Behind the Amazing Locked Doors of the Museum of Natural History

New York's American Museum of Natural History is widely known as that huge building with great old stuffed animals inside. And the giant whale! But behind the scenes are facilities doing some of the most amazing science, ever. Let's peek.

We took a trip inside the museum's labyrinthine back corridors—hallways stuffed with ancient artifacts and rare species samples, like something from Indiana Jones. For a musty old hallway, it's pretty damn awe-inspiring. But the hallways are nothing—behind the doors, scientists are pushing the bounds of not just human knowledge, but the entire direction of biological endeavor. Room-filling x-ray scanners, microscopes to scan asteroids, and a database filling itself with every single living thing, ever. The museum's doing a lot more than stuffing dead lions.

And next week, you'll have a chance to check all of it out with us—exclusive access, an open bar, and some of the smartest people in the world.


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Behind the Amazing Locked Doors of the Museum of Natural History

The Imaging Power-Machines that Convert Dead Lizards to 3D and Make Dissection Obsolete

The microscope you used in high school and college is nothing. The museum's got laser microscopes from NASA, giant x-ray chambers, and lenses with 500,000x magnification. Yes, you read that right.

They're all found at the museum's imaging center, where researchers get better looks at dead things and space chunks than have ever been seen before. The machine above? It bombards specimens with x-rays, capturing 2,000 images per scan, and creating cross sections that can be reassembled into intricate 3D models.

No need to maim the critter with a scalpel.

Behind the Amazing Locked Doors of the Museum of Natural History

This NASA laser microscope, capable of enormously detailed 6000x6000 scans with details down to 2 nanometers, probes everything from captured comet dust trapped in aerogel to spider vaginas (that's how they distinguish species!).

Behind the Amazing Locked Doors of the Museum of Natural History

Ambrose Monell Collection for Molecular and Microbial Research—The Real Noah's Ark

Part of the museum's mission isn't just exploring the microscopic nooks (and vaginas) of creatures, but of preserving them. And that doesn't mean formaldehyde. It means massive cryogenic storage tanks, which currently hold 70,000 different species—and have the capacity to hold one million. The giant tanks are cooled with liquid nitrogen, and packed to the top with racks that hold barcoded sample tubes no larger than a pen cap. But inside is precious genetic material, from microbes to whales—an icy record of what lives on our planet.

And it's important to keep something so delicate safe. So the museum uses virtually indestructible thermoses, capable of staying sufficiently frosty for an entire month in the case of Manhattan disaster.

Behind the Amazing Locked Doors of the Museum of Natural History

Morphbank—Wikipedia for Every Single Thing That's Ever Lived. Ever.

Provost Michael Novachek has some pretty modest plans for the museum. He's heading up a worldwide effort to categorize every single anatomical feature of every single organism that's walked, crawled, flown, or otherwise traversed the globe. Dead fossile fragments. Living, flapping things. All of it. The project, Morphbank, allows scientists at universities and museums around the world—12 teams in all—to collaborate, fleshing out the catalog of life. The goal? A matrix for every branch of the tree of life, so that anyone in the world would have immediate access to every anatomical trait of every animal, ever. Say, the telescoping neck of a particular lizard, or a particular bird's claw. Everything, open, free, immediate.