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 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.


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…

Sunday Afternoon Dispatches

2 09 2007

Autumn crept into the late-night air along 287 South early this morning. After a pleasant day, I stepped into the minutely chill air that had settled in New York State, taking in the my first realy breaths of fall air as I walked down to the car. Despite the 3rd season wasting no time in claiming September evenings, I had a pleasant day with my wife’s aunt in the Chappaqua area, hiking along a local reservoir and enjoying a meal that seemed to come a little late; corn on the cob, all-beef hot dogs, potato salad, and summer squash. The trails we traveled were much more flat that the AT, the hardscrabble climb of the scree laying me out the rest of last weekend, and mica washed out of the glacially-deposited rocks glinted on many the trails wer traveled. If time permits, I’ll post pictures from the trip later tonight.

I also managed to finish The Bonehunter’s Revenge last night after dinner, although I still have to read the latter half aloud to my wife (I am definitely glad she’s so interested in the famous “Bone Wars”). Wallace’s book is singularly excellent, and although there are a few flaws, he gives the story a cultural background that is also lacking. Also of great importance is his treatment of Cope’s “ghost”, exhumed by Louie Psihoyos in the lavishly-illustrated book Hunting Dinosaurs. Not to spoil the tale for those who haven’t yet read Wallace’s book, Psihoyos absonded with Cope’s skull, taking the Philadelphian all over the country to meet the likes of Paul Sereno (who identified an absess tooth in Cope’s skull) and Bob Bakker (who boiled pasta and poured it into Cope’s skull to help determine his cranial capacity), all under the auspices of bringing attention to Cope’s “dying wish” to be the type specimen for the human species. Cope never had such a hope, and the body of Linneaus had long been nominated to have the prestige ages ago, and so it seems that Psihoyos either missed something in his research or didn’t do any, Wallace rightly (but fairly) chastizing the National Geographic photographer for undertaking a stutn to shocking that it would be fit for the pages of the Herald that printed Cope and Marsh’s famous fossil fued. Wallace also notes how little society seemed to care for dinosaurs during a time that many paleontologists deem pivotal to our understanding of dinosaurs, O.C. Marsh’s discovery of the toothed Cretaceous birds and a seemingly-straight line of horse evolution (and T.H. Huxley’s visit to discuss these finds) gaining much more coverage than any dinosaur find. In case I have not made a strong enough case, read Wallace’s book; it is a must for understanding the tragic figures that helped form the basis of modern vertebrate paleontology.

I also started a book consisting of essays about the “strip-mining” of American culture called Dumbing Down, and already I am partially disgusted by it. I am not one to ignore problems in our consumer-driven society, Megachurches with their of McDonald’s Drive-Thru and libraries that suffer destruction of many of their books because a local radio station hides money in some of the books as a promotion, but the introductory portions of the book take something of a condescending tone to what they identify as the provincial rabble that has undermined high-culture. Part of this seems to stem from an affinity for bits of “high culture”, a sort of post hoc nostalgia developing that ages past surely must have been more sophisticated and refined than today’s culture of amateurs. From what I can tell there has never been nor ever shall be a “golden age” of refinement, the high-brow and the low-brow constantly existing and harboring greater or lesser amounts of contempt for each other. There are intellectual blessings and curses to every age, and I don’t believe that people are becoming “dumbed down” as much as distracted by a culture that values high-tech gadetry over a good book. The simple mental and cultural capacity to break free from many of the societal strangeholds that we are often warned are choking off blood-flow to our collective brain is present, as ever it has been, and I believe things can be changed, but bemoaning others as stupid, ignorant, and uncultured if they have never read Hamlet or Crime and Punishment is not the way to open minds.

I also will finally have the chance to watch the Planet Earth series in full as it was meant to be; with David Attenborough providing the narration. I’ll probably write up something of a review at some point when I’m finished, but despite what I feel are some ill-written lines of narration, the series is probably the most visually stunning I have ever seen, and I doubt that anyone will be able to watch it and find wonder in nature.

On a different note, I have registed for the 2008 North Carolina Science Blogging Conference coming up in January. I’ll be driving down to arrive on Friday and will be there all day on Saturday, so if you are going to be there let me know so I can at the very least get to say “hello” in person. If you haven’t already registered, or need more information about the event (did I mention that it’s free?), Coturnix (who has used his Herculean blogging and organizational powers to help make the event a reality) has all the links you’ll need.

And don’t forget, if you see a post on here that you especially enjoyed or think is of outstanding merit, please nominate it to be included in the 2007 edition of the blog anthology The Open Laboratory. You can nominate posts by clicking the purple OpenLab 2007 button on the right hand side of this blog, and you can nominate as many as you would like.

That about does it for me for now, although I hope to write something a bit more scientific later on today. If anyone has any topics they’d like me to cover, don’t hesitate to mention it in the comments as I’m a bit dry on subject matter today.

Amalgamated Friday Notes

31 08 2007

So here we are, the last day of August. This morning when I stepped outside to drop the mail into the corner box, the orange light struck the trees and small flocks of chickadees pecking at the sidewalk just right, a few crickets continuing on the evening chorus of chirps. No one was around despite the relatively late hour and I had the sidewalk to myself, reminiscing about such morning in Florida, a place I am much more fond of. Still, it was not a bad moment to part with my summer, and I’ll be counting the days until it comes again.

Indeed, this is the last weekend before school starts, and I’m pretty tied up for most of the weekend. I hope to get some writing done, but I have no idea how much. On the book front, I’ve been trying to get through as many books as possible before school starts. The other night I read T.H. Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature and it was an utter delight. Some parts were a bit dry, but when let loose from measuring skulls, feet, or hands to pontificate upon the subject of the book named in the title, Huxley is at his best. I am sorry I had not read it sooner.

At the moment I’m reading The Bonehunter’s Revenge aloud to my wife, and it is one of the most enjoyable popular science/history books I’ve come across as of late. The author, Wallace, gets some of his history muddled in only giving it a brief mention (he fumbles a bit in his discussion of Cuvier and Lamarck and at one point calls a titanothere a titanosaur), but overall the prose flows well and tells and exciting story, tying it all together with the famous feud between Cope and Marsh in the Herald. If you’re tired of simply hearing that Cope and Marsh had long-standing ill-will towards each other and want to know why, I highly endorse picking up a copy of this book (and if you like card games, check out Bone Wars, too!). Being that I have to wait until the evening to read Wallace’s book aloud to my wife, I spent most of yesterday evening reading the companion volume to the BBC series The Velvet Claw. I never got to see the series, nor am I likely to as it seems to never have come out on DVD, but the book is definitely a well-illustrated overview of living and extinct carnivorous mammals. It is a bit dated in some of it’s paleontology(Pakicetus was still thought of as a half-seal at this time), and it can be a bit dry at times, but it has been a very useful book.

In fact, The Velvet Claw and Jeremy’s recent post about the scent-marking habits of Binturongs has inspired me to write about something that I have not yet seen covered in full in the blogosphere; genital mimicry in cat-line carnivorans. Spotted Hyena are the most famous example, but they are not alone in appearing androgynous; Binturongs, Fossas, and some other living carnivores on the cat-side branch of the evolutionary tree also express genital mimicry (the parts of the females looking like those of the males), and upon learning this I definitely became more interested in just how widespread such a condition is among civets and their relatives. I’ll have to do a bit of research before I get churn that one out (I’m now even more thankful that I picked up Walker’s Mammals of the World), but hopefully I’ll have it done soon.

Like I mentioned earlier, this weekend sees me pretty booked up, but next weekend I hope to visit the Philadelphia Zoo (I’ve been waiting to go all summer, and other plans continually got in the way), so expect plenty of pictures of the various critters there. Hopefully I’ll snag some shots of the tiger cubs born this past spring, but if I’m going to do that I’m going to have to get there a bit early.

I should probably get back to work on my post about a certain killer marsupial that was roaming Australia until the end of the Pleistocene, though, and I hope everyone returning to school gets to enjoy the long weekend before the semester sets in full-force.

Update: I nearly forgot a few things I meant to add. First, my wife brought home a 6-bottle pack of Woodchuck Draft Cider last night and it was really good. I’m told that Woodpecker Cider is better, but I won’t complain about the Woodchuck brand, especially since it’s got the scientific name on the bottle.

Second, my wife is interested in the Carnivora as much as I am, and she definitely wanted to read The Velvet Claw. Being a bit tired, she picked up the book to flip through it, and when she had stopped I asked for it so I could start it. She held it close and got a distrustful look in her eye and said “Mine.” I replied “But you didn’t even know the book existed until I bought it.” She shot back “Just because I didn’t know about it doesn’t mean it’s not mine.” She soon relented and will start on the book soon herself.

Lastly, my wife related an anecdote to me of her trip to the liquor store to get the aforementioned Marmot Woodchuck Cider. Last night was the 1st football game of the season for Rutgers, so hordes of freshmen swamped the streets and stalls of local purveyors of alcohol. In one such establishment, a young man said to my wife (as related by her to me) “Hey, I’m totally, like, having a party later and you should, like, totally come.” My wife, clever as I know her to be, replied “Oh yeah? I’m having a party too.” The young man, somewhat expectantly said “Oh yeah? Really?”, my wife swiftly interfecting “Yeah, with my husband.” I am told that this attempted suitor was rather deflated upon hearing these words and did not utter any more until he had left.

And yes, I am fully aware that I took on a rather erudite tone in that last passage; perhaps I’ve been reading too much 19th century prose…

Monday morning notes

27 08 2007

This weekend has been a bit slow, probably because Saturday kicked my butt. My wife and I headed out to the Appalachian Trail in the Delaware Water, hiked up to Sunfish Pond and then back down, about 10 miles over glacial till and scree all the way up and down. While the first few miles up are pretty bland, we did see plenty of fungi, toads, frogs, and a few three-lined skink that I will have pictures of later today (as well as pictures from the last time I was petsitting, including deer, cedar waxwings, turkey vultures, and eastern goldfinch). I also found a fossil cast of some bivalves, although I have no idea what genera/species and can’t say where it came from being that the surface is a random assortment a rock deposited by glaciers.

On the reading front, I didn’t get as much done as I wanted but I still was able to get a good bit down. I finished Where Darwin Meets the Bible and I wasn’t very impressed by it. It can be a good source of information if you’re already familiar with the debate, but the style of writing (resembling a newspaper article) and the fact that creationists and evolutionary biologists carry equal weight didn’t do much to win me over. While the book tries hard to take sides, being objective glosses over some important information, i.e. Jonathan Wells is presented at least once as being some sort of authority on textbooks and evolution, even though it’s been conclusively shown that his criteria were biased and inaccurate. While some of the comments on the back cover (like the one from David Raup) commed the author for this “even handed” approach, in the end I think it does a disservice to the reader. Indeed, it seems that the author merely asked each of the people mentioned/interviewed what happened or what they think and printed it without much further investigation, leaving the reader to figure things out (and therefore to agree with whatever side one is already aligned with/leaning towards). It wasn’t all bad, however, and the last section had a few good bits in it. The very last point, that both sides view themselves as the honorable underdogs, is especially accurate, and I have little doubt that I won’t see the end of debate on this issue. (And once again, if you want to read a good, fair book about creationists and how they operate, pick up Toumey’s God’s Own Scientists)

I also finished Bowler’s Theories of Human Evolution: A Century of Debate 1844-1944, and it turned out to be a very useful book. While there are some notable omissions (like the work of Buffon), it is an excellent resource and provides a good overview about how thoughts involving human evolution (and evolution in general) have changed during the century covered in the book. I was definitely surprised to see how widespread the idea of convergence in human evolution was, a popular notion being that people in Asia had evolved from orangutans and those in Europe from Gorillas, leading to different races being different “species” of human. It was also interesting to note that many scientists recognized Eoanthropus (or “Piltdown Man”) as being a fraud from the beginning, although it did not finally resign it’s status in the literature until about 1950. Discussions of Dart’s Taung child and the idea of a vital force driving human evolution are also highlights, and I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in how our ideas of evolution have evolved in and of themselves.

I’ve also read most of Morgan’s Scars of Evolution (it’s only about 175 pages long), and so far I’m not very impressed with it. I only have about 50 pages left to read, and Morgan has yet to fully lay out her case for an Aquatic Ape stage in human evolution, and she instead tries to refute competing hypotheses and win by default. No references are given in the text for claims that she makes, making it nearly impossible to fact check what she’s saying, and overall the case seems pretty weak. Indeed, the whole hypothesis seems to have the problem of starting with humans and trying to explain each part of our current anatomy within an aquatic framework, the evidence being possible convergences in a handful of aquatic species. Taphonomy is also misunderstood or ignored, Morgan claiming that because “Lucy” was found in a deposit that suggested a proximity to water Australopithecus should be shown wading in swamps/lakes and not crossing plains. The fact that rivers, lakes, streams, and other habitats near water would preserve dead creatures better than more terrestrial habitats is ignored. If such arguments are the best that the AAH camp can come up with, the hypothesis is on pretty shaky ground at best. Still, I’m open to hearing the arguments, and I’ll breeze through Morgan’s Descent of the Child later tonight, the book attempting to apply the AAH to human babies.

Outside of all that, I’m trying to squeeze as much enjoyment as possible out of this last week of summer (I start classes on September 5th). Even so, this morning while driving to work the air was cool and had just a hint of an almost imperceptible scent of fall, and I know that I’ll soon be counting the days until May comes back around again. I definitely don’t think that I made the most of my summer (I didn’t even take a vacation or any days off), but then again I always lament the waning of summer, and I definitely wish I could migrate south for the coming fall and winter.