Why do we collect this stuff? Does anybody ever look at it?

…the intriguing title to the final lecture in an excellent series by Undersecretary for Science, David Evans.  The entire series is available online at https://www2.si.edu/research/spotlight/lectures_2006.html.

The question that formed his title is a good one, considering that the largest portion of SI’s collection, some 126.5 million objects, reside in the Natural History Museum.  And did you know that 70% of that Museum is occupied by scientists and their labs?  It’s hard to imagine given the size of their public space.

But who uses the collection?  Dr. Evans gave several examples.  SI’s bird collection is used in a program with the Air Force to determine the interactions between birds and planes.  By studying the birds’ habits, flying patterns, migratory routes and physical characteristics, determinations can made regarding plane travel.  How, and why?   Well, for example, if the Air Force needs to set up an emergency take off strip for rapid troop deployment, it helps to know how to avoid the indigenous area’s bird population.

And SI’s science collections can also influence public policy, for example, in determining the history of the Earth’s climate and the effects of global warming.  How?  One example is that the toxicity in poison ivy increases as carbon dioxide in the environment increases.  Thus, by comparing former samples in our collections to those of today, scientists can begin to construct the evolution of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.  Especially important in similar studies is the use of type specimens for comparison.  A type specimen is the actual example of a plant that was used when scientists originally described and named the species.  The Smithsonian has 80-90,000 such type specimens in our collection, all of which have been digitized in high-resolution for optimized study.

My favorite question of the series came at the very end when an audience member asked, “why do scientists collect hundreds of the same type of insect, like a moth” for example?  David Evans wisely answered, “look around.  Can you imagine trying to describe the human species by having one example of a male, female and juvenile specimen?”

I never thought about it that way.