Nevertheless we do answer these questions and give a serious answer, too, even though it may seem a waste of time.
I must not give the impression that our people are largely occupied with replying to inquiries of that sort. As a matter of fact they are only a very small part of the number that are received every day, but were I to chronicle the variety and multitude of scientific questions I am afraid that no layman would read this article.
What we consider technical questions mostly concern the identification of specimens of every kind from a dinosaur bone to minute sea animals; these, of course, far outnumber all the rest. Requests for practical assistance in conservation, education and every branch of natural science represent a great number. A sister-institution asks for help in producing biological sound films; a foreign government would like advice on laws for the protection of whales; the Audubon Society wishes to discuss the proposed regulations affecting the control of fish-eating birds at hatcheries and rearing ponds. A neighboring state asks what is the effect of Vitamin B1 and hormones on aquatic plants or water occupied by fish; a man representing a great refrigerating concern wishes information about the preservation of mammoth remains in the frozen tundra of Siberia.
We are a clearinghouse for newspapers and magazines. Hardly a day passes that the editor of some publication does not check with us on the accuracy of an article submitted or of a story that has come over the wires, or ask for information on some unexpected subject. Every spring when vacations start, we know that the sea-serpent story will crop up. Resorts have learned the value of reports of strange apparitions to draw tourists, and, of course, it makes excellent copy for a feature writer. The Loch Ness Monster put that little village in Scotland on the international map in a big way. Mermaids, too, run a close second; and possible discoveries of ambergris, the valuable substance used in perfumery, go into the thousands. I may say, in passing, that although I have examined hundreds of “finds” myself, no one has ever yet brought me a chunk of real ambergris.
Many thousands of dollars have been saved by the advice which our Department of Entomology has given individuals who have houses infested with termites or valuable trees which are being destroyed by some unknown insect.
The U. S. Customs Service makes frequent use of our staff on all sorts of questions where objects of natural history are concerned or for expert determination of various importations. I once saved a man from a heavy fine or imprisonment when I was a member of the Department of Mammals. A Customs official brought to the Museum what he maintained were the canine teeth of wapiti or elk. These were formerly used as watch charms by the Order of Elks, and as thousands of animals were slaughtered for the two teeth alone, stringent laws were passed against their importation. This man maintained that his specimens were walrus teeth. By sectioning them I proved him right and saved him from serious trouble.
Designers discovered that the plumage of various birds gave unusual and beautiful patterns for new ribbons, and primitive Indian fabrics found in the American Museum produced ideas which are incorporated in many modern dress goods. These are all discussed with people in the Museum.
Hardly a day passes that some member of our staff is not asked for advice by a young man or woman who is planning a career. I suppose that I get more of these questions than any of the others. Letters pour in asking, “How can I be an explorer?” “What courses must I take to fit me for Museum work?” “What do various branches of science offer as life jobs?” Dozens of mothers ask for interviews to discuss these problems of their children.
At certain times we are deluged with requests for travel information, routes to various countries; costs; clothes to wear, etc. By this I do not mean sportsmen or explorers who are looking for expert advice which would naturally be best known by our field men. On the contrary, these are the sorts of questions that any tourist agency could answer much better than a natural history museum. For instance, a gentleman came to tell us that he was bored with the cold weather of last spring; that he wanted to move to a warm climate. Where should he go? Did we have information about business connections in the Netherlands East Indies or Africa?