Posts Tagged ‘paleontology’
If you’ve ever wondered what the hell was going on with LIFE ON EARTH before the “Cambrian Explosion”, this is your book! Written by (what has to be) England’s cheekiest Paleobiologist, it’s a highly entertaining and engaging romp through the ups and downs of reading the story of the fossil record for signs of earth’s earliest life.
No-one’s reputation is spared in this clear-eyed assessment of what we know from the fossil record (as well as what we don’t know, and what we thought we knew at various times since Darwin dropped his bombshell on the world).
The book plays out like a Mrs. Marple mystery as scientists (including, it should be noted, the author himself) struggle to understand the clues to a game for which they also must figure out the rules (to borrow the author’s metaphor), which is why:
“Human progress towards learning the rules for decoding the fossil record has therefore been slow, requiring trial and error, with lots of questions, intuition and counter-intuition, accompanied by oceans of doubt. But then, science, which always rejoices in a good question, is a unique system for the measurement of doubt.” (P. 34)
Along the way are plenty of personal anecdotes from the author, such as his tart description of the cuisine available when hunting for fossils in Mongolia:
“On previous days, we had been served what seemed like a pottage of sheep’s anal sphincter jumbled together with goat’s entrails. Only it didn’t taste quite as nice as all that might sound.” (P. 94)
The author strings us along like any good mystery writer would, only in this case the “big reveal” that is usually reserved for the last act turns out to a quiet conclusion to a series of quiet bombshells that have been dropped along the way.
I know this sounds like an arcane bit of history to spend time with, but the answers to the riddle of what the earliest fossil record tells us (and why the story has taken so long for determined and bright humans to piece together) are important ones, and touch upon many of the areas of ignorance that allow so many to dismiss Evolution as some sort of “braniac’s” fairy tale.
In this, I can’t sum it up better than the author:
“The answer to this howdunnit — how did life begin? — really matters to us now because it helps to define the nature of the human condition. Even in science, however, big questions like these can appear to have more than a single answer. This is awkward because the answers to big questions affect us deeply. They have great predictive power. We are all trying to guess what lies over the hill, for us and for our children. If we guess the wrong answers, we could well affect the fortunes of civilization. When Don Cortes and his men arrived in Mexico, for example, the Aztec soldiers greeted them as gods — but would they have not done better to fight them as enemies? Or when the great Christmas Tsunami struck Asia in 2004, should the tourists have run inland or simply stood on the shore and prayed? And now that AIDS is striking in Africa, should doctors inoculate against the virus or invoke all the Angels in Heaven? There is no doubt about it. When it comes to the crunch, seeing the world as it really is will matter to us, and to our children, very much indeed.” (P. 232)
“…seeing the world as it really is…” indeed. A powerful idea, that.
I recommend this book highly. It is such a split personality of adventure yarn and science text that if one part lags the other will carry you along. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll simply get two books for the price of one!
Of course all of the articles are short and sweet, in that Discovery magazine style. Which makes it perfect for some web-grazing.
In a few minutes I read about the latest discovery of an articulated Dimetrodon fossil in northern Texas that had its “fangs” still intact, watched a slide show of computer models made of our current line-up of potential human ancestors, saw a life-like reconstruction of what “Otzi” the “Iceman” looked like, and got side-tracked into a recently un-earthed Greek temple. You get the idea.
Mesalands Community College’s Dinosaur Museum
Once again I was led astray by a dinosaur on a billboard, this time as I drove out of New Mexico on the way to Kansas for a show. On the return trip, I made time to track down the Mesalands Community College’s Dinosaur Museum in downtown Tucumcari, New Mexico. I wasn’t disappointed.
It turns out there are some productive fossil beds in this part of New Mexico. What is even more surprising is that there should be such an active bronze foundry associated with the community college which results is: “Our Museum is home to the world’s largest collection of bronze skeletons, fossils, and replicas of prehistoric creatures. The bronzes, created in the College’s foundry, were poured by members of Mesalands staff, assisted by a number of community volunteers”.
What this means is there are — among the impressive number of life-size bronzes — several casts of complete dinosaurs and dinosaur bones that you can run your hands across without getting chased out of the museum.
It is almost as much “art” as “paleontology”, and it’s worth a visit if you find yourself droning down Interstate 40 during museum hours.
t.n.s.r. bob says “drop in”.
Mesalands Community College’s Dinosaur Museum
222 East Laughlin Street
Tucumcari, New Mexico 88401
Hours of Operation
Extended Summer Hours – March 1 – Labor Day
TUESDAY – SATURDAY 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. (Closed Sunday and Monday)
Winter Hours – Labor Day – February 28/29
TUESDAY – SATURDAY 12:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. (Closed Sunday and Monday)
Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day