Posts Tagged ‘hope diamond’


Me with Neil suit

David Black with Neil Armstrong’s space suit, July 20, 2019.

As I write this blog post, I am in Washington, D.C. attending a Teacher Innovator Institute sponsored by the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). It is July 21, 2019 and I’m a bit exhausted after helping out as part of the NASM Crew for last night’s celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

It was quite the party, and NASM has been in the middle of all the planning and organization as the sponsoring institution. They have tents set up along the National Mall in front of the museum with booths by aerospace companies and NASA explaining why we went to the Moon and why we need to return. There are hands-on activities, models, virtual reality tours, simulators, and experts on hand to explain everything and the crowds are thick. On Friday night we were invited to the VIP area to view the Go For The Moon multimedia presentation, which they projected onto the Washington Monument and large screens on either side. They have been setting up large speaker systems around the Mall all week, and the presentation did not disappoint. It was fantastic, and you could really feel the rumble as the Saturn V rocket blasted off as if the Washington Monument itself were being launched into space. It was like being there.

Air and Space 50th

The Air and Space Museum celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

Then, from 8:00 pm until 2:00 am NASM hosted a celebration for tens of thousands of people. As part of the small army of volunteers helping out, my job was to judge some question responses for a series of scavenger hunts throughout the museum on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. There were hundreds of teams racing throughout the museum looking for answers to questions that involved artifacts of the space race and the moon landing. Contestants sent in text responses, photos, and short videos of themselves completing challenges. We awarded bonus points or took points away from the automated scoring system. Other volunteers managed the lines to view Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, count visitors, and be on hand to answer questions.

Capitol July 20

The Capitol Building during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 landing.

It was an amazingly well coordinated production that has been in planning for over a year. They had to get a Joint Resolution of Congress to be able to project onto the Washington Monument, which took time. They had live bands, showings of the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, and even a viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Mall was packed with people watching the multimedia show, and all of this in the most brutal heat and humidity I’ve ever experienced in Washington, D.C. I am proud to have been a small part of this celebration.

Rover rollover

Rover rolling over human subjects on the National Mall during the Apollo 11 celebration.

The Teacher Innovator Institute is in its second year and each year 30 STEM educators are selected for a two-week program at NASM. We have been out at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport and at museums along the Mall. The Hazy Center is an annex of the main museum on the Mall, and houses the Space Shuttle Discovery and an SR-71 Blackbird, among many other historic aircraft. They also have a large curatorial area for restoring donated aircraft, such as the Flak Bait bomber currently being restored. We got to hear a panel discussion with two World War II airmen, including Colonel McGee of the Tuskegee Airmen. We’ve heard presentations from last year’s cohort and practiced STEM education activities, such as building a giant geodesic dome out of PVC behind the space shuttle.

Lego astronaut with girl

A LEGO spacesuit (complete with Buzz’s reflection and a Moon Maid).

The purpose of the Institute is to take teachers who are already innovators and train them in best practices for STEM education through informal education experiences. By informal, we mean educational programs that are not part of the public K-16 education system, such as museums and educational foundations. I’ve been fortunate to work with planetarium directors, museum educators, and NASA Education and Public Outreach personnel on many occasions and this is a great opportunity to finally learn more of how they approach education through objects.

Giant Moon map

A giant map of the moon

Museums are largely about objects, or artifacts. It could be a life-sized model of a giant shark hanging up in the Natural History Museum, the Hope Diamond, Lunar Module 2 in the Air and Space Museum, or Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. These objects are valuable partly because of their intrinsic value (such as the rare blue color of the Hope Diamond) but mostly because of their provenance, or the human lives and events that these objects have touched. What makes Neil Armstrong’s suit more intrinsically valuable than Jim Irwin’s suit, which is in a case at the Udvar-Hazy Center? Neil’s suit had thousands of visitors last night, whereas Jim’s suit is largely unvisited. Both are made of the same materials and have been carefully preserved and displayed. Personally, I am more in awe of the Apollo 15 suits than the Apollo 11 suits, because their owners stayed longer on the Moon, did more science, and made more fundamental discoveries including the Genesis Rock, a piece of lunar anorthosite that Dave Scott and Jim Irwin brought back and which determined the age of the Moon. But Neil’s suit was the first on the Moon, and that gives it a greater significance to most people.

Jim Irwin suit

Jim Irwin’s space suit from Apollo 15

Teaching in informal settings such as a museum is very different. Here, educators do not have a captive audience. People wander around, and some just wander through whereas others will stop and engage with an exhibit. If we want learning to occur, then engagement is crucial, as I have discussed in a previous post. What are the factors that encourage people to linger longer? How should the exhibits be displayed, and what holds people’s interest? How do you draw people in, get them hooked, and activate their curiosity? These are critical questions in informal education.

Mars 2020 sample collector

Mars 2020 rover’s sample collection device, with a model of the rover.

The Air and Space Museum was first opened in the mid 1970s and has not had a major complete overhaul since. Individual areas have been upgraded, but some have not and it shows. One of our tasks has been to visit exhibits and evaluate their effectiveness for engaging middle school students. I helped review the Space Race gallery, where the displays are static with no interactivity and no multimedia unless you count the single video screen playing an eight-minute long movie of talking heads that you couldn’t see because it was angled to perfectly catch the glare of the sun through the afternoon windows. Oh, there was one standalone pylon with instructions for going online to listen to John Grunsfeld describe what it was like to repair the Hubble Telescope (an obvious recent addition), but no one was doing it. The gallery had no flow to it, no sense of a hierarchy of events, no relevance to the students’ lives. A middle school student might walk in because of the Hubble Telescope display, but they will wander out again in under three minutes. The best things here – Dave Scott’s spacesuit, for example – are tucked away into almost hidden corners.

Painting Apollo

Painting Apollo in a tent on the National Mall

The limestone facing of the museum was supposed to be four inches thick when the museum was constructed, but budget cuts reduced that thickness to only one inch and they are beginning to buckle and crack. They must be replaced, so while construction is going on, the museum is re-inventing itself inside as well. So I am thinking of how Air and Space might change to better engage students and the general public.

LM 2

Lunar Module 2, on display in the National Air and Space Museum. This was the LM that was supposed to be first to test in space, but problems with its construction led to slipping the test to LM 3, which became the Apollo 9 mission.

We have received training on how to introduce and extend the learning that artifacts can provide. We have had the chance to examine some rare artifacts indeed, some of which the Smithsonian preserves but do not display because of their priceless scientific value. On Thursday we went to the Natural History Museum and were asked to find an object that represented us. I found some trilobite fossils that were collected in the House Range of western Millard County, Utah. I grew up in that area and my grandfather had a mining claim for collecting trilobites near where these specimens were collected, in the Wheeler Shale formation. He would take me out to his claim when I was a boy and we would dig into the dark gray shale beds and split them open with a chisel and hammer. We had buckets of them. So they represented me through memories of my grandfather whereas they would just be interesting fossils to someone else. The trilobites have a personal connection. Visitors to museums must make personal connections to the artifacts in order to engage with them.

Me holding Mars

David Black holding a piece of Mars. This meteorite was found in Antarctica and was identified by the oxygen isotopes found in small bubbles inside it as matching those on Mars. There is an extra hand helping me (thanks, Marc) because I don’t want to drop it. Like I would do a thing like that . . .

I had been through the meteorite, mineral, and gem galleries there several times in my life, so when they took us back past the meteorites and the moon rock displays, I was wondering if there was anything new for me to learn. Then they opened an almost hidden side door and took us through a security corridor to the meteorite vault, where meteorites from all over the world are kept. Our expert guide, Dr. Cari Corrigan, explained her trips to Antarctica to collect meteorites, and brought out some truly historic finds – valuable because of their rarity and their histories. We got to hold (wearing gloves, of course) pieces of the Allende meteorite, which fell in Mexico in 1969; the Peekskill meteorite, which famously dented a car; the only meteorite to injure a person (it went through a ceiling in Alabama and smacked a lady named Ann Hodges on the hip); and the Chelyabinsk meteorite that exploded over Russia in 2013.

Ann Hodges and her meteorite

Ann Hodges of Alabama and a piece of the meteorite that hit her and caused the bruise in this photo.

Then Dr. Corrigan pulled out some other meteorites and let us pass them around and take photos. A lunar meteorite, blasted off the Moon. A martian meteorite (we know it is from Mars because of the oxygen isotope ratio in the small pockets of air trapped in the meteorite). These are valuable because of their rarity and scientific value. And they’re from other planets!

Me with Allende meteorite

David Black holding a piece of the Allende meteorite that fell in Mexico in 1969. This meteorite is the oldest object on Earth at 4.65 billion years old. The white fluffy patches are probably solar system dust bunnies, and there are even pre-solar grains in this rock that are older, perhaps 5 billion years old.

And then, as I was holding the lunar meteorite, it slipped out of my gloved hand and dropped to the floor. Yes, I dropped the Moon. It was unharmed, fortunately, and Dr. Corrigan didn’t see me drop it. Thinking about my klutziness afterward, I realized that this rock was blasted off the surface of the moon, the heat of the impacting object melting and fusing it. It traveled through the vacuum of space for 250,000 miles, then came screaming through Earth’s atmosphere at supersonic speeds, heating to incandescence until it slammed into the ice of Antarctica. Then glacial forces ground it up into the margin of a mountain range where a scientist found it. I don’t think a three-foot drop to the floor is going to do much to it. I would not, however, recommend this as a way to have students engage with a meteorite.

Hope Diamond

The Hope Diamond in the National Museum of Natural History.

We are learning all the time how to be more effective at informal education; how to engage those middle school students. Take the Hope Diamond. I first saw it in 1982 when I was fulfilling a Congressional Internship here in Washington, D.C. It was rather randomly stuck in a static display case without much signage or anything else in a small gallery of gemstones. The glass on the case was smudgy with fingerprints and it was surrounded by people, so I didn’t get much of a chance to see it. Now, it is in its own space in a rotating stand so that people can see it from all sides for a much better view. But the glass was still smudgy and there were still lines of people when I saw it in the afternoon. On Thursday, we were there at the opening of the museum and few people were around and the glass had been cleaned. There are some signs on the wall, but no interactivity. The gem and mineral collection was redesigned over ten years ago and so there isn’t much interactivity or multimedia throughout. The display is still not very engaging, although improved.

Meteorite group

A group of Teacher Innovators in the meteorite room at the Natural History Museum. Dr. Cari Corrigan is fourth from the right on the back row.

What can be done to improve it still? A good example is the International Spy Museum, which has recently been rebuilt near the L’Enfant Plaza south of the Mall. You are given the name of a real spy encoded on a magnetic card. You start at the top learning about some real spies throughout history, such as Mata Hari, with video pylons and screens playing short videos, with interactive stations that read your card and allow you to progress in your mission to be outfitted with devices, given a disguise, breaking the codes, traveling incognito, etc., with real examples of each aspect on display along the way. The museum is built to flow you through the process in one direction, winding around through but with plenty of choices for things to do and see. After two hours, which was all the time we had to be ahead of the general public (we got in there early), I had only made it through half of the museum. My card is good for a month; if I have time tomorrow, I will return. It is that good.

Big Boot about to drop

A balloon replica of Neil Armstrong’s boot about to be planted on the moon. Or at least in the Air and Space Museum.

The objects in the museum have not changed. Their intrinsic value has not changed. What has changed is the human dimension – the personalization of the experience and making it relevant, the stories behind the objects and how the visitors fit into those stories. At the end of your mission, you find out if your spy was successful at their mission or not and if you made the right choices. You become the spy and immerse yourself in the experience.

How could we do this with the Hope Diamond, or Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit? With the personal history behind these objects, you could take the role of one of the owners of the Hope Diamond and find if the “curse” claims you or not. Or you could become a gem yourself – you must be dug up in the Golconda diamond fields or the Cempaka diamond mine in Borneo (which isn’t even mentioned in the Smithsonian), be smuggled out of the Mogul’s collection, sold to traders, cut and polished, sold and traded, set in a necklace, worn by a ill-fated rich daughter from a famous family, etc. You could become an astronaut and go through training and fitting and a mission and find if you make it back alive. Along the way, you’ll learn the history and the science because you are invested and engaged. It is personal. It has the human dimension that too many museums fail to capture.


Some of the NASM Crew, a group of volunteers and science teachers who helped with the 50th anniversary Apollo celebration at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Last night, tens of thousands of people engaged with space science and history. They had fun and it was crazy but there was so much learning going on. I saw the GooseChase participants learning as their responses came in. They were actively, creatively engaged.

Engagement, innovation, and creativity must come first in any educational setting be it formal or informal, a museum or a classroom. Then learning will follow.

Apollo Soyuz

The Apollo-Soyuz display in the Space Race Gallery at the Air and Space Museum. When we arrived to begin our volunteer efforts, the museum was closed (it was cool to walk right in through the staff entrance with our badges). There was no one there. Then, when the doors opened at 8:00, there were large crowds of people wanting to engage in space science education.

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ouray in 1876

Ouray Colorado in 1876, soon after silver was discovered in the area.

On Thursday, July 12, 2012, I explored the history of Ouray and Telluride, Colorado. I rode a jeep up into the San Juan Mountains to the high mining camps, delved into an adit at the Bachelor Syracuse Mine, and floated in a gondola high above Telluride.

History of Ouray:

Chief Ouray stained glass

Chief Ouray making peace with the Governor of Colorado

The town of Ouray (pronounced “you-ray”) is named for an Uncompahgre Ute Indian chief in the 1800s who tried to keep his people and their land safe from the gradual encroachment of white settlers and miners. Despite all kinds of provocations, he tried to keep the peace. When silver was discovered in the San Juan Mountains, each treaty that promised them they could keep their land “as long as the grass shall grow” was soon broken. Chief Ouray likened their situation to a buffalo that has been shot several times and has no choice but to lie down and take whatever will come. After Chief Ouray’s death the Utes were rounded up and forced to move to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in northeast Utah, near the towns of Roosevelt and Ft. Duchesne. Chief Ouray was known for his intelligence and ability to negotiate, and his stained glass portrait in the old supreme court building in Denver is one of only a few to show Native Americans among the state’s leaders.

Box Canyon

Box Canyon above Ouray, where silver was first discovered.

The original name for the valley and the town was Uncompahgre, the Ute word for the hot mineral springs located there (which Chief Ouray was known to soak in). Spanish explorers, including the Dominguez-Escalante party of 1776, explored the area but it wasn’t until the 1870s that silver deposits were discovered up what is now called Box Canyon. By 1876 the town of Ouray was incorporated and gradually grew. The best deposits were found around Gold Hill and further up the canyons, including the Imogene Basin and the area around Ironton and Guston in the Red Mountain District (which I drove through yesterday). The town itself became the transfer and shipping point, but growth was slow because of the isolation and difficulty of getting the ore to market on wagons.

The main line of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad extended itself up from Pueblo to Gunnison and on through Grand Junction to Salt Lake City between 1880 and 1883 (I talked more about this on Day 1 when I visited the railroad and mining museum in Helper, Utah). A branch line travelled through Durango, and a narrow gauge line extended up the Animas River Valley to Silverton (which I rode on Day 2). Knowing that the mines of the Red Mountain District could make great fortunes if only the ore could be gotten out, Otto Mears built a series of toll roads over the high passes between Silverton and Ouray and from Durango around to Rico and Telluride. The roads met up at what is now Ridgway, north of Ouray. But he saw even greater potential in building railroads.

Mears road

Road from Silverton to Ouray, built by Otto Mears.

The gulch between Ouray and Ironton was considered too difficult a route for a railroad, as it would require a 7 percent grade, a tunnel, and a double loop to get a train through the defile. Not even a Shay locomotive on a narrow gauge track could have done it. Mears decided instead to build a railroad from Silverton over the top of Red Mountain Pass to Guston and Ironton, which would link up with the Durango to Silverton line and bring the ore to smelters in Durango.

Ouray in 1892

Ouray in 1892 at the height of its prosperity.

Meanwhile, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built a narrow gauge extension line in 1897 from Montrose up the Uncompahgre River to Ridgway and on to Ouray. With these two railways in place, the town of Ouray really took off. By 1890 it had over 2500 people. Unlike many mining towns, most of the miners brought their families with them and Ouray was never quite as wild and wooly as some towns. Ouray was also fortunate to never have a devastating fire such as the ones the burnt down most western mining towns. Many of the original buildings are intact, and along Main Street there are metal signs on each block showing what the buildings on the opposite side looked like in the 1890s. The businesses in them have changed hands many times, but the buildings are still there, giving Ouray a much more authentic flavor. Some of the best-preserved buildings are the Beaumont Hotel, the St. Elmo Hotel, Wright’s Opera House, and the County Courthouse (which was used for the courtroom scenes of the 1968 version of the movie True Grit with John Wayne, Kim Darby, and Glen Campbell).

ouray today

Ouray Colorado today.

Ouray opera house

Wright Opera House in Ouray, Colorado.

The Western Hotel, where I stayed, is another historic building. Built near the railroad terminal, it saw good business from the start and is restored very much like it was in the 1890s. The saloon boasts an unusual painting of a lady’s face on the floor. I had originally planned to stay in a campground up at the Amphitheatre above the town, but my reservation got messed up, so I booked this hotel at the last minute. It was in the style of hotels of the day, with a shared bathroom down the hall and fairly small rooms without air conditioning (or many electrical outlets, which had to be added later). I’m glad I brought a power strip to plug in all my electronics. But I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in an authentic piece of western history. If you’d like to stay there, please visit their website at: http://www.historicwesternhotel.com/home.html.

Western Hotel

Western Hotel in Ouray, Colorado, built in 1891.

I ate a breakfast of chocolate glazed donuts and orange juice and walked around town, taking photos while waiting for my jeep tour. It’s a beautiful location, and the town lives up to its nickname as the Switzerland of the West (although it has some competition from Midway, Utah for the same title). Our jeep tour actually began with a tour and brief history of the Western Hotel. Owner Gregg Pieper led our tour of the ballroom and saloon bar, telling some of the colorful stories associated with the hotel, which was built in 1891.

Map of San Juan Tour

Map of the San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours at the Western Hotel.

Face on floor

The Face on the Saloon Floor.

Western Hotel bar

Into the San Juans by Jeep:

Our jeep tour began at 8:30. There were several groups taking different routes, some up over Imogene Pass, others taking different canyons into the high San Juans. Gregg drove our jeep up Canyon Creek to the southwest of Ouray. The morning sun was just topping the mountains to the east, and the road remained quite good all the way to the Camp Bird Mine, where one branch continues up left to Imogene Pass and the other heads higher up the main canyon toward the ghost town of Sneffels and the Yankee Boy Mine, our destination.

Thomas F. Walsh

Thomas F. Walsh, owner of the Camp Bird Mine.

In 1893 the good times in Ouray ended when the Silver Panic hit, the price fell out of the market, and many of the mines closed. Yet some, with enough gold in them, were able to stay open. One man who decided to stay and ride out the bad times was Thomas F. Walsh. An Irish immigrant from Tipperary, Ireland, Walsh worked his way up from being a carpenter to selling supplies to miners in the Dakotas during the gold rush there. Along the way, he learned a bit about gold mining, married a beautiful schoolteacher from Leadville, and moved his young family to Ouray. He had put together a modest fortune from his interests in the Dakotas and had built a smelter in Ironton. While looking for silaceous earth to use as a flux in his smelter, he examined some old tailings up Canyon Creek and saw they contained gold. Following the tailings to their source, he found a rich vein that had been overlooked by previous prospectors. He came home and told his daughter, Evalyn, “Daughter, I’ve struck it rich!”

Camp Bird tailings

Tailings near the Camp Bird Mine.

The first miners at his claim were bothered by a bold mountain jay that stole their lunches. He was known as “the camp bird,” and the mine was named after him. It became one of the richest gold mines in the United States and propelled Thomas Walsh into fame and fortune. At one point, the mine and mill were producing $5000 of gold per day, a great amount in the 1890s. The miners at the Camp Bird Mine were treated well; their boarding house was more like a hotel, with excellent meals served on china. Walsh built a mansion for his family in Washington, D.C., which is now the Indonesian Embassy. He even bought the infamous Hope diamond from Cartier for Evalyn as a wedding present (of course, her family then became part of the Hope diamond curse).

The Camp Bird mine continued to produce into the 1950s and has been opened for exploratory mining occasionally since. There appears to be some activity going on around the site even now, since gold prices have gone so high. The mill was eventually dismantled and moved to Mongolia.


Looking back at the overhang on the road to Yankee Boy Basin.

Jeep on cliff

Jeep on a cliff on the road to Yankee Boy Basin.

Further up the canyon we came to the ghost town of Sneffels, once containing about 200 people. Not much remains except the hotel and a few shacks, as the historical structures have been mostly demolished by further development and the harsh climate. The town and a nearby mountain were named for a character in Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days. Just beyond Sneffels are the ruins of a large stamp mill that pulverized and concentrated the silver and gold ore.

Sneffels hotel

The hotel at Sneffels.

Our route became more steep and precarious, with the road carved out of the cliff face and sheer drops on our left side. Gregg stopped to tell us stories from time to time, and at one point the cliff actually overhung the road. We stopped for several minutes to make sure no one was coming down as one can’t see beyond the overhand and meeting a car under it would not be a good idea. Eventually the deep gorge opened up again into a glacial cirque where the Yankee Boy Mine was located. Not many structures remain, only the stains of old tailings piles and a few low-grade outcroppings. But there were many wildflowers and twin waterfalls and gorgeous scenery all around. From here we could see the St. Sophia Ridge, a jagged series of tooth-like pinnacles separating Yankee Boy Basin from Telluride. We were only a few miles from Telluride as the crow flies (although I doubt one could fly over that ridge).

St. Sophia Ridge

St. Sophia Ridge as seen from Yankee Boy Basin.

We got out and explored for about 30 minutes, then met the jeep further down the road and bounced our way back to Ouray. I had tried a number of things with my camera gear, including attaching a Flip camera with my gripping tripod onto the frame of the jeep as we drove around Telluride. I finally decided holding it in my hand was easier and smoother.

Yankee Boy Basin

Yankee Boy Basin

I talked with Gregg for a while at the hotel front desk. He was nervous about all the video taping I had done, thinking I might be working for one of the competing jeep tours, but when I assured him this was for education and for my students, he opened up more. I laid down in my room for a hour or so to rest my spine and charge up my equipment again. It had been an unforgettable tour of the San Juan Mountains.

ladder to mine

An almost inaccessible mine on the Canyon Creek road. Miners had to climb down the ladders to reach the adit at bottom right.


Waterfall in Yankee Boy Basin.

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