Science on the road!

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Cave dwelling: Sublime, yet subterranean!

We approach the Cave of the Mounds, a landmark (so to speak) in Southwest Wisconsin, along a walkway painted with fossils and markings that start at the Ordovician era (450 million years ago), when the limestone beneath our feet was deposited as a rain of sea shells on an ocean floor. Finally, at the cave’s entry, the asphalt calendar enters the last million years, when the cave started to be excavated by flows of acidic water.


Cave interior with pool of water and pointed rocks hanging from ceiling

Photo: Cave of the Mounds National Natural Landmark
Theatrical lighting brings the pitch-black to life! That gooey stuff in the center and left is flowstone. Stalactites hang from the ceiling, sometimes feeding stalagmites that grow on the floor. All these cave features are produced by calcite-rich water that enters the cave through a long crack along the ceiling. Calcite is calcium carbonate, the major mineral in limestone.

The geological markings under our feet are one indication that the cave-men and -women who operate this site are intent on linking past and present, above- and below-ground.

Cave of the Mounds was discovered in 1939 by workers blasting in a limestone quarry on one of the highest spots in southern Wisconsin. Today, it is a tourist destination with a message — a cool, underground mecca, strategically illuminated, where tour guides leave the nettlesome lectures above ground, and offer easy-to-digest science along the cave’s alleyways.

The above ground section of the site features resurrected prairies and oak savannas, but the main attraction is the stalactites hanging over stalagmites, flowstone, the fossils embedded in ancient limestone, and the rare opportunity to see geology at work as you observe the earth from the inside out.


Close-up of pointed cave stalactite with crystals at its tip

Drip by drip, water carries calcite, which crystallizes at the bottom of this growing stalactite.

Aftermath of a flood unparalleled

What caused the huge erosion features, ancient shorelines, and scoured potholes in the “channeled scablands” in Eastern Washington state? In 1923, J. Harlen Bretz coined that ominous moniker and proposed that the features had been created by a gigantic flood.


Two lane highway along river in foreground and brown, arid and terraced hillside in background

Courtesy Steve Dutch, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
When Lake Missoula made its mad rush for the Columbia River and the Pacific, vast floods, estimated at 380 meters high, shaped these walls at Wallula Gap.

During this time, geology was ruled by a “uniformitarianism” dogma, which highlighted gradual processes like deposition and erosion, and discounted the power of sudden events like floods (and perhaps even earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes).

Skeptics demanded to know the source of all that water in an arid region, and Bretz had a reputation as a kook. Then, geologists gradually realized that the ice-age flood had originated to the east, in glacial Lake Missoula, which had been plugged by the lobe of a glacier emanating from Canada.

In the 1950s, the idea that this huge lake had eaten through an ice dam and then coursed downstream with phenomenal power started gaining acceptance, and in 1979, Bretz, age 96, received the highest award from Geological Society of American for solving this great Earth riddle. Today, scientists believe the floods may have recurred every few years or decades as the ice age was waning, around 14,000 years ago.


Wide river bend with tall, arid and terraced hills and cliffs as its banks and road on one side

Courtesy Steve Dutch, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
The Columbia River flows through Wallula Gap (left) in Eastern Washington State. During the last ice age, staggering floods resulting from the uncorking of glacial Lake Missoula flowed through the gap. The peak flow is estimated at 10 million cubic meters per second, about “50 times the flow of the Amazon River, ten times the combined flow of all the rivers in the world…” according to geologist Steve Dutch.

The evidence for the floods comes in all sizes. Alternating stacks of coarse gravel and fine sand show gravel left by flood currents under sand left by slower water when the floods receded. A dry river bed called the Grand Coulee, in Eastern Washington, was gouged by the astonishing flow of uncorked glacial melt water. The periodic cascades that shaped Dry Falls, now in Sun Lakes State Park are considered the largest known waterfalls in Earth’s history.


Large and ultra-white sand dune with steep slope

Photo: Talshiarr
The gypsum dunes at White Sands National Monument are a spectacle best appreciated with sunglasses and a hat!

The unbearable whiteness of being

The world’s largest field of gypsum dunes, at White Sands National Monument in south-central New Mexico, could arouse anybody’s inner drywaller, as gypsum is the mineral basis for both drywall and plaster. But here, where 275 square miles of gypsum dunes have built a hot, severe and scorchingly beautiful landscape, there’s not a sheet of drywall in sight.

White Sands: A land of adaptation

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Set aside as a national monument by President Herbert Hoover in 1933, the dunes trace their origin to vast deposits of hydrated calcium sulfate — gypsum — that were laid down on an ancient lake a quarter-billion years ago. After a geological uplift, they were exposed roughly 10 million years ago, and eventually moved to the present site in a geologic eye-blink — the last 7,000 years.

Mammoth tracks have been seen in the dunes, but they could get buried with time: Some dunes are moving 30 feet a year, as the wind piles them up on the windward side and gravity avalanches them down the lee.

The gypsum dunes are said to be the largest in the world, but what’s most amazing is not the geology, but the evolutionary adaptations life has used to survive these harsh conditions. At least seven species of animals, including three lizards, that are closely related to darker varieties living in the surrounding desert have turned white for camouflage in this bleached world. (The drywalling lizard or the plastering mouse must be here somewhere!)

Visiting the Sands? Ponder a trip to Trinity, the site of the first test of the atomic bomb.

Science museums: Try the trifecta!


Skeleton of T. rex on display in museum lobby

Photo: Michael Gray
Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex is ready to meet, greet and eat at Chicago’s Field Museum.

The Windy City boasts not just one, but three cool science destinations, all next door to each other on the Museum Campus along the shore of Lake Michigan.

To explore some of the world’s biological and cultural wonders, spend the day at the Field Museum of Natural History, a collision of anthropology, botany, geology, paleontology and zoology. The permanent exhibits include the DNA Discovery Center, a journey through four billion years of earthly life, and Sue, the largest (and most expensive?) complete skeleton of the ferocious T. rex. Among the temporary exhibits was a recent one on the horse and its deep relationship with humans (an exhibit that particularly excited one horse-crazy Why Filer).


Circular building covered in green ivy with curved protrusion on its roof on lake shore

Unassuming by day, the telescope in the Doane Observatory dazzles visitors at night.

If your palate is whetted for a wetter world, walk to the Shedd Aquarium to explore underwater life from the Amazon, the Caribbean and both poles. Green sea turtles, beluga whales, moray eels, piranhas and penguins will be among your hosts.

If otherworldly science is more your thing, visit the Adler Planetarium. Chat about the stars with real space scientists at their Space Visualization Laboratory, or just sit back and watch the star show. Adler’s centerpiece is the Doane Observatory, the largest publicly accessible telescope in the Chicago vicinity. While you can only peer through the lens after dark, this could make for a great conclusion to your trip.

Discover a life aquatic


Crocodile with long toothy snout hugging tree root under water, little turtle perched on right

Photo: Courtesy National Aquarium, George Grall
A fresh water crocodile and snaked-neck turtle hang out at the Animal Planet Australia exhibit at the National Aquarium Baltimore.

An Australian freshwater crocodile grows in Baltimore. Seriously. The National Aquarium Baltimore boasts more than 660 species of fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, totaling around 16,500 marine creatures.

In addition to its rich marine menagerie, the aquarium has a collection of special exhibits and interactive oceanic enjoyment. See the world through a dolphin’s eyes at Our Ocean Planet, a show that teaches visitors about dolphins and the connections between people and their seafaring friends. Or soak in ocean sensations with a movie at the 4-D Immersion Theater, where you can experience sea life in multiple dimensions, including the smell and feel of (simulated) mist and wind. Or take an expert-led tour, including behind-the-scenes peek of the sharks’ quarters.

The aquarium is also a center for conservation. For example, its Marine Animal Rescue Program tracks the progress of rescued animals after release. Other conservation projects include restoring wetlands and investigating the impacts of mercury on the marine food chain. After all, protecting the life that sustains the ocean ecosystem benefits everyone—not just aquarium visitors.


View of underbelly of a whale leaping full body out of ocean, splash from another whale behind it

Photo: NOAA
A humpback whale puts on a show for its human audience.

An excursion exotic to Melville

What’s more breathtaking than seeing the world’s largest animals in the wild? Whale watching puts you up close and personal with these magnificent marine mammals. Since the 1950s, in a 180° turnaround from Herman Melville’s day, people have been flocking by the boatloads to glimpse whales doing what they do rather than to kill them.

Both the U.S. east and west coasts have whales to watch, though you must catch them in the right season during their migration. There’s no guarantee, but on the western seaboard, you could spot orcas and gray whales. The east is home to the right, fin and sei whales. Humpbacks, minkes, and blue whales troll both coastlines.

Several cetaceans (a scientific category including whales, dolphins and porpoises) are endangered, including the North Atlantic right, blue, fin, sei and gray whales. In any case, marine mammals are heavily protected by law, so whale watching should be done with professionals who obey the rules.

Celebrating, protecting southern nature


Young boy in blue t-shirt stroking the chest of a black and white penguin

Courtesy Jeff Strout, Audubon Nature Institute
Millicent the penguin gets a pat from a new pal at Audubon’s Aquarium of the Americas.

Old anchor covered with ocean vegetation submerged in greenish water

Photo: Courtesy Julep Gillman-Bryan, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
One of Queen Anne’s Revenge’s anchors still looks workable after all these centuries.

With more than 500 full-time employees and an annual budget exceeding $30-million, Audubon Nature Institute sounds more like a business than a private, non-profit organization dedicated to explaining and preserving the wonders of nature with a Cajun flavor. The group operates a zoo, aquarium and assorted parks in and around New Orleans. The Aquarium of the Americas focuses on the Caribbean, Amazon, Gulf of Mexico (complete with oil-drilling replica) and Mississippi River.

A primate exhibit in the Audubon Zoo shows dozens of our opposable-thumbed relatives. Its 360 species of animals include a jaguar shown in a replica Amazon jungle. The “Embraceable Zoo” is devoted to full-contact animal admiration, and you can also eyeball, if not pet, a prickly Indian crested porcupine. Audubon maintains two locations that focus on captive breeding and survival of endangered species; these are closed to the public, but we expect to see you at the new insectarium, located in the old Federal customs house, for the beetle races on Sept. 3.

North Carolina: decapitation capitol


Yellowed old map showing a jagged coastline with narrow inlets surrounding a sound

From surveys by Henry Mouzon and others
This 1775 map of the Carolina coast show Blackbeard’s native habitat, with Ocracoke Island at center.

Every summer, vacationers flock to North Carolina’s coast for a beach getaway. But beach vacations would have been a hard sell early in the 18th century, as the coast was the stomping grounds of the South’s most feared pirate, Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard.

Nowadays, the area is proud of its sordid past, attracting pirate-curious tourists and archaeologists alike. In 1996, Blackbeard’s biggest and final ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, was found off the coast of Beaufort, where it had been hiding for more than 270 years. While the dives did not uncover much treasure, archaeologists estimate the wreckage holds up to 750,000 artifacts, some of which are displayed at Beaufort’s North Carolina Maritime Museum.

Blackbeard is a primary local industry. Ocracoke Island, a favored Blackbeard anchorage, was where he met his fate at the hands of what he mocked as a rabble of “cowardly puppies.” Bath has the legendary ball of light, presumed to be Blackbeard’s ghostly severed head.

So why watch Johnny Depp impersonate a pirate at the multiplex when you can check out the history of this famous scoundrel? Like we said, this old, dead, head-free pirate is a godsend for small business…

Tar is my name. Fossils are my fame

Photos: 1.)jbarreiros, 2.) Betsy Weber
This urban, curvy-tusked mammoth is “trapped” in the tar – or in reality, posed in it to represent the thousands of animals that were mired over the millennia since tar started accumulating at La Brea in modern-day Los Angeles, where tar continues to ooze to the surface. Rollover image to see the on-site Page Museum, home to a “fish bowl” laboratory, where visitors can watch scientists de-goo specimens.

If you’re stuck for a scientific sojourn in Southern California, head for the pits. Since long before there was a Los Angeles, the La Brea Tar Pits have been an oozing, 3-D flypaper for animals, now with that all-too-trendy urban accent. Asphalt, we learn, is not just good for roads, but also for trapping live animals and preserving their fossils. Since their first description in a scientific publication in 1875, the pits have produced prodigious prizes for paleontology. The onsite Page Museum houses more than 650 species of plants and animals, all removed from the black goo, and dating back 11,000 to 50,000 years.

The tar pits were a graveyard for thousands of carnivores, including the dire wolf, coyote and saber-toothed cat, and a smaller number of herbivores, including mammoth and bison. In an effort to transcend the “heroic” era of paleontology and flesh out (if we can put it that way) a comprehensive picture of life in the era of ice, researchers have recently shifted their focus to fossils of plants and smaller animals, including millipedes, 31 species of mollusks, and 25 species of beetles.

Listen hard: Hear the galaxies?


24 large radio telescopes point at the sky in daytime

The 27 giant radio telescopes in the Very Large Array move on railroad tracks around a plain in southern New Mexico. Don’t be fooled: each these monsters weighs 230 tons and is 25 meters in diameter! Roll over to see one oddity discovered by the enhanced VLA in 2011.

Ball of orange light in reddish sky is surrounded by a few dozen stars

Photo: Bhatnagar et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF
The newly expanded VLA detected this remnant of a supernova, with that never-before-seen filamentary structure.

Love big? Dig distant, mysterious and unfathomably old? At the Very Large Array, in western New Mexico, you can gawk at 27 giant antennas used by astronomers to “listen” to radio signals from the universe. When you’re done rubber-necking the hardware, check out exhibits at the visitor center.

Then climb an observation tower to get another view of the world’s premier radio telescope zoo. Notice how every single antenna has silently and inexorably changed its orientation, and is now pointing to another invisible spot in the heavens? You are looking at visual proof of our planet’s normally insensible rotation.

It takes a lot of work, and some hefty equipment, to pry loose the secrets of the universe, and here, the scale of the operation is written across the desert. Since 1980, the VLA has, alone or in tandem with other telescopes, been collecting the astrophysical evidence for the formation and destruction of stars and galaxies. The new “enhanced VLA” can “hear” three times as many radio bandwidths as the VLA and is 10 times more sensitive. How sensitive is that? They say it could hear a cellphone calling from Jupiter…


Silver wristwatch with tiny lens and blue, red, and yellow buttons on face

Germany, ca. 1949, International Spy Museum
This clever subminiature camera allowed an operative to take photographs while pretending to check his watch for the time of day. The circular film allowed six exposures.

Go under cover in the capital city

Explore life under cover (and the technology that allows a spy to hide in plain sight) at the International Spy Museum, the only public museum of its kind in the United States. With the largest public collection of international espionage artifacts, the museum provides a unique global perspective of this covert profession — said to be the second oldest — and how it has shaped the past and present.

Before you start your mission, you are challenged to adopt a secret identity. As you snoop about, you’ll discover the Secret History of History, which highlights the influence of spies through the ages; gadgets and stories of espionage during the American Civil War, World War II, and Cold War; and a gallery of spy technology. You can even see if you have what it takes to be an agent in the Operation Spy interactive experience, in which you must find a missing nuclear trigger before it ends up in the wrong hands. Just don’t blow your cover!

Boneyarders eviscerated these B-52s per an arms-control agreement, the left them in the desert so Soviet satellites could confirm their destruction. Roll over photo to see the boneyard’s scale.

Visit the “Boneyard”

Warplanes go to the desert to die, and there, for a fee, you can tour thousands of mothballed fighters, bombers and helicopters at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center. Bus tours run from the Pima Air and Space Museum, on the outskirts of Tucson, Ariz. With more than 4,200 planes, the “boneyard” is the ultimate in aerial combat nostalgia.

Some of these planes will be scrapped, others may be sold or salvaged for parts, or pressed back into service during future wars. Seldom celebrated, but perhaps more important from a technological point of view, the site also stores 350,000 tools used to make these machines, including, we presume, the one-of-a-kind tools and dies used to shape jet engines, wings and fuselages.


Old photo of man with large mustache working at a desk in a room cluttered with equipment

Movie cameras and projectors were a main interest at the Edison lab. Before machine tools went electric, they were driven by those dangerous belts at upper right. Just curious: How come the lab of Mr. Electricity lacked an electric lathe?

Ogling killing machines may seem macabre, but then, if you are a U.S. taxpayer, you’ve already paid for this stuff… might as well check it out, and witness how the technology of aerial warfare has changed over the decades!

Edison’s Garden of Invention

In 1887, after he had patented the first practical electric light bulb, mega-inventor Thomas Edison invented an inventor’s playground in West Orange, N.J., just outside Manhattan. Edison stocked the lab with every resource needed to crank out movie cameras and projectors, teletypes, recording and playback devices, batteries and countless other electric gadgets for the fast-modernizing nation.

With labs focusing on chemistry and physics, and with shops devoted to woodworking and metal-working, Edison could concentrate on his strong points: cranking out ideas and masterminding publicity stunts that helped ensure his commercial success. During World War I, 10,000 people cranked out electrical devices for the military at the factories clustered around the lab. Edison worked at the West Orange lab until his death in 1931.

Think of Edison as primarily an inventor? Then you have to wonder how his name wound up on the companies selling electricity to New York and Chicago. God may have made the Garden of Eden, but Thomas Edison made the garden of invention in north Jersey, and it awaits your visit.

– David J Tenenbaum & Jenny Seifert


Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. More about the channeled scablands.
  2. More about the Audubon Nature Institute.
  3. More about the Airplane graveyard.
  4. Podcast: Take a science vacation.