A different sort of book meme is in order, perhaps?

5 10 2007

It looks like another book meme is making the rounds on the blogs (I participated, albeit feebly, in a different one a few months back), and I suppose I could highlight all the “classic” texts I’ve read, but most of the list would end up being blank. Truth be told, even though I received A’s in my high school English and literature courses, I can’t think of a single book I honestly read, and the last work of fiction I read for a college course was Heart of Darkness a few years ago, so I’ve never even opened the pages of many of the books listed on the current meme. Given my seeming lack of culture, I’m going to propose something else; I’m going to make a list of the 100 books that have been the most influential in my life, fiction & non-fiction alike. Unfortunately, I don’t have direct access to my home library at the moment so the list will have to wait until later, but I think it’d be a much more interesting and entertaining meme than the present one.





Friday Morning Notes

28 09 2007

The amount of reading I normally am able to get accomplished has suffered greatly this week; I’ve read bits and pieces of a few different books but I haven’t been able to rip through works at my usual pace. This is probably just as well, however, as many of the books I was reading were more important to me in a historical sense (understanding what scientists thought about paleontology in the past), and most of the information was already familiar. Then, yesterday afternoon, Phil Currie/Kevin Padian’s Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs arrived, and it’s proven to be a very refreshing read. As is apparent to many readers of this blog, I definitely need to work on my anatomical understanding of dinosaurs (and tetrapods in general), and I have been learning a lot from what I was able to read last night (I read all the entries for “A” and “B”). Some of the entries are fairly technical and proved how much I still have to learn (like Currie’s entry on braincases), but others were more plainly written and I had a lot of “Aha! So that’s what that is” sort of moments. Such an entry was John Hutchinson and Kevin Padian’s entry for the clade Arctometatarsalia, and I definitely came away that entry with a more refined understanding of the arrangement of metatarsals and ankles in theropods. Spencer Lucas’ entry on Biostratigraphy was also very helpful, and so clearly written that I think nearly any reader would be able to understand it.

Given that the book is a amalgamation of work from various researchers and authorities, some entries are a little better than others, although so far I don’t have much to complain about. I know the book is a little dated (1997), but I’ve tried to keep recent changes I know of in mind as I read along. Although I am learning more about anatomy slowly but surely, I know that I’m now at the point where I really do have to get a textbook or other resource on skeletal anatomy (and I’m still waiting for the day when I can afford to purchase Romer’s Osteology of the Reptiles). Still, as I noted before, it’s refreshing to dive into a more technical scientific work and be able to get something out of it, and even though it might seem like a Herculean task I’m going to try and read the encyclopedia from cover-to-cover. After that I’ll probably take a “break” with something shorter, but I also want to try and read the whole of the 2nd edition of The Dinosauria, being that I’ve only been referring to it now and again when necessary. Once I’ve been able to do those maybe I’ll be able to move on to Gould’s 2,000+ page The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, but that might have to wait until winter break. Of course I’m saying all this now, not knowing what my life will be like in the coming weeks and months, but I think that I can do it (and I think I’ll greatly benefit from such an undertaking). The more I learn, the more I get sucked in, and I’m trying to teach myself as best as I possibly can.

I’ll be away for much of this weekend as well, my wife’s birthing falling on the 30th, and her chosen activity being camping up in New York. I’ll still write today and on Sunday when I get back, but on Saturday I belong to Tracey. There will still be plenty to enjoy in terms of paleo-blogging, however, with The Boneyard coming up at Fish Feet tomorrow, although I’m hoping my recent reading will help me in construction a better juvenile sauropod post when I get back.





Tuesday Morning Notes

25 09 2007

So many papers, so little time… Thus far I’ve had a relatively busy start to the semester, especially in terms of having to prepare and give presentations. Every week I have to team up with another student from my Topics in African Prehistory class and present a summation of a few selected papers, and then there’s the new stuff coming out in the journals and what I need to read for my blog posts. Obviously schoolwork gets the priority (expect something about the Mt. Assirik chimpanzees tonight or tomorrow), but I am absolutely inundated by literature as of late.

I also will be giving my Darwin lecture this afternoon, which should be easy enough. I don’t know how much of an interest the students will show, but I’m sure the presentation will come off without any problems. I also want to start planning some talks for Darwin Day (it’s never early to start getting ready) in February, and I really wouldn’t mind being a TA or even teaching a course on evolution if I had the chance. For now, though, I’ll continue to take whatever I can get as far as making presentations, which reminds me I need to resume work on my human evolution review paper.

My trip to Haddonfield this past weekend was a bit of a bust, but I’m going to try to make it down to Big Brook this weekend (or the week after next) in the hopes of having some better luck. Shark teeth and bits of mosasaurs and plesiosaurs show up pretty frequently (Hadrosaurus and Dryptosaurus remains being rarer at the site), but even if I come up with nothing it’ll be a more productive adventure.

I’ve still got posts on juvenile sauropods and the history of Tyrannosaurus cooking, although both are going to require a lot of work and will probably have to wait until I have a weekend (or other time when I have 4-6 hours of free time to work). Even though such posts take a long time to construct, I do enjoy writing them up; I learn a lot more by trying to ingrate various resources to reveal the big picture and presenting it than just reading papers on my own. While such mega-posts have been relatively frequent as of late, I’ll try to keep up with new studies & stories as well, especially given the fact that not everyone has time to read through what I write.

In terms of books, things have slowed down a bit lately. Over the summer I was able to get through a new book every 2-3 days, but now it’s taking a bit longer. Still, I carry books with me everywhere and try to get through a few pages on the bus or before class, and I am definitely enjoying Adrian Desmond’s The Hot Blooded Dinosaurs. It’s a bit dated, but Desmond has an appreciation for the history of the debate as well as for the science, and it has plenty of illustrations to help drive home the points made in the book. I’ve really only started it so I can’t say much about the work as a whole, but the first two chapters were very enjoyable, even if I had heard the stories about Cuvier, Owen, Hawkins, mosasaurs, Iguanodon, etc. a thousand times over.

For now I need to finish up getting ready for the lecture, however, but (as I stated above) I should have something up on chimpanzees that use tools and live near open habitats later this evening.





It’s too early for Friday notes, or is it?

21 09 2007

Some time ago I confessed my overall ignorance when it came to pterosaurs, so I was definitely happy when a 1966 reprint of H.G. Seeley’s Dragons of the Air arrived yesterday. Being written in 1901 it’s bound to be a bit dated, and Seeley seems to focus on the European pterosaurs more than anything else, but it’ll make for an interesting and quick read. I hope to finish G.G. Simpson’s Attending Marvels and Simple Curiosity during the course of the weekend as well, which should be an easy task as I’m more than halfway through both.

I do make time for fiction every now and again, though, and I was definitely pleased to find that Terry Pratchett’s newest book, Making Money is now out. Being that Going Postal is my most favorite of the Discworld series to date, I am certainly looking forward to reading of the continuing trials and tribulations of Moist von Lipwig.

Lycaenops
Lycaenops at the AMNH

Tomorrow morning I’ll be hopping the train with some Rutgers students to the AMNH to teach them something about Deep Time and paleontology. The Big Bang, stromatolites, fossil horses, and whatever petrified critters they take an interest in will be covered, and I am definitely looking forward to using the 4th floor fossil halls as a sort of classroom. I’ve only got them for about 3 hours, however, so I’ll have ample opportunity to run around on my own for a bit afterwards. I have to start making up my PPT presentation for next week as well, so this weekend will be a busy one. If the weather is good I want to try to visit Haddonfield on Saturday to see the site where Hadrosaurus foulkii was discovered and see if I can’t find the chocolate marl from which it came, but that might have to wait.

Finally, although it only appeared in the news reports for a quick moment, a new paper in Science seems to show evidence of feathers on Velociraptor in the form of quill attachments. Unfortunately I can’t access the journal from home, but I am not glad that I was delayed in writing about another recent feathered dinosaur in the news so I can put them together in one post. Speaking of journals, I finally was able to get someone to sign my membership form for SVP as well, and I am looking forward to receiving the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in the mail. My post on “wee little sauropods” is still in the works as well, but I have many more papers to read before I can be sure I’m actually making sense and not just writing fiction myself.





What?!

20 09 2007

I rarely listen to the radio, but when I do, I always turn on NPR (usually WHYY from Philadelphia). While I much prefer their news coverage and features to that of the “major” news outlets, every once in a while I hear something really crazy come over my computer speakers, as I just did moments ago. As I’m writing, author Diane Ackerman is being interviewed on Radio Times about her book The Zookeeper’s Wife, focusing on the true story of Warsaw Zoo keeper Jan Zabinski during WWII. On the air, Ackerman described how Jan had an uncanny ability of calming animals that were said to be vicious or overly aggressive. In explaining why Jan may have been able to do this, Ackerman suggested that at one time in our evolutionary history it would have been advantageous for mother and child to have a telepathic link, some kind of natural “Fall” degrading that ability in most people. According to Ackerman, Jan may have retained such an ability, intimating that she somehow telepathically soothed the beasts. The discussion on such a topic did not go further, but this is very strange coming from a woman who (even as I speak, oddly enough) prides herself on her understanding of natural history. Telepathy between mother and child has even less support for it than another idea of evolution that is heavily based upon woo, the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, and it seems like a continuation of the popular mythology that humans were once “in harmony” with nature and have since fallen from grace, losing any number of senses or sensitivities along the way. Indeed, it’d be best to leave telepathic hominids to trashy summer novels, and although The Zookeeper’s Wife sounds like an extraordinary story, Ackerman’s interview definitely turned me off. I know it’s not rational, judging a book I haven’t read by a kooky idea on a different subject, but I would be lying if I said I was going to go out and read it straight away.





From the mind of G.G. Simpson

20 09 2007

George Gaylord Simpson is one of my most favorite scientists, and I think that only Stephen Jay Gould has had a larger impact on my intellectual evolution. Indeed, not only was Simpson a brilliant scientist, but he was a fantastic writer as well, and even though many of his books are no longer entirely accurate they are still a pleasure to read (his first book, Attending Marvels: A Patagonian Journal, is especially good). Given Simpson’s influence and accomplishments, it is of little surprise then that Leo F. Laporte has been considerable time researching the scientist, and in 1987 a selection of Simpson’s letters to his family was published under the title Simple Curiosity. While I have yet to finish the book, I found the following passage, from a letter to George’s sister Marthe dated Jan. 25th, 1926, especially interesting, and have reproduced the relevant parts of it here;

The reconstruction of the past, even so great a past as that which lies before me here, can add only a melancholy significance to the fact which we know but dare not realize that the present must become as truly past and perhaps even more irrevocably. As for science, one who is not engaged in it can hardly realize to what extent petty motives dominate even here. The highest possible scientific motive is simple curiosity and from there they run on down to ones as sordid as you like. And all our scientific interpretations and theories are simply meaningless. There are facts, of course, in any workable use of the term facts, but with us as with artists and other impractical people here facts are considered as only so much mud and straw unless they can be piled up into a hypothesis, gaily stuccoed and concealed with theory. And like other futile edifices of man these are inhabited for a brief space giving glory to the proprietor of the most unusual or striking and then left to melt back to dust and be forgotten, or worse yet, to become curiosities for generations with other “latests”.

Don’t think I am bitter or unhappy about my work. I like it very much and get pleasure out of it. I am also achieving considerable success. [emphasis mine]

As a friend and teacher once told me, science is continually undertaken for the next generation. While some researchers may have the pleasure of having their hypothesis accepted (or even vindicated) in their own lifetime, it is the next generation of scientists who will look at the information from a different standpoint, hopefully freer of the motives or trains of thoughts of those that trained them. In a moment of melancholy, this can be an awfully depressing thought, while in truth it is an amazing and liberating thing to know that even if hypotheses or ideas eventually die away, what each scientist brings to their discipline might be useful to later generations on inching towards the reality of the workings of nature. As Leo Laporte suggests in the introduction of the book, however, Simpson seems to have outlived his own influence, his fears of 1926 of being forgotten in favor of “the latest” being somewhat realized. In fact, it was not so much that his ideas were discarded, but rather that what he had done became so accepted that it was almost taken for granted, nearly divorced from Simpson himself (especially Simpson’s contributions to combating notions like vitalism, finalism, orthogenesis, and aristogenesis in evolution).

This particular letter also reflects worries that would haunt Simpson for the rest of his life; the fear of not being able to contribute to science, not receiving recognition for his work, and being forgotten as if he had never even existed. Such worries are perhaps most poignantly reflected in a book that G.G. never intended to be published; The Dechronization of Sam Magruder. The absolutely wonderful work, a short novella about the titular character cast back into the Cretaceous, allows as much insight into the scientist as any of his more straightforward letters, and in the Afterword Stephen Jay Gould (who knew Simpson personally) reveals that the lonely Sam Magruder is G.G. Simpson. Gould writes;

I knew Simpson during the last fifteen years of his life, when he was the most honored and the most revered paleontologist in the world. Yet I never encountered a man so apparently lonely (save for the comfort of immediate family), so dissatisfied, so craving so recognition, yet so incapable of satisfaction. I wanted to shake him (or hug him, if he would have permitted either) – and tell him how much we all loved him, how his work had been our chief joy and inspiration. But no one could find a middle ground to please him. One either spoke truly and therefore had, at least on occasion, to express some disagreement with something he had once said – and this he could not bear. Or else one played the toady and agreed with everything he said – and this he could bear even less, for his fierce intellectual honesty could not tolerate false ingratiation. And so, one of the world’s most honored scientists wallowed in a miasma of doubt and anger, always fearing that future generations would ignore him and that all his work would ultimately go for naught.

While I do not wish to “[wallow] in a miasma of doubt and anger” as I proceed through my intellectual evolution, whatever form it eventually takes as the years tick on, I can relate to Simpson’s worries. The more I seen to take in, the less I seem to understand (and the more questions seem to remain). Even though I continually try to take in more information about nature and how it works, my grasp of it is tenuous at best, although I can’t think of any more enjoyable pursuit than those that I engage myself in whenever time permits. As I had mentioned before, however, one can look at the ever-changing body of knowledge of science with disappointment and disdain, or with hope that what we do today will allow future generations to come that much closer to understanding. In Quest for the African Dinosaurs, paleontologist Louis Jacobs is frank about his own doubts involving his discoveries in Malawi & Cameroon; he has opened up new areas for exploration, but his particular analysis of the finds may or may not last. Before describing his last day in Malawi, Jacobs concludes that there is still a great need for scientists to study the ancient world he helped to uncover;

All of the studies done thus far are preliminary. More work needs to be done on everything. The frogs are unstudied, the mammallike croc is not yet named, nor are the Malawi-saurus [later officially named Malawisaurus] or our new species of diplodocid formally named. The stegosaur and theropods need detailed examination. What will they tell us? The questions go on and on. It will be years before the final reports are completed. It will be years before Elizabeth has turned in her finished dissertation and returned to her country to undertake new investigations in Malawi’s fossil beds. Even after that has happened, scholars will forever employ the specimens collected in our Malwai expeditions, and those from Cameroon, just as they use books in a library, for their own research purposes. Ideas will constantly be revised, eternally updated, never static. What we think now about Malawi-saurus and the other fossils from Africa is sure to change in the future. In one sense the means that what is being said today is sure to be wrong, or at best, not completely right; in a more important sense it means that what is being said now will help us be closer to the truth next time.

While the ultimate satisfaction of having a hypothesis vindicated (or the frustration of a beloved one being struck down) may escape many scientists for many years, there is satisfaction in contributing to science even if the analysis is incorrect. Perhaps this is why it is so enjoyable to be paleontologist, and why so many bone sharps like R.T. Bird could find in fossil hunting so much enjoyment without overly worrying about the more academic aspects of the field; even if an analysis is wrong, every bone that comes out of the ground helps to further the understanding of vanished worlds, the ever greater accumulation of material allowing each new generation of scientists to notice new ideas, refine old ones, and become ever more accurate if freedom of thought and inquisitiveness are allowed to persist. For my own part, I can’t think of any other line of inquiry I’d rather associate myself with, nor any other that sparks my imagination in quite the same way. If I ever will contribute to this science (or any other) will remain to be seen, but I am sure the feelings that I have expressed are not unique.





Tuesday Morning Miscellany

11 09 2007

I know things have been a bit slack here since the weekend, but I hope to have something rather substantial up later today. Outside the realm of massive science posts, however, here’s what’s been going on lately;

1) The Boneyard will be coming up at Julia’s The Ethical Palaeontologist this coming Saturday. Get your links in to me or Julia by Friday evening if you want in on the aggregation.

2) I read the companion book to the AMNH’s fossil hall restorations of the 1990′s, The American Museum Of Natural History’s Book Of Dinosaurs And Other Ancient Creatures, in it’s entirety yesterday. It proved to be a good source of historical information (i.e. freelance bonesharp Charles Sternberg’s financial woes making the purchase of some fossils especially difficult as he’d pack them up before H.F. Osborn’s men could have a look at them, hence being unable to make a proper assessment and causing Osborn to have to decide “sight unseen,” as in the case of the Edmontosaurus “mummy”), but many of the species descriptions were a bit lacking. Being that the book was put out by the AMNH, some of the inaccuracies that still remain in the fossil halls were played down, but it still is a good dump of information, photographs, and sketches not otherwise available to the general public.

I’m currently reading R.T. Bird’s Bones for Barnum Brown and, despite Bird’s fawning over “Mr. Bones,” it is an excellent book, especially if you’re interested in the sauropod bone bed at Howe Quarry and the discovery that sauropods had “whiplash” tails. Bird’s quarry map is especially interesting, and within the assorted materials the sacral regions of the vertebral columns seem to have been the more well-preserved (even though they had become disassociated with the rest of the body they belonged to). Don’t let the fact that the book is relatively large and thin (taking the appearance of a children’s book) fool you; it is an excellent resource and first hand account of Bird’s work in the field.

The book that I’m currently toting between classes if Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression, which I have been meaning to read for some time. I did start Simon Singh’s The Big Bang as well, but it will have to wait until I finish Bird’s autobiography tonight. If the Louis Jacobs book Quest for the African Dinosaurs arrives today though, Singh’s book may be waylaid once again.

Oh, and lest I forget, I read George McCready Price’s 1929 creationist “booklet” The Predicament of Evolution (available for free online)over the weekend as well. It is amazing how little creationism has changed since Price wrote his short work, many of the same arguments are still used today with just as much belief that they refute evolution as in 1929. Change a few references and Price’s book could very well be an AiG tract like The Lie, although there is one major difference. Price appeals heavily to anti-communist sentiment in one of the latter chapters, and even though he does not closely associate Darwin with Marx or Lenin, he does try to associate evolution with communism, deeming both to be utterly un-American (because when the Bible falls, America falls, he says).

3) Julia has a must-read post about her experiences working on Cetiosauriscus named “Hopalong Cassidy” and how a little grey Diplodocus saved the day. While already on exhibit, I hope this coming Saturday’s traveling program will give the article a proper place of appreciation.

4) Why isn’t there an Anomalocaris on your shirt? If you want to fix the problem, visit Marek Eby’s Trilobite Clothing online store and get stocked up on your Cambrian clothing needs. There’s no Opabinia or Hallucigenia just yet, but there’s still plenty to enjoy. I’m definitely going to pick one up and wear it proudly.

Speaking of shirts, I also ordered a “Scientific Accuracy Isn’t for Wimps” shirt from SkeletalDrawing.com and two shirts (one with skeletons from one of Cuvier’s works, another with fossil hominids) from Skulls Unlimited. My clothing has become decidedly more geeky over the past year, with my favorite is still my “Future Transitional Fossil” shirt.

5) The documentary Flock of Dodos is now officially out on DVD and available for purchase. I initially saw the film just short of a year ago at a screening at the AMNH, and even though I definitely enjoyed it then (and have subsequently praised it on this blog), I have become more ambivalent towards it as time has gone on. When I get a copy I’ll write up another review, perhaps from a more seasoned perspective, about what I liked and didn’t like about the film.

6) If you’ve got a profile on Facebook, be sure to add Eugenie Scott and the NCSE to your friends. Oh, and you can always add me, too, if you’d like to.

7) Classes are moving along well, although I’m still not used to having a few hours in between meetings where I don’t have enough time to run to work. Such breaks could definitely end up being productive in terms of posts and the book that I’m still working on, but it is weird to have the day broken up again. The only class that seems like it is going to give me trouble is Precalc, but as long as I get a C I will be more than happy and count my blessings that I survived.

8) Have you registered for the next North Carolina Science Blogging Conference yet? I’ll be there, and even *gasp* speaking on a panel of other graduate and undergraduate students like Shelly of Retrospectacle and Anne-Marie of Pondering Pikaia, and I’m sure this year’s conference will turn out to be even more exciting than the last.

And don’t forget to nominate your favorite science blogging posts, from here or elsewhere, for the next installment of the Open Laboratory. Click the purple button to the right (or here) to nominate the best of science writing over the past year, regardless of whether it can be found here on Laelaps or elsewhere.

So, now that the shameless plugs and other notes are out of the way, off I go to work on a new massive post about science and the history of ideas. I hope to finish it tonight, but I make no promises…








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