27 January 2009

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology

This odd little book by Lawrence Wechsler celebrates the odd little Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) in Los Angeles. Really, the book celebrates wonder itself.

I have not been to the MJT, but this book has certainly put it on the itinerary of my next trip to LA. Presenting itself as a natural history museum, the MJT features meticulously detailed exhibits that may or may not pertain to "real" phenomena. The pronged ant of the title, for example, may be unknown to science under the name Megolaponera Foetens but, as Wechsler discovers, its odd life history is perfectly plausible: a large ant, and the only one that produces a cry audible to humans, normally forages on the forest floor; however, after ingesting the spore of a fungus, it climbs upward and then waits to die as the fungus consumes its body from the inside, finally generating a spike about an inch long from the place where the ant's head was, which distributes spores downward, to be breathed by other Megolaponera Foetens.

The book (and, presumably, the MJT) makes you think about the purpose of museums, and whether the relative "truth" of things that astonish you matters.

(Since reality routinely outdoes what we can imagine, why quibble?)

As Robert Louis Stevenson has pointed out:

The world is so full of a number of things,
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings

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