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Sad news mars this bleak wintry day.  The Shedd Aquarium’s beloved Australian lungfish “Granddad” has passed away.  Granddad enjoyed basking sluggishly in his shallow pool until he beguiled viewers into not paying close attention to him, then he would rise to the top of his puddle and take a deep gasping (and very audible) slurp of air.  Lungfish are said to be among the most endearing of pet fish and Granddad enjoyed it when aquarium keepers gently petted him. He also loved eating a nutritious vegetable paste or clams or shrimp… although his particular favorite was “worm Wednesday”.  His diet changed several times during his tenure at the aquarium, as keepers learned more about how to look after him and as standards for lungfish husbandry progressed.   In his early days, he ate crayfish gathered from the pond in a local Chicago cemetery!

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With his muscular pectoral and dorsal fins, Grandad was quite magnificent, in a torpid way–like an intelligent cucumber spattered with mud and gold.   At the time of his passing, he was the oldest fish in any public zoo or aquarium in the world.  Shedd acquired him (as a full grown adult) in 1933.  After a lengthy trip across the Pacific, he traveled across the United States in 3 days in a specially outfitted life-support railroad car.

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A revealing historical passage from the Shedd aquarium’s lengthy and moving obituary describes the excitement over Granddad’s acquisition, “In anticipation of overflow crowds from the soon-to-open Century of Progress International Exposition just south of Shedd, aquarium director Walter Chute had written to the director of the Sydney aquarium with a wish list of fresh- and saltwater species. ‘We are, of course, particularly desirous of securing one or two specimens of Neoceratodus forsteri,’ he wrote, using the lungfish’s scientific name.”

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Although these days I am closer to the African lungfish who live at the Bronx zoo, I saw Grandad back in the 90s when I lived in South Chicago and I was duly impressed by him.  Indeed, in a memorable conversation during college, a group of my closest friends and I were talking about what we would wish to have as accessories if we were action figures.  Although my buddies came up with lots of cool plasma guns, miniature vehicles, and humorous inside joke items, I feel I won the conversation by saying “lungfish.” Reading about Granddad only reinforces this feeling (although possibly these days, the “Wayne” action figure would have an avant-garde flounder rather than a clever lungfish).

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Although Grandad was only around a century old when he left this world, lungfish have been here a lot longer.  The sarcopterygians are nearly 350 million years old.  Living Sarcopterygians include only the coelocanths and lungfish (although all amphibians, reptile, birds, and mammals descend directly from them and could arguably be considered Sarcopterygians).  After 8 years of writing, I have been running out of things to say about catfish.  Once again, Granddad reminds me that there is an even wider and crazier world of fish out there.

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For example, did you know that lungfish have the largest genome among the vertebrates?   It takes a lot more information to produce a “Grandad” then it does to make Einstein or Rihanna!  Although we will miss our long-lived friend (and his mate, who died in 1980), he is survived by a passel of younger Neoceratodus forsteri, who can still be visited at the aquarium.  Additionally the Australians are very protective of their dear lungfish.  Although they are rare, the government watches after their habitat  quite carefully.  With any luck the lungfish in the Shedd aquarium will be around another 84 years, and the ones in Queensland will last another 350 million.  Maybe we can take them with us to the stars and start some entirely new tetrapod lineages!

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National Museum of American History

National Museum of American History

The other day I was chatting with a friend about my long-ago job as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian history museum and we began to muse about what the quintessential artifacts of today will someday be. When historians of the future try to represent our time will they display a bunch of obsolete computer kit (which can not be made to works after a couple of years—much less decades or centuries), or Britney Spears memorabilia, or Segue scooters, or “as seen on TV” junk like salad shooters and such? What is the quintessential object which shows who we are and how we live? We came up with all sorts of answers—most of which did not paint contemporary culture in a wholly positive light—but the one which struck me as the truest was the simple disposable air horn.

An Air Horn

An Air Horn

An air horn is a plastic noisemaking reed attached to a jar of compressed air. When the player (possessor?) presses a button, the infernal device issues a hellish shriek of ear-piercing volume. I do not mean that last descriptor as a metaphor: air horns, like firearms and jet engines, are very capable of causing serious irreparable hearing damage. These horrid novelty items are available everywhere for next to nothing. People use them at sporting contests to distract the opposing team or sometimes in cruel pranks to make an unwitting victim panic. Mostly they are just used to call attention to the loutish person with the horn. Air horns have only one note, but that note is so loud it drowns everything else out—a perfect description of today’s celebrity personalities, advertising tactics, and political discourse.

Air horns evolved from the whistles of trains and the mighty horns of ships. These horns used compressed gasses from engine function in order to warn of eminent departure or collision. They had a real purpose. Yet, while it is possible that Alfred Hitchcock or Tom Clancy (or some other master of contrived suspense) could invent a scenario where a disposable air horn saved the day, I doubt it has ever happened. These objects exist only to make insufferably loud noise. If someone on the street was blowing one to warn of North Koreans, Godzilla, or zombie attack I would ignore it in the belief that it was just some drunken oaf showing off.

or we could just rename it the "fun horn"

or we could just rename it the “fun horn”

Worst of all, I think an air horn speaks directly to the reptile/Kardashian part of the brain which lurks in us all. I do not like air horns, but if someone gave me one I would be fascinated by it and would want to push it. It would sit there menacingly, like Chekov’s gun, just waiting till I could resist no longer and gave it a tiny test. I wish it were not so, but I would have to push it, despite the deleterious effect it would have on my personal relationships and happiness. Because they bear this unwholesome power, I would be shocked if air horns do not end up in a “late 20th/early 21st century” display case highlighting the nature of our times. They will sit there with other loud self-aggrandizing artifacts like Nascar jerseys, Jeff Koons art, MySpace, and Kanye West.

"I will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade, I will be the loudest voice."

“I will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade, I will be the loudest voice.”  [Actual Quote]

Air horns do indeed draw attention to us and tell everyone exactly who we are. It is a very well-made item—at least until someone invents something even louder and more annoying.   Or you could ignore my cranky jeremiad and write to tell me what you would choose as the quintessential object of this age!

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