Living Dinoramas at the AMNH

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RC and the rest of the advanced placement class stepped into the clearing. Everything was perfect. The oppressive heat, the towering conifers shading the magnolias, which shaded the ferns and other bushes serving as undergrowth.  Even the smells and sounds of the forest seemed right. There was the furry multituberculate running through the leaf litter, its rat-like whiskers twitching as it felt its way through the shadows. He could hear the rustle of the leaves as it ran across the ground. He was pretty sure it was a Gondwanathere, but he was terrible with Late Cretaceous mammals. That was Janet’s area of expertise. He saw Patrick’s Rahonavis chase after it. RC thought the iridescent bluish black feathers on the dinosaur’s back looked amazing and the famous sickle claw of the raptor looked wicked.  Nancy’s plesiadapid primate ancestor scampered among the trees, its big eyes showing its nocturnal nature, which ordinarily would be counted as a mistake by the teachers in this daylight setting, but an allowed departure for this showing of their presentation. It kind of reminded him of a modern aye-aye lemur, only without the extra-long finger aye-ayes were known for.

Now was the part he was waiting for. He was so excited, he could barely contain himself as he stepped from one foot to the other and repeatedly clenched and unclenched his hands. At the edge of the clearing on either side of them, two immense dinosaurs stepped out. One the left stood Casey’s Majungatholus in all its glory. It always made RC think if a tyrannosaur had mated with a bulldog, this would be the result: short, pug-nosed, and warty. On the right, RC’s titanosaur stepped out. Nature’s crowning glory, the largest animal to ever walk the earth, RC loved his dinosaur. As it walked out, all 40 meters of its magnificent body came into view, his head sweeping 8 meters above the ground, its tail lashing out behind it. The Majungatholus roared. The titanosaur roared and reared up…

and collapsed on broken legs.

The scene dissolved around them, leaving the skeletons of the animals in the exhibit hall of the American Museum of Natural History’s newest exhibit on the late Cretaceous of Argentina.

Three years. THREE YEARS they had been working on this. Everything else was ready. Except his part. The disappointment and frustration was almost more than he could bear.

The AMNH had installed a series of holographic projectors and various speakers and emitters into the exhibit halls to periodically bring each of the exhibits to life. One could walk into the exhibit halls and see all the dinosaur skeletons for 45 minutes each hour, but for five minutes, they would gradually turn on the projectors, until for ten minutes it was like being in a living scene.  The five minutes allowed time for people to see the skeletons fleshed out before being dropped into the full scene and before they were animated. It also allowed time for the docents to warn parents to remove small children who may become frightened by the show before it started. It also, not coincidentally, saved a fortune on electrical bills.

The museum started a doctorate program in comparative biology in 2006. As an expansion of that successful program, the museum had partnered with the New York City Museum School to sponsor an integrated program for the school’s top high school students. Each year a team of students would be allowed to choose a display hall and redesign the display, based on the newest research. The students were given the assignment at the beginning of their freshman year. During that year they would choose their teams and display hall and then they would have until the end of their senior year to present it. It required in-depth research with the exhibit curators, cross-disciplinary studies, and above all, teamwork to complete a quality project.  The class of 2040 had chosen the Cretaceous Dinosaur Hall.

But time was running out. They had only one more week to present their display and everyone had finished their part except for RC.

Everyone groaned, but none louder than RC himself. Casey glared at him, which, considering that Casey was just a shade under two meters tall and used to play on the football team, could be rather intimidating. “I thought you fixed that!”

“So did I! I just can’t seem to get the physics right on that stupid thing. You try getting 80 tons to balance on two legs without breaking the bones.  If I can’t get the physics equations to work right, the computer won’t allow the animation. The simulation has to be real world possible. You know that. And I can’t get this bloody thing to work.“

“Patrick and Erin got their dinosaur to fly. You can’t get yours to stand?”

“I can make a paper airplane fly too. Can you hold up a car? It’s not the biodynamics I’m having problems with. It’s the strength ratios. The legs just aren’t strong enough.”

Casey shrugged. “Well we know they existed, so we know it’s possible. What did the mechanical engineers say?”

RC snorted. “They said it was impossible. There is no way that bone of that thickness can support that much weight, even with muscle wrapped around it. It’s close, just not quite close enough.”

“Well, best figure it out soon. We’re counting on you.” Casey turned and walked off with the others.

RC threw his bag over his shoulder and started glumly strolling through the museum, hands in his pockets. After a while he found himself unsurprisingly in one of the museum’s newest exhibits, a history of robots. He particularly liked the section on robots based on different types of animals as the engineers tried to figure out how to make them walk.  There were dog robots, cat robots, cheetah robots, salamanders, horses, even salamander robots and jellyfish robots.  Unfortunately, there weren’t any titanosaur robots.

There was Jennifer though. She could often be found in this section of the museum studying the robots. She said that she wanted to build robots to explore other planets. Considering that she was the smartest person on the team, RC figured she probably would. She was sitting on a bench in front of one of the exhibits sketching in her notepad. She saw him and gestured for him to come over, all the while continuing to draw.

“So how’s it going?”

“Not well.”

“Tough problem. I had a similar difficulty with the bones on the pterosaur. It just couldn’t fly using the same equations developed with birds.  Birds have these massive flight muscles on their chests and strong legs. They can take a leap and use their powerful muscles to propel them into the air. Pterosaurs on the other hand, have tiny little legs. Pterosaurs couldn’t jump. They also didn’t have the keel on their sternum to hold the big flight muscles, so they couldn’t propel themselves off the ground using their wings quite as easily either.”

“So what did you do?”

“I had to look at the problem a different way. If they couldn’t fly like birds, was there some other way I could model them? Turned out they could use their wings as stilts to sort of fling themselves into the air and then start flying.”

“I don’t see how this helps with titanosaurs.”

“I don’t know…directly. But the direct approach isn’t working, is it? So see if there is another way of looking at the problem of standing. See if that gives you any ideas. Gotta run. Good luck.” She closed her notebook and hustled out.

He had no idea what to think about that as he had no idea how to think about other ways of standing. So he started walking out of the exhibit more frustrated than ever before.

And then he saw an animal robot that smacked him in the face with the answer.

The next week everything was set. Everyone walked into the exhibit hall. The class was standing around nervously, but excited. The teachers and curators were calmly curious, patiently waiting for the show to start. The parents and other onlookers were milling about looking at the displays. And RC was sweating bullets.

The lights dimmed as the holographic displays started lighting up. The sounds and smells started kicking in. Slowly movement appeared as wind started moving the foliage and small animals started moving about. The buzz of insects and chirps of birds filled the air. Then the majungatholus stepped in and a few parents and kids screamed. Casey laughed.

Finally, RC’s titanosaur stepped out and made his way to his place. It lifted its head, roared its challenge to the majungatholus, and then leaned back, slapping its tail on the ground like a third leg as it reared up like the world’s biggest kangaroo before coming back down in a triumphant, titanic, stomp on Casey’s now not so majestic carnivore.

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