UK Evolution Tour


In May 2013, I was given a wonderful opportunity to visit some of the United Kingdom's coolest sites related to fossils and evolution. So I packed my rain slicker, my camera, and some sensible shoes to see the house where Darwin raised his family, and the college town where he decided to embark on the Beagle. I also took in London's Natural History Museum, Kew Gardens, and Crystal Palace dinosaurs.

My trip was sponsored by Somerville Anderson, who lives in Glasgow, Scotland. He kindly paid my airfare, put me up in the ground floor apartment of his home, and made sure I was fed and comfortable. I flew into and out of Glasgow and took the train to London and Cambridge.

Natural History Museum, London (May 21 and 23)

A zebra head protrudes from the Souvenir Guide barcode. © by the Natural History Museum, London.

On the morning of May 21, 2013, I took the "tube" to the South Kensington Station, left the station, got lost, asked directions, walked where I was told to walk, and stood in line with big groups of French middle schoolers until the museum opened. Long lines must occur regularly here; the museum hosts about 5 million visitors each year. I purchased a souvenir guide at the entrance, and the barcode on the back hinted that somebody at the museum has a sense of humor.

Animated dinosaurs
Motorized dinosaurs snarl from above.

The origins of the Natural History Museum go all the way back to the 17th century when Hans Sloane visited Jamaica, hired as the personal physician of a hard-drinking governor. Sloane began to assemble a collection of plants, animals, and artifacts, a process that he would continue for decades. Sloane had to leave Jamaica much sooner than he wanted to, since the governor in his care died from his own excesses. Sloane must have had a healthier lifestyle, because he didn't die until 1753, when he was 92. He wrote a shrewd will. The King of England could buy his collection for 20,000 pounds — an assurance of Sloane's daughters' financial security. The King agreed, and the British Museum was born. But not everyone was content. Naturalists wanted a museum of their own.

Blue and buff terracotta tiles line the Natural History Museum entrance.

Darwin and Wallace first published the theory of natural selection in 1858, and Richard Owen wasted no time campaigning against their "transmutationist ideas." The next year, he started another campaign: to house the nation's natural specimens in a museum of their own, separate from the main British Museum. Whatever his shortcomings as a scientist and a person (he wasn't a very nice guy), Owen deserves praise for his persistence, because the process took a long time. The foundation for the current museum was finally laid in 1873, and construction continued through the 1870s. The museum opened to the public on April 18, 1881, and just as they do today, the opening-day crowds headed straight for the fossils.

Besides fossil skeletons, today's dinosaur hall includes robotic dinosaurs, from diminutive saurians that peer at you from above to a life-size or near-life-size (it looked a tiny bit small to me) T. rex. Throughout the dinosaur hall, the decorations on the walls, arches and columns compete with the fossils and fleshed-out dinosaurs for your attention. Some visitors might consider the rich decorations a distraction, but to my mind, one of this museum's biggest attractions is the building itself. And modern visitors are lucky to get to see a building still so intact after so long. During the Blitz, about a dozen German bombs landed on or around the museum, one of them taking out part of the east wing. Overall, though, the museum survived World War II pretty well, and many of the challenges the building faces are the same challenges faced by any old building: wear and water.

A Diplodocus skeleton, Dippy, occupies the central hall, photographed here from its posterior end.

The Natural History Museum was designed by Alfred Waterhouse in a revived Romanesque style. The museum evokes the feel of a cathedral — not a mistake as it's designed to be a temple to nature. It has a grand entrance leading to a grand central hall (housing a Diplodocus skeleton) leading to a grand staircase.

The Diplodocus, known as Dippy, was given to the Natural History Museum by Andrew Carnegie, who was born in Scotland, moved to the United States as a boy, worked his way up, and amassed a fortune. By the early 20th century, Carnegie was richer than God, and he donated Dippy to the museum as a favor to King Edward VII. Dippy is a cast; the original skeleton was eventually put on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. The London Dippy was the first skeleton displayed anywhere in the world. Carnegie provided casts to several other lucky museums across the globe.

A few years after my visit, Dippy was dismantled for a four-year tour throughout the United Kingdom, replaced by a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling. Backers of the plan argued that the tour would allow many more dinosaur fans to see Dippy up close. Wry observers speculated that a suspended whale would leave more floorspace for catered corporate events in South Kensington.

With or without Dippy, the museum has a sturdy frame coated with blue and buff terracotta. The choice of terracotta enabled Waterhouse to cast figures from molds and use them over and over again. The animals are not unlike the gargoyles that decorated many medieval churches, but these creatures aren't monsters so much as stylized versions of animals and plants that once lived, or still live, on our planet. The extinct and extant organisms don't mingle but instead inhabit separate halves of the building.

Ceiling panels with plant illustrations. From The Gilded Canopy by Sandra Knapp and Bob Press

Terra cotta tiles aren't the museum's only decorations derived from life. Ceiling panels on the main floor depict plants. Many of the plants are clearly identified; other ceiling panel illustrations have been termed by modern museum staffers as "archaic." They show plants, but precisely which plants they depict is hard to tell in some cases. All the ceiling panels, including those with species identifications, look like big woodcuts, but the archaics look like especially stylized woodcuts. As for the clearly identified panel illustrations, they include pictures of plants that were important to the British Empire when the museum was built, including cotton, tea and tobacco, as well as a variety of fruits, nuts and ornamental flowering plants. Some of the panels depict plants honoring scientific luminaries, such as "showy banksia" honoring Joseph Banks. Other panels depict cacao (chocolate), perhaps the greatest discovery of Hans Sloane's entire life. (If you want to partake of a luxurious consequence of Sloane's trip to the New World, remember that Harrods, with its fancy food court, is just up the street.) In a museum largely focused on animals, the ceiling panels paid homage to plants.

A mom talks to her daughter in front of Mary Anning's plesiosaur.
Darwin's statue enjoys more prominence than Owen's.

On the landing of the central staircase is a statue of Darwin. The choice is perfectly fitting given his contributions to science, but also a teeny bit ironic. Darwin didn't champion the establishment of this museum the way Owen did. Owen's statue inhabits the museum as well, but in a back hallway, and it's dark back there.

On the opposite side of the central hall from the dinosaurs are fossil marine reptiles, including a plesiosaur found by Mary Anning. As I backed away from the display to take a picture, a mother and her daughter passed by the fossil and the brief bio of the long-ago fossil hunter. At first I thought, "Darn, I wanted a clear shot." Then I realized that a mom talking to her daughter about a working-class lady who dug fossils in the early 19th century makes a pretty nice picture.

One of the newest additions to the Natural History Museum is the Darwin Centre, featuring an eight-storey cocoon. Visitors "spiral through" the cocoon learning how museum curators work. Alas, the cocoon was closed for upgrades the day I visited.

Someone I hoped to meet at the museum was one of its retired curators, Richard Fortey, author of several books referenced on this site: Life, Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms, Dry Store Room No. 1 and Trilobite! I didn't connect with Dr. Fortey on May 21, but managed to reach him two days later, when he graciously agreed to visit with me. I was in my hotel room near Victoria Station when I reached him, and high-tailed it back to South Kensington to arrive breathless at the staff entrance on Exhibition Road.

Just a small sample of the Natural History Museum's collections.

Like just about every other natural history museum — including the Smithsonian where I got to work behind the scenes for a week in 2000, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science where I have volunteered since 1995 — London's Natural History Museum only displays a small portion of its holdings. The job of a museum is twofold. One is to educate the public. The other is to preserve natural resources for future generations. The vast majority of specimens are stored in less glamorous cabinets in comparatively drab settings. How much stuff is there boggles the mind. The souvenir guide explains that the museum houses some 70 million individual specimens. I captured one photo down a long, long line of storage cabinets full of fossils.

Dr. Fortey started working at the museum in 1970, and in Dry Store Room No. 1, he discussed some of the museum's more colorful research scientists whose quirks "are nowadays weeded out by staff selection procedures." A pity, he said, as museums often make good places for the quirky kinds. I marveled at one of the curators he mentioned in the book, a man who kept an index-card file of his conquests, complete with hair samples attached. ("A curator in all things," Dr. Fortey observed.) He mentioned American publishers' propensity for changing the titles of his books. In America, his account of the history of life on Earth is subtitled A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, an okay title but not exactly a grabber. In the UK it was more cleverly titled An Unauthorised Biography. In the UK, Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms was originally titled Survivors, and has since been turned into a miniseries of the same title on BBC Four.

Trilobite with high-rise eyes capped with an eyeshade. Image from A Devonian Trilobite with an Eyeshade in Science.
Dr. Fortey stands next to his poster on real and fake trilobite fossils from Morocco.

More than changed book titles, Dr. Fortey scratched his head at America's widespread resistance to evolution, though he liked hearing about Project Steve.

Dr. Fortey has devoted decades to the study of trilobites — three-lobed "water bugs" that went extinct before the first dinosaurs evolved. He gave me a copy of his 2003 paper A Devonian Trilobite with an Eyeshade, describing a type of trilobite with high-rise style eyes capped by rims that shaded the lenses from overhead light. "When you're looking into the distance on a sunny day, you shade your eyes to see better," he explained. These trilobites found a way to do the same thing, and their need to do so suggests that they lived in waters shallow enough that sunlight could penetrate.

Dr. Fortey also showed me a recent poster he authored on trilobites from Morocco. Before plate tectonics enjoyed widespread acceptance, a source of puzzlement for many paleontologists was the similarity between trilobite fossils found in New England and Morocco. Those fossils no longer baffle, but Morocco has become a new hotspot for faked fossils, competing with forged dino-birds of China. Ironically, the least exciting looking trilobite on the whole poster was the one that was faked. The real animals sported flamboyant spines aimed at deterring would-be swallowers.

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (May 21)

Before Richard Owen was agitating for the establishment of a national museum of natural history, he was overseeing the construction of life-size dinosaur models in Crystal Palace, a park in south London. The place was named after a giant glass exhibition building, constructed in the mid-19th century, which unfortunately burned to the ground in 1935. Luckily the dinosaurs escaped the blaze.

At Crystal Palace, Owen's actual supervision was somewhat lackluster. The artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins did most of the work as Owen ignored repeated requests for input. The sculptures include not just dinosaurs but also Mesozoic marine reptiles, artfully arranged in a prehistoric tableaux in and around a small pond. One lone dinosaur head sits by itself on a grassy rise.

Iguanodon dinosaurs strike mammalian poses.
A dinosaur head in solitude.

The dinosaurs are the most striking today because they're the most obviously inaccurate, with Iguanodon at the head of the inaccurate herd. These sculptures were erected in the 1850s, when the known Iguanodon fossils were still quite fragmentary. Gideon Mantell, who described the first known fossil of this species, had little more to go on than a tooth. After realizing it resembled the tooth of a modern iguana — just a giant version of it — he initially portrayed this animal as a giant lizard. When more complete skeletons turned up in the late 1860s and 1870s, scientists reworked the dinosaur's pose significantly. The articulation favored at Crystal Palace was distinctly mammalian. From the neck backwards, this Iguanodon looks a lot like an elephant.

The sculptures are deliciously inaccurate, but paleoartist Mark Witton points out that they are not implausible. The dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park didn't exist, but purely from an anatomical perspective, they could have existed. For instance, the dinosaurs had big heads, so they had bulging shoulders to reflect the muscles that would have been needed to hold up those heads. The mammals Hawkins reconstructed are quite accurate, but he had well-preserved skeletons for reference.

In fact, Crystal Palace Park was originally supposed to focus on Pleistocene mammals. They were the big-ticket items for the public in the early 19th century, but as Hawkins learned more about ancient reptile discoveries, he shifted his focus. Unfortunately for public education, few of the 19th-century visitors to the park knew what they were looking at. Visitors who had to money for guidebooks could learn more, but some folks apparently thought there were just looking at all the animals wiped out by the Noachian flood.

Crystal Palace had minimal impact on Owen's career, but it changed everything for Hawkins, who was suddenly in demand for public lectures. But as admiration for the sculptures waned, so did his projects. He would later move to the United States, and work on a more realistic Iguanodon pose based on a more complete find.

The dinosaur sculptures were all the rage when Crystal Palace opened. Leading up to the grand opening, Owen hosted a dinner for dignitaries in the belly of the partially completed Iguanodon. It must have been a tight fit, but considering my hotel room was about the size of a walk-in closet, I'm sure the Brits managed beautifully. The dinosaurs' inaccuracy soon started to work against them, though, and they fell out of favor with scientists and the public. Starved for upkeep, the sculptures languished throughout much of the 20th century, but they enjoyed fresh attention at the beginning of the 21st. Between 2002 and 2007, the Crystal Palace sculptures underwent renovations and are now listed as historical landmarks.

A menagerie of prehistory beckons, but for pity's sake, find a safe path to it.

The sculptures are within easy walking distance of the Crystal Palace Railway Station, which is itself a pretty short ride from Victoria Station. Some kind soul painted a "This way to the dinosaurs" sign that helps you find your way. I wanted to see these sculptures for years, and they didn't disappoint. But middle-aged ladies with flat feet and no coordination should not scamper down steep dirt paths to the dinosaurs. Near the bottom of the path, I had a Wile E. Coyote moment in which I realized my folly. Moments later, my butt hit the ground. My butt was fine, but I sprained my shoulder trying to break the fall, and I almost couldn't hold the camera high enough to take any pictures.

Down House (May 22)

On May 22, 2013, I headed for the country house where Charles Darwin spent the last 40 years of his life. Darwin and his wife Emma had been living in London and wanted to get away to the country, to a place where the neighbors would be neither too near nor too far. Darwin had a nervous digestive system, and in those days, the home was far enough from London to avoid unwanted company. Today, the house is easily accessible via public transportation.

Here I am at Down House. I have a shopping bag because Down House has a shop.

And before I go on about Darwin's home, a little aside about London's public transportation system: I'm a Colorado native, and while Denver's public transportation is improving, the Denver metropolitan area was very much rooted in the assumption that gasoline would always be cheap and abundant. Getting to Darwin's home from Victoria Station entails a 15-minute train ride to Bromley South followed by a bus ride. I was a bit daunted by the prospect of catching a bus in an unfamiliar city, but walking straight to the Bromley South information desk with "I'm new in town and ignorant" gets you speedy sympathy and directions. In fact, the bus stop is just outside the train station, and it gets even better.

The Darwin Bar: a good place to ask directions to Down House.

By the time I visited London in 2013, I'd used the Washington DC Metro subway system enough to have some expectations about electronic displays of train arrivals. That's true of London's railway and tube stations, too. But I was pleasantly astonished to see that even the bus stops around London have computerized displays of when your bus should arrive. And the same Oyster pass works on everything: tube, train, and bus. The bus also had an electronic display of the all the stops. Very nice.

The Bromley South Station is situated in a pretty urban area, but the bus soon takes you to areas more rural and picturesque, passing landmarks with names like "The Fox" and "St. George and the Dragon." In the village of Downe, the bus stops at St. Mary's Church, but you're not quite at Darwin's home. Once the bus got me to the village of Downe, I wasn't sure where to go next. If you wind up in a similar fix, ask for directions at the Darwin Bar. The owner pointed me to the right road and told me to walk "about a half mile" (I doubt it was even that far) until I saw a big white house on my right.

So Darwin and his wife settled at Down (without an E) House near the village of Downe (with an E). The village was previously named Down but added an E to differentiate itself from County Down in Ireland. Apparently more sanguine about being mistaken for Irish, the Darwins stuck with the original spelling.

Down House from the front.
Down House from the back.

Down House had been around for a long time before the Darwins bought it, built in the early 18th century, probably situated on the site of an even older house. It was a big box when Darwin moved in, and he described it as sturdy but ugly. He soon began making improvements, and the house certainly doesn't look ugly now. One of the prettiest parts is the expanded dining room, half of an octagon that protrudes into the garden. Wisteria climbs the outside wall.

The interior of Down House is a combination of rooms restored to look as they did when the Darwins lived there, and exhibits on various aspects of Darwin's life. The home is rich in portraits, and on your way up the stairs, you can see a bust of Darwin's paternal grandfather Erasmus. Erasmus Darwin was an evolutionist in his own right, a social reformer, a country doctor and a polymath. Saddled with a reputation as just a quirky old libertine, he was something like the British equivalent of Ben Franklin (with whom he was friends), and was at least as fascinating as his grandson Charles.

Flash photography isn't allowed indoors, but outside you can snap pictures all you like. Handouts help you through a self-guided tour of Darwin's gardens and greenhouse. If the gardens looked as nice in Darwin's day as they do now, he must have been a gifted gardener. Over the years, he carried out a multitude of experiments on plants, and often enlisted his children as lab assistants. When they were small, their assignments sometimes included chasing bees to see where they flew. Francis, when he was older, helped his father study phototropism (the tendency of plants to bend toward the light).

Top: Darwin's greenhouse. Bottom: Drosera. Photograph courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Top: Darwin's sandwalk. Bottom: Sign for the public footpath crossing the property.

Some of the first plants you see inside Darwin's greenhouse are Drosera — carnivorous plants that feasted on insects. Darwin noted that he first became fascinated with this plant's insect-catching abilities in the summer of 1860. He also studied the Venus flytrap, and his research is still referenced today.

Darwin's studies of plants ranged from the meticulous (tracking the movement of plant shoot tips over time, and reorienting plants to see how the roots and shoots responded) to the misguided (playing his bassoon to the photosynthetic audience, looking for a reaction). Darwin later referred to the bassoon incident as a "fool's experiment." He was right. No rigorous experiment has shown plants to appreciate music.

Darwin often walked along the sandwalk as he pondered his hypotheses, sometimes accompanied by his children. The sandwalk remains intact today. The sandwalk intersects a public footpath that crosses through the Darwin property. A sign explains that admission to Down House is not an automatic benefit of walking the footpath; the regular admission fee must be paid. Still I like to think that Charles Darwin would have liked the idea of a public footpath at Down House. I don't doubt that his grandfather Erasmus would approve.

Darwin lived at Down until he died in 1882. Afterwards Emma and the Darwin children still living at Down moved to Cambridge, where Darwin and his son Francis had both studied. Emma returned to Down in the summers until she died in 1896. The children retained ownership of the house until the 20th century. After that, it changed hands a few times, at one point serving as a school for girls. Sir Arthur Keith, Hunterian Museum curator and president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, took an interest in turning the house into a museum in the late 1920s, but although the museum opened in 1929, it still suffered bouts of disrepair. The house got a fresh start when control passed to English Heritage, and after major repairs, it reopened its doors to the public in 1998. Today Down House sports a well-maintained interior, beautifully manicured grounds, a gift shop and a cafe.

It was as I walked down the main staircase that I finally realized I was on the same staircase that Darwin must have traversed daily. That was pretty cool.

Kew Gardens (May 23)

This history of the Royal Botanic Gardens extends back centuries or millennia, depending on how you define "beginning." Today, it is one of the world's oldest, biggest and most prestigious botanic gardens, and its history involves luminaries such as Joseph Banks and Joseph Hooker.

Spiral staircase in the Palm House.
Forest canopy in the Palm House.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as they are officially named, stretch over 132 hectares, according to the Souvenir Guide. I managed to cover only a small portion, but loved what I saw. I live in Colorado, and freakish weather in early 2013 robbed Coloradoans of spring. Late snows, late frosts, no crabapple blossoms. So Kew was a very nice consolation prize.

It was cold the day I visited Kew, so I headed straight for the Palm House. The moment I stepped inside, my glasses fogged up. I couldn't see a thing. So I took them off and couldn't see a thing because I can't see a damned thing without my glasses. So I just had to stand there and wait for the fog to clear. Then I did what a lot of visitors to the Palm House do on a cold day: started disrobing — not enough to contaminate any tender young minds, just enough to lose the cardigan and rain slicker. Once de-fogged and partially disrobed, I headed up the spiral staircase. It beckoned, it was so elegant.

At the top of the spiral staircase, you can overlook the Palm House canopy, although you can also get a sense of how demanding upkeep for a building like this must be. It was originally built in the 1840s, and now shows understandable signs of wear.

Top: Jellyfish. Bottom: Burrowing fish.
A peacock struts across the grounds.

Descending down the spiral staircase took me to a display of marine creatures. The first one I noticed was a seahorse so delicate its body looked like lace. The little fish swam back and forth along the front edge of the tank and seemed to notice me. I snapped some photos but realized I hadn't set the camera for close-up shots. I didn't want to take any more pictures as I figured the flash might bother the little guy (or girl). Seahorses strike me as very sensitive creatures, and I don't want to pick on them. I moved on to a tank full of jellyfish. Now I admit this statement is rooted in ignorance, but most jellyfish seem like such habitual jerks that it didn't bother me to annoy them with a flashbulb. Besides they were in a tank and I was safely out of stinging range. Rivaling the charm of the seahorse was a group of burrowing fish, perhaps sand eels or garden eels, with their heads and winsome little eyes protruding from the sand.

Pretty pink blooms, perhaps on a red bud tree.

The Palm House is perhaps Kew Gardens' most iconic feature, but there was lots more to see, so I headed down the path toward the Temperate House, the Treetop Walkway, and other sites, where my rain slicker and cardigan might feel a bit less stifling. En route I had a pleasant surprise: a peacock dragging his spectacular tail behind him. I almost got to see his tail in its full splendor. Kew isn't far from Heathrow Airport, and noisy planes regularly pass overhead. One such plane flew over us as I took his picture, and it (literally) ruffled his feathers. He rustled his tail but in the end apparently decided the big, loud bird overhead wasn't worth the effort.

I moved on from the irate bird, and snapped photos of a tree loaded with the kind of pretty pink blooms Colorado's rotten 2013 spring weather had gypped me out of at home. On to the Treetop Walkway, one of Kew's leading attractions. School groups were ascending and descending the walkway when I got there, and between the many moving bodies and the wind, the walkway was swaying. It was enough to make me dizzy, and paranoid about dropping my camera into the canopy. So no pictures. In fact I gave my camera a bit of a rest until I got to the Princess of Wales Conservatory, a collection of different habitats and their corresponding plant life. I felt most at home in the Dry Tropics and Seasonally Dry Zones, where the plants vaguely reminded me of Xeriscape flora increasing in popularity back home.

Blooms in the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

In between ogling plants, I stopped for lunch at the Orangery. If you ever visit Kew Gardens, go to the Orangery and get yourself one of the orange chocolate chip cookies in the cafe. It sounds weird, but it ranks among the best that Kew has to offer. In fact, get two cookies.

One of the curiosities at Kew has little to do with plants. During the reign of King George III, the Royal Family took up residence on the grounds, living in Kew Palace. Perhaps afflicted by a metabolic disorder, porphyria, but more likely suffering from bipolar disorder, the king suffered bouts of manic and delusional behavior. Kew was believed to afford the king and his loved ones greater privacy, although the monarch was regularly skewered in satirical cartoons anyway. The king eventually returned to Windsor Castle, but his wife, Queen Charlotte, died at Kew Palace, after acting as her husband's legal guardian for years, and giving birth to 15 children, poor thing.

Cambridge (May 25 and 26)

One of the last legs of my evolution tour was a visit to the university where Charles Darwin studied. Ignorant about Cambridge, I assumed the university hadn't been around very long before Darwin attended. In fact the university turned 600 the year he was born.

The Round Church was built sometime around 1130. To an American, this is mind-boggling.
One of the bridges in "the Backs" on the west side of town.

The University of Cambridge apparently owes its start to scholars who fled Oxford in 1209. According to the university's official account, "scholars taking refuge from hostile townsmen in Oxford migrated to Cambridge." According to an "unauthorised history," the unrest had to do with a larger struggle between church and state. Whatever the case, the story is a reminder of two things. One is that, when universities were starting in the Middle Ages, they weren't defined as campuses, they were defined as collections of scholars who could pack up and move if they disliked local conditions. The other is that Oxford, though its name might conjure the utmost decorum today, was a pretty rough place in the days of, say, Roger Bacon.

Cambridge is a short, easy train ride from London, but feels a world away from the frenzied activity of Victoria Station, Harrods, the British Museum, and just about anyplace else in that breathless metropolis. The weather in Cambridge was sunny and beautiful. My hotel room overlooked the River Cam, and crossing a short bridge took me into the city center. Still, it took me two days to realize that Cambridge derives its name from "bridge" and "Cam."

Fossils and gemstones in the Sedgwick Museum.

My room also overlooked a grassy area named Jesus Green. Before Europe was Europe, it was known as Christendom, and Cambridge brims with reminders, including street names like Jesus Lane, Trinity Street and All Saints Passage. The city reminded me a lot of Florence, with its centuries-old buildings and narrow streets lined with museums and churches. Like Florence, its city center is small enough to be easily traversed on foot, and like Florence, it has a tent-filled market square. If it had possessed its own version of the Ponte Vecchio (and I had possessed my own giant stash of jewelry-buying money) it would have been absolutely perfect. But Cambridge doesn't want for bridges; multiple bridges span the river, particularly on the west side of town, in an area named "the Backs" for the backs of the university's colleges. And the town has jewelry stores, too.

Entrance to the Sedgwick Museum.

I arrived shortly before noon on Saturday, May 25. That allowed me time for brief visits to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, the Zoological Museum, the Museum and Anthropology and Archaeology, and the Fitzwilliam Museum. (Most Cambridge museums are closed on Sunday, and some are closed throughout the weekend.)

I headed first to the Sedgwick Museum, where I spent the most time. The museum is named for Adam Sedgwick, a mentor of Darwin's. Sedgwick was awfully unhappy about Darwin's evolutionary theories, but remained friends with the younger naturalist anyway. The museum doesn't have a lot of big dioramas or interactive displays, but it is packed with cool fossils, including finds by Mary Anning and the very colorful Thomas Hawkins. One of my favorite pieces was a small slab of rock bearing tiny, dainty footprints accompanied by a sign reading, "These footprints were formed when Britain was a desert." As a Colorado native, I giggled, because back home, I always see signs along the lines of "These fossils were formed when Colorado wasn't a desert." Besides fossils, the museum is well stocked with sparkling gemstones.

Darwin display at the Zoological Museum.
Darwin caricature for the University of Cambridge's 800th anniversary. © by Quentin Blake.

On to the Zoological Museum, which offers a mix of fossils of extinct organisms, and skeletons and stuffed versions of still-living species. Once in the door, I was immediately greeted with a display about Darwin. Cambridge may have thrived for centuries before Darwin arrived, but the man is clearly a rock star. In 2009, when Darwin turned 200 and the University of Cambridge turned 800, the artist Quentin Blake penned a series of caricatures of the city's most notable figures, and Darwin figured among the luminaries.

According to English Heritage, after Darwin died, his survivors settled in Cambridge in part because Darwin's son Francis liked it so well. After one afternoon and evening there, I could see why.

Most Cambridge museums are closed on Sunday, but the Cambridge University Botanic Garden was open. Although a little more modest than Kew, it offered peaceful walks past flowerbeds and big trees, and offered its own tropical hothouse. The botanic garden lies at the southern end of the historical city center, and although my hotel was at the northern end, it was an easy walk.

Plants in the botanic gardens. Top: Magnolia. Bottom: Bleeding heart.

Although a standout, Darwin wasn't the only one in this college town's history. Isaac Newton worked here. So did James Watson and Francis Crick. (In his panorama of Cambridge history, Quentin Blake also paid tribute to Rosalind Franklin.)

Glasgow (May 19, 27 and 28)

Somerville Anderson and Alison Clough.

Somerville Anderson's home near the University of Glasgow bookended my United Kingdom evolution tour. Somerville and his colleague, Alison Clough, work in real estate in Glasgow. Alison kindly handled the logistical details of getting me around town and making sure I had everything I needed.

Somerville Anderson's gardens. Top: Front. Bottom: Back.

Somerville lives in a row house that he purchased from the university in the 1980s, and it can be distinguished from all the other houses on the street by its more beautiful garden (most of them have lovely gardens, but this one wins).

While I visited, I had the run of the self-contained apartment on the ground floor, which opened into yet another garden in the back of the house. Somerville explained to me that the back garden served as intensive care for any plants that began to look peaked in the front.

Originally founded in 1451, the University of Glasgow moved to its present location in Glasgow's West End in 1870. Designed in Gothic revival style, some of the 19th-century buildings look centuries older than they actually are, and newer buildings have a Cold War feel (1950s) or an even more modern look (1970s). Walking through the campus you can see a healthy mix of styles.

My first day in Glasgow, Somerville took me to the university's Hunterian Museum, Scotland's oldest public museum, founded in 1807. Just as the British Museum and subsequent Natural History Museum in London grew out of the collection of Hans Sloane, the Hunterian Museum also grew out of the collection of one man: the physician, naturalist, collector and Glasgow alumnus William Hunter.

Panels in the geology building.
Plaque with panels in the geology building.

In 1768, Hunter argued to the Royal Society that the mastodon tooth recently discovered and much talked about Incognitum in the American colonies likely belonged to an unknown species that was perhaps extinct. He further argued that it was carnivorous. Whether or not it was Hunter's aim, his argument became hugely popular with American patriots, who liked thinking their home once hosted a massive carnivore that could best a lion. The ferocious image of the fossil proboscidian would persist in America for decades, until displaced by (actual) carnivorous dinosaurs.

I had hoped for a chance to visit the museum while I was in town and had no idea that it was within easy walking distance. Holding more than 1.5 million objects, the collection is actually housed in more than one place. So on May 19, I visited part of the collection with Roman artifacts, coins, and medical specimens. On the back end of my trip, Somerville took me to the Hunterian Zoological Museum, but first we visited the geology building, which holds a geological mosaic showing folded, faulted rock layers. The building also displays a series of panels made of different rock types, donated to the university by Somerville back in 1981. Somerville recounted how he went with some professors to pick out the panels. "It was like kids in a candy shop," he recalled.

On to the Hunterian Museum of Zoology, which sported skeletons, stuffed animals, iridescent beetles, big spiders, even a life-size model of a giant squid. We looked around the museum and chatted with some of the professors there whom Somerville has known a long time. Like Richard Fortey at the Natural History Museum in London, they expressed surprise at resistance to evolution. It would have been fun to linger longer, but I had to get to the airport for my flight home.

A View from Above (May 28)

Sea ice around southern Greenland.

My flights between Denver and Glasgow connected through Iceland, which means the planes passed over southern Greenland and Hudson Bay. The flight home was long, and I would have been happy to snooze the entire way, but I awoke from one of my short naps to spot sea ice out the airplane window. In real life, I work at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which has tracked sea ice extent for decades. Arctic sea ice has declined significantly, particularly over the last decade, dipping to record-low summertime extents in 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2012. It is no longer unthinkable that the Arctic ocean could be ice-free in the summertime in my lifetime.

In the United States, just as some legislation has targeted the teaching of evolution in public school science classrooms, some newer bills have tried to limit discussions of climate change. The National Center for Science Education has recently expanded its scope to include climate change, along with evolution, as a subject area to defend.

Regardless of how long it will persist, I won't often get to see Arctic sea ice for myself, so I was grateful for a window seat.

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