“High tech” and “in a museum” aren’t usually found in the same sentence. But just as our exhibitions increasingly incorporate 21st-century display screens, Smithsonian researchers are using cutting-edge technologies. On the west side of the Chesapeake Bay, scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) are studying mercury and other potentially dangerous toxins in the environment with one of the world’s most powerful, advanced devices, a recently acquired Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer, or ICP-MS.
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That sounds far too complicated to explain in a book, much less a magazine column, but here are the basics. The ICP-MS quickly analyzes samples of water, mud, fish, air and other substances to determine their elemental composition. It is a particularly useful instrument, because it can measure many elements at the same time at concentrations down to parts per trillion. This enables our scientists to study variants, or isotopes, of an element. The results help them better understand how mercury and other metals move and accumulate in food webs. And the findings help regulators predict how fast mercury levels in fish will decrease in response to emissions controls.
Scientists at the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education (SCMRE) are using an ICP-MS to investigate a 2,600-year-old civilization. They are analyzing Chinese gold fragments—from the circa sixth century b.c. Eastern Zhou period—which belong to the Smithsonian’s Sackler and Freer Galleries. Experts at the Freer concluded that the fragments are linked both stylistically and technically and that a few pieces actually fit together. To confirm this, the SCMRE researchers used a method called laser ablation to remove tiny specks of gold from the fragments. Analysis of the specks by the ICP-MS provides additional evidence that most of the gold fragments have a common source and that some may even come from the same artifact.
Another state-of-the-art technology being used at the Smithsonian is DNA bar-coding, a method of characterizing species of organisms. If physics was the most important scientific discipline of the last century, biology may well be the most crucial of this one. That is why the National Museum of Natural History is proud to be the host organization for an international consortium developing standards for DNA bar-coding. With this methodology and the increasingly sophisticated devices that make it possible, a genetic sample as small as 650 base pairs (for comparison, the human genome probably has three billion base pairs) can be rapidly and inexpensively analyzed to identify species and, potentially, discover new ones, even in degraded materials that have been sitting in museums for decades. Such work is also important for human health: the National Zoo is using DNA technology to track diseases including avian flu.
At the other end of the continuum—from the tiniest pieces of DNA to the largest thing we know, the cosmos—astronomers at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory are using the Hectospec, a one-of-a-kind instrument designed and built by a team of scientists and engineers there. With its 300 optical fibers, this device simultaneously captures light, collected by the observatory’s 6.5 meter converted Multiple Mirror Telescope, from 300 stars or galaxies. The fibers are configured by dual robots called “Fred and Ginger” for their elegance and precision; the pair hardly ever miss a step. Though each optical fiber is minuscule in diameter, it is able to transmit the light of an entire galaxy for spectral analysis. Astronomers use the color and intensity of the light to better understand the origins of stars and galaxies, their chemical composition, and their distance from us.
From wetlands to ancient gold fragments to gene segments to vast space, our scientists are employing the latest technologies. Though the Smithsonian is best known for preserving the past, it continues to be a preeminent research institution for the future.