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Museums and Collections

Over the Moon

7.30.19

The lunar rock sits in the angled glass cylinder on the left (light reflecting off the glass gives the appearance of a white ribbon, along with the rock, inside the cylinder).

Photograph courtesy of the Harvard Museum of Natural History


The lunar rock sits in the angled glass cylinder on the left (light reflecting off the glass gives the appearance of a white ribbon, along with the rock, inside the cylinder).

Photograph courtesy of the Harvard Museum of Natural History

The rock itself is tiny, but it has caused much excitement. About an inch wide and half an inch tall, and an inconspicuous shade of dark grey, it certainly appears less interesting than the brilliantly colored minerals in the case just a few feet away from it. But it’s not the aesthetics of the rock that have caused all the excitement. It’s where it’s from.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History has secured from NASA an original sample of lunar rock collected from the moon’s surface during the November 1969 Apollo 12 mission. (NASA has loaned out similar samples to museums across the country to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing—the subject of a Houghton Library exhibition, reported here.) Obtaining the lunar specimen inspired curators at the museum to create a new exhibit, “Cosmic Origins,” about the beginnings and evolution of the universe. Both the sample and the opening of the exhibit were the center of the “Lunar Soirée,” a special event at the museum on July 20, the official anniversary of the day humans first set foot on the moon.

The museum’s usual crowd—young children with a seemingly insatiable curiosity about rocks and dinosaurs and planets—was replaced by adults. (The event was 21+.) The guests were considerably less rowdy than schoolchildren on field trips, but no less boldly dressed: the theme was the Sixties, and flower-power A-line dresses, colorful suit jackets, and NASA T-shirts dotted the crowd. The music alternated between songs of the era (Marvin Gaye), songs for the occasion (“New Moon on Monday”), and the rare song appropriate to both (Van Morrison’s “Moondance”).

Much of the event was centered around entertainment: there was a photo booth with inflatable astronauts and aliens, and a refreshment table where snacks were themed—“galaxy clusters” of popcorn, and so on. But the whole museum was open to visitors, and there was learning going on, too. Guests could spend only so long looking at the lunar sample before wandering off to observe life-size replicas of jungle cats, diagrams of microbes, skeletons of early vertebrates. It seems something about the moon makes us curious about who we are, how we are related to that little rock from so far away, how we fit into it all.

 

“We wanted to celebrate the moon landing, but we also wanted to make it a part of a bigger story,” says Sylvie Laborde, assistant director of exhibits and senior designer for the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. “As much as people are fascinated by the moon right now, because it’s the anniversary, our exhibit is meant to be bigger than the moon.”

The exhibit is composed of three sections, each one narrowing in scope. “We have one section that is about the larger things that happen in the universe—supernovae, the creation of stars, that kind of thing,” explains Jennifer L. Berglund, exhibit developer and writer for the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. “Then we move on to another section where we focus on things that happen within our solar system, what the different planets are composed of, that kind of thing. And then from there, we hone in on the moon.”

The exhibit includes pieces of meteorites—“rocks from outer space that have survived their fall to Earth’s surface,” according to a label—most of which come from the Asteroid Belt, located between Mars and Jupiter. There are large touchable meteorite specimens on the wall, as well as smaller specimens in glass cases in the center of the room, composed of different minerals and formed at different times in the universe’s history. A media station screens three videos covering multiple topics, from how asteroids are formed to Jupiter’s moons.

And then there is the lunar sample. It is made of ilmenite basalt, which formed from cooled magma about 3.2 billion years ago. Rebecca Fischer, Luce assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences, provided much of the scientific background material for the exhibit. The most widely accepted explanation for how the moon formed, she says, is called the giant-impact hypothesis: a body about the size of Mars collided with the earth toward the end of its formation, vaporizing a mass of rock that condensed and orbited the earth and eventually accreted to form the moon. Fischer says the giant-impact hypothesis explains the vast majority of scientific observations of the earth and the moon—except one: the moon “looks virtually identical to the earth in terms of its isotopic composition,” but the “numerical models of the giant-impact hypothesis indicate that the moon should be made primarily of material from the impactor, not from the earth.” Fischer’s research seeks to understand this complication, which was unknown until the astronauts of Apollo 12 collected lunar samples that revealed the moon’s isotopic composition.

The lunar sample is on loan from NASA until November 27, but the “Cosmic Origins” exhibit is permanent. “Once the moon specimen is gone, we will replace it with something else. The moon story will remain, but it will not be the biggest story on that wall,” says Laborde. Instead, the moon story, in a way, was a starting point for the exhibit, a window into understanding the rest of the universe.

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