RALEIGH — Like moles, raccoons and great gray slugs, the Triangle's nocturnal creatures crawled into the Nature Research Center far past the wee hours Saturday, many of them tipsy, some a bit lost, all of them giddy explorers seeking late-night brain candy.
On its opening day, Raleigh's newest museum kept its doors open for 24 hours, long after Gov. Bev Perdue and various other dignitaries had their first glance, throwing 80,000 square feet of exhibits open to downtown insomniacs.
At 3 a.m., the world's most ardent science nerds waited in line for 20 minutes for a turn on the roof, where high-powered telescopes showed them the rings of Saturn glowing above the skyline.
"I got to see footage of a squid!" squealed Adaria Coulter, 19, an art and design student at N.C. State University. "I was half-asleep and I thought I'd be the only one here. I live for this stuff. I'm excited right now."
As she waited for a glance at the sixth planet from the sun, she doodled in her notebook with purple ink.
"It's an octopus," she explained, "and he's got a mustache."
As they wandered over three floors of exhibit space an expansion of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences visitors wondered why Raleigh's new shrine of learning isn't always open all night. Sure, the school kids come on field trips from 9 to 5, but a truly captive audience rolls in once the bars close.
Overheard at 3 a.m.:
- "Yo, Ben. How you doing? I'm ( colloquialism for intoxicated.)"
- "I want to be able to look into God's eye. I'm a dreamer."
- "So, if the aliens come today, do you say, 'Hey, it's Earth Day. Don't bother us?' "
- "It's about 3:30. I've got to be at work in ... seven hours."
- "Hey, I'm drunk in a museum! How you doing?"
Raleigh was ready for them, regardless of state of mind.
Inside the SECU Daily Planet, the giant globe on Jones Street that glows blue and green in the darkness, National Geographic biologist Greg Marshall marveled at the size of his audience.
"You guys are crazy!" he said. "It's 3 o'clock in the morning."
Then he launched into a presentation that dealt with mounting cameras on sharks' heads, complete with video on a 42-foot screen, which went over very big especially in the waning hours of April 20, a day famous for mind expansion.
Well past 2 a.m., children were still walking the museum floor, cornering Ph.D.s in their natural habitat.
"At 3 in the morning, people will literally stand here and ask me questions about this DNA sequencer," said Bryan Stuart, the museum's curator of amphibians and reptiles. "People want to know how this relates to what they see on CSI. Well, we're doing the same things. We're also trying to find out who did it."
Rachel Barnum, a volunteer who also belongs to N.C. State's animal conservation club, spent the evening directing visitors into the correct door of the mock submersible that mimics the experience of diving 3,000 feet below the ocean's surface.
She also refereed the aquarium, where a recent bar-goer sized up the contents and considered whether he'd ever caught any of the fish inside.
Barnum advised him to try for a lionfish next time.
"The lionfish is an invasive species on the coast," she said. "So if you catch them, eat them."
As any post-midnight veteran knows, there's a great deal of difference between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. Crowds began to thin as Saturn's light dimmed.
But they went away with their heads full, and their brains lit a little brighter, ready for dreams of sharks and octopi and space.
Shaffer: (919) 829-4818