On January 4 I drove for an hour north to Cartersville, Georgia, to visit Tellus, the Northwest Georgia Science Museum. I’d driven past the place many times (you can see it from Interstate 75 whenever you go that way to the mountains, Chattanooga, or other points north) and kept meaning to spend a day there; on this day I finally did.
Georgia doesn’t have many science museums, and those we do have are often on the brink of bankruptcy. There’s certainly nothing to rival the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, or Chicago’s Field Museum. In the Atlanta area we have the Fernbank Science Center (FSC) and Fernbank Museum (which, despite the name “Fernbank,” are unaffiliated with each other).
The AMNH in New York City seems to have all the money in the world, so it can attract world-class personnel and exhibits, and it definitely has world-class facilities. The same goes for the Field Museum, which is the most impressive natural history museum I’ve ever been in.
In Atlanta, Fernbank Science Center probably has the least resources. It’s owned and run by the school system of DeKalb County, Georgia’s, and it’s been a standard field trip destination for Atlanta area school kids for the last five decades. FSC does a lot with a little. In addition to the exhibits, there’s a good telescope and planetarium. Many of the exhibits are just taxidermied animals in dioramas, but they’re really good taxidermied animals in dioramas. And the Apollo 6 command module, which was uncrewed but did go into space, is on display there, too.
Fernbank Museum is twenty years old, has lavish facilities, and brings big touring exhibitions like Darwin, which was there two years ago. It’s no Smithsonian, but it’s probably the best natural history museum a city like Atlanta can have.
I didn’t know how Tellus would compare to either Fernbank. Cartersville’s a small town, beyond the Atlanta suburbs but not far enough north to be a destination for mountain vacationers, so I couldn’t guess if it would be very well funded. It began in 1983 as the Weinman Mineral Museum, built by the owners of a nearby barite mine. I hadn’t heard of barite before, but it seems to be in everything these days. Synthetic rubber and filler materials in plastic and paint are made from it. The original museum’s collection is now the Weinman Mineral Gallery. The mineral museum closed in 2007 and reopened as Tellus a few months later. “Tellus,” the museum’s literature told me, is an alternate name for Terra, the Greek goddess of the Earth.
Just inside the lobby is the Great Hall, which showcases a full-scale cast of an Apatosaurus skeleton. The other rooms are the Fossil Gallery, an exhibit of historic vehicles called Science In Motion, a special exhibits room, the “Collins Family My Big Backyard,” which was a roomful of hands-on things for kids, a planetarium, and a lecture theater.
The Fossil Gallery has casts instead of actual fossils, which I think is true for most fossil displays these days. They represent eras from the Precambrian (stromatolites) all the way up through the Pleistocene (giant sloths and mastodons).
There was something odd in this gallery. In front of a fossil of a plesiosaur was a plaque bearing a reproduction of the infamous “Surgeon’s Photo” of the Loch Ness Monster, with the caption “The legendary Loch Ness Monster was once thought to be a plesiosaur that somehow survived the end of the Mesozoic. It has since proven to be a hoax.”
I wasn’t sure what this caption meant. Yes, the Surgeon’s Photo seems to be of a creature that looks like a plesiosaur, and the photo was “proven to be a hoax.” But the plaque caption as written seems to be saying that the Loch Ness Monster itself is what has been proven to be a hoax.
Of course the Loch Ness Monster is not a hoax. It is a legend or myth about a creature or species that roams the loch. Many cryptozoologists over the decades have claimed to see the monster or to find evidence of its existence, and many of these claims have been exposed as hoaxes. Furthermore, many of the alleged sightings of the monster have been of creatures that resembled plesiosaurs, but many others have looked like sea serpents, or giant fish, or crocodilians. To say the notion that the Loch Ness Monster is a plesiosaur “is a hoax” makes no sense at all. After my visit I emailed the museum to request clarification, and got this unexpectedly thoughtful response from the executive director, Jose Santamaria:
We do acknowledge in the text that the “monster” is a legend by starting the sentence “the legendary Loch Ness Monster…” It is the photograph has been proven to be a hoax.
We mention the plesiosaur connection to address popular misconceptions created and promoted by the photograph. This misconception is due because the image in the photograph resembles cartoon and B-movie images of plesiosaurs in swan-line poses. Physiologically, this would have been impossible for these creatures. Paleobiologists have determined that the neck could not have articulated back in that manner, and actually articulated downwards. Assertions by cryptozoologists that the “monster” is a part of a group of surviving plesiosaurs that became trapped in the lake is also untrue. Loch Ness formed between 10 million and 10,000 years ago, while plesiosaurs became extinct about 68 million years ago. There is too much time in between for these ocean-dwelling animals to have survived, undocumented in the fossil record, and then end up in an inland freshwater lake gouged by glaciers and filled by melting glacial ice.
So, the Loch Ness Monsters, in whatever form it is supposed to be, is a legend with no scientific backing. The photo on the panel and associated “witness accounts” are part of a hoax. Current belief in the Loch Ness Monster is pseudo-science.
I’m extremely impressed that Mr. Santamaria took the time to reply in such detail, and that he knows so much about the lore surrounding “Nessie” and cryptozoology. He used the skeptical buzzwords “cryptozoologists” and “pseudo-science,” so he clearly talks the talk. I’m especially impressed since he’s not a scientist; his only degree is a bachelor’s in visual art, painting, and art history.
I’ll talk about the rest of the museum’s galleries in a separate post. For now I’ll continue with the dinosaur theme and skip ahead to my favorite part of the outing, a lecture in the theater by Brian Switek about his new book My Beloved Brontosaurus. He talked about the dinosaur family tree, their relationship to birds, why they went extinct, whether they had feathers, and the Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus dichotomy that most laypeople (myself included) keep having trouble understanding.
I learned here about the “recurrent laryngeal nerve,” which extends from the brain down under the aorta and then loops back up to the larynx, thus traveling twice as far as it should need to. All vertebrates have it, and its poor design is no big deal unless you’re a giraffe or a dinosaur.
I also learned that, contrary to the children’s books about dinosaurs I consumed during elementary school, dinosaurs didn’t have hindbrains controlling their tails. The belief that they did is so well entrenched that many of the websites I Googled just now still report it as fact.
I did know about the legendary feud between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, and Switek covered this in some detail. Besides Switek’s book, I recommend the graphic novel-format Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards for more detail about this story.
After his talk he spent another half hour answering questions from the audience. There were many intelligent ones from children and adults alike, and he dealt with them thoroughly and entertainingly. I was sorry I couldn’t buy his book and get him to sign it before I left; the gift shop sold out before I had a chance. This was the only real disappointment I experienced this day.
I was very pleased by my first visit to Tellus. I’ve already been back once since then (more about that later too), and I recommend the museum to anyone who visits the area.