Behind the scenes at London's Natural History Museum

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, August 16, 2013

Natural History Museum, London, England, August 15, 2013. // David J. Eicher
My last day in London was Thursday, August 15, 2013, and I took advantage of an invitation to get together with my good friend Jolyon Ralph and his lovely wife Katya. If you don’t know about Jolyon Ralph, well, you should. He is the founder and editor of the mineralogical website Mindat.org, the Web’s most important and most consulted database for minerals. (And if by now you’re wondering what minerals have to do with astronomy, well, planets are made of minerals, and so mineralogy is really a part of planetary geology.) Anyway, I encourage you to check out Jolyon’s website at www.mindat.org and his newer website www.gemdat.org, which covers gems and gemology.

Jolyon and I had the idea to meet up at the Natural History Museum in London, one of the greatest institutions devoted to natural wonders of the world. The meteorite and mineral collections in this building are among the finest on Earth. And Jolyon played a marvelous host, speaking on camera about a wide range of minerals throughout the collection. As soon as I return to the United States and the films are processed, they will be posted on Astronomy.com.

Jolyon also introduced me to Chris Stanley, head of the research division of the museum’s Earth Sciences Department, who escorted us through a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum’s collections — a dream come true for meteorite and mineral enthusiasts. We explored many fantastic specimens in cases and in storage that visitors do not get to see — those that are tucked away inside the departments. Alan Hart, head of the Earth Sciences Collections, who relayed many interesting stories of the collections, took us back into the mineralogical storage rooms and treated us to lunch in the staff canteen.

We also visited with Kieren Howard, who is conducting research at the museum while on leave from his university home in New York. He showed us results from the X-ray diffraction spectrometry experiments he is conducting on carbonaceous chondrite meteorites, exploring the question of water in these ancient meteorites and how they may have contributed water molecules to early Earth, among other questions. I also enjoyed meeting briefly with Javier Cuadros, who is working on clay minerals on Mars and their meaning for water on the Red Planet.

After lunch, it was a real treat to spend considerable time with Caroline Smith in the meteorites room. We filmed quite a number of sequences showing great specimens from the collection — the rare, interesting, and extremely rare! And these will also be posted on Astronomy’s website after I return home.

What a spectacular day it was — and I am very grateful for the time given us by all these busy scientists. I suspect you may see some article contributions from some of them in future issues of the magazine, as well.

But now, the time has finally come. Home from London and back to the routine at Astronomy, with many new challenges.

For all images from this trip, visit the Online Reader Gallery.

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