Fifth-Grader Corrects Smithsonian 'Tower of Time'

Kenton Stufflebeam, a fifth-grader from Allegan, Mich., pointed out in December that the Smithsonian Natural History Museum's Tower of Time referred to "the Precambrian" as an "era" when it really is a "supereon." This week, the museum corrected the 27-year-old mistake.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And now to a very different kind of scientific discovery, one made right here in our nation's capital. In fact, it was made inside the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Kenton Stufflebeam, a fifth-grader from Allegan, Michigan, was visiting last December when he noticed something not quite right. The museum's Tower of Time referred to the Precambrian as an era. And that, young Mr. Stufflebeam declared, was an error.

Kenton Stufflebeam joins us now by telephone.

Hi. How you're doing?

Mr. KENTON STUFFLEBEAM (Fifth-grader, Alamo Elementary School): Good.

SIEGEL: How did you know that you were right and that - what the Smithsonian Tower of Time said about the Precambrian was wrong?

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: Well, my teacher, Mr. Chapman, he was putting up a time line on all the eras.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: And so, he accidentally put down the Precambrian era, and he ripped the whole thing down and said, kids always remember that the Precambrian is not an era, it's just the Precambrian. And so, that just stuck in my mind. And then, when I went to the museum, I saw it was wrong, and I commented on it. And I guess I got the reply and I was right.

SIEGEL: Well, if the Precambrian is not an era, what is it?

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: Well, it's broken up into three eons. And so, it's such a long period of time. It's longer than all of the eras put together.

SIEGEL: And, in fact, I guess most of the Earth's history is the Precambrian.

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: Yes.

SIEGEL: Well, I understand that the museum - the Smithsonian National History Museum…

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: Yeah.

SIEGEL: …sent you a letter thanking you. And even the letter had a mistake in it, I believe, yeah?

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: Oh, yeah. It said, Kenton Swafflebeam(ph), instead of Stufflebeam.

SIEGEL: Oh, no.

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: Yeah…

SIEGEL: They got your name wrong.

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Right.

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: And also for my town, they said Alleganie(ph), instead of Allegan.

SIEGEL: Oh, no.

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: I know.

SIEGEL: So they got the who and the where both wrong.

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: Yup.

SIEGEL: Well, it's easy to see how they'd get the Precambrian wrong if they can't get Stufflebeam and Allegan right.

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Yeah. You've made a very strong educational contribution to the Smithsonian. Have do you feel about this whole thing?

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: Oh, man, I just - I feel so excited. I mean, I feel great. I mean, a lot of professors and people like that have went past that. And about 3 million people, the estimate, walked past that exhibit every year. I mean, I couldn't believe it - for an 11-year old to change a national museum, I mean, it's just amazing to me, I think.

SIEGEL: Well, congratulations and more important, thank you very much for making that right.

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: Yes. You're welcome.

SIEGEL: Thanks a lot for talking with us, too.

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: Yup, bye.

SIEGEL: Bye-bye now.

Kenton Stufflebeam is a fifth-grader at Alamo Elementary School in Otsego, Michigan. And this week, the museum officially corrected the mistake, which has been on display since 1981, meaning that it is the very real end of an era.

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