Who knew that gunk under a toe nail could inspire a new science?
“One day in ’93, I was clipping my toenails, saw the gunk underneath and wondered what it really was,” recalls writer and educator Sylvia Branzei. “Then I realized, kids love gross stuff. I’m a junior high teacher. Gross just comes with the territory.”
Branzei’s curiosity translated into the 1995 bestseller Grossology, the Science of Really Gross Things, which later became a calendar, a CD-ROM and an extremely popular traveling museum exhibit that made a stop in Chicago in 2001.
Now it’s time for the sequel. Branzei, a 45-year-old former teacher, was in town recently for the world premiere of “Animal Grossology: The Science of Creatures Gross and Disgusting” at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park. Based on Branzei’s 1996 best-selling follow-up book, the exhibit will be at Notebaert through the end of the year.
“This is an entire biology lesson on the animal kingdom disguised in disgusting things,” explains Notebaert Nature Museum President Joe Shacter.
Shacter says “Animal Grossology” is the climax to a three-year renovation of the museum. “We’re really excited about [the new exhibit],” he says. “The first one was a blockbuster.”
The exhibit is a mixture of wall displays, interactive video screens, games and animatronic puppets. Characters include a tough-talking fly who doesn’t understand humans’ hang-ups about vomit. After all, flies throw up before they eat.
“I love the Slime Game,” says Branzei. “It reminds me of the Dating Game and the characters are just great.”
The Slime Game has Slimo, a yellow mucus blob of a host, moderating a competition between a squeamish sea cucumber, a laid-back surfer-lingo-spewing snail and a female hagfish to see which one of them is the slimiest. The answers are as attractive as the participants. “When I get scared, I shoot my intestines out of my butt,” squeals Lou, the sea cucumber.
“In the end, the lesson I want kids to take home with them is not the grossness,” explains Branzei. “The grossness is just the hook to teach the science. Most of the things we think are disgusting actually become less disgusting when we learn about them. Knowledge takes away the grossness.”
“Then again there some things that aren’t gross until you learn about them,” says Branzei. “The fly is just plain gross. And I never knew.”