A giant mushroom pulsates with green light as soothing electronic music undulates through the space. This is not an acid trip—this is the first room of the American Museum of Natural History’s new special exhibit on bioluminescence, “Creatures of Light,” which opened last weekend and will run through January 2013. With music and color carefully chosen for a complete experience, the curators of the exhibit—the ecology, evolution, and environmental biology department’s own John Sparks and David Harvey, aim to take visitors on a journey through our wonderful and vast, albeit strange, ecosystem.
Visitors travel from the forests of North America—with bioluminescent mushrooms and fireflies—to a cave in New Zealand, a bay in Puerto Rico, a coral wall on the Cayman Islands, and the depths of the abyssal zone. Each of these simulations begins with an open invitation: “Step into a sheltered bay in the Caribbean. Wade around ...” The promise of glittering, colored lights propels the visitor forward like the glowing chemicals these organisms use to lure prey.
Within scientific disciplines, students often have problems with visualizing the often-bizarre occurrences of nature and the importance behind their complexity. As a result, we focus on cramming for multiple choice exams and care more about numbers than the elegance of binding proteins or light absorption. “Creatures of Light” focuses on the poetry and aesthetics of bioluminescence, a biochemical phenomenon we have all probably witnessed but perhaps have not thought too much about.
The simulations in each exhibition section provide the hands-on benefits of a lab, and yet are far more exquisite. Instead of contorting your face into the lens of a microscope, you can examine scaled models of bioluminescent organisms, such as dinoflagellate and pyrodinium bahamense, blown up 11,000 times their size.
Enormous purple crystal jellies dotted with fluorescent green—aequorea victoria—hang suspended above the viewers’ heads. The models are perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the exhibition. The magical aura creates a feeling of disbelief, which may be why there are also a few live organisms on view. The live flashlight fish, swimming in a dark tank with only flashes of almond-shaped green light, were enough to unsettle the adult visitor, and made a few young children cry. The fish emit light from bacteria in their throats, as part of a symbiotic relationship, and appear to have giant, glowing, flickering eyes.
The exhibition sections provide excellent explanations of bioluminescence, fluorescence, phosphorescence, quorum sensing, and other chemical reactions. For example, the exhibit’s definition of fluorescent light begins by first explaining light waves and reflected light. Then, through analogies and not jargon, a simple rationale complete with diagrams is presented. They also explain the importance of some of these particles to cancer research as well as the threats to marine habitats. The “how” and “why” could be expanded upon and discussed further, but the “what” is clearly and succinctly articulated.