Friday, 30 September 2011

Late Night Dinosauria

The BBC has been having a bit of a dinofest recently. The series Planet Dinosaur has been leading the way but there have been a number of associated factual programs on BBC2and BBC4 and even a showing of the 1969 Hammer classic When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. 

This isnt a complaint. Im rather partial to dinosaurs. Childhood visits to the Natural History Museum  are responsible for that. Its not a scholarly sort of fascination, I couldnt identify a baryonyx from a single metatarsal and a tooth, and I cant separate my Jurassic dinos from their Cretaceous cousins, but I do find them extraordinarily beguiling.

I do sometimes find the superlatives hurled at these creatures to be slightly annoying. The biggest/longest/heaviest/most lethal creature ever to have walked the Earth is totally misleading. For years we have been told that T Rex was the biggest, baddest killing machine ever to have stomped around on our planet. Now its been relegated to second, or even third in the ratings. The current super villain seems to be Spinosaurus, but the best we can ever really say is that it is the top predator found to date.

Palaeontologists have really only scratched the surface as far as discoveries are concerned. Major new finds in China, Mongolia and South America are expanding our knowledge and, more importantly for someone like me, providing jaw dropping new record holders to wonder at.

But, perhaps, the thing that really grabs my attention is the time scale. We have been around for a while. Its generally accepted that Modern Humans first appeared around 200,000 years ago.  All things considered, we have come quite a long way in that time. From basic stone tools to the computer on which this is being written. From walking the plains to flying in planes and from looking at the stars to sending machines into space to find out how they work. Dinosaurs, on the other hand, were around for something like 160,000,000 years before disappearing 65,000,000 years ago. The super killers T Rex and Spinosaurus never  got the chance to see who was top dog because they lived 30,000,000 years apart. Yes, that is thirty million years apart! These are mind numbing numbers and almost impossible to grasp.

OK, dinos didnt have planes, trains or automobiles. They didnt paint masterpieces, enjoy the cinema or get frustrated by the internet. They didnt get to enjoy a convivial pint at the local pub or watch Pink Floyd in concert and they didnt get to fly to the moon, but what they did do is survive and evolve. Anyway you look at it, 160,000,000 years is not to be sniffed at.

It does beg the question, where will we be in 160,000,000 years? Will we even still exist or have we already sown the seeds of our own destruction? If we do still exist, what will we have become? No one can say and perhaps its better not to know. I, for one, plan not to lose any sleep worrying about it. Ill just enjoy the past and let the far future take care of its self.

We are lucky in London to have the Natural History Museum. One of the worlds greatest collections and a place where research into the past and the present inevitably gives us a glimpse into the future.

The building itself is a joy, designed by Alfred Waterhouse, it opened in 1881. Built in the high Victorian style, extensive use is made of terracotta tiles, both inside and out. Both tiles and brickwork feature relief sculptures of flora and fauna, living on the west side of the building and extinct on the east. Even without its contents its a place in which you'd be happy to spend a lot of time.

Along with other museums and galleries in the capital, the NHM has a late night opening. With the exception of December, the museum opens until 10.00pm on the last Friday of every month. You can have a meal and a glass of wine or a beer (there is something slightly decadent about wandering around a museum with a glass of wine in your hand!) and you can chat to various experts about a whole range of subjects . You should be aware that not all of the galleries are open in the evening. If there is something that you particularly want to see, it might be worth contacting the museum beforehand to see if it accessible.

I cant believe that there are many Londoners who havent been to the NHM, but if you are one of them sort yourself out and get along there as soon as possible. You wont regret it.

More interesting stuff here.

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