Friday, November 26, 2010

The Very Real, Multidimensional Hadrosaurus foulkii ~ Convoluted History and Rejoinder to a Critic of Natural History Museums

At some point in the 1870s or possibly the very early 1880s, photographer James F. Jarvis set up his camera and array of equipment at the Smithsonian Castle and took photographs of the institution’s mounted skeleton of Hadrosaurus foulkii, a dinosaur from the Cretaceous period (about 146 to 66 million years ago).  From the glass negatives he prepared at the Smithsonian, Jarvis produced a stereoview or stereograph featuring the Hadrosaurus.  (Stereoviews or stereographs – cards whose dual mounted photographs generate a 3-D image when viewed through a stereoscope – have been considered previously on this blog.)

I recently added a copy of this stereoview to my collection.  The full face of this stereoview and a closeup of one of the two pictures are shown below.  The Hadrosaurus is prominent in the foreground, facing into the picture.  In front of it is a large Himmalayan tortoise shell from the Miocene epoch (about 23 to 5 million years ago), and in front of the tortoise is the restoration of an Irish elk, the Pleistocene epoch giant deer that went extinct some 11,000 years ago.

Jarvis was well known for the manufacture of stereoviews of Washington, D.C., and various series of stereoviews from government explorations of the western U.S..  For a period, he ranked among the country’s major producers of this popular photographic medium.

Originally, I thought it would be relatively easy to compose a posting on the subject of this specific stereoview.  Clearly, I had no clue about the richly convoluted the history of this mounted skeleton of Hadrosaurus.  Nor did I recognize that these photographs speak to a contemporary debate about the display of “fake” skeletons by natural history museums.  (Some of the sources I consulted are identified in the text; most are included in the discussion of sources at the end.)

Initially, though, I wanted to place a date on the stereoview, well, actually, the taking of the negative.  The Smithsonian has produced a fascinating webpage on stereoviews of the institution.  According to the information appearing there, beginning in 1874, the Hadrosaurus skeleton was on display in the Main Hall of the Smithsonian Building, a structure usually referred to as the Castle.  Then, in 1882, along with other skeletons and specimens, the Hadrosaurus was moved to the Smithsonian’s National Museum building.  This Jarvis stereoview shows the Castle’s Lower Main Hall looking east, which means it had to have been taken between 1874 and 1882.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t really narrow it down very much.

What was the source of the skeleton?  The fossilized bones of  a giant creature had been discovered in 1858 in Haddonfield, New Jersey, by Philadelphia lawyer and fossil hunter William Parker Foulke.  Foulke called in Joseph Leidy, a professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania and curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, who identified them as coming from a dinosaur, a term that had been coined by English paleontologist and biologist Richard Owen in the early 1840s.  This was the most complete dinosaur skeleton that had ever been found anywhere.  Leidy named the dinosaur Hadrosaurus foulkii (the genus name means “bulky lizard” and the species name recognizes Foulke).

A decade later, the English anatomist, scientific illustrator, and sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins came on the scene, having traveled to the U.S. to create a dinosaur display for a new museum in New York City.  After consulting Leidy about the New York display, he undertook the task of mounting the Hadrosaurus skeleton for the Academy of Natural Sciences.  With assistance from Leidy and one of Leidy’s students, Edward Drinker Cope, Hawkins created a mounted dinosaur skeleton using plaster casts of the bones at hand and plaster reconstructions, based on educated guesses, of those that were missing.  This was the first mounted dinosaur skeleton ever produced and, as we all know, this kind of display was destined to become a staple of natural history museums worldwide.

The skeleton went on display at the Academy in late 1868, attracting throngs of visitors, so many that officials of the Academy took steps to reduce the number of visitors, curtailing the days it was open to the public and charging admission.  The success of the display apparently was not lost on other institutions that then sought to obtain their own copies; Hawkins produced several.  According to Richard C. Ryder, the Smithsonian received a copy sometime between March 1874 and mid 1875.

After being displayed in the Smithsonian Castle, the Smithsonian’s Hadrosaurus was moved in 1882 to the National Museum building where it remained until perhaps 1893 or 1894.  Ryder says that it was then sent to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, “only to be discarded when the museum moved to new quarters a decade later.”

Breathtakingly innovative for its time, Hawkins’ Hadrosaurus skeletons got some things right, and missed the boat on some others.  For instance, the posing of the Hadrosaurus in an upright, bipedal position reflected Leidy’s accurate understanding of the dinosaur.  But, the three-pronged supporting position of the hind legs and the tail, giving the creature a kangaroo-like appearance, was ultimately disproven by subsequent research.  The drawing below depicts current understanding of the positioning and use of the tail (the picture comes from the New Jersey Geological Survey).  The Academy’s clutch of Hadrosaurus bones lacked a skull, so Hawkins made one based on the head of an iguana lizard, a creative though erroneous solution to the problem.

One passing comment on Leidy’s student, Edward Drinker Cope.  Cope became one of the country’s foremost paleontologists and engaged in the famous no-holds-barred competition against Othniel Charles Marsh to find dinosaur fossils – the so-called Bone Wars.  This conflict had a Hadrosaurus connection.  Before the battle royal began, the two men spent what paleontologist Michael Novacek describes as “a friendly week together poking around Leidy’s old Haddonfield quarry for hadrosaur bones.”  Hoag Levins, in an article on his great website Finding the World’s First Dinosaur Skeleton:  Hadrosaurus foulkii, asserts that the Cope-Marsh conflict had its roots in this friendly time together.  Cope generously introduced Marsh to the managers of different pits from which dinosaur bones were being collected.  The falling out occurred when Cope learned that, shortly after they left the area, Marsh returned alone, money in hand, to bribe the managers to send him bones and word of what they had found.

Hawkins’ Hadrosaurus skeleton also has some bearing on a debate of sorts that involves natural history museums today.  Earlier this year, “Thomas H. Benton” (the pen name of William Pannapacker), a professor of English at Hope College, published a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Getting Real at Natural-History Museums (July 1, 2010) in which he takes these museums to task for succumbing to the entertainment bug and for mounting displays that contain “fakes.”  Venturing into the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia with his daughter in search of the real dinosaur skeletons he remembered from his youth, he was dismayed to discover only replicas.  He asserts

Natural-history museums like the [Academy of Natural Sciences] emerged to provide exhibits that were reliably authentic and that could instruct the public and build the credibility of science in a period, like our own, in which pseudoscience had a strong hold on the general imagination.  Of course, the replicas in natural-history museums, unlike [P.T.] Barnum’s humbugs, present authentic science, but, over the last few generation, museums have become more willing to use substitutes in place of real artifacts.  It seemed like a good idea at the time. . . .

You could say that a fake skeleton educates as well as a real one, and it surely looks as good for publicity purposes.  But one of the fundamental attractions of natural-history museums – and museums in general – is the aura of authenticity and the power they have to inspire the imagination, particularly for children, in an era that is increasingly characterized by the virtual and the simulated.  That was not true when fossil replicas were first introduced – the changes were made with the best of intentions – but it is surely the case now.

Frankly, I am always suspicious of people who argue that there was once a “golden age” and that we’ve lost our way.  Too often that “golden age” proves to have been a mirage, the reality being nothing like what was remembered.  Clearly, that's the case in this instance.

A wonderful response to “Benton” was penned by Chris, a museum curator, on his blog Prerogative of Harlots (July 26, 2010).  He observes, “When Benton refers to fakes, he’s actually taking about casts – specifically the cast dinosaur skeletons that many museums exhibit in their galleries.”  Why do they do that?  For one thing, there are very few complete fossil skeletons.  Most are exceedingly incomplete.  So even a skeleton of an individual specimen that includes real bones will include many replicas of bone.  Chris points out that the dinosaur “Benton” remembers from his youth at the Academy was a composite, not the “real” thing.  Chris describes the precision behind the creation of casts, a process producing something that is

as close to the fossil as it’s possible to get without actually owning it.  Casts are heavily used in paleontology because of the scarcity of fossil specimens – they are exchanged between museums and sent out on loan to researchers.  We assign them catalog numbers and treat them in the same way as we would treat any museum specimen.

He argues, persuasively in my mind, that the answer to the question “Is it real?” when standing before a dinosaur skeleton cast is

Absolutely, in the sense that there was once an animal that looked like this, we have the bones to prove it, and this exhibit specimen could not have been made without those bones.

Hawkins’ Hadrosaurus foulkii itself constitutes another strong response to “Benton.”  From the very outset of museums displaying mounted dinosaur skeletons, they were real only in the sense that Chris described, not in the way “Benton” misremembered from his childhood and before.  Then and now, they draw crowds and inspire the imagination, regardless of whether this or that bone is rock or a cast.

One final small note, Hawkins is tied to the Hadrosaurus stereoview in another way; it’s his restoration of an Irish elk appearing in the background.


The Academy of Natural Science has some useful information on its website for the exhibit about Hadrosaurus foulkii that it mounted in 2009.

Richard C. Ryder wrote a very interesting piece on dinosaurs in stereoviews entitled Dinosaurs Through the Stereoscope, Stereoworld, March/April 1985.

For a great exploration of Hawkins’ work, including the process for creating the mounted Hadrosaurus skeleton, see The Art of Bones:  Nineteenth-century Artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins Still Influences How Prehistoric Life is Represented Today, by Robert McCracken Peck, Natural History, December 2008 – January 2009.  This article was adapted from the book All in the Bones: A Biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, by Valerie Bramwell and Robert M. Peck.

Among good sources of background on Hadrosaurus is When Dinosaurs Roamed New Jersey by William B. Gallagher, 1997.

The Cope-Marsh competition is described in many sources.  Time Traveler:  In Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals From Montana to Mongolia  by Michael Novacek (2002) includes a brief, concise overview of the Bone Wars.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Standing at an Intersection

[Our imagination] will grow weary of conceiving things before nature tires of producing them.
                                        ~ Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670)

Intersections are places of possibility and often of contradiction.  Last week, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, I stood at an intersection of science and art.  No, much more than that, a conjoining of mathematics, nature, handicraft, community, and perhaps a touch of evolution.  I visited an exhibit featuring both the Smithsonian Community Reef which was made by local handicrafters, and the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, of which the community reef is a part.  This combined project brings together hyperbolic geometry and the handicraft of crochet in a worldwide movement involving many artists in many places for the crocheting of “woolly” coral reefs.

From a distance – an unusual, huge mound of multicolored yarn.

Up close – a breathtaking work of art, and a nexus of contradictions.  The structure is the recreation in yarn and myriad other materials of a coral reef, modeled both on reefs that exist today . . . and reefs, through flights of crochet fancy, never seen before.

Here in the Smithsonian Community Reef are easily recognizable corals, such as brain, branching, or gorgonian fan coral.  Most denizens of this reef are sessile (fixed and stationary), but not all.  Floating amid the coral is a striking jellyfish with delicate purple tentacles.

In nature, a coral reef reveals manifold contradictions.  Many types of coral thrive in clear tropical water, places that are poor in nutrients.  Yet, they create structures that teem with life.  They eat other organisms, stinging and subduing prey.  Yet, for most reef building coral, vital life processes depend upon a complex symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae (zooxanthellae), a relationship speaking to eons of evolutionary change.  The most prosaic and visual level of this relationship means that, without the algae, the coral are white, bleached of color.  (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website provides a clear and succinct introduction to coral reefs.)

At the mathematical heart of the crochet coral reef are many hyperbolic planes crocheted from yarn, wire, and plastic.  Hyperbolic geometry, by its very contradiction of Euclidian geometry, brings us closer to an array of distinctive shapes and forms produced by nature through evolution.  As mathematician and journalist Margaret Wertheim has described in it,

[T]he natural world teems with swooping, curling, crenellated forms, from the fluted surfaces of lettuces and fungi to the frilled skirts of nudibranchs and sea slugs and anemones.  Nature just loves hyperbolic structures.                    (Article by Mick Mycoff entitled Margaret Wertheim:  Complexity, Evolution and Hyperbolic Space, appearing in the journal Evolution:  Education and Outreach in 2008, p. 531.)
Margaret Wertheim and her twin sister Christine are director and co-director of the Institute For Figuring and the moving spirits behind the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef.

Let me make no pretense of actually understanding hyperbolic geometry.  I have grasped enough to recognize that it arises from a contradiction of Euclid’s fifth postulate, the parallel postulate, which most of us know through John Playfair’s axiom.  That axiom states:

Through a given point not on a given line there passes at most one line that is parallel to the given line.  (Michael Serra, Discovering Geometry:  An Inductive Approach, 1997, p. 730)

In contrast, in hyperbolic space, there are many, indeed, an infinite number of lines through a point not on a given line that are parallel to that line.  See figure below.  Margaret Wertheim notes that it is called hyperbolic because of “this abundance of parallels.”

The lines in this two dimensional Euclidian figure appear, with one exception, curved.  Margaret Wertheim asserts, “From the point of view of someone inside the hyperbolic surface, all these lines would be perfectly straight and none would meet the original line.”  (Margaret Wertheim:  Complexity, Evolution and Hyperbolic Space.)

I envision hyperbolic space as curved, fluted, twisted.  I am helped immeasurably by mathematician Daina Taimina, who in 1997, after watching her mathematician husband David Henderson nurture fragile and hard-to-make paper models of hyperbolic space, crocheted a model out of yarn.  Here’s one crocheted by my mathematician wife following Taimina’s directions in Crocheting the Hyperbolic Plane, an article Taimina and David Henderson wrote for The Mathematical Intelligencer (vol. 23, no. 2, 2001).

There is no overestimating the importance of having a model at hand, one that can be scrutinized and played with.  Reportedly, one math professor, no stranger to teaching hyperbolic geometry, commented upon seeing one of Taimina’s model, “Oh, so that’s how they look.”  (Michelle York, Professor Lets Her Fingers Do the Talking, The New York Times, July 11, 2005.)  Using a crocheted model of hyperbolic space, one can show that those apparently curved lines are straight, as Margaret Wertheim demonstrates in a video of an entertaining talk she delivered at one of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences in 2009.

Nature creates hyperbolic structures for a good reason; hyperbolic structures greatly increase the surface area exposed per amount of volume, a boon to sessile filter feeding animals and plants.  The process of crocheting hyperbolic figures, according to the Wertheims, mimics evolution.  Crocheters have deviated from the “mathematical perfection” that Taimina used in creating her models of hyperbolic space, constantly tweaking the underlying patterns and discovering, in the process, that small changes in the algorithm may have large consequences for the final form.  New shapes emerge, some find favor and end up being selected to inhabit the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef or one of the satellite communities.  On the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef website, the Wertheims invoke the word “species” in their discussion of the evolution of new shapes.  Yes, in the first instance, they place the word in quotation marks, but, as they go on, they become more exuberant in drawing connections to evolution.

Just as the teeming variety of living species on earth result from different versions of the DNA-based genetic code, so too a huge range of crochet hyperbolic species have been brought into being through minor modifications to the underlying code.  As time progresses the models have “evolved” from the simple purity of Dr. Taimina’s mathematically precise algorithms to more complex aberrations that invoke ever more naturalistic forms. 
They conclude, “The Crochet Reef thus serves to engage audiences on the subject of evolution and to demonstrate playfully how evolution works.”

I agree that the shapes and creatures are evolving, but at some remove from what is meant in nature by evolution.  It is intellectually stimulating to cast the process of creating crochet coral in terms that speak of evolution, but, to my mind, it is at some cost to the substance of the concept and process in nature.  Still, that is a minor quibble in the face of the amazing Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef.

As I stood at that intersection in the National Museum of Natural History last week, I was reminded of the late Benoit Mandelbrot, who saw yet another kind of geometry in aspects of nature (and in so doing, robbed me of sleep many years ago as I wrote and tweaked computer programs to generate the strange Mandelbrot set).  He observed

I claim that many patterns of Nature are so irregular and fragmented, that, compared with Euclid – a term used in this work to denote all standard geometry – Nature exhibits not simply a higher degree but an altogether different level of complexity.
                  ~ Benoit B. Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1983)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

State Geological Surveys ~ Rare Moments of Civilized Joy in the Quest for Online and Free

 I am struck first by the abstract beauty of a geologic map, but, as Martin Schmidt writes,

The nice part is that the attractive patterns also mean something and give us some information, as long as we can read the message in the pattern.  (Maryland’s Geology, 1993, p. 23)

Geologic maps hold keys to the fossil pursuit.  Without them, the fossil hunter searches blind or only follows in someone else’s footsteps.  With them, there’s more guided purpose to the effort, though, certainly, no guarantee of success.  I’ve written about these maps several times during the life of this blog, including a description of New Zealander Joan Wiffen’s fixation on the legend of a geologic map which asserted that reptile bones could be found in certain of that country’s Cretaceous formations.  With that encouragement, she labored and brought forth dinosaur bones where many had concluded there were none.

A geologic map identifies and locates an area’s rock formations – either where the formation is exposed or where it lies beneath unconsolidated material on its surface.  Such a map labels these bedrock formations with letter codes keyed to its legend, and sometimes illuminates them with color, as with the portion of a geologic map of Arkansas at the head of this posting.  The legend of a geologic map describes the rocks and, as with Wiffen’s bit of serendipity, may on occasion characterize the formation with a phrase that sets a heart racing, a phrase like “richly fossiliferous.”

Recently, while doing some research for this blog, I was reminded how pursuit of a geologic map mirrors that for fossils – it requires study, patience, hard work, and luck.  Not for the faint of heart, particularly if one wants a map online and free.  Given that I’m more than happy to consult 30 or 40 year old maps, I don’t think that’s asking too much – online and free.

The previous posting on this blog included some discussion of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek which occurred in Missouri during the Civil War.  To bolster a fossil connection for that battle, I searched for a geologic map covering the battlefield.  The Missouri state geological survey seemed like a good bet; I followed a link from the Association of American State Geologists to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.  The webpage that opened up looked very promising with a beckoning link labeled “Geologic Maps” on the right side of the page.

A click on “Geologic Maps” took me to a page featuring that dreaded word – “purchase” – the first of the stumbling blocks that the Missouri state geological survey put in my way.  I often come up against that commercial hurdle digging through state geological survey websites, but seldom so quickly.  Might I have missed the mother lode of free digital maps on the website?  Sure, but I doubt it.  I have to conclude that Missouri gives nothing in the line of geologic maps away for free.  The state certainly showed me.

Game, set, match?  Failure?  Not yet.  My next step was to turn to the U.S. Geological Survey and, because Missouri has received matching grants from the USGS’s STATEMAP program to support mapping under a state-designed geological framework, it kindly provided a link to that program on the USGS website.  Given my experience so far, I was not surprised to find that the online products listing for Missouri on STATEMAP showed zilch under “New Mapping.”  As with any fossil hunt, it’s the glint on the periphery that marks possibility.  A link at the side of the STATEMAP products page labeled “Geologic Map Database” led me to the Geoscience Map Catalog of the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program (NCGMP).

Lo and behold, a place name search for Wilsons Creek, Missouri (hey, why not swing for the fences?), offered up several related links, including one to Wilson's Creek National Battlefield.  That link took me to a page where the user can specify the kind of map desired – in this case I told the system I wanted a map of bedrock and I wanted it in a digital format.  (Still swinging for the fences.)

Of the several maps offered up from this search, one –a map published in 1987 – was a winner.  It’s ironic that this one was prepared by staff of the Missouri geological survey.  Anyway, zoom in on the map, search a bit, and, then, experience a moment of civilized joy.  There on my computer screen is the battlefield and its geological formations in glorious . . . well, not so glorious grayscale.  No color – a small price to pay for the pleasure of a successful quest.  (Elsewhere on the map was the key explaining the coding for the bedrock formations labeled Muo and Mlo which are the primary ones at the battlefield.)

I’ve endured similarly frustrating experiences with the several other state geological surveys’ websites I’ve searched, but seldom has the “purchase” word shown up as quickly and as definitively.  I can usually find a spot where a particular state survey has posted a digitized out-of-date set of geologic maps.  The experience can be rewarding with some surveys.  The geological map at the head of this posting surfaced with some rooting around on the Arkansas survey’s website and was produced in 1976 (and revised in 1993) by the USGS and the Arkansas Geological Commission staff.  Still, as my Missouri experience illustrates, it’s good to know about the USGS mega collection of geologic maps.

Perhaps, restricting my quest to the USGS is the solution nearly every time.  But, should it be?  Why does someone like me, a casual, paleontologically oriented user have trouble with state geological surveys online?  Aren’t they in the business of producing and disseminating geologic maps?

The answers to these questions lie in the nature of the surveys, their tangled histories, their missions and purposes.  Significantly, a state geological survey is not a specific survey, but, rather, an entity or agency whose responsibilities do include mapping of the state’s geology but often extend well beyond that.  Each of the state surveys has a different history and a differently nuanced set of missions.  Further, as a search of just one or two of their websites will reveal, each has a unique approach to making its products available.  Compounding all of this, each makes use of the web with different degrees of grace.

The oldest state geological surveys are approaching 190 years of age.  North Carolina’s survey, legislatively authorized in 1823, is the oldest, while Massachusetts (1830) has been labeled the “first full-blown state supported geological survey.”  (Walter B. Hendrickson, Nineteenth-Century State Geological Surveys:  Early Government Support of Science, Isis, Vol. 52, No. 3, Sep. 1961, p. 359)  (I’m uncertain about why Massachusetts merits this designation, perhaps it has to do with the breadth of the authority and provision of ongoing state funding.)  The State Geological Surveys:  A History offers an interesting glimpse of the often difficult conception and birth of each state survey (edited by Arthur A. Socolow, 1988, and available on the website of the Association of American State Geologists).

Commercial and agricultural interest sparked the creation of these surveys, particularly the desire to support internal improvements related to transportation, such as the placement and building of canals and roads.  Hendrickson observes that, though a desire to advance science and general knowledge was present at their founding, the foremost objective, the trumping objective, was the generation of “economically useful information.”

So, folks like me with avocational interests are not state geological surveys’ primary kind of audience.

This utilitarian interest on the part of state legislatures played out in the surveys in wonderfully narrow-minded ways.  For example, in the late 19th Century, Arkansas was once again supporting a state geological survey, after an on-again off-again dalliance with the idea.  Support for the survey this time arose from an interest in assessing gold and silver deposits in the western part of the state.  When the survey reported that the gold prospects for the mines that were then open were nil, annoyed legislators curtailed state funding and the survey went away, not to return as a discrete entity until 1923.  Shoot the messenger, the tried and true response of legislators at every level.

The creation of the USGS in 1879 played a role in strengthening this focus of the state surveys because the USGS, as Hendrickson puts it, took over the “theoretical work,” which “left the state survey free to undertake practical work.”  (p. 371)

I’ll take one last stab at it.  Even if I’m not a member of the target audience, why aren’t recent maps readily available online and free in all of the surveys’ websites?

There is at least one possible reason and it’s, of course, finances.  As creatures of the state, the geological surveys can suffer from the same financial maladies that befall other state-funded agencies.  Lee Allison, the state geologist for Arizona and director of its state survey, wrote last year on his blog Arizona Geology that “it’s clear that state geological surveys across the nation are generally hurting from the economic mess.”  Despite a few states in which surveys seemed to be flourishing, Allison wrote that surveys were confronting myriad threats, including hiring freezes, pay cuts, furloughs, and, in one state, eventual elimination of the survey.

So, on this narrow issue, I would guess that the agencies confront a choice – offer maps online and free creating goodwill and support, but also depriving the hard pressed entities of a bit of needed revenue.  Perhaps, on this, the state geological surveys find themselves between . . . a rock and a hard place.
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