Saturday, September 12, 2009

BIG NUMBERS small numbers: A trip to Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History

Today I went to the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven with my family.  What an impressive place to visit.  They have a giant apatosaurs, good old T-Rex, a large assortment of mammals, and a new collection of rocks and minerals.  The children's discovery room was fun for the kids...and me too!

A man in the elevator said that he had not been there in fifty years (1959).  My wife said she had not been there in 30 years (1979).  My kids hadn't been there in one year (2008).  I had never been there before today.

That man who visited 50 years earlier said that not much had changed there in 50 years.  Some exhibits still had handwritten explanations in pen.  The expeditions headed by O.C. Marsh in the 1870's were still the main focus of the entire museum.   The building itself almost takes you back in time.  The old glass doors, brick facade, and dark entry way bring you back to a time before blogs, the internet, and television for that matter.

One thing I was struck by were the numbers throughout the museum.  Numbers that told how long ago these animals lived.  Numbers that stated the years in which they were found, the weights in tons of the massive mastodons, and the ounces that tiny birds and mammals measured.  There were lengths, speeds at which they moved, years spent tediously uncovering their remains.  I can't accurately remember any of them. ( We left 5 hours ago.)

I had a very difficult time comprehending the numbers that I was exposed to.  The large numbers were almost incomprehensible.  One dinosaur was from 66 million years ago.  Another mammal was from 11,000 years ago. Another was from a period I couldn't pronounce 12 million years ago.  The leaf cutter ants were from today, found in a place around the world I can't remember.

What is my point?  As a teacher of math, my job is to help students understand these vast and miniscule numbers they will come across in the world. They need to be able to compare them to help gain a perspective of the past and the world today.  This is quite difficult.  I left perplexed trying to put these things into perspective.  I have serious work cut out for me.  Serious reading to do. I need help from other teachers of mathematics as well.

I will accept any ideas! Please help me!

If you haven't been to The Peabody Museum of Natural History, go.  It is a wonderful day in New Haven.  A walk to Archie Moore's for lunch tops it off too!

Next time I go back I am bringing a timeline, ruler, and maybe an old school abacus to help figure all this out.

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