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Monday, October 29, 2007

Aviation Books

From time to time, I'll receive e-mails from people asking me for advice on some good engineering books to use for aircraft design. Dan Raymer, a well respected engineer, already has a list on his website. It's a pretty long list, though, and would take a while to build up that collection. So, I figured I would recommend the ones that I use most often. The following three books are ones that I use on a regular basis that are generally useful for all aircraft.

Aircraft Design: A Conceptual Approach
by Daniel P. Raymer
We referred to this as our aircraft Bible back in school. It covers everything from layout to weight estimation to control loads and more. It also has a good deal of empirical data. I have the 3rd edition, and I use it almost weekly.

Introduction to Flight
by John D. Anderson
This book starts of with the fundamentals of aerodynamics, and moves on from there, to subjects such as performance, stability, and propulsion. There are also many nice historical details thrown into the text. Between this book and Raymer's, you can usually figure out just about all you need to know. While Raymer's a little more practical, Anderson's more theoretical. Plus, this book has a chart of the standard atmosphere included as an index, which is very handy. Anderson was also one of my favorite professors, but talking to students from other universities, they all used this book, too. I've provided links to the hard cover & the paperback, below. Buy the paperback if you need to save money, but this is a book I use often enough that I'm glad to have the hard cover.

Theory of Wing Sections: Including a Summary of Airfoil Data
by Ira H. Abbott & A. E. von Doenhoff
While I use the theory section of this some, it's most useful for its indices, with definitions and Cl & Cd curves for many different NACA airfoils. It really is a classic text that every aeronautical engineer should have.

You'll also need to handle structures. Personally, I use Mechanics of Materials by Beer & Johnston as my reference on that, mainly because it was the text from the class I had. I really don't feel as strongly about that as the three books listed above. I'll also borrow books from co-workers, which are very good, including Mark's Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers, Machinery's Handbook, and Roark's Forumulas for Stress and Strain. Those three are very handy references, that I would probably buy for myself if I couldn't just turn around and borrow them from my coworkers.


A Note About the Amazon Links

If anybody looks around this blog and my main website, they may notice that I've begun putting more links to Amazon. Yes, I will earn a bit of money if you buy something after clicking on those links. I debated putting the links up, because it seemed an awful lot like advertising which would cheapen this site. But, I figured that since I'm only linking to books that I'd normally be writing about, anyway, that it's not so bad. I could look at it as providing a service, offering people a way to buy the books, instead of having to go search through Amazon on their own. It's not like I'm using Google AdSense or something obnoxious like that. So, I feel justified in putting those links on my site.

If anyone's curious, I've always had a small link at the bottom of my Autogyros page. I think in all the years that I've had my website, I've earned enough comission to buy two books from Amazon, so it's not exactly a huge profit making enterprise. I'm hoping that putting more links on my blog might get me a little more, maybe enough to buy a book per year, if I'm lucky. But it's certainly not anywhere near enough to pay the Web Hosting company that serves this site, or the yearly fee for my domain name, so my website's still a net loss, financially (but definitely worth the cost, as a fun hobby).

Friday, October 26, 2007

When Will There Be an Aircraft in Every Garage?

This entry is basically, Part II of Where's My Flying Car.

The JetsonsWhen will there be an aircraft in every garage? In a word - never. Okay, never's a long time, so perhaps I shouldn't be making such a sweeping statement, but I really don't think that it will happen anytime soon.

People have limited incomes, and an aircraft will always be a sizeable investment. I think the automobile industry makes for a good comparison - it's fairly mature, and aircraft are very similar in complexity to an automobile. Even if aircraft were to be mass produced, they're going to be similar in price to automobiles. That's not cheap. People aren't going to go out and buy an aircraft in addition to everything they already own. So, since aircraft would presumably be fulfilling many of the purposes that people currently use their automobiles for, it would stand to reason that a majority of people will purchase aircraft only when they make good substitutes for their automobiles. Unfortunatley, there are two big reasons why I don't think that's the case.

For one thing, flying will always carry higher stakes than driving. You can drive a car that's in bad repair, or with a rough-running engine, or that has a low tire, or any myriad of problems. Yes, it may be a little more dangerous, but I've been in an automobile several times when it's broken down or gotten a flat, and all that happens is that you pull over to the side of the road, and have to get it fixed. Sure, it's an inconvenience, but it's rarely life threatening. That's not the case for an aircraft. If you're in the air and have a problem, you still need to get back down. Yes, pilots train for this, and yes, many emergency landings are performed safely every year, but many emergency landings also result in accidents. And there are some regions that just don't have much area suitable for emergency landings (lots of trees, uneven land, urban areas, etc). So, you always need to be sure that an aircraft is in good condition before climbing in to go somewhere - you need to do your pre-flight inspection every time, to make sure that nothing's happened. You can't just hop in to run down to the grocery store or to fly to the mall to do your Christmas shopping like you could in a car.

It's common to hear the claim that airplanes are safer than cars, or that the most dangerous part of a flight is the car ride to the airport. Statistically, that's true for airliners, but not for other types of flying (more info). And the only reason it's true for airliners is because there's so much maintenance on the airplanes to ensure their mechanical safety, and so much training for the pilots, to ensure that they can cope with any situation. Perhaps pilot training can be replaced with a sufficiently advanced computer control, but maintenance will always be an issue. As I wrote in the previous paragraph, any aircraft will require an inspection prior to every trip, which really does limit their utility for personal transportation.

The other major factor I see is weather. Wind, turbulence, fog, heavy rain - these are all big concerns for flying. Yes, they're concerns for automobiles, too, but you can continue driving a car in far worse conditions than what would ground an airplane. I've been caught in heavy thunderstorms, where I had to slow my car way down and it took me twice as long to get to where I was going, but I still got there. Had I been flying, I would have had to turn around to go back home (actually, before flying, I probably would have checked the weather, and never attempted a flight into conditions like that to begin with), and I never would have gotten to where I wanted to go.

To expand a bit on this weather issue - it's not just a matter of getting sensors that could peer through fog and rain, or having the skill to safely land in gusty conditions, although those are important. It's the fact that aircraft are shaken around a lot more by wind than cars are, because it's the atmosphere itself supporting the aircraft. Anybody who's been on an airliner knows what turbulence feels like - just imagine what a really bad thunderstorm could do. Small planes can get caught in updrafts or downdrafts that are so strong, that no matter what the pilot does he'll get pulled along with them. Maybe the aircraft of the future will have big enough engines that this won't be a problem, and maybe they'll be able to fly high enough that they'll fly above most storms (though being fully pressurized just adds to the maitenance related safety concerns), but that still won't help when a powerful thunderstorm's sitting right over top of you when you want to take off, or sitting right over top of your intended destination.

And I haven't even touched on traffic. Look at what it's like trying to get into a mall parking lot during Christmas season right now - just imagine if all those people were coming in aircraft instead of cars.

I hate to be a naysayer. As a pilot and aerospace engineer myself, I'd love to see personal aircraft become much more common. And perhaps one day, many of the problems I discussed above will be solved. But, being realistic, I have to admit that the demand for personal aircraft will never be the same as that for automobiles, and we're kidding ourselves if we think otherwise. So, when will there be an aircraft in every garage? Not in my lifetime.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Book Review - Origin of Species

Well, I just announced that I was starting a new Books section, so I figure I ought to post a book review. But, I'm going to cheat a little on this first one - I'm going to combine two previous posts, with a little bit of editing, and adding only a paragraph's worth of new content.

The book is the classic, Darwin's The Origin of Species. Long before I picked up the book, I already had a pretty good understanding of evolution - better than most laymen, I'd wager. So I didn't start reading Origin of Species to try to learn anything about the theory. Rather, it was more to do with my interest in history, particularly my interest in the history of science and technology. And it doesn't disappoint.

Okay, let's get the background out of the way, first. Origin of Species was written by Charles Darwin, and was originally published in 1859, with the full title, On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It's not that Darwin was the first to propose some type of theory of evolution and common descent, but Origin of Species really was the book that presented the evidence in such a way, and proposed a plausible mechanism, that the theory really came to be accepted.

Reading this book changed my perception of Darwin. The story you're always presented with about Darwin is this naturalist who went on a voyage on the Beagle to observe plants and animals, had an epiphany at the Galapagos islands, and came up with this theory of evolution. While this is true to a certain extent, and Darwin was a very keen observer, Origin of Species had more than just his observations from the Beagle and some interesting ideas to explain it. He actually performed experiments to test his ideas. Let me give a couple examples.

In one of the chapters on geographical distribution, Darwin discusses how certain plants might spread from one pond to the other. In addition to trying to think up plausible means, he then goes on to test how plausible they might be. Consider this passage, discussing the possibility of seeds sticking to water fowl and being transported from pond to pond in that way:

I do not believe that botanists are aware how charged the mud of ponds is with seeds: I have tried several little experiments, but will here give only the most striking case: I took in February three table-spoonfuls of mud from three different points, beneath water, on the edge of a little pond; this mud when dry weighed only 6 3/4 ounces; I kept it covered up in my study for six months, pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup!

Later in the same chapter, Darwin discusses inhabitants of oceanic islands, and the problem of how certain animals could have come to live on them. I'll just let Darwin speak for himself on this one:

Almost all oceanic islands, even the most isolated and smallest, are inhabited by land-shells, generally by endemic species, but sometimes by species found elsewhere. Dr. Aug. A. Gould has given several interesting cases in regard to the land-shells of the islands of the Pacific. Now it is notorious that land-shells are very easily killed by salt; their eggs, at least such as I have tried, sink in sea-water and are killed by it. Yet there must be, on my view, some unknown, but highly efficient means for their transportal. Would the just-hatched young occasionally crawl on and adhere to the feet of birds roosting on the ground, and thus get transported? It occurred to me that land-shells, when hybernating and having a membranous diaphragm over the mouth of the shell, might be floated in chinks of drifted timber across moderately wide arms of the sea. And I found that several species did in this state withstand uninjured an immersion in sea-water during seven days: one of these shells was the Helix pomatia, and after it had again hybernated I put it in sea-water for twenty days, and it perfectly recovered. As this species has a thick calcareous operculum, I removed it, and when it had formed a new membranous one, I immersed it for fourteen days in sea-water, and it recovered and crawled away: but more experiments are wanted on this head.

It's this practical approach from Darwin that impressed me. He didn't just sit around trying to come up with just-so stories - when he came to a question, he'd go and get his hands dirty doing real experiments.

Part of what I find just so fascinating is how Darwin came up with all this without any knowledge of genetics. Even though Gregor Mendel was performing his pea plant experiments around the same time that Darwin wrote Origin of Species, it appears that Darwin wasn't really aware of Mendel's work. In fact, it wasn't until the early 1900's that the scientific community recognized the importance of Mendel's experiments. And it wasn't until the 1940's and 50's that people finally understood what DNA was and how it controlled heredity. Obviously, people in the 1800's knew that offspring bore some resemblance to their parents, but nobody knew how exactly this happened, or what it was that caused offspring to have variations. So Darwin was kind of left groping around in the dark, and all throughout the book, he's reduced to explaining concepts while admitting that he doesn't truly understand the mechanisms responible. From a modern viewpoint, understanding genetics, it almost makes you wish you could travel back and explain it to Darwin. It would have made things so much easier for him.

So knowing that Darwin was ignorant of genetics, and knowing that our knowledge of the geologic record was even less complete then than it is now, it's interesting to see the insights Darwin had that lead him to formulate the theory. For me, when I think of evolution, I think of fossils. Yeah, I know there are multiple other lines of evidence, but growing up, that was the main line of evidence that convinced me that evolution actually happened. But Darwin only briefly discusses fossils in two chapters of the book. The rest of Origin of Species is about what he observed in the world around him - how there seem to be clusters of similar species, the difficulties of distinguishing between true species and merely varieties of the same species, the geographical distribution of species, etc.

It's also interesting how Darwin determined that variation and natural selection were the mechanisms responsible for evolution. Consider one of Darwin's contemporaries, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck came up with the idea of "Use and Disuse," that animals could affect their own bodies through their actions, and that they could then pass on these acquired traits to their offspring. The classic example of this is a giraffe stretching its neck to reach higher leaves, and it's offspring thus having a longer neck because of it. Thanks to genetics, we now know this is a false view. To be fair, Darwin didn't rule this out entirely in Origin of Species, but he concluded that it must have been secondary to variation and natural selection. And one of the best examples he used to demonstrate this was ants - all the variation evident in workers, even though it's the queen, who isn't directly exposed to the same pressures as the workers, that lays the eggs and is responsible for reproduction.

I also find it fascinating to read Darwin comparing evolution to special creation - to think, that creationism was the dominant scientific theory of the time. What I find especially fascinating, is to think how people integrated this into the knowledge of an ancient earth. Darwin fequently cited Charles Lyell in Orign of Species (Charles Lyell was one of the early popularisers of uniformitarianism, and helped promote the idea of the Earth being truly ancient), and in his chapters on the geological record, Darwin discussed some of the different geological periods. And concerning fossils appearing in the geological record, Darwin tells of how people proposed that those species were created during those periods. Just imagine that - seeing all the evidence for an ancient earth, and thinking that different species had been specially created throughout the history of the earth. I suppose that without a better explanation, and by building on their previous concepts, that it wasn't such a bad idea for the time, but it certainly does seem an odd idea now.

I've read other places that evolution, through Origin of Species, was one of the last major scientific theories that was first presented to the world in a book intended for a lay audience. It wasn't presented in a peer reviewed journal; it wasn't full of technical jargon or equations; it was a book published by a regular publisher and sold through normal venues. It was easy to understand (considering the subject matter), and became a best seller. Now we need science writers to translate for us lay people, so we're always a few steps removed from the real science. It's hard to imagine any new major theories being presented the same way evolution was in Origin of Species.

Another thing I wanted to discuss from Origin of Species is how it made me appreciate how much we know now. Let me explain this a bit - right now, there's a lot we don't know about a lot of things in the universe, and it kind of fills you with a longing to know the answers, even though you know you won't survive long enough to learn them. Like life on other planets - I would love to travel to other solar systems and see how complex life has developed on them, what strategies and structures have evolved in an environment completely isolated from our own, but I know that that's something I'll never know. Now, consider Darwin's condition in relation to his theory, having the limited evidence that he did. In the final chapter of Origin, Darwin wrote, "Numerous existing doubtful forms could be named which are probably varieties; but who will pretend that in future ages so many fossil links will be discovered, that naturalists will be able to decide, on the common view, whether or not these doubtful forms are varieties?" We are those "future ages!" Granted, our knowledge of the fossil record is still far from perfect, but we've discovered so many things since Darwin's time. For example, we now have a pretty good idea how whales evolved, how the first tetrapods went from water to land, how birds evolved from dinosaurs, and so many other things that Darwin could only dream of. So, while I'll still long to know the things I can't, I can at least be grateful for the things we know now, that were the longings of people in the past.

There's one last note I wanted to add, in relation to this edition in particular - the footnotes were wonderful. They're all throughout the text, explaining new things we've learned since Darwin's time, adding supplemental information in a few places, and correcting him in others. I haven't seen any other reprints of Origin of Species to compare this one to, so I don't know if other reprints might have even better footnotes, but I'd definitely consider it worthwhile to get an edition that has modern footnotes. I'm currently reading Voyage of the Beagle. It's a very handsome reprint, and I'm enjoying it immensely, but it doesn't have any modern footnotes, and I find myself constantly looking things up to see if Darwin was right or wrong on certain issues, or even to figure out what exactly he's referring to, when the terms he uses to describe a plant or animal are no longer in common use.

I'd recommend this book to anyone with a good understanding of evolution who's interested in the history of the theory, but not necessarily to those people who don't undertand evolution, yet. For one thing, Darwin gets a few things wrong. For another, being written in a style 150 years old, it's not the easiest thing for a modern reader to understand. And finally, genetics is such a huge component of evolution, that a good introduction to evolution should include genetics in its explanation.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Books I've Read in the Last Year

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia CommonsFirst, a quick announcement. I've decided to add a new section to this blog, Books, and this will be the inaugural entry. I don't "devour" books, but I read enough that I figure I could post little reviews here. I doubt many people will value my opinions more than just going to Amazon and reading the reviews there, and I could always just go to Amazon myself to post my reviews (which I just might end up doing), but a handful of people who know me might actually be interested in what I have to say, and might like to be able to find it all in one place. Plus, it's my blog so I can do whatever I want. Now, on to the meat of this entry...

I came across an article the other day that piqued my interest. The somewhat depressing headline of the article is, "One in four adults read no books last year," according to an AP-Ipsos poll. The rest of the article went on to list the reading habits of the rest of the country, and it got me curious as to how I fared. So first, let's take a look at what I read in the last year, as best as I can recall (this is also a shameless opportunity to link to Amazon - if you happen to buy any of the following books through these links, I'll make a few cents off it - if enough people do it I can save up enough for a gift certificate to buy a new book).

*-Amazon links different edition from what I read

Wow. I'm actually a little surprised at how much I've read. If I hadn't gone through & made this list, I would have guessed half a dozen or so. Okay, so I've already beaten 1/4 of the population by having anything in that list at all (so did my 8 year old daughter, by the way). But how about the other 3/4? Here's what that article had to say.

The typical person claimed to have read four books in the last year — half read more and half read fewer. Excluding those who hadn’t read any, the usual number read was seven.

Let's see, if I count up my list, it's 13 books all together. So, I read nearly twice as many books as the average book reader. But the article also breaks it down by sex.

Among those who said they had read books, the median figure — with half reading more, half fewer — was nine books for women and five for men.

Oh, so I did much better than the average male reader, as far as total quantiy. The article also discussed variety.

The Bible and religious works were read by two-thirds in the survey, more than all other categories. Popular fiction, histories, biographies and mysteries were all cited by about half, while one in five read romance novels. Every other genre — including politics, poetry and classical literature — were named by fewer than five percent of readers... More women than men read every major category of books except for history and biography. Industry experts said that confirms their observation that men tend to prefer nonfiction.

Let's see, if I look up at what I read - it was mostly fiction (and youth fiction, at that). I suppose A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court could be considered as a classic, as opposed to popular fiction. The Conquest of Gaul is history. I'm not sure exactly how to classify Einstein's Dreams - maybe non-fiction, though it was more a collection of vignettes. And finally, I read two science books, but I'd almost consider Origin of Species as more history than science. So, I was a little varied, but not as much as I could have been.

To tell the truth, this past year I was more biased towards fiction than normal. I usually try to alternate between fiction & non-fiction, since I think they can both teach us different things. Maybe it's not all that bad for my book reading to be biased that way, though, since so much of what I read in magazines, blogs, and other online articles, not to mention the documentaries I watch on TV, is non-fiction.

As far as that quote from the article, I think the part about, "The Bible and religious works were read by two-thirds in the survey," is a little misleading. Yes, I can see two-thirds of people reading religious works, but the Bible? That's a big book. I read all of it once, back in high school, and it took me more than a year to do. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think anywhere near 2/3 of the population read the Bible last year. Maybe they read parts of it, but I hardly think reading selected excerpts counts as reading a book, or my list would be far longer than the 13 books I listed.

There's one last thing I wanted to mention from the article, regarding how the poll was conducted.

The AP-Ipsos poll was conducted from August 6 to 8 and involved telephone interviews with 1,003 adults. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

I wonder how much time they gave people to think about it. Like I wrote above, I'd have only guessed a half a dozen books for myself if I hadn't made that list. Plus, it took me a few days to make that list - some of the books I'd forgotten about until I saw them lying around the house. I find it very easy to believe that this poll might under report the actual amount of books that people read.

So, what does the future hold? Well, here's the list of books that are on my night stand right now. I'm currently reading Voyage of the Beagle, but the rest are ones that I really want to read. That's a lot of non-fiction, though, so I may break it up a little. Maybe in a year, I'll do another of these posts, to show how I did.

*-Amazon links different edition from what I own

Anyway, now that I've started this new books section, I hope to post reviews of some of those books in the coming weeks and months.

Website Update- Small Changes to Post-It Note Glider Page

Post-It Note GliderI only have a very small update for today. Way back when I had my co-op during college, I figured out a way to fold a pretty good glider out of a Post-It note. I put up a page with instructions on how to fold it not long after, but that page has never been as "attractive" as I would have liked. A few years ago, I tried taking digital photos of the glider to put at the top of the page, but the camera I had then didn't have a good macro setting, so the pictures were awfully blury. So, just recently, I wasted a few minutes making a 3D model of the glider in Solidworks, and using a screen shot from that for the picture at the top of the page. I also added a small note of about a book that used that glider, Post-It: Ideas That Stick!,along with some pictures.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Debunking a Columbus Myth

Portrait of Columbus from the painting,  Virgen de los Navegantes, by Alejo FernándezWell, today's Columbus Day, so I thought I'd write a little entry about it. (Actually, I'd planned on writing it a year ago for Columbus Day, but didn't get around to it in time.)

Here's what prompted me to write this - my family and I were talking, and my wife and daughter were rubbing it in how they both got Columbus Day off when I didn't. Well, me being the type of father I am, I asked my daughter what Columbus did that's so special that he's got a day named after him. She responded with the typical proving the world was round. Ugh. She was just repeating what her teacher had taught her, so she didn't do anything wrong, but how does this story continue to get taught?

I won't bother to give too much detail here - just go to the Wikipedia entry on Columbus, and read the Navigational Plans section. Basically, by Columbus's time, most people knew the world was round. Eratosthenes had even calculated the diameter to within a few percent 1700 years prior. The reason why Columbus had such a hard time securing funding, was because he believed the Earth was a whole lot smaller than most other people thought. He thought the Earth was around 15,700 miles in circumference, when in reality it's around 25,000 miles. Nobody knew about the Americas at the time. They figured that in theory, if you sailed west from Europe, you would eventually get to Asia, but that the trip would be so long, there'd be know way to take enough supplies on the ship to get you there. In fact, Columbus was lucky the Americas were there, or he wouldn't have had enough supplies.

added 2007-10-10 After reading through this entry again, I realized I forgot to mention something. The answer I was expecting my daughter to give was that Columbus discovered America. I was all prepared to tell her about the Vikings and others that made it to the Americas before Columbus, and the fact that Columbus never realized he'd discovered a new continent, even though it was his voyage that really did spark the major wave of European exploration of the new world. But for her to bring up the old myth of proving the world was round, it really took me by surprise.

More Info:
I have a new post mentioning Columbus's ruthlessness, not just his incompetence, Happy Exploration Day.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Website Update- Updated Autogyro Essay

Pitcairn Whirlwing AutogyroThe single most popular page on this site is my Autogyros essay. Consequently, I never want to mess around with it too much (if it ain't broke, don't fix it). However, I saw a few areas that I could definitely improve upon, so I made some changes. The biggest of those were expanding the explanation of autorotation, adding a German translation that a reader had sent to me, and creating an archive of previous versions (mainly to give a stable copy at a fixed url for citations). Numerous smaller changes were made throughout the text to improve readability, and a few typos were corrected.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Review of the Lucy's Legacy Exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

This exhibit is now at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington. I haven't seen the exhibit there, but I'm guessing that it's pretty similar to what was in Houston. If anybody who's seen Lucy in Seattle happens to come across this review, please leave a note in the comments section to let me know if they've changed the exhibit at all.

Lucy's fossilsThis past weekend, my family and I went down to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see the Lucy's Legacy exhibit. For anyone unfamiliar with this topic, Lucy is the nickname given to an Australopithecus afarensis fossil found in 1974 in Ethiopia (her nickname in Amharic is dinqineš, "you are wonderful"). At the time, she was one of the oldest, most complete hominid fossils found, and helped clarify a long standing question in human evolution of which came first - big brains or bipedalism. (Thanks to Lucy, and confirmed by other fossils, we now know it's bipedalism.) She is still one of the most complete early hominid fossils, and still very important to science (more info - article on Slate).

I'm going to do this review a little backwards. Lucy was the very last part of the exhibit, but since she was the main reason we drove 6 hours to go to Houston, she's what I'm going to discuss first. If you study human evolution at all, there's really not much to be said. You already know what the bones look like. Seeing them in person doesn't teach you much, but there's just something magical about it. I stood and stared at her for as long as my family would let me, and had butterflies in my stomach the whole time. To look down at that little 3'-8" skeleton, knowing how long ago she lived and how closely related we are to her - no words can do justice to the feeling you get.

Lucy's skeleton was in a case in the middle of the room, with all the bones laid out flat. There's was thick glass or plexiglass protecting the bones (or some other material - I didn't want to touch it and put my fingerprints on it). A few feet away on one side, cast replicas of the fossils were arranged in an upright position, in the way they would have been in life (similar to the picture of Lucy on Wikipedia). A few feet away on the other side is a fleshed out, full size reconstruction of what Lucy might have looked like (this article on Bloomberg has a photo of the head of the reconstruction). It was nice to see those three things together to put the bones into perspective. On the circular outside wall of the room was a 78 foot long, 10 foot high mural by Viktor Deak, artistically representing 6 million years of hominid evolution (if you subscribe to Natural History, the cover of the October 2007 issue shows a portion of that mural, and for the time being, their website does as well). I think the mural was my wife and daughter's favorite part of the exhibit.

I have to bring up one negative point about the exhibit. Just before you go into the room with Lucy, they show a short film about how she was found and the fossils' significance. And it was during this film that something jumped out at me as being wrong. I forget the exact wording, but the film said something to the effect that some scientists believe Australopithecus might have split into two groups - one giving rise to chimps and the other to humans. However, my understanding is that the chimp/bonobo and human split was around 6 million years ago (more info), and that australopithecines are on the hominid side of that split. And with Lucy being a member of the species A. afarensis, and living around 3.2 million years ago, she almost certainly was not an ancestor of chimps or bonobos, as that film seemed to imply (or at least what a laymen ignorant of human evolution might have taken away from the film, giving the film makers the benefit of the doubt and assuming they were referring to an earlier species of Australopithecus).

As far as I could tell, Lucy was the only actual fossil in the exhibit. Maybe I missed them, but all the other "fossils" I saw were cast replicas. They were still interesting, and still helped tell the story of hominid evolution, but didn't inspire the same awe you get looking at the real thing. There were, however, several stone tools in the exhibit, that actually were ancient.

Even though hominid evolution, and Lucy in particular, were the main points of the exhibit, they were really only a small part of it. Most of the exhibit was dedicated to more recent Ethiopian history, from a few thousand years ago on. As the Houston Museum of Natural Science puts it on their website, "In addition to the fossil of Lucy, over 100 artifacts such as ancient manuscripts and royal artifacts from a dynasty Ethiopians believe stretches back to the son of the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba will be on display." Most of those artifacts besides the manuscripts were painted diptychs and processional crosses. There were also a handful of weapons, baskets, and other miscellaneous artifacts. Afterwards, my wife told me that she enjoyed those paintings much more than the Lucy fossils.

After we got done with Lucy's Legacy, there was still the rest of the museum to explore, and the permanent exhibits were very interesting. I do have one gripe, though, and maybe it comes from living so many years in D.C. with the Smithsonian museums, where admission was free. But there were three other temporary exhibits besides Lucy - Lizards & Snakes Alive, Treasures from Shanghai, and Frogs! - that you had to pay an additional fee to enter, along with another permanent exhibit, a greenhouse filled with butterflies, that also cost extra. When you've got even a small family of three, those extra prices add up pretty quickly. So, we didn't go to any of those other exhibits, even though my wife really wanted to see the Chinese art, and my daughter really wanted to see the snakes and lizards. Even for members, the discounted prices are still 1/2 to 2/3 of the non-member prices, and since we don't live very close to Houston, becoming members doesn't make much sense. I suppose they have to pay for the exhibits somehow. It's just a little disappointing, when I've been to other museums, like the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, where the regular admission price lets you see so much.

Lucy's Legacy LogoOne final note - I really wanted to get some type of coffee cup or shot glass as a souvenir, but just about everything in the gift shop that had to do with Lucy had the same logo on it. And to be honest, I don't particularly like the logo, especially the way it looked printed out small on a mug. If they had just had a picture of the fossil itself, I would have bought one. So instead, I bought a copy of Carl Zimmer's book, Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins*.

I know I did a little bit of complaining there at the end of this review, but that's only so the reader knows what to expect when going to the museum. As I said, seeing the actual fossils of Lucy in person really was awe-inspiring. It was worth the 6 hour drive to get there, and I'd do it again in a heart beat.

* I haven't quite finished Zimmer's book, but I'll give a quick review after having read about 2/3 of it - I like it. It's not very in depth, so if you follow science news, you probably won't learn very much from it. But, it does have lots of pretty pictures that make it worth the price. Plus, if you don't follow science news as much as I do, or happen to know a person who doesn't know much about human evolution, it makes for a very good overview. If someone doesn't want to read the whole thing, but they're willing to listen to you explain something to them, you can still use the book, and open it up to some of those pretty pictures to help illustrate your point.

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