I would see the trivia that didn't make it to the major exhibits up front. One display consisted of a battered space capsule that you could walk around and look inside. It didn't look significant; it seemed way too small and jerry-rigged to be anything really important. The placard was strangely formal, and I had to read it several times before it dawned on me: here was the original Command Module from Apollo 8, the actual vessel that carried James Lovell, Frank Borman, and William Anders on humanity's first trip to the moon and back. This was the spacecraft whose path I followed during Christmas break in third grade, and here I was thirty-eight years later with my own son, looking at the real thing. Of course it was battered. I could see the scars of its journey and subsequent return to earth. Nathaniel was completely disinterested, so I grabbed him and tried to explain what it was. But I couldn't speak; my voice became so choked with emotion that I could barely utter a single word. After a few minutes, I regained my composure and told him the story of man's trip to the moon.
But the story I can't tell him until he is older is why I became speechless and emotional. The real story is that Apollo 8 is a symbol for the power of science to explain and make our universe knowable. People can quibble over the extent to which the space program was about science or politics, but the central fact remains as clear today as it was in 1968: Apollo 8 was a product of the essential optimism that fuels the best science. It exemplifies how the unknown should not be a source of suspicion, fear, or retreat to superstition, but motivation to continue asking questions and seeking answers.
Just as the space program changed the way we look at the moon, paleontology and genetics are changing the way we view ourselves. As we learn more, what once seemed distant and unattainable comes within our comprehension and our grasp. We live in an age of discovery, when science is revealing the inner workings of creatures as different as jellyfish, worms, and mice. We are now seeing the glimmer of a solution to one of the greatest mysteries of science—the genetic differences that make humans distinct from other living creatures. Couple these powerful new insights with the fact that some of the most important discoveries in paleontology—new fossils and new tools to analyze them—have come to light in the past twenty years, and we are seeing the truths of our history with ever-increasing precision. Looking back through billions of years of change, everything innovative or apparently unique in the history of life is really just old stuff that has been recycled, recombined, repurposed, or otherwise modified for new uses. This is the story of every part of us, from our sense organs to our heads, indeed our entire body plan.
What do billions of years of history mean for our lives today? Answers to fundamental questions we face—about the inner workings of our organs and our place in nature—will come from understanding how our bodies and minds have emerged from parts common to other living creatures. I can imagine few things more beautiful or intellectually profound than finding the basis for our humanity, and remedies for many of the ills we suffer, nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that have ever lived on our planet.
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