- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) - Chris Meyer, a research zoologist and curator for the Smithsonian, wants you to come see “Life in One Cubic Foot,” the new exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History.

The “one cubic foot” of the exhibit’s title refers to the size of biocubes, open-sided boxes that scientists (or anyone; we’ll get to that) place outdoors to observe various ecosystems. By cataloging the living contents of the box - plants and animals - they can measure the biodiversity of the larger ecosystem as a whole.

Why 1 cubic foot? The measurement is “common sense. Everybody gets it,” Meyer says. “You have to have a representative sample that gives you enough information about that ecosystem. If you get too small, you don’t have enough players. If you get too big, you can’t handle it.”

The centerpiece of the exhibit, a series of pictures taken by photographer David Liittschwager, shows just how much that little box can hold. He’s photographed the contents of biocubes in places as diverse as French Polynesia and Rochester, N.Y.

“He has a way of bringing out the personalities of every individual thing that he’s photographed,” Meyer says. “He can make a flatworm look interesting.”

The point of the exhibit, though, isn’t photogenic flatworms. “The whole middle section (of the exhibit) is devoted to citizen science, our backyard biology approach,” Meyer says. (Parents, listen up: This is the science fair project you’ve been looking for.) At workshops tied to the exhibit, attendees can learn how to build their own biocubes and get step-by-step instructions on how to register them and send their findings into a worldwide database.

“You can do it anywhere,” Meyer says. “There’s a good chance if you get this into the classroom that kids are going to find things that haven’t been documented” as appearing in their area.

While technically, the cubes can be placed anywhere, some plots of land are more suitable than others - Meyer had a little trouble doing this science project in the museum’s own backyard. “We spent a lot of time trying to find a ‘natural’ site around the Mall,” he says. “It was really hard, because it’s so manicured. The most diversity is in the pile of leaves they haven’t gotten to yet.”

Still, he emphasizes that the work is never dull, even when it’s on the nation’s tamed front lawn. “I’m going to see something I’ve never seen before, I’m never going to be bored, it’s never the same day twice, no matter where you do it,” Meyer says. “That’s the little kid in me that never grew up.”


Information from: The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com

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