This week I've been working to wrap up specimens I started in California. As promised, there are more details about the trip below, but as the subject of this update indicates, I need to announce a delay in final production. I am very sorry, but the process of specimen preparation is just taking longer than I anticipated.
At the moment, the delay could run as long as 90 days, but this estimate could change. I've outlined some of the technical challenges in past updates, but the main sticking point is the difference between preparing a few prototype-worthy specimens versus the thousands needed for production. Where possible, I am sharing tasks with members of the team, but much of the work is quite delicate and the specimens so rare that I really feel I have to do most of this phase personally.
While this delay is unfortunate, I do have a positive announcement to make regarding production: I have decided to work with a facility I have partnered with in the past to handle the majority of final production run. The expense will not be trivial, but I think it's well worth the investment. Not only I will have the opportunity to work with highly-skilled technicians, but together we should complete all mini museums in a single run. This should speed up the schedule for those backers with later shipping dates while improving quality for everyone.
If my current 90-day estimate holds, all mini museums should ship near the end of September. I would like to provide a firm commitment, but I do have some tricky specimens ahead. I don't want to set an expectation that may not be met. Please know that my focus in every decision revolves around quality and the goal of producing the best mini museum possible.
With respect to quality and specimen preparation, I'd like to tell you about my trip to California.
A number of specimens in the mini museum are comprised of mixtures of fine particulate matter (ex. Waikiki Sand, Oldest Matter, etc). Prior to inclusion, such specimens must be encased in resin to minimize the possibility of stray particles floating about during production. (Just imagine trying to place a pinch of sand from a tray without dropping a single grain in the wrong place!)
As one never knows how a specimen might interact with different resin formulas, I travelled to southern California to work at a specialized resin casting facility with 6,000 formulas on hand:
I have to admit that from the outside it is a mysterious looking place, but inside I found myself working alongside exceptional engineers like Lawrence pictured below:
This trip was well worth the time. I completed several specimens in record time, and the results are beautiful. Here is a close-up of Waikiki sand. These are actual specimens that will be in the mini museum:
After working out the formulas and doing a number of castings, I headed back across the country to finish up the specimens. When I arrived, I discovered that a few mini museum elves had crept into my lab and organized everything in spectacular fashion.
There are some new additions to the lab that will feature in future updates, but I thought I'd share a picture of me working with K-Pg Boundary Layer.
Here you will see that I've already cast a large, black sheet of K-Pg Boundary Layer. The torch is used to soften up the cast so that I can score the material. Scoring produces very sharp lines which results in cleaner edges.
I was going to end this update with the details about the California trip mentioned above, but I couldn't resist including a callout for a study published this week in PLOS ONE. In this study, researchers at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain revealed details about the oldest confirmed Neanderthal coprolite.
The composition of 50,000 year-old poop also backs up recent studies of Neanderthal dental microfossils, which suggest Neanderthals ate both meat and cooked vegetation. The analysis of the remains pictured above leaves little doubt about these findings.
What I found equally fascinating is the process by which the researchers extracted and prepared the specimens. Here is an example:
Samples were collected by hand during surface excavation of El Salt Neanderthal site. About 10 g of sediment were scooped out using metal tools rinsed in methanol (MeOH) and dichloromethane (DCM), wrapped in aluminium foil, inserted in plastic bags and stored in a freeze room. In the laboratory, a half of the samples were pulverized to a fine powder using an agate mortar and pestle. All laboratory equipment was rinsed with high-purity acetone, MeOH and DCM in between samples to avoid cross contamination. We also analyzed fresh primate stool as control samples for biomarker identification. All glassware, aluminium foil, silica, quartz wool and quartz sand were combusted at 500°C for at least 12 hours to remove organic contamination, whereas metal tools were rinsed in MeOH and DCM. About 5 g of homogenized sediment samples were freeze dried and ultrasonically extracted 4 times with DCM/MeOH (3:1 v/v) at 40°C for 20 minutes to obtain a total lipid extract (TLE).
While I'm not quite going to these lengths to prepare mini museum specimens, I do feel a sense of connectedness to such a complicated process, and I think it would be easy to get frustrated when things do not go as planned.
Personally, I am not frustrated. Disappointed? Of course, I don't want to let anyone down. Yet, when I see how far the project has come and how amazing the pieces of the final production look, I am filled with excitement and energy. I hope you are still excited too.
I will have more production details to share next week, but now it's time to get back to work!