Sunday, January 31, 2010

Science and Art ~ OK Go and “Before The Earth Was Round”

I intended to piece together a post exploring what I think is the anti-science stance staked out in the new song “Before The Earth Was Round” by the band OK Go. This is the group of four guys whose clever video for their song “Here It Goes Again” redefined the best use of treadmills.

“Before The Earth Was Round” appears on the group’s new album Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. The song describes two periods – a utopian period (before knowledge) and a post-knowledge period.

The utopian period:

Before the earth was round,
And there was no end to things,
And no one tried to measure what they knew,
Everything was warm and everyone would love
And every contradiction was true.
. . .
And the sky was still honestly blue.

Consequences of that knowledge:

And war became a job and love became a mystery.
And the heart and head were bent out of tune.
Fear and doubt began,
and God threw up his hands,
and the sky didn’t know what to do . . . .

At the outset, I took the song at face value. The message, as I hear it, is that scientific knowledge (the measuring of things) spells the end of harmony between mind and body, destroys love, brings war, renders God impotent, and, oh, yes, it robs the sky of its blue color. As for that last, apparently if you know something about the “how” of an aspect of the natural world, its beauty, its art, its color disappear. That’s where my thoughts were centering.

Then, again, maybe it’s all irony or a parody or a pose or just a song or . . . . Singer Damian Kulash described it in an interview as

a sort of absurdist allegory where the whole world goes and they figure out the Earth is round. And they have knowledge now, and everything goes wrong because of it. And you know, they sort of lose - they lose mystery and poetry.

~ interview on NPR’s Morning Edition

So, where do you stand on this “absurdist allegory,” Damian?

But, thankfully, I didn’t write an exegesis of the song because I am easily distracted.

First Distraction

The first flakes blew in during the midmorning yesterday, quickly covering the ground and weaving patterns across the roads. It snowed steadily throughout the day and the city slowed. A snow day . . . wasted on a Saturday.

Snowflakes are geometrically beautiful, often unrelentingly fractal. To Wilson A. Bentley, who photographed snowflakes for half a century, beginning in 1885, they were “dainty hieroglyphics.” (As quoted in Jack Williams, The Weather Book, 1997, p. 101) So, on a whim, I ventured out with camera, minitripod, and trilobite knit cap. Scattered throughout this post are images of a few of yesterday’s fallen that I captured moments before they melted away or blended into their comrades.

I know there is marvelous science and mathematics behind each snowflake. A dance of physics, geometry, meteorology, chance . . . . I dug out a notebook I filled several years ago in the meteorology course I took at the local community college. An energetically taught, compelling course. I also pulled Meteorology by Eric W. Danielson and friends, (1998) from a stack of books in the basement. In the quiet that descended on the house as the traffic faded and then stopped on my snow-covered street, I read about the formation of snowflakes.

The Bergeron process. Supercooled clouds with supersaturated air over water droplets and unsaturated air over the few ice crystals that begin to form in the clouds’ below freezing temperatures. Evaporation of water. The deposition of water vapor onto the ice. (Deposition is the direct transformation of a gas to a solid.) Growing ice crystals begin to fall. Myriad ways in which these crystals might be transformed . . . into snow pellets, sleet, freezing rain, hail, rain drops.

And maybe, just maybe, snowflakes.

The images that impress us the most and we typically call snowflakes are individual snow crystals. Forget, for purposes of this post, that snowflakes, technically, can be those single crystals or aggregations of crystals.

Physicist Kenneth G. Libbrecht has described their creation:

Under ideal conditions—for which the growth must be unperturbed by collisions with other ice or water particles—a snow crystal can grow into a rather elaborate, six-fold symmetric shape, . . . . (The Physics of Snow Crystals, Reports on Progress in Physics, March 2005, p. 862, emphasis added)

This is what the science delineates – intricate steps must occur in precisely the right way to create that flake that hits my little photographic platform (and melts before I can bring the camera into focus). This leaves me somewhat breathless at the improbability of that classic snowflake.

When Libbrecht, creator of a wonderful website on snowflakes and snow crystals, uses the word “ideal” I applaud. Yes, there are conditions that must prevail for the flake to appear, but, more importantly, these are the conditions we want to prevail. Why? He has said it best:

Snowflakes are remarkable examples of nature’s art. They are born within the grey winter clouds, where the simple act of freezing turns formless water vapor into spectacular crystalline ice sculptures. How amazing it is that these elaborate, symmetrical, and sometimes stunningly beautiful structures appear quite literally out of thin air! (The Art of the Snowflake: A Photographic Album, 2007, p. 11)

Second Distraction

My second distraction was a treat, a visit to the website of the Two Wall Gallery in Vashon, Washington. (A recent post by ReBecca Hunt-Foster on her blog Dinochick Blogs steered me in this direction.) Last year, the gallery hosted “Geo sapiens, Geology and Art,” an exhibit of works of art by 50 geologists, other earth scientists, and earth science students. A wonderful array of pictures of the art work has been posted on the gallery's website.

The art work by these scientists is stunning. Many of the pieces are alluring, rich in color and often seductive in the gracefulness they capture. Science deeply informs the art. The website states,

These works together illustrate the intimate connection these geoscientists have with the Earth and its mysteries.

Here are just a few pictures of these works of art, (reproduced here by permission of the gallery). From left to right, the first is a stone mosaic by Russell Ratcliff called Arroyo. The second is a linocut print (I think that's the medium) by Greg Wessel called Stratigraphic Lesson. The third is Cascade by Jeffrey Nelson (not sure of the precise medium).

These artists know the intricate science behind the images they have created. For these men and women who have practiced the earth sciences professionally, their knowledge clearly does not deprive them of a sense of the natural world's beauty.

As for my response to “Before The Earth Was Round,” I’m done.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Popular Culture Meets Science ~ Sherman’s Lagoon

Blessed are the humorists with a sense of science, and the scientists with a sense of humor.

Last November, a group of scientists of the sense of humor persuasion, brought out a paper with the deceptively unfunny title of “Philopatry and Migration of Pacific White Sharks” (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published online on November 4, 2009). (Philopatry is the tendency of an animal to stick around, or come back to, its place of birth or a home area.) The paper presented data on the migration of white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) in the northeastern Pacific (NEP) garnered from a multi-year study of electronically tagged sharks. The scientists learned that the NEP group of sharks follows a very predictable migratory pattern, traveling back and forth between the California coast and the Hawaiian islands, congregating at different times in three main areas – the North America continental shelf waters off the California coast, the offshore waters of the Hawaiian archipelago, and an area roughly in between (well to the west of the Baja California peninsula).

There’s an interesting evolutionary subtext to this research. White sharks are ocean going, or pelagic, capable of moving throughout the world’s oceans. Yet, large groups of white sharks follow sufficiently distinctive migratory patterns such that there are three principal concentrations of white sharks – a population in South African waters, one in the waters of Australia and New Zealand, and the NEP population – differing genetically from each other.

So, where’s the humor?

Well, Salvador Jorgensen and his co-authors, dubbed that area in between the North America shelf waters and Hawaii the white shark Café because that’s a place where the white sharks gather either to dine or hook up, or both. (Okay, Jorgensen et al. didn’t use those precise words, instead suggesting that possible reasons for the Café are “foraging and mating.” Same difference.)

When cartoonist Gary Larson retired and took The Far Side with him, we lost the single best source of humor drawing from science. Gone from my newspaper’s comic pages was that modest rectangle filled with surprisingly subtle line drawings, among whose targets were our pre- and misconceptions, as well as those screwy lab-coated scientists who could abandon their formula-covered blackboard to chase the ice cream truck. Yet, even as scientists got gored, Larson often called on readers to bring some scientific literacy to the breakfast table, along with their bowls of cereal and milk. As Michael Cavna in Comic Riffs, his blog on comics that runs on the Washington Post website, commented in late 2008, “Gary Larson did not invent the animal/science cartoon. But he sure came to own it.” Amen.

So, it has been great fun to find Jim Toomey doing a science bit in his wonderful comic strip Sherman’s Lagoon. The thematically-linked sequence of strips currently running has Sherman, that lovable though dimwitted white shark, packing his bags as he and his wife Megan make preparations for hitting the “White Shark Café.” (The first in the series involving the Café ran on the 21st of January – the link to the Washington Post’s website with that strip is here.)

Of course, the strip reeks with innuendo about what’s actually going to happen at the Café. Here’s the exchange from one strip (January 22nd):

Fillmore, the sea turtle: I heard you’re going to the “White Shark Café.”
Sherman: Yep.
Fillmore: Isn’t that the remote spot where great white sharks congregate for no apparent reason?
Sherman: Oh, there’s a reason, all right.
Fillmore: Enlighten me.
At which point, Sherman blinds him with a flashlight.
Fillmore: Not with a flashlight!
Sherman: Make up your mind.

Okay, it’s not heart- and breath-stopping humor, but it will do because it’s got some science underlying it. I’ve missed that.

And, by the way, given the evidence of their sense of humor, I suspect that, if Jorgensen and his band of scientists could have conclusively shown that the area of congregation is primarily a place for pairing off, they would have come up with a different name for it, perhaps The High School Dance. As the authors observed of the females who visit the area, “[I]n contrast with males, [the females] were dispersed over a broader spatial domain, moving in and out of where males converged, rather than remaining there.”

In other words, the boys stake out an area at the back of the gym.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Step on the Road to Regulations for the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (with a passing comment on a favorite typographical error)

The publication of regulations to implement the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act is officially now a priority for the U.S. Department of the Interior for 2010, and one of four regulatory annual priorities for the Bureau of Land Management, which is part of Interior. This was announced recently by Interior in its Statement of Regulatory Priorities (look at pages 64253-64254 in the Federal Register, December 7, 2009). [Note: Each instance of highlighted text in this post provides a link to the relevant material on the web.] Interior noted that “BLM and the Park Service are co-leads of a team with the Forest Service that will be drafting a paleontological resources rule. The rule would address the protection of paleontological resources and how we would permit the collection of these resources.” “Hobby collection of common invertebrate plants and fossils” is identified as one of the issues the rule will address. [Later edit: The BLM has a nice web page that summarizes some of its responsibilities regarding paleontological resources on federal land, and tracks the regulatory process for implementing the new legislation.]

This is good news and takes us a step closer to implementing the uniform policy for paleontological resources on federal land enacted in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-11). Development and enactment of the Paleontological Resources Preservation legislation has been discussed in previous posts on this blog (see Labels in column at right).

How Long Will It Take?

This announcement is important because it signals that work on the regs has continued apace and, though, it might seem to be taking a long time, as these things go, it hasn’t. In a prior life, I was involved with analyzing federal legislation and regulations – sometimes regs took years to emerge and sometimes they never did. In this case, though, the Executive Branch presumably has no option because the new law requires the administering Secretaries to issue regulations with an opportunity for public comment.

When might the regs emerge? How about November, 2010, for proposed regs? That, at least, is the date given in RIN: 1004-AE13, one of entries on the Interior “rule list” published on the web. (RIN is the acronym for Regulation Identifier Number.)

Parting Comment on a Favorite Typographical Error (and Advice to Rock & Mineral Collectors, Chill)

Please, rock and mineral collectors don’t panic when you read the full text of the Federal Register announcement of the BLM priorities on pages 64253-64252. It mistakenly states that the rule being drafted would address, among other issues, the “causal [sic] collection of rocks and minerals” (emphasis added) It won’t. The new law states that none of its provisions can be construed to “apply to, or require a permit for, casual collecting of a rock, mineral, or invertebrate or plant fossil that is not protected under this subtitle” (Section 6311, emphasis added) “Causal collection” won’t be covered in the regs, either.

I once wrote a paper for a college course in which I analyzed the central thesis of the class text, constructing a detailed and well reasoned argument based on the author’s use of the word “causal” in a key passage, only to have the professor blithefully assert (I was not one of his favorites) that “clearly” I’d made a mountain out of a typographical error. After some debate, we agreed to disagree.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Paleontologist Mary Anning Deserved Better

Mary Anning was one of the great fossil hunters. Born in Lyme Regis, England, in 1799, she grew up in poverty and seldom escaped it during her short adult life, dying of breast cancer in 1847. Her father, Richard, a cabinetmaker, died when she was 11 years old. To support her mother and siblings, Mary and her brother turned to what their father had taught them, fossil hunting on the beach and crumbling cliffs that lined the shore to the east and west of Lyme Regis, a town on the southern coast of England, across the Channel from France. They sold these “curiosities” to tourists who vacationed in the area during the warm months of the year.

Long after her brother found refuge in an apprenticeship to an upholsterer (blessed indoor work), Mary Anning spent her days on the beach and cliffs, developing into a fossil hunting virtuoso, responsible for unearthing specimens that shook the scientific and religious worlds of her day. Anning’s unerring eye detected the remains of vertebrate “monsters” in the cliffs. Her discoveries of the marine reptiles ichthyosaur with its huge eyes, and plesiosaur with its improbably long neck, elevated her to paleontology stardom.

Anning developed a scientific understanding of the creatures whose fossil remains she found and sold, learning about them in part from the paleontologists and geologists, such as William Buckland, who came to Lyme Regis to buy her fossils and to seek her guidance in their pursuit. Unfortunately, she also learned that the exclusively male scientific ranks were closed to her not only because of her gender but also because of her social standing. Not surprisingly, given the prejudices of her time, seldom did those who acquired her specimens give her any credit for the finds; a male dominated world devalued her hard work, skill, and knowledge.

A Rush of Interest?

My present relationship with Mary Anning is akin to that selfish moment that may follow the elation at finding an exceptional fossil, it is a strong desire to keep the success and the area to myself. I had wanted to keep Anning to myself for a bit longer. Yes, I know Anning is well known in some paleontology-tinged circles, but certainly not broadly and that state of affairs is, I think, about to change.

Tracy Chevalier has written a piece of historical fiction entitled Remarkable Creatures, telling Anning’s story. Regardless of the worth of the new novel, the cachet of the author’s name – Chevalier is the author of the bestseller Girl With a Pearl Earring – presumably means much press coverage (I’ve heard her interviewed on January 2, 2010 on NPR, and I’ve read a review of the book in the January 13th issue of the Washington Post) and, as a result, big sales. And, last year, journalist Shelley Emling came out with an Anning biography entitled The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World which, though it has not caused the stir that Chevalier’s novel probably will, still extends the reach of the Anning story.

Both books are readable and informative, though neither soars and neither is without serious faults. On the whole, I prefer Emling’s biography, in part because Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures does what I think is a great disservice to Anning and to one of the men in her life.

New Novel

Remarkable Creatures has the trappings of a Jane Austen novel, though with a focus on the truly impoverished and without that author’s senses of humor and irony. (There are other Austen connections to the Anning story – she was a visitor to Lyme Regis, thought Richard Anning wanted to charge too much to repair a box lid, and featured the town in her novel Persuasion.) The dramatic tension in Chevalier’s novel, such as it is, stems from the dilemma of an unmarried, uneducated, impoverished woman fighting hard to make her way in early 19th Century England. Her encounters with male fossil collectors and scientists are typically misinterpreted and, without chaperones, deemed improper. As Chevalier put it in the NPR interview, “[I]n a way, this book tries to answer that question, what do women do who don't find the Mr. Darcy of the Jane Austen novels? What do they do when they don't get married? What is there for them in this society that expects them to marry?” Yes, it’s unfair that Anning was so circumscribed and limited by social convention; unfortunately, in Chevalier’s hands, it does not make for compelling reading.

Chevalier decided that Anning’s voice alone could not carry the novel because she was uneducated and parochial. So, the author alternates Mary’s voice with that of Elizabeth Philpot, an actual resident of the town, one of three unmarried sisters who relocated in somewhat financially constrained circumstances to Lyme Regis from London after the death of their parents. Philpot was educated, middle class, and became a consummate collector of fossil fish.

It’s this choice to add a powerful second voice to the novel that does a disservice to Anning. It’s ironic that in her own fictionalized story, Mary Anning is not allowed to be the main attraction because of what her society and circumstances did or did not allow her to be. Anning’s voice as Chevalier portrays it is often painfully immature. Elizabeth Philpot’s perspective on Anning doesn’t help since, despite her strong affection for her, Philpot still sees Mary as a victim and as a flighty, unsophisticated, and immature personality. The great intellectual strides Anning made during her lifetime receive short shrift in the novel. She worked hard to learn about what she was finding and the consequences of those finds, in the process filling commonplace books with religious and scientific works that she painstakingly copied out. It is puzzling why Chevalier never lets us really see that aspect of Anning’s maturation through her own eyes; only very briefly does it arise, particularly when Philpot stumbles upon some of the scientific literature Anning has copied. Perhaps inevitably this choice to add a voice shifts the focus of the novel from Anning and fossils, to the friendship between two women who fell outside of respectable society because of their independence, unmarried status, and fascination with fossils.

As for real violence in the novel, it’s what Chevalier does to retired Lieutenant Colonel Thomas James Birch. Birch, a real person, is made out to be the quintessential cad, exaggerating his rank, toying with Anning’s mother, flirting with the young woman to enlist her efforts in building his own fine collection of fossils, and then abandoning her and her family as soon as she leads him to a prime ichthyosaur specimen (which out of her misguided infatuation with him she carefully allows him to think he has actually found). All of this done, according to Chevalier, without any recompense to the Annings for whom fossil finds were their economic lifeline. Only later, when confronted and threatened with exposure by Philpot, does Birch do the right thing, auctioning off his collection and giving the Annings the proceeds.

This is character assassination plain and simple. I have to presume Chevalier thought a particularly villainous male would add some kind of dramatic fillip to the story. Birch did not deserve this. I think Emling’s biography provides the truer portrait of the man. She writes, “Often [Birch] went to Lyme Regis, where he took to visiting with Mary and her mother in their home, buying many fine specimens from them. . . . Shortly after their first encounter, Mary discovered a nearly complete ichthyosaur, and Birch purchased it.” (p. 70, emphasis added) So much for Birch’s using the family to his own ends and driving it into poverty. He then returned to Lyme Regis a year later to discover the Annings in dire straits because Mary’s finds had been scant. At this point, according Emling, Birch decided to auction his collection in order to raise funds for the Annings. I would note that Birch emerges from Thomas W. Goodhue’s 2002 biography of Anning (Curious Bones: Mary Anning and the Birth of Paleontology) the same way – generous and supportive.

Emling does note that “Birch’s act of generosity sparked some fantastic rumors” (p. 72) Unfortunately, Chevalier has stitched those rumors into her novel. I do not see how she can square that with what, as she noted in the NPR interview, she perceives as her obligation in historical fiction to “get it right as best I can.”

New Biography

There is, of course, the recent biography about Mary Anning, The Fossil Hunter, that one could read, and, as a matter of fact, I think that would be the better choice. This is the source to learn something about Mary Anning’s contributions to paleontology and the social, economic, and scientific contexts within which Anning lived, worked, and died.

Emling’s biography is a solid effort (yes, this is a bit of damning with faint praise). The author is clearly judicious in her treatment of available sources of information on Mary Anning, resisting the temptation to give contemporary rumors a free ride. Yet, as Emling strives to build a sense of immediacy, she becomes too concerned about alerting the reader to what is actually known and what is supposition. I would have preferred her to tell me that Mary was feeling something (and trust me to know that it’s the author’s well-grounded understanding), rather than subject me to “Mary must have marveled . . . .” or “Mary was probably feeling in fine form . . . .” Perhaps a surer editing hand was needed, one that would have decided that the reader does not need to learn 3 different times in 20 pages that the cliffs in the area of Lyme Regis are “unstable,” or that would have kept the author from describing fossils fragments as possibly coming from “giant critters.”

The book does offer some fascinating insight into the period. Her brief discussion of the Industrial Revolution and its impact on geology and paleontology is well done. This was a revolution marked by digging – transportation needs led to cutting through hills and mountains to lay railroad tracks, construction needs were met by quarrying limestone to make cement, and fuel for the engines of the revolution came from coal mining. All of these exposed fossils and revealed discrete layers of rock. Inquisitive minds took it from there. Parenthetically, people sought to escape the grit and grime of industrialized urban areas by vacationing at a place like Lyme Regis, creating a market for “curiosities.”

Geology of Lyme Regis

The geology of Lyme Regis is a major character in both books, though it comes out a bit short changed. That geology made all the difference for Anning is clear, had she been born elsewhere we likely wouldn't be telling her story. Either book would have been enhanced immeasurably by a map of the coastline (as endpapers perhaps for Chevalier’s novel). Such a simple thing.

The Lyme Regis coastline is marked by high, crumbly cliffs along the shore which, as they extend east and west from Lyme Regis, expose nearly the full array of rock formations of the Mesozoic Era, the some 200 million years of the Age of the Dinosaurs, beginning about 251 million years ago. This area was a sea at this juncture. Some of the names of the formations laid down at the time and now exposed here are delightful. Anning spent a significant amount of time searching material from the Jurassic Period’s Blue Lias Formation, a mix of limestone and shale which, apparently, was named for the bluish color of the rock and, either the pronunciation of “layers” in the local dialect or, as Emling would have it, the Gaelic word for “flat stone”. The Charmouth Mudstone Formation is another key Jurassic formation, subdivided into various layers including the Shales-with-Beef Member made of mudstone and given its named because it includes a series of thin beds with the appearance of sliced beef. The 150 foot high cliffs to the east of town are known as Black Ven. (Discovering Fossils, on the web, provides a great introduction to the geological formations in the area.)

Both authors do catch the reality of hunting fossils along a shoreline with abutting cliffs that frequently give voice to their fragility with loud landslips. It is a precarious business, I know, searching for that shape or glint that shouts fossil while staying alert to where one is and what might be towering overhead. The areas along the Chesapeake Bay that I hunt offer those same challenges, without, of course, the (legal) opportunity or risk of actually scrambling up or digging into the cliff sides, or the possibility of discovering remains of those Mesozoic monsters in the Chesapeake’s Cenozoic setting.

Agassiz Redeems Himself

Emling in the biography provided a very different perspective on Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, who interacted with both Anning and Philpot, from the one I have had. I would have fully expected him to behave toward Anning as he had toward some of the young scientists who worked with him, leading a few to claim he had taken credit for work they’d done. A man who would leave his family behind in Europe when he left for America would be expected to play the same role that other male scientists had with the two women. Instead, surprisingly, he didn’t. In fact, in his magnum opus on fossil fish, Recherches Sur Les Poissons Fossiles, he acknowledged the signal contributions of both Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot to his understanding of these fossils. He took the bold step of naming two species of fish after Anning – Acrodus anningiae and Belenostomus anningiae – and one after Philpot as well – Eugnathus philpotae. Emling writes, “Such acts of respect for women were unheard of among Mary’s British colleagues. Every one of her own finds had been named after men.” (p. 169)

I was disappointed that Chevalier did not include the naturalist in her novel because I wanted to see if her characterization of him would come close to my own in previous posts on this blog. Perhaps Agassiz’s failure to play true to form in this case explains his absence from the novel. [A later thought: Of course, he could have suffered Birch's fate.]

The first picture above shows an ichthyosaur from Lyme Regis. It appears at The photographer is listed as "User:Ballista from Dinosaurland, Lyme Regis, England." The file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

The second picture is of a cast of a plesiosaur found by Mary Anning and currently at the Muséum National d'histoire Naturelle, Paris. It appears at It was uploaded by FunkMonk. The file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Attraction of Obituaries – The Life of Bill Scott

Obituaries can be seductive. I skim them first, looking for that glimmer of the unusual or that small portrait of an inspiring life, confirming that life is full of wonders. Though I will read a good obituary about anybody, I am attracted to those that involve science and scientists. One that captured my attention late last year prompted this piece. In all fairness, the link to science is somewhat marginal and, actually, quite disparaging. Still, it’s a link and an excuse to write this post. Besides, obituaries are about life and so within the ambit of this blog.

The obituary of Dr. William Henry Scott, IV, who died at age 71, was entitled “Curiosity Led Scientist From Studying Rocks to Racing Cars.” Written by T. Rees Shapiro, it ran in the Washington Post on December 27, 2009 and began this way:

Bill Scott was known among his friends as a man whose curiosity led him down many paths.

In the late 1960s, he received a doctorate in geophysics from Yale University, and he spent his summers conducting research in the mountains of Iceland, Venezuela and Norway. But he soon became dissatisfied by what he considered the humdrum nature of his work and yearned for more excitement.

An okay beginning for an obituary, with a hint of something special about to come. But, as an opening, it certainly is not on a par with those written by the late Robert McG. Thomas, Jr., whose beautiful, literary obituaries graced the New York Times in the second half of the 1990s. Take his obituary for Anton Rosenberg, for example. It opens with:

Anton Rosenberg, a storied sometime artist and occasional musician who embodied the Greenwich village hipster ideal of 1950’s cool to such a laid-back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything, died on Feb. 14 . . . .

(From 52 McGs. The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Writer Robert McG. Thomas Jr., edited by Chris Calhoun, 2001, p. 110)

But, T. Rees Shapiro has something up his sleeve in his story of the life of Bill Scott – a sizzling quote from Scott about why he abandoned science:

“I didn’t have good girl friends,” [Scott] once told European Car Magazine. “There was no tactile sensation. There was no loud noise.”

A wonderful juxtaposition of comments that quite possibly Scott was directing to different aspects of his life, scientific or otherwise.

Regardless, Scott, in pursuit of a career that would offer what he was missing, became a formula racecar driver, and, I suspect, readily found all of what he was looking for. Although a successful career as a racecar driver came to an end in the aftermath of a serious accident, Scott continued his pursuit of tactile sensations and loud noise when he bought a racing facility in West Virginia called Summit Point and turned to training others to drive. Later, he became an expert in driving methods to avoid and respond to terrorist attacks, teaching them to the military, police forces, and a bunch of secret federal agencies. Lest that not seem like enough for one life, Scott grew fruit. He turned a cornfield next to his racetrack into an apple orchard which produced up to half a million gourmet apples annually, including ones he had trademarked.

Shapiro ends the obituary with a beautiful quote likely to offend many scientists. “‘I gave up my profession for racing,’ Dr. Scott once told a Hagerstown, Md., reporter, ‘It’s real life. It has its own heartbeat.’”

Scott’s obituary started me thinking about obituaries in general. Well written obituaries may aspire to, and sometimes achieve the status of literature. Marilyn Johnson, in The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries (2006) likens them to poetry:

We see this emotionally charged block of text that follows a particular format: a swift, economical description of the person who died, a few short stories from the life or work, and the list of survivors trailing behind. This tight little coil of biography with its literary flourishes reminds us of a poem. Certainly, it contains the most creative writing in journalism. (p. 9-10)

Depending upon the writer (and the deceased), the obituary can range from a quirky little story that resonates (“yes, I’ve done that, too”) to a glimpse at the array of possibilities for a life (like the Bill Scott obituary) to something memorable for its humor, particularly the unexpected joke.

Humor in an obituary. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste, but I have it. When, in early 2005, Dick Radatz, the famed Boston Red Sox relief pitcher, whose huge size and scorching fast ball earned him the nickname of The Monster, died at 67, his obituary by Gordon Edes in the Boston Globe said this of Radatz’s final job:

Mr. Radatz spent the last two years as pitching coach for the Lynn-based North Shore Spirit, an independent minor league team, and he was planning to return this spring, according to Spirit manager John Kennedy, the former Red Sox infielder, even though Mr. Radatz's considerable girth – his weight approached 400 pounds – made trips to the mound a rarity.

Okay, though I laughed out loud, perhaps a baseball joke isn’t universally appreciated. Back to Robert Thomas, who could start an obituary with a laugh (Anton Rosenberg’s obit, for instance) or use the entire obituary to lead up to a chuckle. Take his obituary of Mrs. Toots Barger, a champion of duckpin bowling (a variant of tenpin bowling – smaller pins and balls – once hugely popular in Baltimore, Maryland). The obituary recounts Mrs. Barger’s prowess and the history of duckpin bowling, concluding with her campaign late in her life to make it Maryland’s state sport. Wrote Thomas, “The campaign failed, perhaps because legislators felt duckpins was just too odd to be the state sport, especially when Maryland already had an official sport: jousting.” (52 McGs., p. 95)

It’s not gallows humor, it’s an appreciation of a specific human life in all of its wonderful and weird permutations, a single unique life that existed within the mass of humankind. In this, I agree with Marilyn Johnson’s final summing up about obituaries, which incidentally returns us to science:

I still think that the point of the obituary and the beauty of it, aside from its elegant structure and the wonderful writing it can inspire, lies in that heroic act. There goes one, the only one, the last of his kind, the end of a particular strand of DNA. (p. 222-223)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Trilobites in Sheep's Wool

Enthusiasms have a ripple effect on people who come within your orbit. Mine for paleontology is no exception. Some of those effects can be very warming. My wife is a knitter who now knits trilobites. I am surviving in this currently harsh winter with a new cranberry colored wool cap adorned with trilobites, well, knitted images of same.

These knitted images are wonderfully true depictions of trilobites, capturing the general shape and some details of certain genera. Trilobites were arthropods – invertebrate animals with jointed legs such as insects and crustaceans. I like to think that the model for the pattern was an Elrathia kingi (Middle Cambrian – some 510 million years ago (mya)). I particularly like the eyes in the cephalon (head) and the segmented thorax. Spot on.
As for size, well not so accurate for Elrathia (the pictured fossil specimen is 1” in length), though size varied among trilobite genera, in some, the adults reached upwards of 30 inches in length. As for color, most members of the Trilobita class were sighted so I say bring on the color. I am encouraged in this speculation by Richard Fortey. In Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution (2000), he acknowledges that we cannot know whether trilobites came in different colors since fossils typically take on the color of the rock in which they fossilize. But, given that “sealife today is a symphony of hues,” why not believe trilobites wore flashy exoskeletons? As he writes, “The fossil world is a pallid world, which only imagination can revivify. . . . We can colour them up as we fancy.” (p. 28) So cranberry red may suit Elrathia kingi just fine.

Trilobites were a long lived class, surviving the entire Paleozoic (some 300 million years) until succumbing shortly before or in the Permian extinction, about 250 mya. They evolved over this period, diversifying to occupy different ecological niches. As Richard Dawkins would put it, they “made their living” in different ways, ranging from filter feeders to scavengers to predators. Over time, trilobites came in myriad shapes, some quite elaborate with eyes on long stalks, some seemingly just thoraxes bristling with wicked spines, others stretching out and still others shrinking to a miniature size. Eyes came and went for some genera. (Samuel Gon’s A Guide to the Orders of Trilobites is a great way to explore the world of trilobites.)

Sheep’s Wool
Of course, sheep and, more importantly for my purposes here, sheep’s wool are like trilobites – the products of evolution. For my limited understanding of sheep’s wool, I have to thank my wife’s enthusiasm for knitting. On a recent plane flight, my wife was engrossed in The Knitter’s Book of Wool: The Ultimate Guide to Understanding, Using, and Loving this Most Fabulous Fiber by Clara Parkes (2009) (have to love modest titles like that – unless otherwise noted, everything about sheep and wool in this post is derived from Parkes’ book). My wife looked up from her reading to comment, “It’s interesting. Did you know that textile traditions differ among different cultures and evolution might have played a part? Like with felting. Here.” She handed over the book, her knitting enthusiasm rippling into my paleontological one. (Disquieting how all of this has colored our conversations. Instead of something like “What do you think about remodeling the bathroom?”, it’s “Hey, what about that evolution?” Thank God.)

The wool in my cap came from sheep which were first domesticated possibly about 7,000 BCE, perhaps from the Asiatic mouflon (Ovis orientalis) (The Archaeology of Animals by Simon J. M. Davis, 1987). These ancestor sheep molted, shedding fleece periodically. Originally, shepherds gathered wool from their sheep by pulling the fibers from the molting animal, an activity known as “rooing.”

An aside: By now, Van Morrison’s song “I Wanna Roo You” is waltzing through my consciousness:

Twenty-third of December covered in snow.
You in the kitchen with the lights way down low,
I’m in the parlor playing my old guitar.
Speaking to you, darling, find out how you are.

I wanna roo you,
Wanna get through to you,
I wanna woo you,
Woo you tonight.

A bit of web searching was fruitless as to the derivation of the word “roo” the way Van Morrison uses it. Though, I do wonder if a sheep-based rural culture (after all, the full title of the song is “I Wanna Roo You (Scottish Derivative)”) may well have myriad positive connotations for rooing.

Selective breeding has produced breeds of sheep whose coats grow continuously. These breeds, such as the Merino, require periodic shearing. Of course, this human intervention in the evolution of the animal has had some of the expected unexpected consequences. Shrek, a Merino ram in New Zealand, reportedly “evaded” shearing until, finally, after six years, the shorn Shrek produced a fleece weighing 59 pounds. Not too shabby.

As for my wife’s comment in the plane, some different textile traditions indeed may have emerged from an intricate tangle of evolutionary roots. Parkes describes an intriguing example. Icelandic sheep’s wool differs markedly from wool from the Shetland Islands in its ability to be made into felt.

Felt can be produced when wool is immersed in warm water, a process enhanced if soap is added. The shafts of fiber swell and the scales that cover the exterior of each fiber open. Rubbing the wool together in this condition creates irreversible tangles. Knitted wool subjected to this process will shrink, generating felt. Though the Icelandic and Shetland Island sheep are genetically close, the fibers from Icelandic sheep felt readily (“in a heartbeat” according to Parkes) while that from sheep from the Shetland Islands does not. Not surprisingly, felt plays a prominent role in the Icelandic textile tradition, but not in the Shetland tradition. Though Parkes is agnostic on the exact interplay of evolution and tradition, I suspect that the original breeds in each geographic area started with a slightly different propensity to produce readily felting wool. A textile tradition began to take root in Iceland around that marginal felting predilection in its wool, and then came an intimate evolutionary dance with the selective breeding of Icelandic sheep.

Lots of wonderful natural history warming the top of my head.

Note: My wife followed a pattern posted on Kitty: Little Purls of Wisdom by a knitter whose husband is a paleontologist. ReBecca Hunt-Foster’s Dinochick Blogs put me on to this.
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