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New IU exhibit chronicles history of the universe
[October 22, 2010]

New IU exhibit chronicles history of the universe

Oct 22, 2010 (Herald-Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- For some, it might be the oldest known matter in the solar system, a small chunk of carbonaceous chondrite meteorite 4.6 million years old. Or the rare specimens of rock samples from the moon and Mars.

For others, it might be the first automobile in Bloomington, a converted buckboard wagon made by a man named J.O. Howe.

For children, it's probably going to be the massive, life-size replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull, cast from the best preserved T. rex skeleton ever found.

There is, to borrow from the cliche, something to fascinate everyone in the new exhibit on the Indiana University campus, titled, "From the Big Bang to the World Wide Web: The Origins of Everything." About three years in the making, the display will be open to the public for the first time at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, 416 N. Indiana Ave.

The public education project was researched and assembled by anthropology professors Nick Toth and Kathy Schick, co-directors of the Stone Age Institute in Bloomington, with the assistance of Mathers Museum director Geoffrey W. Conrad and the museum staff.

The exhibition is small by museum standards -- about 300 items -- but huge in its scope. Toth explained that it embraces the "Big History" concept that examines history from the beginning of time to the present day.

"If you measured the history of the universe in the distance from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Empire State Building, your life would be about one inch," he said, illustrating the point.

Toth and Schick decided to tackle the project by dividing the history of the universe into 10 time scales, with each scale reducing in time by an order of 10. For example, the first scale goes from about 10 billion years ago to one billion years ago. The second goes from one billion years ago to 100 million years ago. And that pattern continues to the present.

In the exhibit, rock fragments and geological samples are supplemented by colorful murals and even an artificial cave with cave paintings. There's a fascinating row of skulls that illustrate the development of the human head and brain capacity and a side-by-side comparison of the skeletons of Neanderthal man and contemporary humans.

Near the end of the exhibition, the quickening pace of development becomes clear, as the earliest tools and weapons proceed into the modern era. The latter will amuse many. It includes the first electric guitar, a cast aluminum Rickenbacher (later renamed Rickenbacker); a 1948 Admiral television; the first Macintosh computer, the first cell phone, the first GPS device and the first iPhone.

Toth and Schick said that they were trying to select iconic items as representative of the respective eras, but when they couldn't find the real thing, they came up with good replicas. One great example is the exact duplication of Robert Goddard's pioneering liquid-fueled rocket from the 1920s. Poynter Sheet Metal from Bloomington not only offered to help create it but dug up the original blueprints to craft the first primitive rocket.

The exhibit was funded by a $149,000 grant to the Mathers Museum by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, with support from the Stone Age Institute and the IU Office of the Vice Provost for Research. Although it's taken three years to plan and put together, it fits in nicely with Bloomington Provost Karen Hanson's "Celebrating the Museum" initiative, which seeks to highlight the contributions of local museums to the intellectual and cultural life of IU and Bloomington.

Origins of a musical CD An eclectic side project to "From the Big Bang to the World Wide Web" is a musical CD with the same title. With lyrics and musical accompaniment by Toth and Schick, singer Carrie Newcomer tells the complex story of the evolution of universe to a musical background reminiscent of the band Steely Dan. It was recorded at Echo Park Studios in Bloomington, and Stone Age Institute researchers Sileshi Semaw and Tom Schoenemann are among the musical contributors.

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