Sunday, September 13, 2009

Trilobites – Gifts and Givers

On Receiving Gifts

Earlier this summer, I received a gift of several fossils from my wife who found them tucked away in various nooks and crannies at a gem and mineral show being held in a high school gymnasium. I suspect that my thanks came across as tepid and perfunctory, perhaps because I immediately followed them with pointed questions about such things as the fossils’ geological provenance for which there were few answers (and I noticed that those quickly became curt and icy). In a previous post, I observed that some have said the difference between a pretty rock and fossil is the label that ties the fossil to critical identifying data. I need to clarify:

Geological provenance of a fossil is all important unless the fossil is a gift (then, that’s all you need to know about its origins).

The trilobite pictured above (3/4" long) was one of those gifts. This gift (and all of the others) should have been received with hurrahs, not the third degree – after all, it is a fossil, regardless of its pedigree and condition (repaired crack and a messed up pygidium or tail), and, to my eye, it’s a pretty fossil at that. And, now, some time later, it has served to spark a renewed interest in trilobites.

(To be fully candid, this fossil wasn’t completely “origin-less,” having a little sticker on the back that had two words scrawled on it – the second one clearly “Utah” – a helpful, plausible tidbit of identifying information. The first word began with an “M” – a town in Utah, maybe Modena? It wasn’t until I took a stab at identifying the genus and species of this specimen that the first word fell into place. I decided this is a Modocia typicalis, and suddenly it became clear that the first word on the label was “Modocia” – so much for my petty response to this pretty gift.)

Museums and Gifts

The recession is threatening natural history museums across the country. The anguish in the paleontological community is palpable as universities consider addressing budget shortfalls by, in part, cutting back or closing their museum operations. The value of these museums is incalculable. They build scientific knowledge and feed intellectual hunger; in the process, they surely open science to each new generation. I am fortunate to be a subway ride away from the constellation of wonderful museums of the Smithsonian Institution, including the National Museum of Natural History. But, even these museums, too, must be buffeted by ill economic winds and we should not take them for granted, or expect that they will always be free. Well, in fact, though no admission is charged, we all are actually paying for them since some 65 percent of their more than a billion dollars in operating revenue comes from the Federal Government.

Then there are gifts. Gifts play an important role in the generation of the Smithsonian Institution’s operating revenue. If I read the SI’s FY2008 Financial Statement correctly, perhaps close to 16 percent of the operating revenues can be attributed to contributions, investment income, earnings on endowment, and grants – all of which I’d consider to be revenue from gifts (financial statement link here).

So, given the times we’re in, I suppose it was appropriate that the day was wet and dreary when, prompted by my wife’s gift, I journeyed to the National Museum of Natural History to see the trilobites it had on display.

The NMNH’s Sant Ocean Hall (named for the Sant family, benefactors of the hall to the tune of $15 million) is a grand place, replete with many treasures, including many stunning trilobites. If you time it right, you can avoid crowds and have time to spend reading and absorbing the text that accompanies the visually impressive displays. Curiously, I, who prefer subdued light and shadows, find the Sant Ocean Hall and much of the NMNH a bit too dark (protecting the specimens, perhaps).

Still, the trilobites on display in Sant Ocean Hall take your breath away. As I stood and gaped before these complex and alien beauties, I was as happy as Larry.*

The pictures I’ve included here do a rather poor job of capturing the glory of these beasties – my technology, and the museum’s lighting and protective cases conspired against me. (Though the Smithsonian website has some pictures of its trilobites, it’s a tedious dig to uncover them. They do seem rather effectively buried.)

Curiously, the trilobite exhibit also brings the idea of gifts to the fore because many of these specimens are identified as “Donated courtesy of Robert M. Hazen.” (Curious syntax – why not “Donated by” or “A gift from”?) Robert Hazen has a very full vita, to say the least. He is a widely published earth scientist, teaches at George Mason University, is also associated with the Carnegie Institution, and plays trumpet in the National Symphony. Somehow, he also has found the time to build a spectacular collection of trilobites, comprised of some 2,000 specimens with representatives from each of the eight trilobite orders. Many of the trilobites in Hazen’s collection are graced with spines and other features that, almost without fail, are lost to such fossils. The curator of the Sant Ocean Hall, learning of Hazen’s fabulous trilobite collection, was permitted to view it. Very productive conversations apparently ensued because Hazen is donating his complete collection to the Smithsonian and some 50 of the donated trilobites are now on display in the Sant Ocean Hall. (For another photographic view, Hazen has posted pictures of a number of his trilobites at this link.) The story of this gift is told on the SI website.

Life’s Gift to Minerals

There’s more to Hazen. He is one of a group of scientists describing the history of the development of minerals on Earth and elsewhere in the universe in evolutionary terms. They speak of minerals’ co-evolution with life. They posit, “The mineralogy of terrestrial planets and moons evolves as a consequence of selective physical, chemical and biological processes.” (link here) In their construct, mineral evolution begins with the roughly 60 minerals that exist in stellar nebulae, before planets begin to take shape. Over time, as planets are formed, the number of different minerals increases significantly, particularly in response to various geological and chemical processes on those planets, among them volcanic action. On Earth, the number of minerals spiked as a consequence of the mixing and stirring of minerals by plate tectonics, reaching perhaps a thousand.

But, based on their reading of Earth history, with the advent of biological processes the number of minerals skyrockets still further. Hazen concludes that, of the 4,500 different minerals now found on Earth, some two-thirds of them were “biologically mediated.” (link here) At the heart of this explosion in different minerals were chemical reactions that involved the increasing levels of oxygen in our atmosphere and oceans being generated by ocean algae. Among other biological actions that generated minerals, according to Hazen, was the evolution of shell bearing organisms whose accumulated shells produced deposits of calcite and other minerals.

It’s a different way to see minerals -- in the aggregate, evolving over time. It’s probably not a use of the concept of evolution in a scientific setting that biologists and paleontologists find appropriate or helpful. Nevertheless, I am struck that, according to this framework, much of Earth’s mineral richness is a gift from life, and that, by implication, were we to detect similarly rich mineralogy on another planet we should certainly suspect life’s generosity.


* “As happy as Larry.” In other words, I was very happy. I first encountered the expression “as happy as Larry” in Richard Fortey’s book Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution (he used it describe a period of his life when he worked on trilobites and literally lived in the Sedgwick Museum at Cambridge, England). The expression may have been first coined in Australia in the late 1800s prompted by boxer Larry Foley’s undefeated record; he retired after a final, lucrative bout, presumably very happy. Or “Larry” may be a corruption of “larrikin,” a term used in Australia in the late 1800s to describe young, rowdy thugs who wore colorful outfits.

Among other sources that discuss the origins of the expression is From Hue & Cry to Humble Pie: Curious, Bizarre & Incomprehensible Expressions Explained by Judy Parkinson (2000) (link here) One web source in the U.K. (link here) purports to provide the first known instance of the use of this phrase in print (New Zealand writer G.L. Meredith, around 1875):
We would be as happy as Larry if it were not for the rats.

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