Stargate Atlantis: Why Curators Could Save The Galaxy

By Stephen Cass | September 29, 2008 4:47 pm

Screenshot from Stargate Atlantis, 3×10One of the things I like about the Stargate franchise is that it shows the characters working to understand things, often over a course of episodes or even seasons, instead of just magically knowing it all–for example, it took a long time for the franchise to go from a few captured enemy spacecraft, through some buggy hybrids, plus a hefty technology transfer from a friendly civilization, to the human-built heavy cruisers like the Deadulus. This “show your work” style comes right from the 1994 movie that started it all, where archeologist Daniel Jackson was brought in to figure out the mysterious inscriptions on the first discovered stargate.

So it was a return to the franchise’s roots in more ways than one when Jackson made a guest appearance in Atlantis, looking for a long lost laboratory somewhere in the city. This required some old fashioned detective work, pouring over old records and visiting Atlantis’ store rooms, where every object found by the expedition from Earth is carefully catalogued and stored, even if no one has any clue as to its true value. In this Jackson was relying on some of the least sexy, but sometimes some of the most important disciplines in science: the curatorial arts, which have their ultimate expression in the great natural history museums around the world.

As Richard Fortey explains in Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, an anecdotal history of the Natural History Museum in London, the ability to have a place where nothing gets thrown out is often undervalued. By being able to go back and test the predictions of new theories on previously gathered items, scientists are saved a lot of footwork. (On the other hand, as Douglas Erwin points out in Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago, even the vast collections housed behind the scenes at place like the American Museum of Natural History don’t eliminate the need for fresh field work, as some new questions require information that earlier generations of scientists may not have thought to record, such as very precise information about where a fossil was found.) Researchers who devote their careers to carefully documenting and preserving specimens may not get the kind of media attention that, say, their colleagues with giant atom smashers receive, but science would be very much the poorer for their loss.

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