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Find how it started in museum exhibit

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A new exhibition, “Emergence: A New View of Life’s Origin,” which explores the most fundamental questions about the origin and evolution of life on our planet and offers scientists’ latest insights about these complex questions, has opened at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.

A collaboration among the Natural History Museum, the Santa Fe Institute and New Mexico Highlands University, the exhibit was developed, fabricated and installed with funding from a $162,822 grant from the National Science Foundation. The exhibit team, in addition to researchers, educators, and exhibit designers, included media arts students at New Mexico Highlands University and Americorps volunteers.

Santa Fe Institute professor D. Eric Smith says the exhibit covers recent discoveries made possible by the use of improved mathematical and computational techniques. It covers the formation and geologic history of Earth, early life forms, inorganic and organic chemistry leading to life, and the formation of biological structures such as DNA, RNA, and proteins.

According to Highlands media arts assistant professor Megan Jacobs, “The exhibit offers insight into important issues like global warming, the potential cure for diseases, and how life could have developed on other planets. Our students grappled with complex scientific ideas to make them visually interesting and understandable for museum patrons of all ages.”

In addition, Jacobs added, “The process has been an invaluable experience for the students involved. They have learned how to distill complex information, as well as gained experience in how to collaborate with scientists and museum professionals. These are valuable skills that will help students make the transition from student to professional.”

The centerpiece of the students’ work is an illustrated timeline 16 feet long and 8 feet tall that traces the evolution of Earth from its formation 4.6 billion years ago to 400 million years ago.

First-year Highlands media arts graduate student Gabriel Garcia developed the design concept for the timeline.

“The design uses a double helix DNA strand that guides the viewer through a sequence of events explaining the significant moments of creation, with each strand representing the geosphere and biosphere flowing through time.” Garcia said. “The texturing of the helix illustrates geological processes that changed Earth’s once-lifeless surface to the flourishing terrestrial landscape we see today.”

Researchers at the Santa Fe Institute, which specializes in the cross-disciplinary study of highly complex systems, led the creation of the exhibit’s scientific content, relying on the latest insights available at the forefront of geology, geochemistry and biology.

The museum is at 1801 Mountain NW in Old Town.

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