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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