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.
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