My granddaughter and I had great fun in New York. On Day 1 we went to the American Museum of Natural History, which at 1,600,000 square feet and four city blocks of exhibits is surely the repository of the sum total of human knowledge. We learned about an 80-million-year-old ammonite (that’s not an ancient Canaanite tribe but a cephalopod mollusk) that went extinct 66 million years ago. We learned that this was the exact same time that the dinosaurs were wiped out.
In the planetarium, a disembodied authoritative voice over a loudspeaker assured us that the universe is 13.7 billion (that’s with a “b”) years old. Not 13.6 billion. Not 13.8 billion. Moreover, every galaxy in it came about from a single microscopic particle that suddenly exploded somehow. My granddaughter leaned over and said, “But who made the particle?” Attagirl.
On Day 2 my granddaughter and I drove to Coney Island and toured the New York Aquarium. We took in the special SpongeBob SquarePants 4-D exhibit, my first-ever exposure to the animated phylum Porifera character. Although “Bob” is only 28 years old, we learned that his ancestors are 540 million years old. Again: not 530 million, not 550 million, but 540 million.
On Day 3 my granddaughter and I browsed the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, where if there were signs boldly proclaiming the ages of the Gomphrena haageana or Beta vulgaris, I missed them.
But it dawned on me on the way home that the way dates of origins for stars and sponges are thrown around these days is very much like the way I used to price my veggie wraps at the seminary café more than a decade ago. Being totally green (not in a good PC way) in the restaurant business at first, and having no clue as to how to price my wares, I did a lot of creative computing and cogitating in coming up with dollar amounts to write on the menu and showcase signs. It felt fraudulent but fun.
I looked at the price of meat and cheese, I looked at the prices of my competitors, I considered the psychology of what the market could bear, I looked for a valuation that sounded plausible: “Does $4.95 have a nice ring to it?”
After all, what does the customer know, right? The more confident I sounded about my numbers, the more of an expert I seemed. The more precise the figure I put forth, the more scientific it appeared: “Veggie wrap, $4.95. Ham wrap, $6.25.” It works in astronomy and anthropology as it works in the food business: “Age of the universe: 13.7 billion years. Origin of sponges in the evolutionary tree of life: 540 million years ago.”
I’m on to your creative labeling, SpongeBob and museum curators. Bravo, you’re thinking we don’t know any better; you’re betting we wouldn’t know antimatter from antipasto. And you have all those awesome Ph.D.s Plus 1,600,000 square feet of information and dioramas.