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What aquariums taught us about how the world works

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"Aquarium with Whale, etc.", unknown author, 1873.
"Aquarium with Whale, etc.", unknown author, 1873.
Courtesy of Nick Buchanan

When their son was 3, Nick Buchanan and his wife decided to put an aquarium in his room. 

It didn't go so well.

"I proceeded to slaughter fish left and right. I had an inability to keep those fish alive, no matter what I did," Buchanan said. 

The repeated fish funerals sparked his interest in tanks — the containers used to keep things alive.

'The Family Aquarium,' Henry D. Butler, 1858.
'The Family Aquarium,' Henry D. Butler, 1858.
Courtesy of Nick Buchanan

Buchanan is a historian at the University of Minnesota who specializes in science and technology. He began studying tanks in all forms: aquariums, space ships, etc. — artificial environments that allow fish and humans to survive in places they otherwise wouldn't be able to.

Buchanan joined MPR News host Tom Weber to discuss what he's learned in his research. He found that attempts to build artificial environments have actually taught scientists a huge amount about the complexity of the natural world.

For the full discussion about tanks with Nick Buchanan, use the audio player above.