University of Pennsylvania
What kinds of time can be told through material objects? This panel takes up three examples of natural chronometers-dermestid beetles, fossilized vegetation, and frozen meteorites-to examine how time is measured and scaled through natural proxies. In doing so, the presenters engage with what Lorraine Daston (2017) calls 'third nature': those materials which are selected to endure in the archives of science. While meteorites and fossils are made archive as they are preserved and analyzed to understand the deep past of the planet and the universe, dermestid beetles make archives as they clean specimens for future analysis in museum collections. And as each object expands and compresses time, the construct of the archive is laid bare: what is selected as meaningful and worthy of preservation contrasts against what is seen as disposable or decayable, deemed to be of no archival import. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral is thus an invitation to explore concepts at the center of histories of science (times, scales, and tools) through the natural objects that scientists have deemed worthy of preservation.
On Colony Time: Thinking Decay and Renewal with Dermestid Beetles
Natural history museums the world over maintain colonies of dermestid beetles,to clean animal skeletons more gently and more thoroughly than could be accomplished by human technicians. Combining archival research, oral history interviews, and onsite observation of the beetle colonies at the American Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian National Natural History Museum, this paper argues that these ubiquitous living technologies set the rhythms of museum work and offer a generative model for conceiving of the scientific object.
The first part of the paper examines how the choice of dermestids as a tool sets a distinct pace for the functioning of the natural history museum. The demands of preparing a specimen for the insects' consumption and the technician's lack of control over their progress through the tissue constrain the speed with which an item can be processed, even as the need to keep the colony alive requires a steady supply of material, independent of the museum's need for specimens. The colonies structure spatial, as well as temporal, organization: the beetles must be confined, lest they devour other museum materials; what is more, the colony emits a powerful odor, prompting their confinement offsite or at the periphery (further dilating the time needed for cleaning).
The paper closes with the temporal complexities of the colony itself. The lifespan of a dermestid beetle is approximately six months, yet most museum colonies are several decades old. This continual self-regeneration brings the work of animal biology into conversation with thought experiments in the philosophy of identity (the Ship of Theseus, Grandfather's Axe) and with burgeoning scholarship around histories of repair and maintenance. The colony provides a model of the scientific "tool" forever in the (re)making, juxtaposing multiple timelines and processes both internal and external.
Proxy Perceptions of Climate and Time
Michigan State University
In 1892, Albert C. Seward, who was then a Fellow of the Geological Society and a lecturer in Botany at the University of Cambridge, won the Sedgwick prize for the essay of the year in geology for his treatise "Fossil Plants as Tests of Climate." In his essay, Seward combined his study of botany with geology to "deduce the relative temperatures of various latitudes in the past from such solid data as assemblages of ferns, cycads, and conifers." Seward's proposal was one of several recommendations that appeared from the late-nineteenth-century to the late-twentieth-century that suggested that scientists could use remnants of vegetation found in sediments at the bottoms of lakes or bogs, in sloth dung, or in packrat middens to understand earth's history over geologic time.
This paper explores the history of the earth, particularly earth's climatic past, which materially emerged through these organic proxies. It argues that time and the climate manifested themselves differently depending on which proxies scientists used to study the environments of the geologic past. The paper will take readers to the lab and field, where scientists sought to understand the relationship between the vegetal remains they found and the larger earth systems they were interested in reconstructing from these materials. The paper will show that some proxies, like tree rings, pointed to regularity in the earth's climate and a fairly regular accretion of time. Other proxies, like pollen, pointed to the complexity of regional climate and place-specific time: uniform in some places and irregular in others. The paper thus aims to show how key concepts that we think we understand-climate and time-can be heavily dependent on the way that scientists measure, encounter, and see these concepts through the material reality of vegetation remnants.
On Blue Ice: Antarctic Meteorites and Deepening Planetary Time
University of Pennsylvania
During the Antarctic field season of 1969, a group of Japanese glaciologists stumbled on a unique find-nine meteorite fragments, frozen and embedded in a patch of ancient blue ice. After geochemical analysis, the find was revealed to be even more surprising: rather than being pieces of one parent body, the meteorites were a collection of different rocks of varying terrestrial ages. Hearing of the Antarctic meteorites at a Conference four years later, geologist William Cassidy immediately suspected an explanation lay within the ice: slowly spreading from the center of the continent, the Antarctic ice sheet was a "stranding surface" that collected, subsumed, and finally revealed meteorites over a vast timeframe. Since then, the Antarctic Search for Meteorites program (ANSMET)-a joint venture between the NSF, the Smithsonian Institution, and NASA-has scoured patches of blue ice for the rare celestial objects, collecting as many as 6000 unique fragments in one field season.
This paper takes up Antarctic meteorites as natural chronometers, and traces how the space rocks gave glaciologists and meteoriticists a unique temporal tool for understanding the shape and flow of the Antarctic ice sheet. While meteoriticists were predominantly interested in the meteorites themselves-particularly after waning enthusiasm for moon landings-glaciologists focused on the ice in which they were encased: the preserved meteorites confirmed that blue ice was some of the oldest frozen matter on the planet, samples of which could be used to reconstruct past climates. This paper proposes that by treating meteorites and ice as relational timekeepers, rendered legible through similar modes of geochemical analysis, geologists and astrophysicists from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory repositioned blue ice as a scientific tool, one that could connect the deep time of Antarctic ice to the deeper time of the cosmos.