Weird Penn State — A Halloween Night at Our Museums

Penn State’s museums are full of the majestic, the sublime, and the awe-inspiring. There, on display for all of us to see, are artifacts of science and objects of art that remind us of humanity’s ability to turn skill and knowledge into things of beauty and understanding.

These museums are also filled with something else that, for the most part, only human beings can produce and that, without a doubt, only human beings can appreciate: the really, really weird.

Just in time for Halloween, I’d like to take us on a trip to some of Penn State’s museums and find the best examples of Weird Penn State. As turns out, finding the really, really weird is really, really easy.

We’ll start our weird adventures at the Palmer Museum of Art, Penn State’s premier arts resource for the University and surrounding area.

Eat Your Art Out, Hannibal Lecter

I really love still life. Is there anything more soothing than standing in the Palmer, your head cocked slightly, and looking upon a painting of a nicely set table dappled with muted, stoic light? Maybe add some antique bottles to give it that natural everyday life kind-of-look. Oh, and why not throw in a head?

At the Palmer Museum of Art, located on Curtin Road, you can gaze on a number of masterpieces; some are still life. At least one is a mixture of still life and still death. The unsettling image of San Gennaro is a painting by Flemish artist, Louis Finson, who created the piece — or maybe pieces — around 1610. The painting features San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, and an unidentified severed head.

"Thanks for dropping by": San Gennaro to unidentified dinner guest.
“Hey, thanks for dropping by”: San Gennaro to unidentified dinner guest.

There is a lot of speculation on who had the head that — until rather recently — sat at the top of his shoulders. He may have been someone who spoke against the church, or possibly a scientist. The work has also been interpreted as an artistic demonstration of the power of the Church. Whatever the interpretation, the expression on the bishop’s face and the position of hands is pretty clear: “Don’t. Mess. With. Me. And don’t arrive late at my dinner parties, either.”

Wonder what type of wine you serve with severed head?

I Like Big Bugs And I Can Not Lie…

The bishop had an extra head. Some of the bugs at the Frost Entomological Museum don’t have any at all. The museum, which has thousands and thousands of bugs on display that range from the creepy crawly to the exquisitely aerodynamic, has one sample that is particularly weird — and that is saying something considering the source.

The Nicrophorus -- notice the misspelling on the original tag. And the missing head.
The Nicrophorus — notice the misspelling on the original tag. And the missing head.

The folks who started the museum obviously had an eye for the curious, which is the politically correct term for “weird,” because the museum’s oldest specimen is an American burying beetle (Nicrophorus Americana), added back in 1876. The beetle is also called the giant carrion beetle because 1) it uses carcasses for breeding purposes (Trust me, it’s a long story) and 2) what entomologist wouldn’t love a big bug that buries corpses?

This beetle buries itself during winter, then finds a carcass before it mates. Sometimes, there are huge battles over a really good carcass. The biggest, baddest male and female beetles win and get to breed, thus proving Darwin’s adage that survival  tends to go to the weirdest.

Frost Entomological Museum is also located on Curtin Road. Here’s the museum curators’ really cool blog, too.

Oh The (Weird) Humanity!

People are a little weird. Anthropology is the study of people and cultures. Therefore,  if the logic follows, an anthropology museum should be full of weird, strange and utterly fascinating things.

If you want proof, head to the Matson Museum of Anthropology located in the Carpenter Building on the University Park campus. Since the mid-1960s, the Matson  has inspired students, faculty and the public to study the diversity — and the similarity — of humanity. It’s inspired me to show humanity’s diverse — yet similar — affinity for weirdness.

One objet bizarre (note to editor: that’s intentionally French) at the museum is this little Peruvian guy, or god. Ekeko is a figurine based on an ancient god of prosperity from the Andean region of Bolivia, who helps fulfill wishes. Apparently, he’s a bit like Santa Claus, but with a colorful poncho, instead of a white fur-trimmed red coat. Instead of crawling up into Santa’s lap, people place a miniature version of what they want in the coming year on Ekeko’s lap.

Ekeko bringer of wishes and new iPhones.
Ekeko bringer of wishes and new iPhones.

At one time, people placed food and money in the god’s lap. Now, they want Ekeko to bring them cell phones and other modern objects. I wonder if the folks at the Matson Museum of Anthropology will let me place a few figures of Big Ten referees with 20/20 vision in Ekeko’s lap for Coach Franklin? Hey, it’s worth a shot.

Just a note: The museum has lots of other examples of humanity’s weirdness, but those objects should really be seen in person and not blogged about in a post that can easily be traced back to me.  (Psst. E-mail me…)

Penn State And The Vision Thing

Often a player will rise to such a high level of skill that fans will refer to him or her as “a man among boys” or “a woman among girls.” The Penn State All-Sports Museum is full of artifacts and memorabilia of the University’s long legacy of producing players of such skill and acumen.

One of those greats is definitely Wallace “Wally” Triplett. But the speedster from La Mott, Pennsylvania, taught us more than how a man performs on the field, he and his teammates taught us how humans behave in life.

Triplett and Dennie Hoggard were the first African-Americans to play in a Penn State varsity football game. In 1946, when the University of Miami requested that Penn State’s black players not travel to play in the game, the team voted to cancel that regular-season game.

When the issue arose again before the team’s pending 1948 Cotton Bowl match-up against Southern Methodist University, the team made it clear: there may be no “I” in team, but, according to the Penn State spelling, there is definitely a “we” in the word.

Triplett, who also  co-founded the Gamma Nu chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, went on to play in that game — the first African-American to play in the Cotton Bowl Classic — and scored the tying touchdown for the game’s final 13-13 score.

So where’s the weird?


Long before the Civil Rights movement, Triplett and Penn State students showed they had vision. Ironically, Triplett needed a little help with his actual vision. As he zig-zagged across the field and carved defenses up like a dining hall roast beef for the Nittany Lions, Triplett needed to wear glasses. Later, when Triplett played in the NFL, he switched to contact lenses. Hard lenses.  Ouch. The Sports Museum still has the pair of the lenses that he wore as a professional football player. They are not regularly on display, but I got a shot of them.

Some more stats about Triplett and his pioneering career: He was only the third African-American chosen in NFL Draft and first of the draftees to take the field in a league game.

B.F.O.C. — Big Feet on Campus

Has there ever been a Bigfoot sighting on campus? Not to my knowledge.

Has there ever been a Bigfeet sighting on campus? You betcha. Just go to the EMS Museum and Art Gallery in the Deike Building. The museum features two Ginormousaurus Rex (not a real scientific classification, but should be) feet, one belonging to a Diplodocus and the other, a footprint belonging to a Hadrosaur.

Two Bigfeet on campus -- the Diploducus (front) and the footprint of a Hodrosaur -- can be found at the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery.
Two Bigfeet on campus — the Diploducus (front) and the footprint of a Hodrosaur — can be found at the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery.

If the Diplodocus, who was probably weighing in at about 24.6 tons and towering about 25 feet in the air, wanted to strap on some shoes, he — or she — would probably need a size 72.5, or, possibly the dino could just borrow a pair of shoes from an offensive lineman.

Fortunately, this dinosaur, which stomped through the western United States about 75 million years ago, only ate plants. The same can not always be said about the aforementioned offensive linemen.

The Hadrosaur was a duck-billed dinosaur. This particular specimen — that’s what all the fancy dinosaur scientists say — had a 12-foot stride and a trackway — that’s a fancy dinosaur scientist word for footprint — of approximately 3.75 feet.


Unfortunately, I did not get to the Pasto Agricultural Museum, the College of Agricultural Sciences museum in Rock Springs. Hopefully, I can make it out there soon to find something weird.

I mean, the museum holds, “approximately 1,300 rare and unusual farm and household items dating from 4,000 BC to the 1940s or more than 6,000 years.” In 6,000 years, I bet farmers came up with a whole lot of weird.

Sounds like another edition of Weird Penn State!

Bringing an Eco-Friendly Message to the Green Mountain State

It may not come as a surprise that the “Green Mountain State” of Vermont is considered one of America’s greenest regions, in terms of its carbon footprint, energy efficiency, and air quality.  If our Research On The Road trip to Vermont earlier this month is any barometer, let’s add bees to the list of things that matter deeply to Vermonters.

ROTRVermontThursJPEGMaryann and Jim Frazier—Penn State’s powerhouse couple of pollinator research—traveled with me  to Burlington, Vermont to be the featured speakers at two Research On The Road events: the first on October 2nd was a public talk held at the wonderful ECHO Lake Aquarium & Science Center right on the Lake Champlain waterfront.


Jim and Maryann Frazier at the ECHO center, with a Lake Champlain sunset behind them.

I had planned this event in collaboration with the folks from the Vermont chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association, and they did a great job of spreading the word and coming out with their friends and family on the evening of October 2nd. A special shout-out to chapter president Karen Edwards! We had a great crowd for this event—over 100 attendees and standing-room only!

IMG_3678 IMG_5648

The healthy turnout was helped by the interview the Fraziers gave on Vermont Public Radio’s popular “Vermont Edition” radio program. ( I hope you’ll give it a listen!)

The Fraziers are both incredibly knowledgeable and eloquent scientist spokespeople, passionately dedicated to research and outreach regarding sustainable agriculture and the restoration of healthy pollinator populations. They shared the great work happening at Penn State’s Center for Pollinator Research and Department of Entomology, and educated and inspired many Vermonters during this trip.

They also made some Penn State Vermonters pretty happy too.  As chapter president Karen Edwards wrote after the event, “Speaking as a PSU alum, I know that we love to go back to PSU, but it isn’t very often that PSU comes to us up here in Vermont.  And then to have it be such prestigious researchers like the Fraziers made it even sweeter.  I can honestly say that I haven’t been this proud of my alma mater in quite a while.”   Of course, that’s music to our ears!

Another very satisfying surprise at this event was the diverse mix of people who attended. There were academics, beekeepers, business people, farmers—and there were also some kids in the audience, which especially delighted me to see!

Research On The Road organizer Melissa Beattie-Moss, far left, with Vermonters who drove an hour to attend!
Research On The Road organizer Melissa Beattie-Moss, far left, with Vermonters who drove an hour to attend!


Did we inspire a future beekeeper? This young attendee’s note reads “Pollinator Stuff” —and includes a terrific illustration!
A standing-room only crowd in a Davis Student Center conference room

The next day we headed to the campus of the University of Vermont where the Fraziers spoke to another packed house of students and professors. The question and answer session was especially lively and fascinating. Not surprisingly, the UVM community is keenly interested in a wide array of Environmental Studies subjects and really know their stuff!

Jim Frazier addresses the UVM audience.
Jim Frazier addresses the UVM audience.

Of course, it would be a crime to find one’s self in Vermont in October and not take in the beauty of the local scenery, such as…

Melissa has her priorities.
Melissa has her priorities.

Honey bees pollinate one-third of all the foods we eat, including many of the ingredients used to make ice cream, so my delicious pilgrimage to Ben & Jerry’s store in downtown Burlington was in keeping with the trip’s theme. (Yeah, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch but I do like thematic tie-ins!) What’s not a stretch is that ice cream makers Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s have a genuine Penn State connection! As some readers may know, they are 1978  alumni of the Penn State Creamery correspondence course in ice cream-making, Agriculture 5150, which teaches manufacturers the basics of ice cream production.

All in all, I’d call “Research On The Road in Vermont” a resoundingly productive and sweet experience, as is befitting for a honeybee-centered event!




Into the Wilds

A Bactrian camel, a rhinoceros and an onager walk into a bar… well, not really, but close.

bactrian camel
bactrian camel

Last week I attended the National Association of Science Writers meeting in Columbus, Ohio.  Ohio State hosted this meeting which is a mix of workshops on practice and sessions on cutting-edge science.  On the last day there was a field trip.  We drove 90 minutes east from Columbus and turned into a road that would have looked more comfortable in Colorado.  After a bit of meandering, we arrived at the entrance to The Wilds, a non-profit conservation park located on the site of a former coal strip mine.

First, we met Eastern Hellbenders and found out why they are called “snot otters.”  When they get scared, they excrete slime through their skin.  The Wilds has a program of raising and returning to the rivers and streams in the wild these reclusive amphibians.

Persian Onager

Finally, we got into a covered, but open vehicle and proceeded through the park.  Turned a corner and suddenly there were two bactrian camels from  central Asia, a rhinoceros from the northern Indian peninsula and a group of Persian onagers, wild asses from Iran.  They don’t usually live together, but there they were, shoving each other out of the way to get to the feed that was just dumped for them. The Wilds method of making sure we got to see animals.

Although they all live in different places, they are all grazing animals and so roam the reconstructed prairie and cold weather grasslands.  The rhinos will soon go to their enclosure, not really liking Ohio winters.  We didn’t get to see the giraffes because they had already decided it was too cold and were in their very tall house.

In other parts of the Wilds we saw a small herd of Przewalski’s Wild Horses from Mongolia, the only species of horse never domesticated and almost extinct.  Also Grevy’s Zebras and other endangered animals.  The Wilds also has a herd of about 120 head of bison, African spotted dogs and a wide variety of deer and elk.

asian tonk1
Sichuan Takin

One of the oddest grazers was the Sichuan Takin, an animal that lives in the bamboo forests loved by pandas and most closely related to sheep and goats.  Oddly, if you mentally remove the horn, the profile looks like that of a giant guinea pig.

Southern White Rhinoceros

As for predators, a pair of cheetahs came down from the top of their large pasture to view us through the fence.  The world’s fastest accelerating animal, they wear out rapidly and sometimes have no energy left to consume their prey.  The African spotted dogs and dholes are pack hunting dogs and so are also kept away from the grazers.

But the highlight of the trip was the very last stop.  There, in a large pen was a year-old male southern white rhinoceros.  He was new to the Wilds and had not yet been released into the pastures.  I don’t know where he came from, but he had apparently never had that much space before.  For such large animals, they are amazingly graceful moving from a walk, to a trot, to a canter — mimicking the gaits of horses.  He was frolicking, running, jumping, turning.  A little bit of this was showing off, but it was obvious he was very happy having so much space.

He was also not shy of people, coming right up to the fence where we could pet him.  I petted him and scratched him behind the ear. His head tilted the way a dog’s does when scratched there.  He was happy.  I was happy.

I petted a rhinoceros. Who would have thought?


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