Sunday, December 20, 2009

Skipping the Light Fandango on My Anniversary

So looking back, what did you learn from the time with The Commitments, Jimmy?

That's a tricky question, Terry. But as I always say: We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels 'cross the floor. I was feeling kind of seasick, but the crowd called out for more.

That's very profound, Jimmy. What does it mean?

I'm fucked if I know, Terry!

~ This is dialogue from a closing scene in the movie The Commitments in which fictional character Jimmy Rabitte, who brought the group The Commitments together which has now fallen apart, does both parts of a pretend interview with Terry Wogan, an actual long-time Irish radio and television interviewer. (Jonas Söderström has a wonderful analysis of the inclusion in the movie of Procol Harum’s song "A Whiter Shade of Pale" which is not in Roddy Doyle’s novel. Jimmy’s lines beginning with “We skipped the light fandango,” are from the song.)

A year ago today I posted the initial entry in this blog – Fossils and Other Living Things. Today’s post is a salute to the year gone by which turned out to be nothing like what I imagined it would be. A posting on finding fossils in the men’s room at the National Gallery of Art – who knew? Perhaps the best way to lay out some of my thoughts on this anniversary is to provide the transcript of the recent interview about my blog that never ran on Fresh Air, the National Public Radio show hosted by Terry Gross. (I’m not sure why it never ran, though I’ve been told it’s obvious.)


Terry Gross (TG): This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross. We’ve been exploring the so-called blogosphere, the world of blogging and the people who inhabit it. After a lifetime’s fascination with fossils, remnants of life which can predate human history by millions of years, my next guest, Tony Edger, in December 2008, launched a blog called Fossils and Other Living Things. His blog is a curious blend of paleontological and personal reflection, though he swings his brush widely, touching on biology, geology, astronomy, Paul Cézanne, Bruce Cockburn, you get the idea. He calls himself an amateur at paleontology and life. Welcome, Tony Edger. I have to ask, what made you think you could add anything meaningful to the blogosphere? I mean, doesn’t it turn out you’re not breaking new ground and some of the blogs written by practicing scientists and science writers actually have readers?

Tony Edger (TE): To quote Rick in Casablanca, I was misinformed.

TG: Misinformed? Um, about what?

TE: What was the question?

TG: [laughter] I’m intrigued by the idea of being an amateur at life. I want to ask, what do you mean by that?

TE: Maybe it’s a bit self-deprecating, but I think I’m still a student of life, just as I am a beginning student of paleontology and all of the other sciences that I have the nerve to write about. Plus . . . I’m not getting paid to live my life which, I guess, puts me in the amateur ranks. You, too.

TG: A scientist who has appeared several times in your blog is the 19th Century Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz. Why? What do you find so interesting about him?

TE: Well, Terry, he’s a tragic figure, a fat supremely egotistical visionary who quit doing real science and, instead, spent his energy on fund raising, politics, and management. Life and other things get in the way of science. Classic. Some thought ill of him for abandoning his first wife and children in Europe when he came to America in the 1840s. For many, his worst sin was that he remained a committed creationist, bedeviled by Darwin. What’s not to like?

TG: Tell us a little of way you go about writing your blog. Where do your ideas come from? What is, um, the process?

TE: Pretty messy. When I hunt for fossils, I try to be as aware as possible. The ethicist William F. May called it an “openness to the unbidden.” In the same way, openness is key for writing a blog. You’ve got to be ready because you never know when the bell might toll or an idea might hit. For instance, on the train trip up here to Philadelphia for this interview, I was reading A Study in Scarlet and . . . .

TG: That’s the Sherlock Holmes adventure by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

TE: . . . yes, Terry, that’s right. Well, in the novel, Holmes returns from a concert and asks Watson if he remembers what Darwin said about music and proceeds to tell him. Sitting on the train and reading that, I was brought up short. There it was, a possible blog topic, unbidden it had jumped out at me. Did what Holmes say about Darwin come close to what Darwin actually said? Does today's science support Darwin on music? Does Darwin show up in any of the other Holmes stories? What was Conan Doyle’s stance on evolution? Cascading questions.

TG: That’s really interesting. I mean, I mean, does it make a difference that you’re a trained historian?

TE: [laughter] How did you find that out?

TG: [laughter] Your Facebook page.

TE: [laughter] Sorry, I don’t have one.

TG: I could have sworn.

TE: You were misinformed.

TG: [laughter] Okay. I have to try to ask it again. Why are you writing a blog?

TE: Because I’m not very good at finding fossils? [laughter]

TG: On June 7 of this year, the New York Times ran a piece on blogging. It was called, um, “Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest.” [laughter] That’s a wonderful title. Let me read a bit of it. “[M]any people start blogs with lofty aspirations – to build an audience and leave their day job, to land a book deal, or simply to share their genius with the world.” Are any of those the reasons you began blogging?

TE: That’s a tricky question, Terry. A “yes” makes me out to be grossly deluded, no pun intended.

TG: [laughter]

TE: A “no” means I have to follow up with a different reason. It’s “no.” And let’s leave it at wanting the discipline of writing and adding some rigor to my thinking about all of the neat science I am exploring in my distracted way.

TG: Then, does . . . .

TE: I’m . . . .

TG: Go ahead.

TE: I’m the writer John Cheever getting up, dressing, and leaving his apartment to go to work every morning, and then going down to a small room in the basement of his apartment building to write short stories. Couldn’t he have just stayed in his pajamas and written in his living room? No. Of course not. I think he needed the discipline and the charade. Though I have to point out, before he began his writing each day, he did strip down to his boxers.

TG: Um, are you really comparing yourself to John Cheever?

TE: Yeah, Terry, I am. Except for the writing, the boxers, and the other stuff.

TG: The article goes on to say, “Getting started is easy, since all it takes to maintain a blog is a little time and inspiration. So why do blogs have a higher failure rate than restaurants?” The article notes that in 2008, 95 percent of all blogs had not been updated in 4 months, so, they were, and I’m reading from the article again, “essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream – or at least an ambition – unfulfilled.” That’s so sad.

TE: Wait, wait. The article writer confused getting it started with what you need to keep it going. The easy part is the mechanical or technical part of getting a blog up and running, but no way the “little time and inspiration” part is easy. It’s not just once but continuous. That’s the hard part, finding the time and being moved enough to keep it alive. You have to feed the beast. Hey, I’ve gotta be pleased that my blog is in that rare 5 percent with a beating heart.

TG: Which of your blog postings has attracted the most attention and were you surprised by it?

TE: Terry, the phrase “most attention” is a loaded one. Sort of implies that there’s more than the proverbial audience of one for any of the posts. That aside, there is one that once in awhile folks comment on. The one about “Charlie Darwin,” a song by the group Low Anthem, with lyrics that defy analysis. I made a stab at interpreting it and gave up. People periodically come across my take and react.

TG: Does that surprise you?

TE: Well, it’s one of my few posts that touch on popular culture. What can I say, Terry?

TG: I sense that you're reluctant to share much of your personal history. I have to ask, why is that? I mean, is there a difference between your blogging persona and your real, in quotes, persona?

TE: A dopplegänger.

TG: What?

TE: I read Billy Collins sometimes. And . . .

TG: The poet Billy Collins who was the Poet Laureate of the United States.

TE: Uh, yeah, that’s right, Terry. Collins has a poem that captures my blogging experience. I have memorized some of it. It’s called, “I Go Back to the House for a Book.”

TG: Wow, I know that poem. It’s a wonderful poem.

TE: Here’s the first stanza of it.

I turn around on the gravel
and go back to the house for a book,
something to read at the doctor's office,
and while I am inside, running the finger
of inquisition along a shelf,
another me that did not bother
to go back to the house for a book
heads out on his own,
rolls down the driveway,
and swings left toward town,
a ghost in his ghost car,
another knot in the string of time,
a good three minutes ahead of me -
a spacing that will now continue
for the rest of my life.

TG: [laughter] It’s so good. Is there . . . um, I mean, why do you think that poem applies?

TE: I guess I’m the me that went for the book, the one who wrote the blog. The other persona didn’t and that means a disconnect of some sort. It’s made all the difference, the connection and the pleasure with science are that much stronger for me as the blogger. And I skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels 'cross the floor.

TG: What?

TE: I have to leave now. I have a blog to write.

[unidentified noises]

TG: Wait, I have more questions.

[Sounds of a door opening and closing]

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Anticipation? Expectation? Hope?

The fact that you never know what you might find can keep the most seasoned collector in a ‘collecting frenzy’ for hours. Even after years of collecting, one thing is certain – you may find yourself driving a little faster as you get closer to the collecting site, and running (not walking) as the fossil beds come into view.
~ Joe Cōcke, Fossil Shark Teeth of the World (2002), p. 2

A word of caution: don't let your expectations run too high.
~ Jasper Burns, Fossil Collecting in the Mid-Atlantic States (1991), p. 41

Yes, there is a curious urgency that can take over as I approach a site where there might be fossils. I’m trying to figure out what it is. Anticipation of special finds? No, I don’t think I’m deluded enough to believe that I really will make such a find; I certainly don’t expect to do that. Hope may come closer to it. But hope about what? Making that find? Not always.

I went out yesterday to hunt along the Potomac shore. I chose this time to head to the shoreline through the woods from a point different from my usual jumping off spot. All went well at first until I had a sudden awakening from that hypnotic rhythm that builds up in a hike. I came to and realized that there were no more blazes on the trees and that, rather than heading west as expected, the “trail” I was following was slowly taking me south. One would think that with the Winter Solstice less than a week away, navigating through mostly denuded woods would be easy. (I took a small bit of solace in the yellow reflective vest I was wearing – hunting season or not, somewhere in these woods were locals with rifles. Still, I could hear it now, “That’s right, Mr. Park Ranger, I thought the deer was in his winter colors of brown and yellow.”) No anticipation or expectation of wonderful fossil finds. Rather, a modest hope that I’d actually find my way out soon.

In time, the woods did slowly thin and I seemed to be turning to the west. And, then, through a boggy expanse of standing and fallen trees and debris washed ashore in recent storms, there was the river in all of its brown and murky glory. Though I’d hit the shore nowhere near where I expected, it was good enough. There was no running with high expectations to scan the beach for fossils. I really didn’t even have any hope left about that.

I pulled up a rotting wooden bucket that had been sinking into the muck and stuck it prominently at the exact place where I’d made it to the shore.

Meandering trail or not, I wanted the sure comfort of the expectation that I’d find the trail again when it was time to wend my way home.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Milestone Birthdays – Looking Back with Darwin

Milestone birthdays – the ones with nice, round numbers attached to them – can lead to reflection and reassessment, that’s their curse. Lengthy ruminations, such as this one, are also part of the downside.

Darwin’s 30th Birthday

In this the Year of Charles Darwin, it’s only appropriate to observe that 170 years ago he had a 30th birthday that should have pleased him. A wave of public and private successes had deposited him in 1839 on high scientific and social peaks. Just in the month and half between the beginning of that year and his birthday on February 12th, he’d secured election to the Royal Society of London (joining a very select group of influential scientists from around the world); had his first full, formal scientific paper accepted by, and read before, the same Royal Society; and married Emma Wedgwood. So, with good reason, any reflection in which he may have indulged probably generated a great deal of satisfaction at what he had achieved. Though, I suspect, in keeping with his natural inclinations, any happiness would have been tainted with concern about how demanding his work was and how poorly he felt.

My Milestone Birthday

I recently marked one of those milestone birthdays (not my 30th, by the way). Basic conclusion of my reflection and stock-taking is that I’m still an amateur at all of this, having gotten some things right and others . . . well, not so right. Frankly, lots of it in retrospect seems to be a muddle. Where are the bright lines? I am the Englishman in the scene at the beginning of Casablanca (link to full script). (Appropriately, that movie, like life, was assembled on the fly, with dialogue being composed for scenes even as they were being filmed.) Here’s the scene:

It’s Casablanca during World War II. The local police, in search of the murderer of two German couriers, are herding arrested suspects (the “usual suspects”) into the “Palais de Justice.” A middle aged English couple sits at a nearby cafe watching these events.

The husband turns to his wife and asks, “What on earth’s going on there?”

She responds, “I don’t know, my dear.”

A European of unknown nationality comes over and says, “Pardon, pardon, Monsieur, pardon Madame, have you not heard?”

The Englishman replies, “We hear very little, and we understand even less.”

Redefining One’s Self

Tom Boswell, the Washington Post sportswriter, had an interesting column in the December 4, 2009, issue of the paper (A Portrait of the Golfer As a Man, December 4, 2009). For this blog posting, it’s irrelevant that his piece was about Tiger Woods. Relevant is Boswell’s key premise that, just as our image of a person’s public persona can transform dramatically over time, for better or worse (such as Bill Gates from “self-centered monopolist” to humanitarian philanthropist), so too does how we view ourselves change. As Boswell puts it,

We spend our lives drawing and re-drawing the portraits of everybody we know – our family, friends, colleagues and, of course, those public figures that interest us most. We even redraw our own self-portraits.

It’s that redefining of one’s self that I’m mulling over. Milestone birthdays are a good time for seeing if there’s a different answer to the question, “Who am I now?” Sometimes the very events that we considered to be ones that defined who we are turn out, over time, not to be so critical, or, perhaps, we draw a different meaning from them. In my case, the decision to change my life’s work was a redefining moment if there ever was one. The new career, in my mind, was what most prominently identified me . . . well, that is, until the new career failed to “take.” With the passage of time, I now see the act of change as a defining aspect of that decision. Hey, if I did it once on such a large scale, I can do it again . . . even if I don’t. The alternative is to view the episode as a failure and dwell on it. I choose not to.

It must be particularly hard when defining events are carried out on a very public stage. That was certainly the case for Darwin and one of those central accomplishments from the beginning of 1839. When, in his case, the venue was the scientific world writ large, the transformation of a presumed success into a colossal embarrassment (at least, in his eyes) must have been particularly hard to acknowledge (and it took him a long time to do so publicly), much less understand. However painful it remained over the years (and it did), the failure itself may have actually transformed him as a scientific theoretician.

Glen Roy

In the summer of 1838, Darwin took what he called “my Scotch expedition,” which included a sustained examination of the “parallel roads” at Glen Roy in Scotland. These roads are a series of three very straight, parallel terraces or shelves on the slopes on either side of the valley at Glen Roy. Each terrace has a counterpart on the slope across the valley.

The first picture below on the left shows the three terraces -- the straight lines cutting across the slopes (image courtesy of The second picture shows one of the terraces in profile, while, across the valley, terraces on the far slopes are partly shrouded in the fog (image posted at,copyright by Andy Spenceley and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License.)

A trip to Glen Roy and hazarding theories to explain the creation of the parallel roads seem to have been a sort of rite of passage for many geologists or aspiring geologists of the period. Of course, non-scientific explanations abounded. According to University of Edinburgh environmental historian Jan Oosthoek, Gaelic legends ascribed the roads to fairies or to Fingal, the Celtic giant. Locals also asserted that the kings of Scotland built them. [The Parallel Roads of Glen Roy and Forestry at]

Writing to the preeminent geologist Charles Lyell (August 9, 1838), Darwin described how Glen Roy “astonished” him. The general landscape of Glen Roy and its environs were “far the most remarkable area I ever examined.” Amazing words from the man who had sailed on the Beagle. As for the parallel roads, Darwin went with something other than fairies or kings. Here’s what he concluded in his letter to Lyell:

I have fully convinced myself, (after some doubting at first) that the shelves are sea-beaches,-although I could not find a trace of a shell, & I think I can explain away most, if not all, the difficulties.

He added,

I am now employed in writing a paper on the subject, which, I find very amusing work, excepting that I cannot anyhow condense it into reasonable limits. At some future day I hope to talk over some of the conclusions, with you which the examination of Glen Roy has led me to.

An Aside – Darwin’s letters are a delight. It’s so easy to be drawn away from your research objective as you read them. For his “Scotch expedition,” Darwin traveled by ship to and from Scotland and told Lyell that he was particularly pleased with himself because he had not become seasick. As he put it, on the trip to Scotland, “I enjoyed the spectacle, wretch that I am, of two ladies & some small children quite sea sick, I being well. Moreover on my return from Glasgow to Liverpool, I triumphed in a similar manner over some full grown men.” Classic. It’s also easy to do research with the letters because of the online treasure trove that is the Darwin Correspondence Project. All of the letters cited in this posting are available from the Project. Over the past 35 years, the Project has located and published transcriptions of Darwin’s correspondence, letters from him, as well as letters to him. Information about, if not full transcripts, are available for some 15,000 letters.

Throughout the rest of 1838, Darwin labored on his Glen Roy paper, ultimately promising Emma that he would finish it before their wedding date. In a letter to her dated January 6, 1839, he wrote:

For the last three days, I have been working very hard at my Glen Roy Paper-the three day’s moving of my goods rested me almost as much as a visit in the country,-I have finished 65 pages & have only fifteen more, so I think I shall have done them by Wednesday.- [It was Sunday when he wrote to her.]

Darwin apparently kept to that schedule, enclosing a copy of the paper with a letter to Lyell, that is dated around January 9th. One senses that, though he wanted to be done with it, he was extremely proud of it. The letter to Lyell opens with a declaration that the paper is inviolate, despite its length. And it’s not hard to hear the false modesty in the second paragraph.

I send my Glen Roy paper, which thanks to Providence I have at last finished.- I hope the Secretary [of the Royal Society] will not grumble at its appearance.- it is all legible, although some pages look a little ugly from my corrections. Regarding its length, I devoutly trust they will not ask me to shorten it, for long as it is, I believe there is scarcely a sentence, that I have not considered whether I could strike it out, without injuring the general argument.-

If you think it worth your while to keep it & read it, pray detain it just as long as you like,-but I doubt whether it is your worth while.-

The Royal Society received the paper entitled, Observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they are of marine origin, on January 17th and it was read on February 7th. A week after the paper was received, Darwin was elected a fellow in the Royal Society.

What was in question for the terraces at Glen Roy doesn’t seem to have been the agent responsible for creating them, rather, it was the nature of that agent. In the paper, Darwin acknowledged the consensus that the terraces resulted from the action of water on the mountainsides. But, he categorically rejected the theory, previously presented to the Royal Society, that lakes had occupied each of the several valleys in the area. He wrote,

It is a startling assumption to close up the mouth of even one valley by an enormous imaginary barrier; to do this with all would be monstrous. Of such barriers in the district we are considering I need not say there does not exist any trace . . . .

Instead, Darwin asserted these various valleys had been occupied by fingers of a sea. David Dobbs in his engrossing book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral (2005) summarizes Darwin’s argument as follows (p. 33):

Here at Glen Roy, . . . Darwin saw not subsidence [which he identified in South America] but uplift. Specifically, he theorized that the entire valley had once been at or under sea level and that the three sets of terraces were former shores that rimmed a saltwater sea or inlet as the land rose in three subsequent surges.

What a heady moment it must have been, that 30th birthday. But, a year later, Louis Agassiz, the Swiss scientist, visited Glen Roy and summarily dismissed Darwin’s theory. As the leading thinker on glaciers and previous ice ages, Agassiz saw clear evidence that glacier ice had plugged the valley at Glen Roy, creating a glacial lake. The melting of the ice in three stages had left shorelines etched along the length of both sides of the valley.

Though he fought long against Agassiz’s theory, Darwin probably recognized it was a losing battle well before he publicly acknowledged he was wrong. A June, 1848 letter to publisher and geologist Robert Chambers suggests what an emotional rollercoaster the Glen Roy paper had become for Darwin and how invested he was in its success:

I will first make some remarks on Glen Roy, which is a subject that has always interested me beyond perhaps its just merit, & about which I feel much a personal interest, for I shd have been more sorry to have been proved wrong on it, than upon almost any other subject. Mr Milne, as you know, at first staggered me in favour of the glacier view, but I had quite recovered that & had resumed my old state of positiveness. . . . All this, I think, has made me the more pleased with your coming to the same conclusion as I did.

But, after a two decade effort to defend it, he finally threw in the towel. Following a visit to Glen Roy, geologist Thomas Francis Jamieson sent Darwin a letter in early September, 1861 which made a convincing case for the valley having been blocked by glaciers. In addition to the many features that said glacier to him were others that argued persuasively against the influx of a sea in the area.

To this letter, Darwin replied on September 6th:

I thank you sincerely for your long & very interesting letter. Your arguments seem to me conclusive. I give up the ghost. My paper is one long gigantic blunder.

. . . I have been for years anxious to know what was the truth, & now I shall rest contented, though ashamed of myself.-

Darwin was certainly gracious in acknowledging defeat, though he was mightily chagrined, and it continued to rankle. In an autobiographical piece written in 1876 (as printed in Charles Darwin: His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter, and in a Selected Series of His Published Letters, edited by Francis Darwin (1902)), he called the paper “a great failure” and wrote, “I am ashamed of it.”

So, one of the crowning glories of his 30th year proved otherwise. It was a stinging defeat that remained painful. He described the lesson it taught him in his letter to Jamieson in 1861 – in effect, he wrote, he’d rejected one explanation for a natural phenomenon and assumed that the correct one simply had to be the one that fit with his current state of knowledge. He later restated the lesson in his autobiography – “never to trust in science to the principle of exclusion.”

But, perhaps it really takes a neutral party to describe the full impact of such a defining (redefining) moment. David Dobbs writes of the consequence of this defeat for Darwin the theoretician (p. 36):

. . . Darwin's long, slow defeat on Glen Roy led him to test his theories more rigorously and hold himself to a higher level of proof. This lesson, added to his habitual caution, doubtless contributed to his twenty-three-year hesitation in publishing his theory of evolution. . . . [It] helped Darwin to forge the distinctive theoretical approach – imaginative in spawning ideas, rigorous in testing them.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Take Heart, Rachael

Life’s not fair. And, in particular, a fossil hunt’s not fair. That’s a lesson a fossil hunter learns quickly. But, that’s not the central message of this posting. I think there’s yet another lesson that a fossil hunter learns that may offer some measure of consolation. More about that in a moment.

Local newspapers and TV stations recently ran a story about a find at the newly opened Dinosaur Park in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Yes, there are dinosaur fossils to be found in the urbanized Baltimore-Washington corridor. The 7 ½ acre county park provides an opportunity twice a month for amateur collectors to try their luck at turning up a Cretaceous fossil, perhaps from a dinosaur. Saturday, a week ago, a small piece of fossilized bone, tentatively identified as a dinosaur vertebra, came to light, found by a young girl. The fossil triggered a great deal of excitement and was turned over to the Smithsonian for identification and further analysis.

Here’s where the life lessons come in. Am I taking liberties with the known facts in the account that follows? Of course. But then the truth I’m looking for is behind the events and details reported in the press. And the best way I know how to do that is to project on to it my feelings and experiences as someone who has hunted for fossils, has children, and, in particular, has siblings.

The story goes like this, punctuated with my annotation, including a bit of reconstructed backstory. A family of four from a neighboring state comes over to take part in the last hunt of the month. The outing, according to the press, sounds like a piece of healthy and constructive parenting, but, I suspect there was a lot of pressure (begging and whining . . . maybe) brought to bear to make this trip a reality by Rachael, the younger daughter in the family, a child overwhelmingly infected with the dinosaur fossil bug, whose grandest dream, according to her mom, is to go on a fossil hunt in South Dakota. Her older sister, 9-year-old Gabrielle, comes along, perhaps reluctantly (I know as a child I would have protested going on a trip if it were something very special for one of my siblings). In my reconstruction, the final conversation in the car as the family caught sight of the park goes something like this:

Younger sister Rachael: “This is so cool. I can’t wait. This whole place was a swamp maybe 100 million years ago, with dinosaurs and everything.”

Older sister Gabrielle: “Whatever.”

A half later, Gabrielle finds the dinosaur vertebrae that causes all hell to break loose. Well, that’s what it must have seemed like to Rachael.

The family is interviewed by the press. The local experts at the park are ecstatic, gushing over the marvelous find by this “little girl,” thrilled at the press coverage for the park. Gabrielle has her picture taken which runs in the Baltimore Sun along with an article. The Washington Post covers her find as well, as do other news outlets. Clearly, she thoroughly enjoys her brush with fame. To add salt to Rachael’s wound, in her picture in the Sun, Gabrielle’s holding a stuffed toy, no, not a dinosaur – a stuffed walrus. As for Rachael? One reporter notes that Rachael “kind of wished she’d found the fossil herself.” A bit of understatement if I know fossil hunting and sibling rivalry. (Girl Hits Pay Dirt on a Fossil Hunt with Her Family, by Megan Greenwell, Washington Post, November 25, 2009 ; New Dinosaur Park Yields Fossil for 9-Year-Old Girl, by Frank D. Roylance, Baltimore Sun, November 24, 2009)

Take heart, Rachael. I know you’d already learned that life’s not fair – having a sibling ensured that. You’ve now learned that fossil hunting’s not fair, either. Your enthusiasm, dedication, knowledge were no guarantee of good things happening (not in this instance, but, trust me, they will pay off in the future). The whole process is too dependent on contingency, historical accidents. Your sister’s finding of that fossil is the end result of an incredible chain of events that stretches further back in time than even the moment 100 million years ago that the dinosaur sank into the mud, dead. Change one of those events and maybe the fossil’s 7 inches to the right and Gabrielle misses it or, go back even farther and tweak an initial condition and there aren’t even dinosaurs, at least as we know them, to become fossilized. Now, that would be a shame.

The debate over contingency in the paleontological world might provide some insight for you, Rachael. I'm sure you understand that we're applying it at a much more micro level than the paleontologists have.

Contingency became paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s watchword for life’s evolutionary history. As he wrote in Wonderful Life: the Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989),
The modern order was not guaranteed by basic laws (natural selection, mechanical superiority in anatomical design), or even by lower-level generalities of ecology or evolutionary theory. The modern order is largely a product of contingency. (p. 288)

Based on his interpretation of the Burgess Shale and the many anatomical designs he saw arise there only to be decimated, he came away with
amazement . . . at the fact that humans ever evolved at all. . . . Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again. It is, indeed, a wonderful life. (p. 289)

Too much of the process was, in his view, historically contingent to ever replay in the same way.

Others, such as Simon Conway Morris, have rejected the extreme nature of this view, arguing that there are, in fact, a constrained number of successful evolutionary options. As a result, Conway Morris wrote, “the evolutionary routes are many, but the destinations are limited.” (Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, 2003, p. 145). In the same volume, Conway Morris repeats this theme, but adds an important coda:
Thus we see that the same ends may be arrived at along various, and sometime[s] wildly different, routes. Correspondingly, very seldom is the convergence so exact as to make the organism or structure indistinguishable. (p. 301, emphasis added)

So, young Rachael, here’s the other lesson I hope you will learn from this and, I think, you’re on your way to that knowledge because you’ve promised to return to the park at the next opportunity. Be fully confident that when you and Gabrielle return to Dinosaur Park, history will not repeat itself. It will be different the next time around. Even in Simon Conway Morris’ view, the exact same outcome will not come to pass. Take solace in that, even as you lick your wounds from the experience of last Saturday.

Of course, do understand, it could well be worse.

My advice, Rachael, when you do go on that dream fossil hunt in South Dakota, follow your instincts and leave your older sister at home.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Paleontological Nicknames -- Addendum

In my previous post (November 17, 2009), I considered the propensity in paleontology for the nicknaming of hominid specimens (I fear the specific focus wasn't clear in the title). I've been thinking about why there should be this propensity. Although naming things seems to be one of our species' natural roles, these fossils, in particular, invite the nicknames by which they are popularly known (in lieu of their curated identifications, such as WT 17000) because, after all, they are from individuals who were human-like or, indeed, human.

ScienceDaily just posted a story about a recent analysis of the Homo floresiensis specimen LB1, concluding that, indeed, she is from a new species of Homo ('Hobbits' Are a New Human Species, According to Statistical Analysis of Fossils, ScienceDaily, November 19, 2009, link here). LB1 has a propensity for garnering nicknames. She was the partial fossil skeleton found on the Indonesian island of Flores that initially prompted the nickname the hobbit, which is now applied to all of this species (see Kate Wong's article Rethinking the Hobbits of Indonesia, Scientific American November 2009, link here). So, in light of the loss of an exclusive nickname, I suppose it's not surprising that she has a new one all her own, or actually two. As the ScienceDaily piece notes, LB1 is also known as Little Lady of Flores or Flo.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Paleontological Nicknames

Is nicknaming more prevalent in paleontology than in other scientific or non-scientific academic fields, in different cultures, or in different environments, such as elementary school playgrounds, locker rooms, the cinematic fantasy world of beautiful and clever thieves (see, for example, The Italian Job), or the nether world of rap? I’m beginning to think that it might be. Maybe, though, it’s only that the nicknames and stories are more interesting.

Multiple names, formal and not so formal, are part of the paleontological (and for that matter, biological) world. Certainly the development of Linnaean scientific classification leaves plant and animal species with a couple of names, their scientific names and their common names. Still, that’s not truly nicknaming since the common names for nearly all plant and animal species presumably preceded the coining of the more formal scientific names. Actually, what I’m really interested in is the nicknaming in paleontology of specific individuals or specimens.

Hominid Nicknames

I have to admit that my view of all of this is prejudiced by a fair amount of recent reading on human evolution. With great frequency, it would appear, a newly discovered hominid skeletal fragment or collection of fragments is not only given a scientific name, which often stakes a claim to a new species, if not a new genus, but the individual specimen is graced with a new nickname. Perhaps the best known is Lucy, the nickname given a specimen of Australopithecus afarensis with a remarkably complete skeleton (40 percent of a skeleton is remarkable among ancient hominid fossils – the nickname comes from the repeated playing of the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" in camp the night of her discovery). Recently, those who pay attention to these things have been enveloped by the nickname Ardi for a specimen of what’s been identified by her discoverers as Ardipithecus ramidus (derivation of the nickname is obvious), and, then, there’s the hobbit, the nickname for a specimen of the recently discovered so-called Homo floresiensis, a diminutive creature with a mixture of Homo, ape, and australopithecine traits. Tolkien’s the source of the latter nickname, and I guess, at this stage, all members of the species of H. floresiensis are being called hobbits. [I wrote an earlier post on Lucy and Ardi, and discovery in general.]

But, these names only scratch the surface of the nicknaming in paleontology. A few nicknames might suffice to paint the rich picture. For instance, there’s the specimen known as Dear Boy and also as Zinj. Why Dear Boy? I don’t know but that’s apparently what Louis and Mary Leakey called it after its discovery. Its original scientific name, Zinjanthropus boisei, accounts for its second nickname. Among my favorites is the Black Skull, a partial skull from a specimen of Australopithecus aethiopicus found in West Turkana (Kenya).

Its nickname derives from the coloring of the skull and is much more dramatic a name than WT 17000, its curated, formal identification. [See Ian Tattersall’s book The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know About Human Evolution, 1995, and Extinct Humans by Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey Schwartz, 2000.]

The paleontological nicknames that most intrigue me are those that, over time, have become totally and completely wrong; whatever plausibly generated the nickname in the first place no longer applies. But, still, the nickname lives on.

For example, take Mrs. Ples (see image below). She lived some 2.5 million years ago and is in the Australopithecus genus, possibly an ancestor of Homo. When first discovered, the nickname bestowed on her made some sense – she was, after all, initially set in the genus Plesianthropus. But, not only has the genus designation shifted, but so perhaps has her gender. She may well have been male. Still, he remains Mrs. Ples. [See, Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgimage to the Dawn of Evolution, 2004]

Then there’s the marvelous Red Lady of Paviland. In 1823, Oxford University geologist William Buckland explored the Paviland Cave, in South Wales, which the year before had yielded fossils from animals, including mammoths. He described discovering a human skeleton covered with a red iron ore dye. At its thigh were periwinkle shells and beside its chest were ivory rods and pieces of ivory rings. Stephen Aldhouse-Green, Professor of Human Origins, University of Wales, describes the derivation of its nickname:
In the field, Buckland had identified the skeleton as male, suggesting that the bones were those of a Customs Officer murdered by smugglers. By the time of publication later that year, however, the gender had changed with a new and better story. . . . The ochre-stained skeleton had become a 'painted lady' who serviced the needs of the Roman soldiers garrisoned in the camp on the hill above the cave. It was a good story.

In fact, the reality is much better than the “good story” Buckland came up with. The Red Lady is a young Homo sapiens male who, based on recent research, lived about 26,000 ago, in a period of advancing ice sheets that were nearing the place where his skeleton was found. As Aldhouse-Green puts it, at this Upper Paleolithic site, “The ceremonial burial of the 'Red Lady' involved the interplay of art and consciousness which combine in an act that is simultaneously creative and symbolic.” The burial apparently is similar to others in the same period. Its elements included placing the body next to the cave wall, positioning animal remains by the grave, marking the head and feet with stone slabs, coloring and decorating the body, and, possibly, removing its head (none has been found at the site). Further, he speculates that the site may have had a special meaning for these Stone Age people who, even as humans were abandoning Britain in the face of the deteriorating climate, returned to the cave in order to bury the body there. Finally, Aldhouse-Green notes, “At the time when the 'Red Lady' was unearthed she - or rather he - was not only the first such burial to be found but also the first human fossil ever to have been recovered anywhere in the world.” [Stephen Aldhouse-Green, Great Sites: Paviland, British Archaeology, October, 2001, link here]

Some 85 years later, he’s still known as the Red Lady of Paviland. Johann Georg Von Zimmermann, 18th century Swiss physician and philosopher, certainly had it right when he asserted that “a nickname lasts forever.”

An Etymological Aside

The etymology of the word nickname is fascinating in its own right. In Middle English, the additional name given to a person was known as an eke name. Eke was Old English; apparently as a noun it meant “additional” and as a verb it meant “to augment” or “to supplement” (e.g., eke out a living). The phrase an eke name at some point was misdivided into a nekename.

One type of nickname is a sobriquet which is a friendly or funny nickname. Its etymology is charming – sobriquet comes from the Old French meaning a “chuck under the chin.”

[Among useful sources on etymology are The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd Edition, 1996; and Word Origins . . . And How We Know Them by Anatoly Liberman, 2005, link here]

Sources of Images

The image of the Black Skull is from the Smithsonian Institution (Human Origins Program), link here.

The image of Mrs. Ples is from the Sterkfontein Exhibition Guide, published by the South African Maropeng and the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, link here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Ichnofossils and Old Home Movies

An ichnofossil I found this past week brought to mind old home movies. Ichnofossils or trace fossils are the fossilized evidence of activities of ancient organisms, coming in such forms as tracks, burrows, or borings. Old home movies are . . . , well, what I really have in mind are those short movies shot on 16 mm film (introduced in the 1920s) or 8 mm film (introduced in the 1930s).

I’ll start with the home movies. In fact, I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about a specific home movie from the 1920s and a batch filmed in the 1950s.

Home Movie, 1920s

A very committed substrata of the baseball fan community is wielding impressive analytical tools in an attempt to decipher a home movie discovered by someone in his grandfather’s collection of movies. The movie offers a very brief, blurry glimpse of a major league baseball game. This is a long look back because the game appears to have been played at some point in the 1920s at Yankee Stadium. A tantalizing pan across centerfield shows a tall pole standing in the field (good Lord, actually in the field of play – “I’ve got it, I've got it.” Bonk!), ads for shaving gear adorning the outfield walls, and a blimp floating beyond the stadium. What has the fanatics in a lather is the presence of a large, broad shouldered, slim-hipped player in this film clip – we see him striking out and apparently also playing right field during the game. The operating consensus is that it’s one of the baseball immortals, Babe Ruth. And that’s what makes the effort to identify the specific game a mission from God, particularly because there is no film of the Babe playing in the outfield during a regular game in Major League Baseball’s film archives. Baseball, for better or worse, is in love with its history. (Babe Ruth Like You've Never Seen Him Before, by John Branch, The New York Times, October 8, 2009 – link here to article; link here to Branch’s NYT blog posting; link here to followup piece by Branch)

So, here we have film of an event whose every important action is presumably recorded in a score sheet somewhere and described in newspaper articles. But, beyond the general agreement that this film shows the Babe in Yankee Stadium, perhaps shows him playing right field in a regular game, and certainly appears to show him striking out, we are left with myriad uncertainties. Most importantly, we cannot say with confidence when this game was played. 1928? September 9? Against the Philadelphia Athletics? Still, despite the debate over when the event took place, I believe we’re seeing Ruth in action, something I always find surprising – whoa, the man was real, not just a myth.

Home Movies, 1950s

My wife’s grandfather shot many (oh, so many) home movies during the 1950s, never quite understanding that a three minute still life film (of, say, an azalea bush) left something to be desired. (Andy Warhol stole the idea and turned it into art.) He, my wife’s grandfather, not Warhol, also had little appreciation for the panning shot. Even those that he managed to take came right to the verge of capturing essential images and stopped. One of the most frustrating thing about home movies, particularly these, are the missing details; often the truly interesting people or objects are just off camera or hopelessly out of focus in the background. It doesn’t necessarily help to be watching them with some of those who had starring roles in the films. Yes, that’s Cousin Joey on Grandad’s tractor. No, wait, that’s his brother. Isn’t it? Seeing one’s wife at age six – yes, there’s something disquieting about that. But, wait, who is that really?

Got to love those grandfathers with home movie cameras. Despite the grainy, herky-jerky images and crude filming techniques, these movies offer very interesting views of the recent past that can be as intriguing in what they reveal as they are frustrating in what they suggest. The Babe Ruth film and the 1950s family films are records of events, they capture action (what there is of it) and can be paused and parsed. Yet, just a few generations have passed and we are unable to recreate these events with precision.

Ichnofossil, 2009 (and Over 65 Million Years Ago)

Recently, while rooting through the spoils piles of material dredged in the building and maintenance of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, I came across a small fossilized shell, a single valve from a pelecypod known as Exogyra – a mollusk. This particular specimen, 2 cm or a bit more than 3/4ths inch in length, lived in the Cretaceous period. As I turned it over, I realized that I could tell, with some certainty, how this specific organism had died. There, up toward the beak (the point at which initial growth of the shell begins), was a dark hole that something cut through the shell millions of years ago; the hungry perpetrator (a gastropod is the likely suspect) then digested its prey. As stark as a bullet hole in a skull. (Oh, sure, I do know about that because I watch Bones and all of TV shows with forensic scientists, medical examiners, and pathologists.)

This find is a two-in-one. The hole is itself a trace fossil. It is likely that this hole is the ichnofossil known as Oichnus Bromley 1981 (this is the name of the trace fossil, not of the organism that made it). Here’s Richard Bromley’s cautionary note about what we may not actually know from this ichnofossil:
Oichnus is produced by a wide range of trace-making organisms. As the trace fossils contain few fingerprints to indicate the taxonomic position of the trace-maker, confident identification of the borer is not common. Small (millimetric) round drill-holes are dominantly produced today by predatory gastropods of the Naticidae and Muricacea, both arising in the Cretaceous . . . . (A Stratigraphy of Marine Bioerosion, a chapter by Richard G. Bromley in The Application of Ichnology to Palaeoenvironmental and Stratigraphic Analysis, edited by D. McILroy, 2004, p. 467 – link here

“Few fingerprints” – ah, crime scene language. The perp left few fingerprints and we’re not sure who did the foul deed, but, we know from that hole generally what happened.

Ichnofossils and home movies – simultaneously useful and frustrating, and on occasion very startling.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Tincture of Time or the Geology of Healing

Among life’s aches and pains, this discomfort in my Achilles tendon earns just an honorable mention, but it’s strong enough to curtail my running, voluntarily at first and now under doctor’s orders. Some visits to a physician can be lengthy out-of-body experiences; during some visits, such as my latest, that experience is only momentary. I was prepared to be confrontational – why was this taking so long to heal – and certainly prepared to veto any significant intervention to deal with it. Yes, I was going to be a wholly rational patient. In the face of my concern about meager progress, the doctor paused and then counseled patience with these words,
I think we need to rely on the tincture of time.

As that alliterative phrase – the tincture of time – sparked along some of my neural paths, anything else he said was relegated to distant echoes. There I was, reveling in the poetry of the phrase.

The tincture of time – a healing solution of time. Tincture is an “alcohol solution of a nonvolatile medicine.” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, 1996) Given the other meanings of the word, it’s certainly appropriate that it is derived from tinct, meaning a color or tinge. (Some of the medicinal tinctures do a grand job of coloring – think of that red rust tint that decorates your skin after applying tincture of iodine, stains that often far exceed the scope of the wound.) Ah, there’s more, consider the Middle English meaning of the word – “a transforming elixir” – that’s perfect. Give it time, be transformed.

Despite its poetry, the phrase appears to be used most often in medical literature and among medical professionals. I suspect it’s a phrase reverently handed on by many generations of medical mentors (but clearly not all). Dr. Mary Pauline Fox, who practiced in Kentucky, recounts the advice she received from her great-uncle when she first joined his practice many years ago. Among other things, he counseled her,
Never let the patient know you don’t know what they’re talking about; always remember to collect your fee; and tincture of time will cure more illnesses than you ever thought about. (Tales from Kentucky Doctors, by William Lynwood Montell, 2008, link here)

Cross-training? Biking? I asked my doctor. Sure, that would be good. So, acting on doctor’s orders, I stimulated the local economy and acquired a new road bike.

Soon, maps of local biking trails were spread across the dining room table as I plotted my first outings. The trails within easy striking distance follow local streams as they flow south and southeast, ultimately to join the Anacostia River and then the Potomac.

But, dear bike rider, why consult just road and trail maps? Bring out those geologic maps of the local counties, lay them side by side with the biking trail maps. Watch as those trails from my home head southeast, leave Late Cambrian metamorphic rock, and drop through the Fall Zone that marks the transition from the Piedmont Province to the Coastal Plain Province. Recognize that, though there are numerous waterfalls along the Fall Zone in a line stretching to the northeast that punctuate the change from the harder rock of the Piedmont to the sand and gravel of the Coastal Plain, the trails you might ride follow streams with steep drops, but no waterfalls. Ponder the words of the Maryland Geological Survey’s Physiographic Map of Maryland (2008, draft, link here) describing the Fall Zone Region:
Transition between crystalline Piedmont and unconsolidated Coastal Plain; many hilltops are capped by Cretaceous gravels and sediments that thicken to SE; rivers flow across the Region in steep-walled valleys incised into crystalline rock.

So, once through that zone, the rider is into the Coastal Plain proper. And here’s where the paleontology beast stirs, stretches paws forward, arches its back, and takes a portion of the stage. Look at those geologic maps for a tinct of dark green.

According to the geologic map, there and there and . . . over there, along some of the banks and land that abut the streams, sit outcroppings of silt-clay from the Potomac Group Formations. This material of the Lower Cretaceous may harbor treasure, to wit – “Rare dinosaur bones and teeth have been found in Potomac silt-clay, as have plant fossils.” (Geologic Map of Prince George’s County, Maryland, Maryland Geological Survey, 2003)

And so the rides begin guided by colorful maps. Not to hunt fossils, a dubious enterprise in these specific areas (“rare” does mean rare). Rather, the maps are used to understand where the bike trails and I are going as we mark a path alongside rushing streams that have taken countless generations to incise their way through rock. This is the tincture of deep time, a powerful transforming elixir.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Extinction and Adaptability

Some Permian (299-251 million years ago) fossil shark teeth came my way recently. These teeth from Xenacanthus texensis, a fresh water shark, are tiny (usually under 2 mm in height) and very weird, with a two-bladed crown and a little cusplet between the blades. Curiously, these sharks managed to trickle through the End-Permian Extinction – the Big Kahuna of extinctions (so far) – only to disappear during the succeeding period, the Triassic. [Later edit: I need to clarify that I'm not sure this particular species X. texensis outlasted the Permian. The order Xenacanthiformes as a whole did, but then the order went extinct in the Triassic.]

Surviving a mass extinction . . . . Interesting thought. I blame evolutionary ecologist Clive Finlayson for the extinction pall I currently find myself under. His recent Wall Street Journal piece (October 10-11, 2009, link here) identifying the five best books on extinction(s) was what really started me thinking about this. (I describe the article in more detail in the column at the right – at least, it is true as of the date of this posting.)

Finlayson has been studying the fate of Homo neanderthalensis. There isn’t a consensus theory on the cause or causes of their extinction after they enjoyed a 200,000 year period of dominance in Europe and western Asia. The competing theories range widely, from H. sapiens having a more energy efficient body structure to H. sapiens acting like we always do when we invade. I haven’t read Clive Finlayson’s new book, The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived, but a recent Scientific American article (Twilight of the Neandertals, Kate Wong, August 2009) describes his thinking which centers, in part, on adaptability. The Neanderthals, according to this theory, had survived many climates changes during their period of dominance but, unlike modern humans, were unable to adapt to a string of rapid swings in climate that punctuated the end of their time on Earth.

Adaptability . . . . I was fuming earlier this week about unwelcome changes. Minor but upsetting nonetheless. A new format for my local newspaper (including little, ersatz pen and ink sketches of the columnists at the top of their columns – do I need to know that a favorite columnist has a double chin? should it make a difference? does it?); my first glimpse of an issue of Natural History magazine in many years (sadly, a pale reflection of its former robust self); and the introduction of Windows 7 (no further comment on that last). If these things are enough to upset my equilibrium in an epoch of war, pestilence, climate change, . . . .

The history of life on Earth is as much a history of extinctions as it is of survival. Faced with the reality that 99.9 percent of all species that ever were are no longer, writer Christopher Cokinos concludes, “Civilization is not a given. Extinction is.” (The Consolations of Extinction, Orion, May/June, 2007 – link here) Come on, give me those consolations. That some do survive is one he offers (but seems to take it away later). He counsels equanimity in the face of the inevitable. In the midst of the woeful Holocene (our current epoch) extinction, accelerated by human action, his advice is do what you can to ameliorate H. sapiens’ impact. Stay calm even when you realize that ultimately even the planet is toast. He writes, “I’m saying too much grief for the world means less energy to help it along.” In essence, there’s no point to the grief.

Perhaps that’s a perspective that comes from age, from long experience with natural cycles. To the 19th century (but deeply contemporary) poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (perhaps my favorite poet), grief in the face of the inevitable end of life is perhaps felt most sharply by the young. In his poem Spring and Fall: to a young child, he offers no consolation to Margaret for her sorrow over the “unleaving” (falling leaves) of Goldengrove. Not surprisingly, the Fall season represents the end of many things, including life. Of course, there’s also the Christian concept of the “Fall of Man” and what presumably flowed from that. (What I took away from all those undergraduate English courses – any great poem in the Western canon can be analyzed with at least one of the Big Trinity – sex, death, or Christianity, and, in Hopkins’ case, usually all three.)

At the poem’s conclusion, Hopkins asserts that Margaret’s grief is really over her own shared fate, telling her:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Speaking to me, earlier in the poem, he makes it clear that he thinks it is different (though not better) for those with some life experience:
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

Sadly, no consolation that. Perhaps, in a strange way, wishful thinking, because I still don’t “come to such sights colder.”

Friday, October 16, 2009


In which the blogger considers how often he looks in order to see a fossil, takes a fossil from animal to plant and back again, posits that science is about this kind of seeing, and ponders Cézanne’s view of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

[updated October 17, 2009]

Identifying a fossil can be a protracted process for me. Often I have to look and look, and look again. Each time there’s the chance I’ll see something different and identify the object anew. But, as I suggest below, this isn’t just true for an amateur at work.

The kind of journey that I launched for a one inch long object found last week on a stream sandbar is an extreme example of this process. I discovered it at a site I’ve written of before – a small stream exposing a thin fossiliferous band of Severn Formation material, which is Upper Cretaceous (a proper use of the adjective Upper by the way – see earlier post), as it runs over the clayey top of the Matawan Formation. I look for sandbars that might have caught fossils leached out of the Severn Formation.

That day, in the midst of an encouraging run of finds, I spot an object, mostly black with some reddish material on it. The feel is fossil, the look is . . . well, it has a somewhat conical top (or bottom?) protruding through the remnant of a rounded band, with a bifurcated tail, one side very truncated, presumably broken off. Here’s a graphical representation of what I remember of my first impression:

First identity: As I put this specimen into a pouch for safekeeping, having granted it only a little time for consideration, based on what I had seen, my verdict is that this is possibly a tooth with broken roots surrounded by remnant of jaw bone. Niiiice.

Second identity: Several hours later, as I place some of the day’s finds into a tray to soak in water to loosen any clay and grit, I look over this specimen and my excitement fades. In the fluorescent basement light, I see that it resembles nothing so much as a small piece of twig from a bush or tree with a small knot in it. I tap it gently against my teeth, afraid it will turn out not to be stone, so not a fossil. It clinks. Stone. Okay, fossilized wood? What do I know about the actual environment at this site during the Late Cretaceous?

Third identity: The next afternoon, some 12 hours after its discovery, I turn the piece of fossilized wood over in my hands. A bit of clay flakes off. I gently take a sharp probe to the specimen and carefully remove some more of a layer of clay and sand. No, not fossilized wood, I now see hollow channels here, some still filled with sediment, some partially broken open. This is probably an aggregation of Annelid (worm) tubes, perhaps from Serpula. The picture below shows two sides of the fossil.

So, in the course of 12 hours, this specimen in the eyes of an amateur changed from vertebrate to plant to invertebrate. Quite a journey.

I would argue that in each step of that process I found an identity that was true at that moment, one that fit the features of the object as I knew them. Another look and, perhaps, a new identity, a new understanding. What played out on a micro/amateur level with this little fossil seems, to me, to be what paleontology, for that matter, all science is – an process of interpretation and reinterpretation, all in an effort to advance understanding. Over time, paleontologists may offer profoundly different interpretations of precisely the same fossil specimens. They are seeing the fossils differently. The multiple times that the fossils from the Burgess Shales have been rethought is but one prominent example.

I’ll go further and venture that this looking and looking again, trying to really see, may be how we can best make sense of our world in all domains, not just those involving a little mundane fossil or a rich array of fossils from the Cambrian.

It's hard not to reach that conclusion because I've been immersed in Susan Vreeland's fiction which explores the role of art and the artist in life. Most recently, I have been reading Life Studies, a collection of Vreeland’s short stories. Its first set of stories (the Then stories in this volume) centers on moments in the lives of famous artists, primarily Impressionists, as seen through the eyes of members of their surrounding cast of characters – wives, models, children, relatives, friends, neighbors, or townsfolk. The impact of art on life is examined through how the artists and their art are seen and felt by those around them. Some of the stories are quite fine; a few perhaps too precious.

One of the Then pieces, “Of These Stones,” is a story about the Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, set in Aix-en-Provence in 1896. It’s Cézanne’s obsession with a mountain that drew me into this story and then into learning more about Cézanne. This obsession with the mountain is a subject of derision among the locals. The main character’s grandmother adds to the insults that the rest of the family has been heaping on Cézanne for his eccentric and immoral behavior, “He’s a fool to paint the same mountain every day. Can’t he get it right?”

In fact, Cézanne painted that mountain, Mont Sainte-Victoire, more than 60 times. Here are three of those landscapes. The few I’ve seen suggest it wasn’t just differences in the time of day or the weather that were captured, but the vantage point changed, so, as Cézanne saw the mountain, its very shape differed as did its relationship to the rest of the landscape. The first painting below is circa 1897-1898, the second 1900, and the third circa 1902.

Vreeland offers an explanation of why Cézanne returned the mountain to canvas repeatedly – in the story, she has Cézanne say, in effect, it’s to know the mountain, which is always different but always the same, and to know God.

There’s another aspect of Cézanne’s attachment to the mountain that I came upon as I read further about his life and art. It changed my view of the artist and the mountain. In painting the mountain, I would suggest, Cézanne may also have been looking back into deep time, exploring the ancient history of the mountain, not just depicting its changing surface or searching for God. I like to think he was trying to see the geological truth of the mountain in these landscapes.

Let me try to make a case for this, though I suspect I will succeed only at describing a strong nexus between Cézanne and geology.

Provence is a geological treasure trove abounding with mountains, valleys, gorges, and quarries; it also is paleontologically rich, with prehistoric human settlements and sites with myriad fossils, dinosaur bones and eggs among them. Most importantly, there’s the mountain itself:
As a geological specimen, indeed, Sainte-Victoire was a naturalist’s dream come true. Its exterior sheath of gray-blue limestone was encrusted with rare fossils. Its inner core, composed of reclining layers of stone sediments, constituted a distinct geological formation unique to the Aix region called ‘pli anticlinal couche’ or ‘feuille couchee d'Aix’ [an anticlinal fold]. [Nina Maria Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Cézanne and Provence: The Painter in his Culture, 2003, p. 175 – link here; an anticline is an upward fold of the rock strata]

That Cézanne was attuned to the geological riches of Provence seems clear and, perhaps also to the paleontological riches (of course, I would expect the latter from the former). In addition to the writer Emil Zola, another of Cézanne’s closest friends was his occasional painting companion Antoine-Fortuné Marion, a world renowned professor of zoology and paleontology at the University of Marseille. Marion had earned doctorates in zoology and geology. He achieved some of his reputation by finding Neolithic skulls and other remains near the western slope of the mountain. Art historian Athanassoglou-Kallmyer writes, "As young men, both Cezanne and Zola came under the spell of Marion's geological fervor." [Cézanne and Provence, p. 160]

In addition to the Mont Sainte-Victoire series, Cézanne often painted the abandoned Bibemus Quarry. Here’s a painting that belongs in both series – the quarry is seen with the mountain in the background (Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from the Bibemus Quarry, circa 1897).

Art historian Meyer Schapiro offers a fascinating interpretation of this particular painting, a wonderfully geological one. He writes,
Instead of suspending the observer above the valley, [Cézanne] places between him and the main object an abyss, the quarry across whose void he views the opposite rocks and the rising peak. In this process, the landscape itself has become dramatic, filled with striving, titanic energies; but these are outside the spectator's realm, beyond approach. The mountain, like a heroic sculpture, is set on a gigantic pedestal of rock enclosed by trees. One side rises in a sheer unbroken slope, the other, a strangely animated line, changes its course in several abrupt breaks. For the first time we see the peak as a personal object with a distinct profile, or with two sides, like a human face. It has lost the old classic symmetry and has become a complex, dynamic form. At the same time, its elevation, its strained upward movement, is more pronounced because of its position in space – close to the upper edge of the canvas and directly above the vertical walls of the quarry. There is no broad horizontal plane, no immense platform of earth, to tranquillize the natural pyramid, but a deep vertical cleft at its convex base, splitting the quarry wall in two and marked by unstable, tilted trunks, adds to the restless effect in this setting of great pressures and heat. [as quoted at the WebMuseum, Paris – link here]
Striving, titanic energies. Unstable, tilted. Great pressures and heat. Look closely at the mountain, Cézanne has painted the slope as sharp V-shaped folds. Beautiful.

And finally, from Cézanne himself:
In order to paint a landscape well, I first need to discover its geological structure. . . . I come face-to-face with my motif; I lose myself in it . . . gradually the geological structures become clear to me, the strata, the main planes of my picture, establish themselves and mentally I draw their rocky skeleton . . . . Everything steadies into place. . . . Red earth masses emerge from an abyss. [as quoted in Cézanne and Provence, p. 176]

And Then A Bit More Came Into View

After putting up this post yesterday, I came across more wonderful confirmation of what I was coming to understand about Cézanne. For much of the year, some museum goers in England and the U.S. had an opportunity to view a very interesting exhibit exploring Darwin’s influence on the arts. Entitled Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts, it showed at the Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, Connecticut) earlier this year and just closed at The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge, England – link here). I was bowled over to see that the exhibit devoted an entire section to "Darwin and Impressionism." Of Cézanne, the exhibit’s materials on the Fitzwilliam site state: “In the 1860s, one of Paul Cézanne’s closest friends was Antoine-Fortuné Marion (1846-1900), an aspiring painter who turned to paleontology and later became one of France’s leading Darwinists. Cézanne’s fascination with the rock formations and ancient cultures of Provence owed much to Marion’s Darwinian notions and his fossil discoveries in the region of Mont Sainte-Victoire.” Among the works featured is Cézanne’s Rocks (circa 1867-70, the painting can be seen at the link here). This painting, according to the museum's materials, shows that: “Cézanne’s view of the Provencal landscape was coloured by an awareness of the events in geological time that had shaped it. In this view of rock formations in his native Provence, Cézanne is careful to record one of the geological peculiarities of the area: the brown sandstone that has been weathered into round, boulder-like formations.”


All images of Cézanne paintings posted here were found at the WebMuseum, Paris – link here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Glamour of the Moment of Discovery

The glamour, the mystique of the moment of discovery in the sciences is, to me, irresistible. Though I’m drawn to its depiction whether it occurs in the lab, the field, or the mind, it’s the discovery in the field that I probably find most compelling. This is, I suspect, what pulls many into the sciences, particularly such fields as paleontology. It certainly is at the heart of what makes the “wannabes,” the amateurs like me, invest inordinate amounts of time learning about paleontology and going on fossil hunts, the latter offering some actual, though admittedly tenuous, connection to doing the science (the less exciting curating and trying to make sense of what one finds on the hunt probably get closer).

Carter and Tut

One of my favorite descriptions of a discovery moment was written by C.W. Ceram about English archaeologist Howard Carter and the tomb of Tutankhamen (Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology, 1951, p. 212-213). It’s 1922 and Carter is about to break through the door to the tomb’s antechamber. His patron and partner Lord Carnarvon is among those gathered with him. For a moment they fear the worst – that this tomb is a common one, has never been completed, or is lying beyond those doors plundered and laid to waste.

Their hopes, in short, for a time were dashed. The tension increased once more, however, when rubble was taken away from the second door. “The decisive moment had arrived,” Carter says. “With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner.”

Taking an iron testing rod, Carter poked it through the door and found an emptiness on the other side. He lit candles to ensure against poisonous gases. Then the hole was enlarged.

Everyone interested in the project now crowded about. . . . Nervously Carter lit a match, touched it to the candle, and held it toward the hole. As his head neared the opening – he was literally trembling with expectation and curiosity – the warm air escaping from the chamber beyond the door made the candle flare up. For a moment Carter, his eye fixed to the hole and the candle burning within, could make out nothing. Then, as his eyes became gradually accustomed to the flickering light, he distinguished shapes, then their shadows, then the first colors. Not a sound escaped his lips; he had been stricken dumb. The others waited for what seemed to them like an eternity. Finally Carnarvon could no long contain his impatience. “Can you see anything?” he inquired.

Carter, slowly turning his head, said shakily: “Yes, wonderful things.”

Doesn’t get much better than that.

Johanson and Lucy

These are heady days in the study of early hominids, those predecessors to the genus Homo. Fifteen years after the first description of a specimen of the early hominid Ardipithecus ramidus, paleoanthropologist Tim White and a phalanx of other scientists with a wide range of specialties have just presented a detailed picture of this hominid, the world in which it lived, and how it interacted with that world (see the 11 research articles published in the October 2, 2009 issue of Science -- requires a free registration – link here) White et al. have tipped over a cornucopia of findings from their research on Ar. ramidus. Even some scientists who complained about that 15 year gap between discovery and full publication have reveled in this wealth of scientific riches.

Although some 110 specimens of Ar. ramidus have been found at this site, one of them is “by far the most complete of the earliest specimens [of hominids]. It includes most of the skull and teeth, as well as the pelvis, hands, and feet.” (A New Kind of Ancestor: Ardipithecus Unveiled, article by Ann Gibbons, Science, October 2, 2009, p. 36 -- link here] The first pieces of this skeleton were found in 1994. Here's a picture of the assembled pieces of this specimen.

Of course, this striking find brings to mind another one that enthralled our collective imagination. Twenty years earlier, on November 24, 1974, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson found the first pieces of a 40 percent complete skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis specimen (from roughly 3.7 million years ago). Dubbed “Lucy,” this was the earliest known hominid until the discovery of Ar. ramidus (from roughly 4.4 million years ago).

In his book, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind (1981), Johanson describes the moment of discovery. At the end of a day in the field with Tom Gray, an American graduate student, Johanson follows an impulse to check out a gully bottom, one more time (p. 16-17):

It has been thoroughly checked out at least twice before by other workers, who had found nothing interesting. Nevertheless, conscious of the "lucky" feeling that had been with me since I woke, I decided to make that small final detour. There was virtually no bone in the gully. But as we turned to leave, I noticed something lying on the ground partway up the slope.

“That’s a bit of a hominid arm,” I said.

“Can’t be. It’s too small. Has to be a monkey of some kind.”

We knelt to examine it.

“Much too small,” said Gray again.

I shook my head. “Hominid.”

“What makes you so sure,” he said.

“That piece right next to your hand. That’s hominid too.”

[Yes, indeed it was hominid – the back of Lucy’s skull. As they surveyed the slope, they found a femur, vertebrae, a piece from a pelvis.]

An unbelievable, impermissible thought flickered through my mind. Suppose all these fitted together? Could they be parts of a single, extremely primitive skeleton? No such skeleton had ever been found – anywhere.

“Look at that,” said Gray. “Ribs.”

[That night in the celebrating camp, with the strains of The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds filling the night air, Lucy received her name.]

Not too shabby a moment of discovery. It resonates with particular strength because anyone who has spent the day staring at the ground, trying to match a mental search image with the myriad objects littered around, will recognize that desire to have just one last look, even over terrain that has been scoured repeatedly.

White and Ar. ramidus?

But what about this newly publicized find, this remarkable Ar. ramidus skeleton that some insist on calling Ardi? Is there a “Lucy moment” waiting to be told (perhaps in a forthcoming book written for a popular audience) for this particular specimen?

One of White’s research articles describes the initial discovery of this particular specimen in, not unexpectedly, bloodless terms (this is, after all, Science):

[O]n 5 November 1994, Y.H.S. [Yohannes Haile-Selassie] collected two hominid metacarpal fragments . . . from the surface of an exposed silty clay ~3 m below the upper tuff . . ., 54 m to the north of the point that had 10 months earlier yielded the Ardipithecus holotype dentition.
(Ardipithecus ramidus and the Paleobiology of Early Hominids, White et. al, Science, October 2, 2009, p. 76 -- link here)

From that small start, over the course of two years, White and his teams painstakingly teased out the many pieces of the skeleton from the matrix in which they were found:

In the field, the fossils were so soft that they would crumble when touched. They were rescued as follows: Exposure by dental pick, bamboo, and porcupine quill probe was followed by in situ consolidation. We dampened the encasing sediment to prevent desiccation and further disintegration of the fossils during excavation. Each of the subspecimens required multiple coats of consolidant, followed by extraction in plaster and aluminum foil jackets, then additional consolidant before transport to Addis Ababa. (p. 77)

Wait, that sounds like a lot of excruciatingly precise work . . . so, probably not a Lucy moment. But, frankly, that’s the problem with the popular account of the discovery moment or, at least, what we, the uninitiated, remember. Its lingering image is of the moment, of that instant when Carter says, “Yes, wonderful things.” The image no longer retains (if it ever did) any remnant of his six years of fruitless searching in that small area of Egypt, or the months required to deal with the finds in the antechamber before going on into Tut’s chamber itself where the real treasures were. Then, we conveniently forget that it took ten years to remove and catalogue what was in the tomb. (Let’s also ignore the curse.) We need to be reminded, continuously that there’s so much, much more to it, long before and long after the discovery.

A Matter of Choices

A good friend raised a question that always lurks in the mental shadows for a person pursuing an avocation or interest full throttle. She asked, If I had it to do all over again, and everything else that mattered in my life would remain the same (family, steady job, nice place to live, etc.) would I have become a paleontologist? Clearly recognizing how seductive I find the fossil hunt, that hard work in the outdoors, she added a critical coda describing the intellectual and other challenges that would await a practitioner of this profession – it’s not all that grand moment of discovery in the field, she was saying, so choose wisely. In our exchange over this coda, the words spoken or mostly implied included technical, theory, research, bureaucratic demands, academic infighting, death by a thousand cuts, etc.

I gave her a glib response, but found myself continuing to ponder the basic question.

Shortly after she posed it, I stumbled across an old essay by Stephen Jay Gould reviewing John McPhee’s Basin and Range (1981 – B&R is still fun on rereading). McPhee’s book is an accessible, personal view of deep time and plate tectonics (the new geology), illustrated through a journey across the country, from roadcut to roadcut along Interstate 80, primarily in the company of geologist Kenneth Deffeyes. As much as he liked the book, Gould was critical of what he saw as McPhee’s exalting of field work:

[H]e has been beguiled by the mystique of field work. No geologist worth anything is permanently bound to a desk or laboratory, but the charming notion that true science can only be based on unbiased observation of nature in the raw is mythology. Creative work, in geology and anywhere else, is interaction and synthesis: half-baked ideas from a barroom, rocks in the field, chains of thought from lonely walks, numbers squeezed from rocks in a laboratory, numbers from a calculator riveted to a desk, fancy equipment usually malfunctioning on expensive ships, cheap equipment in the human cranium, arguments before a roadcut. (An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas, 1987, p. 98)

McPhee, Gould argues, is positing that science advances only through the objective analysis of the data steadily accumulated from observation in the field. Wrong, says Gould, this ignores the fact that the scientist can never divorce himself or herself from the cultural milieu. In reality, science advances through an admixture of ideas and facts, and those ideas aren’t newly generated solely from the data (I would add, no matter how much Francis Bacon would have had it so).

Given where this post started, I would argue that there’s something else going on in this criticism, at least, there is to me. For an amateur like McPhee, field work has a mystique in the first place because there he is walking a road cut with a geologist who whacks off a piece of rock exposing, in McPhee’s words “[i]ts fresh surface . . . asparkle with crystals – free-form, asymmetrical, improvisational plagioclase crystals, bestrewn against a field of dark pyroxene.” (Basin and Range, p. 5) Listen to that language . . . it reveals how, to the amateur, even something as prosaic as this little roadcut vignette is magical and the scientist is breaking through the door and shedding light on wonderful mysteries inside. So, how could it be otherwise that, in the popular imagination (my imagination), those stories of the glorious moments of discovery in the field are what is remembered and exalted?
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