Astronomer Nick Strobel at Bakersfield College, CA, likes to think in metaphorical terms to make the Earth’s immense story understandable. He condenses the time since the origin of the Universe until today as one calendar year. On this scale, the Solar System formed in early September and Planet Earth about one week later. The earliest evidence of life on Earth occurred in mid-October. The Age of the Dinosaurs started around dinner time on December 25 and ended late evening on December 30. The first Homo sapiens emerged about 10 minutes to midnight on December 31 and all of recorded human history squeezes into the last half minute as midnight approaches. Phew!

A wide spectrum of environmentally-focused research disciplines is calling upon humanity to urgently embrace an ethos of ecological inseparability with natural forces and other life. A proposal to draw attention to this need by defining the latest chapter in Earth history as the Anthropocene, likely by using the first atomic explosion as a worldwide marker in the sedimentary record, is approaching final consideration by the geological profession. Whether or not this is formalized, the new epoch term already has wide use.

In February 2012, approximately 40 public institutions that specialize in learning about the natural world convened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History for a two-day summit. We concluded with this declaration:

“Humanity is embedded within nature and we are at a critical moment in the continuity of time. Our collections are the direct scientific evidence for evolution and the ecological interdependence of all living things. The human species is actively altering the Earth’s natural processes and reducing its biodiversity. As the sentient cause of these impacts, we have the urgent responsibility to give voice to the Earth’s immense story and to secure a sustainable future.”

The mission of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences is to illuminate the interdependence of nature and humanity. With this compass, our activities are propelled by four questions: What do we know?, How do we know?, What is happening now?, and How can the public participate? With the institution’s name changing from Natural History to Natural Sciences in 1986 and with its Department recently shifting to Natural and Cultural Resources, the Museum’s stage is now better set to address the continuity of time — past, present, future — and to blur the boundaries between the sciences, arts and humanities.

This Museum is accelerating opportunities for productive intercommunications among these fields. For example, partnering with the NC Symphony, we recently amplified the appreciation of nature from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by synching its passages with projected images of scenery and wildlife in NC Parks. Partnering with Capitol Broadcasting, we linked the celebrity of meteorologist Greg Fishel with the science behind the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Our technological innovation to be the first museum in the world to use iBeacon technology to help visitors, — particularly those with vision loss navigate within the building, is equally relevant to museums of art and history. Our enthusiasm to showcase the creativity of the world’s top wildlife filmmakers is off to a strong start. And our close liaison with civic agencies such as the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau is intensifying a synergy to attract conference business with enhanced guest services.

It is indeed a fascinating paradox that humanity needs, more than ever, to grasp both the immensity of Earth history as a “glocal” context and the benefits of local transdisciplinary relationships. How exciting!

Emlyn Koster, PhD
Director, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Past Columns in the Naturalist